Ranking Batman Movies By Which Gotham City We Actually Believe Is a Real City

Ranking Batman movies by characters or tone is out. Let's talk about where he lives.

by Richard Newby
Batman and the Gotham City in the background
Credit: Warner Bros

Gotham City. It’s a cesspool, hell on Earth, kooky, crazy, and sometimes it just looks like Chicago. Or NYC. Why anyone would want to live there is confusing, as it seems that there’s a ratio of roughly 15 criminals for every 1 non-criminal. The cops are dirty (except the ones that aren’t) and the rich people are worse, except for (sometimes?) the Wayne family. The point is, Gotham City itself is just as important to a Batman movie as Batman because it’s nearly impossible to imagine him living anywhere else. Every cinematic vision of Batman has offered its own take on Gotham, the stage upon which Batman’s deeds are judged and where his greatest adversaries were born. Gotham’s aesthetic is just as important as how the Batsuit looks, and what the central threat is, in terms of setting the tone of the film.

Why another Batman ranking? Well, everybody ranks Batman movies by Gordons, Bruce Waynes, or Bat-nipples, so it was time to take a different approach: ranking Batman movies based on how convincing Gotham City feels, from its architecture to its infrastructure. Of course, all of these films have their share of fantasy, and we don’t expect them to look or feel exactly like our reality, but in terms of working plausibly within the world of the film, there’s certainly a discussion to be had.

7. The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

The Lego Batman Movie is a great time. However, it’s Gotham City is made out of Legos. Yes, it has an actual government, but how far can we expect that to go? Again, a wonderfully imaginative Batman film. But at the end of the day, the city is made of Legos.

6. Batman: The Movie (1966)

For as much personality as Batman and his co-stars had in the TV show and subsequent movie, their Gotham always felt a bit dull, and very flat. The series and film were shot in California like most productions at time. I don’t know about you, but when I think of Gotham, I always think of the East Coast, given its NYC parallels of looming skyscrapers and bustling city blocks and subway stations. The Gotham of Batman ’66 is very flat and not very densely populated, stripping away some of the threat and aura even for a more comedic depiction of Batman. And in terms of it functioning as a city, this version of Gotham felt more like a small-town than a hotbed for criminal activity.

5. Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997)

Wherever your opinions may fall on the movies themselves, there’s no denying that Joel Schumacher’s Gotham had style. Neon lights, day-glow colors, and plenty of fog really made Gotham pop visually. There was little sense of reality in its construction of looping bridges and tunnels, but Schumacher certainly captured the feeling of a comic book, even if many of those particular design elements had fallen out of fashion in the 80s. Equal parts silly and dangerous, and home to motorcycle gangs, and circus freaks, Schumacher’s Gotham was a place of excess. But did it feel like a city that could actually function on election, taxes, a workforce? Not really. It’s a child’s idea of a city, which is pretty fun even if it’s not believable.

4. Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992)

Tim Burton’s Gotham really took the goth part to heart, creating a wonderfully weird, fairy-tale of city that seemed to exist outside of time and reality. Overcrowded, and defined by buildings of grey steel and stone that defied logic, Burton’s Gotham was truly a visionary take, one in which you could absolutely believe in a penguin-man living in the sewers. There was also some semblance of a working-class population, folks working menial jobs and struggling to get by. The existence of organized crime and Max Shreck as a more tolerable Donald Trump also created another layer of believability in terms of looking at Gotham as a twisted New York City. While I have my doubts about the logistics of a nighttime parade, and the Penguin being a favored mayoral candidate, Burton’s created a believable fantasy.

3. The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005 – 2012)

Christopher Nolan’s Gotham is a bit harder to pinpoint. The Gotham of Batman Begins is a grimy, yellowed city with clear-cut class divisions following the murder of the Waynes. While The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises were essentially set in Chicago, well-shot of course, but offering little in terms of feeling transportational or feeling of a piece with the city depicted in the trilogy’s initial installment. And yet, all of it is perfectly functional, from making the D.A. and mayoral offices a central part of the narrative to Gotham feeling like it could be charted with a map, Nolan’s films excel at creating believability. However, it does feel, particularly after Begins, that the filmmaker was last interested in defining Gotham by its style, and more so by the people who populated it. While realistic, Nolan’s Gotham did feel somewhat limited in terms of the comic characters we could imagine making a living there.

2. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Batman: The Animated Series took the timeless quality of Burton’s film and fine-tuned the fantastical into what was, until most recently, the perfect interpretation of Gotham City. Mask of the Phantasm depicts Gotham as a place caught in the past while longing for the future. The central set piece in the film, Gotham World’s Fair, is the perfect showcase of this. The perpetually red skies and police blimps circling the air also gave Gotham a style that separated it from the real world. At the same time, the film has a grounded portrayal of the police force, city officials, and criminals, all of which give this version of Gotham a noir feel that feels right out of the 1950s. It’s also one of the most diverse populations in Gotham’s film depictions, along with The Lego Batman Movie, as Gotham in film has leaned heavily on a white population.

1. The Batman (2022)

The Gotham of The Batman could not have happened with all the other versions before it. It is a conglomeration of the best parts of those previous interpretations of Gotham. From its timelessness, the gothic design of Wayne Tower, the neon-lit and fog heavy clubs, the grounded and functional focus on local government and class distinctions, its diverse population, and the ways in which its villains are integrated into the city, Matt Reeves’ Gotham feels fully thought-out and lived in. And for all of its believability, style is never sacrificed in the process. It’s a depiction of Gotham that looks so alive you can almost feel the dampness of the city and smell gasoline fumes in the air. It’s a Gotham that doesn’t simply feel like it has a Batman but needs one.

Can it be topped? Well with Batgirl in production and other trips to Gotham certainly in the works, we’ll just have to wait and see how the city’s construction goes.