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Tim Burton’s Batman:
Putting the Gothic into Gotham

2,774 words

c7ce5d565bafd080d493ccfdef046f60 [1]Origins & Evolution of the Gothic in Film

The gothic is a quintessentially European aesthetic. Moreover, it pertains and appeals more specifically to those of North-West European descent and is to be found in various modes and tropes throughout North-West European culture and contrasts with the Classicism of Southern Europe. Gothic as a term was first applied to medieval art and particularly architecture by Renaissance critics in similar propagandist fashion to how the term Dark Ages was also used to describe the period following the collapse of the Roman Empire. In both cases, the terms were coined to denigrate Germanic ascendancy in culture as unenlightened and barbaric in relation to the culture of Greco-Roman Classical Antiquity and its Renaissance.[1]

Equally, when the Gothic appeared in literature towards the end of the 18th century, it was as a reaction to Enlightenment Classicism and the Age of Reason. Gothic motifs here are typically old aristocratic families, subterranean and eerie settings, the past—particularly the medieval past—entering the present, the supernatural, emotional extremes in characterization, an older powerful antagonist, a young hero and a heroine that faces some sort of imprisonment or constraint. As regards the subterranean and eerie settings, typical are those again often associated with the medieval: dungeons, castles, manor houses, churches and cathedrals.[2]

Contemporary (read post-Marxian) critical theory relating to the Gothic has centered on the subject of transgression against societal norms, yet what is rarely addressed is that these norms are post-Enlightenment, not meaning from the likes of Kant or Franklin, but from the radical liberal tradition beginning with Locke. In other words, the transgressive forces of the Gothic proper (as opposed to contemporary texts that often attempt to subvert the genre itself) are not those compatible with any philosophical position further Left, but, in their traditional and mythical rootedness in what is quintessentially European, can only honestly be interpreted from the Right. While the old liberal radical Left used the term Gothic disparagingly,[3] the New Left of the post-1960s cultural revolution has appropriated the Gothic for its countercultural impact, while either critiquing or attempting to divorce it from its Rightist elements, such as those pertaining to aristocracy, myth, religiosity, and Eurocentrism.

In this struggle between the rationality of the Enlightenment and the alleged unreason of the Gothic, one can see a foreshadowing of the philosophies to come that relate to the human condition: the persona and shadow of Jung and the Apollonian and Dionysian of Nietzsche, the “darker” aspects in both philosophies being defined in relation to post-Enlightenment bourgeois society. Yet with both of these philosophies, one sees a reconciliation of polarities beyond good and evil.

The Gothic as a genre in and of itself has all but disappeared and is often referred in post-Gothic texts as “the Gothic mode,” diffused as it is throughout other genres. In film, one sees it readily in German Expressionism, in its Hollywood derivative Film Noir, and in more contemporary genres like Steampunk. Here, cinematic settings in particular are atmospherically Gothic: the urban cityscapes are often eerily lonely and dark, often nocturnal, and the characters that inhabit them psychologically extreme. German Expressionism exaggerates the mise en scène to reflect a psychological imbalance in characters; the architecture is therefore often stylistically Gothic, as the form lends to this extremity. Steampunk’s reinterpretation and advancement of Victorianism into the present, often creating alternate timelines where the digital revolution never occurred and steam remained the basis of technology, inevitably bring with them the high Victorian architectural style of the Neo-Gothic.

Steampunk was certainly influenced by events in the world of distinctly white European forms of music. The rise of industrial, gothic rock, and darker new wave bands like the Damned, the Cure, Bauhaus, and the Sisters of Mercy, to name the more famous ones, created a whole new post-punk aesthetic, in which its acolytes wore black especially leather and plastic clothing, white make-up, and silver jewelry. The aesthetic had a distinct Victorian vampiric look to it, and it was no surprise that its adherents were called simply Goths. The music videos that accompanied the singles released into the charts were set in the city back alleys at the junction of Film Noir and Steampunk. Although this cultural scene began in part, perhaps appropriately, in the industrial yet culturally traditionalist north of England, its Mecca was to be found in the metropolis of London, in a nightclub named the Batcave.

Origins of the Gothic in Batman

Batman was originally set in New York City. According to Batman’s co-creator Bob Kane, the name Gotham came quite by chance:

Originally I was going to call Gotham City “Civic City.” Then I tried “Capital City,” then “Coast City.” Then I flipped through the New York City phone book and spotted the name “Gotham Jewelers’ and said, “That’s it,” Gotham City. We didn’t call it New York because we wanted anybody in any city to identify with it.[4]

Gotham is an antiquated nickname for the Big Apple, and its appearance in the telephone directory was as incidental as its selection was not. The name Gotham was coined by Washington Irving (and one notes his connection to the Gothic literary mode) in 1807 and taken from the village of Gotham in Nottinghamshire, England, a village notable for its habitation by fools. This cannot have been far from both Kane and writer Bill Finger’s mind when creating a lawless city inhabited by crazy villains, and, whether consciously or subconsciously, neither can Gotham’s phonemic association with the Gothic.

