Gotham City is an evocative idea for Batman fans. From Anton Furst’s gothic designs from the 1989 Batman film to the Art Deco fantastic realm of Batman: The Animated Series or the nighttime skyline vistas of classic comics artists like Norm Breyfogle, Jim Aparo, or Marshall Rogers, the city has taken many shapes, but it maintains a singular shadow over our pop culture subconscious.
Over the decades the city has endured devastating natural disasters and super-criminals, but the city is known throughout the DC Universe as a haven of corruption where society and civil order seem to eternally teeter on the edge of total collapse. While Batman and the allies he has inspired struggle nightly to bring justice to Gotham, Gotham’s eternal slump begs the question of whether or not it is even worth the effort. After all these years, Gotham City barely seems like it’s worth saving.
If Superman’s Metropolis is meant to be the bright city of tomorrow, Gotham is its dark response, and its shadow has only grown deeper with time. In the beginning, Batman’s first foes were gangsters, mad scientists, and even monsters as befitted the character’s roots as an extension and evolution of the pulp characters who were forerunners of modern superheroes books. But as time went on, more colorful characters began appearing to provide Batman with greater challenges than gangsters with tommy guns. Villains like the Penguin, Catwoman, Professor Hugo Strange, and the Joker seemed to drag Gotham even further down into the societal muck. And if a city can produce villains like the Joker, it’s easy to say that its completely beyond redemption.
With all of that in mind, it’s not clear why someone like Bruce Wayne would bother to try to find a solution. Despite the best efforts of Batman, the Birds of Prey, the Outlaws, the Outsiders, and Gotham’s other vigilantes, the city is still just as bad off as it ever was, if not worse with the presence of supervillains.
There is an argument that Bruce Wayne would be vastly more effective if he were to dedicate his vast wealth toward waging a war on poverty, promoting social justice, or attacking the root causes of crime in Gotham City instead of donning a costume and going out into the night to punch criminals. However, these arguments ignore the existence of his charitable efforts like the Wayne Foundation, as well as the fact that Bruce Wayne has gone to great lengths to aid Gotham City. Even when the United States government abandoned Gotham and condemned it to ruin in the wake of the earthquake that kicked off the No Man’s Land crossover, Wayne was the face of the case arguing for the city’s continued existence when he could have just as easily walked away.
If Gotham City is so lost, why does Batman care about saving it so much?
Batman has often been cast as a figure of vengeance. The earliest depiction of Batman’s origin has an eight-year-old Bruce Wayne tearfully vowing to the souls of his dead parents that he will wage war on crime and criminals for the rest of his life. Although that vision has guided Batman’s mission, the desire to wage war on crime itself is ultimately a child’s wish. Crime isn’t a person, and no matter how many criminals or super-villains Batman and his allies take down, there’s no end to crime.
Still, there’s something more to Batman that gets lost amidst his adventures, and it’s the best justification for why Batman continues to fulfill the vow he made as an unknowing child.
In certain depictions of Batman’s origin, the movie Thomas and Martha Wayne took their young son to see is depicted as The Mark of Zorro. The story of a man in a cape and mask who fights for justice and saves the day. After the movie, Bruce Wayne watches his parents gunned down. There was no hero to save him or his parents, and there was no hope in Crime Alley on the night his parents were killed. However, Bruce Wayne decided to become that hope by becoming a hero. In Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s epic Kingdom Come, Superman says to an embittered Bruce Wayne: “More than anyone in the world, when you scratch everything else away from Batman, you’re left with someone who doesn’t want to see anyone die.”
Even if Gotham City doesn’t seem like it’s worth saving, Batman’s mission of hope compels him to continue his mission anyway. He is the hope of salvation and protection for good people like James Gordon, Harvey Bullock, Renee Montoya, Dr. Leslie Thompkins, Lucius Fox, and the countless good Gotham residents living their lives despite the darkness around them. The loss that Batman suffered so long ago drives him not to avenge, but to protect, in an effort to ensure that no one suffers the kind of loss he did. He fights for everyone, even the super-criminals of Gotham, hoping against hope they can be redeemed. Batman may not be able to win the war for Gotham, but the hope that he can is what drives his mission.
Gotham City doesn't deserve the Dark Knight, but Batman has dedicated his life to bringing hope to the darkest corner of the DC Universe.