In spite of Kane and Finger’s ethnicity that often inclines members of their tribe to be at odds with Western culture, they created a character that is very much in the European tradition. The character of Batman himself is a hybrid of both the Classical and the Gothic. Kane stated that the idea for his form came from a design for an ornithopter flying machine by Leonardo Da Vinci with the inscription “Remember that your bird shall have no other model than the bat.”[5] Yet the shadowy chiropteran costume is equally Gothic, as are Batman’s nocturnal habits, which all serve to bring to mind that archetype of Gothic literature: the vampire.

The outward vestments of Batman and his alter-ego Bruce Wayne serve to reveal the inner compartmentalization of two major character aspects to the audience. Wayne’s bourgeois suit emphasizes the modern Renaissance man, the Apollonian persona constructed for polite society, “persona” of course meaning both character and mask. Ignoring the camp 1960s television series version, the Batsuit’s Gothic external mask disguises the Dionysian shadow within.

Indeed, the 1960s series did much to undo Batman’s Gothic image, which only really recovered thanks to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight series of comic books from the late 1980s. Indeed, it was Miller’s success in reinvigorating the comic character that led directly to interest in a potential film. It is, however, perhaps quite ironic that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series of films has concentrated more on gritty realism than a stylized Gothicism, although this may also have been a conscious decision not to attempt to recreate the Tim Burton films.[6]

gotham_city_hall [2]

Tim Burton & Gothic Batman

In addition to Miller’s graphic reinterpretation of Batman, one other event enabled the filming of 1989’s Batman: Richard Donner’s 1978 version of Superman, hailed as the first modern superhero film. In the cinematic superhero overload of today, it is difficult to comprehend the impact the film had, or to imagine a prior cultural space in which a serious filmic treatment of a superhero was seen as a daring move. Indeed, Donner’s original grossed far more at the box office than any of its campier and cornier sequels.

The aforementioned genres of German Expressionism, Film Noir, and Steampunk contract to a point in Batman. Gotham’s criminals and police are attired in the 1940s suits of Film Noir that are by no means out of place in their surroundings. The cityscape of Gotham itself is an aesthetic blend of Steampunk with Film Noir. The art deco theatres and gothic tenement blocks are juxtaposed with fantastic Steampunk appendages: pumps, pipes, vents, shafts, fans, and ducts, which constantly belch out steam. The Steampunk setting culminates in crime boss Carl Grissom’s chemical plant, and it is no coincidence that this building is where the (il)logic of comic book fantasy overrides the laws of physics, Jack Napier plummeting into a vat of chemicals and being transformed into the Joker.

The Steampunk settings are also congruent with German Expressionist cinema, and there are obvious nods to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The high altitudes and odd angles of both building construction and civil engineering within the film and camerawork as creative process of the film reveal the huge influence of German Expressionism and also correspond nicely to the demands of a film in which the main character emulates the aerial swoops of the bat. The film is replete with downward and upward shots that give the audience a collective sense of vertigo that destabilizes the equilibrium of the senses and transports it beyond its comfortable bourgeois world of safety and reason.

It is no coincidence that the film ends with multiple opportunities for these vertical shots as Batman fights the Joker, rescuing Vicki Vale from him in a Gothic cathedral, high up in the belfry and above the ribbed vaults and flying buttresses and onto the roof, in almost a re-enactment of the climactic scene in Metropolis in which Freder Fredersen rescues Maria from the mad scientist Rotwang. Indeed, one can readily see similarities between the Joker and Rotwang in their insanity, scientific expertise, and narrative functions in the two films.

Where the two characters differ most significantly is in their respective relationships to modernity and tradition. Rotwang bears the greater similarity to the “mad professor” archetype of Gothic fiction, for there is no rejection of prior cultural tradition. The Joker’s vandalism in the museum as he abducts Vicki Vale is an attack on traditional and bourgeois culture; Rembrandts, Degas, Renoirs, Gainsboroughs are all defaced, while the piece by Francis Bacon is left intact: “I kinda like this one, Bob. Leave it.” He represents the Left-wing anarchist, whose only aim is to destroy America as a cultural extension of Europe.

Many fans have criticized the use of the pop singer Prince’s songs in the film, yet one notes the context in their employment; they invariably accompany the Joker on his “artistic” and “theatrical” endeavors—here in his deconstruction of traditional art and also during his gaudy lowbrow parade. In its Negroid superficiality, Prince’s music fits the bill perfectly.

In contradistinction, accompanying Batman/Wayne is the classical film score by Danny Elfman. Both the Bruce Wayne and Batman identities come from quintessentially European traditions in their construction by Burton and company, the bourgeois Classicism of Bruce Wayne and the reconfigured Gothic Batman for the postmodern technological age being split into a very dualist Apollonian persona and Dionysian shadow, as is revealed in the dinner scene between Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale, when Wayne, uncomfortable as Vale in the vast Gothic dining hall, suggests they go into the kitchen:

Vicki Vale: You know, this house and all this stuff really doesn’t seem like you at all.

Bruce Wayne: Some of it is very much me, and some of it isn’t.

Vicki Vale: That dining room is definitely not you.

Bruce Wayne: No, the dining room isn’t.

The Gothic dining room is not Wayne, but it is Batman, as is, ironically, the whole Gothic edifice of Wayne Manor, underneath which the equally Gothic (in terms of narrative mode rather than architectural style) Batcave is hidden, revealing that Batman is Wayne’s Dasein and Wayne a mere social actor. The Jungian shadow is therefore the true self and the persona, as its etymology suggests, a mere mask.

When Wayne leaves the dining room with Vale, it is because being with Vale in the room makes him uncomfortable. He is awkward in conversation and table manners, and it is Vale who reveals the inappropriateness of the room by exaggerating her mannerisms as she puts her hand to the side of her mouth and calls to Wayne at the other end of the long table. The acting by the male and female leads is commendable, with Michael Keaton’s awkwardness juxtaposing well with Kim Basinger’s self-assuredness in bourgeois society. What Wayne represents is very much the aristocrat awkwardly attempting to fit into a society now ruled and modelled by the bourgeoisie.

Here we have then an interesting morality at the center of Burton’s Batman. Whether consciously or subconsciously—and one notes Burton’s unconscious attraction to the Gothic—we are served a critique of bourgeois superficiality and the society of manners and mannerisms as anathema to the heroic. Furthermore, these social conventions are seen as distinctly feminine, the gendered self-assuredness being reversed when these conventions are broken by those who operate outside them, like the Joker. Suddenly, Vale becomes the helpless damsel in distress of Gothic fiction, and Wayne assumes his natural role as Gothic hero, and it is no coincidence that the Joker is (literally) brought down in the finale by a gargoyle from the aforementioned Gothic cathedral.

Burton’s attraction to the Gothic as a white European has then resulted in both his subversion and masculinizing of the mode, as he recreates it in his own image. In the Gothic literary genre proper, it is the villain who is the personification of the “True Rightist” traditional and mythic past—a representation of the superstition and barbarity of particularly the so-called “Dark Ages.” Yet in Batman, we have a “Dark Enlightenment,” where the post-Enlightenment Apollonian bourgeois world can only be saved from the forces of nihilism by a Dionysian Übermensch who embraces pre-Enlightenment ideals of aristocratic paternalism, the warrior code, an appreciation of the mythic and tradition—ideals that are subverted in true Gothic texts like Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. As Jonathan Bowden often pointed out, this is ever the irony in Hollywood’s masculine archetype: that the aristocratic warrior type must always defend the liberal capitalism of the bourgeoisified West.

In all, Burton has created a filmic extravaganza specifically tailored to the sensibilities of the white European male. The only significant Black character in the film is that of the reconfigured Harvey Dent. The decision to cast a black American actor in Billy Dee Williams as a canonically white character was a conscious one on Burton’s part as he looked ahead to Dent’s becoming the villain Two Face. He was interested in the black and white concept. What he meant or where he was going with that was never realized.[7] Critics like Camille Bacon-Smith and Tyrone Yarbrough have attempted to prove that as many blacks attended film showings as whites, based upon a cursory head count at single showings at a tiny sample of picture houses,[8] but the hype surrounding the film was well-documented at the time and audiences were overwhelmingly white. Her study shows rather the dishonesty of contemporary academia.

The film, then, is a white film for white audiences. Tim Burton’s version of the Batman narrative is not merely a retelling of Batman, but simultaneously, a postmodern retelling of the Gothic tale, which in turn, is a retelling of European folktale and fairytale. Certainly, Burton’s ever expanding portfolio of work bears out this assertion and, in spite of restraints, constraints, and conventions imposed upon the film industry by both Hollywood’s Jewish executives and the state apparatus with regard to the employment of ethnic minorities, Burton’s films remain firmly in the European artistic tradition.


1. See Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, trans. J. C. and P. Bondanella [3] (Oxford: Oxford University Press [4], 1991), pp. 117, 527, and Giorgio Vasari in Vasari on Technique: Being the Introduction to the Three Arts of Design, Architecture, Sculpture and Painting, Prefixed to the Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, ed. G. Baldwin Brown, trans. Louisa S. Maclehose (London: Dent, 1907), pp. 83ff.

2. For more on the subject, see for example, David Punter, The Gothic (London: John Wiley & Sons, 2004).

3. See Fred Botting, “In Gothic Darkly: Heterotopia, History Culture” in A Companion to the Gothic, ed. David Punter (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), pp. 3–14.

4. Cited in Jim Steranko, The Steranko History of Comics (Reading, Penn.: Supergraphics, 1970), p. 44.

5. Interview with Bob Kane, The Two Masks of the Caped Crusader, The Family Channel, 1990.

6. Christopher Sharrett, “Batman and the Twilight of the Idols: An Interview with Frank Miller” in The Many Lives of Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and his Media, ed. Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 33–46.

7. Tim Burton, “Commentary,” Batman Special Edition, PolyGram/Warner Bros., 2005.

8. Camilla Bacon-Smith and Tyrone Yarbrough, “Batman: The Ethnography” in The Many Lives of Batman, pp. 90–116.