The Story Geeks blogger Anthony Holdier responds with an additional perspective to the same topic discussed in this week’s podcast – digging deeper into Gotham and Metropolis. Want to share your own take? Join the conversation in The Story Geeks Facebook group!
Before we dig into Gotham and Metropolis specifically, let’s talk about locations as a concept in superhero storytelling. Batman has Gotham, Superman has Metropolis, Flash has Central City, Daredevil has Hell’s Kitchen, Spiderman has New York, etc. How does a dedicated location impact a hero’s story?
Although it’s certainly relevant for any story, the setting of a fantasy tale (which most superhero stories are) is crucial. Consider what storytelling Grand Master J.R.R. Tolkien had to say (in his essay “On Fairy Stories”) about the power of fantasy to recast familiar things in a new light, bathing the mundane in an aura of magic and mystery:
And actually fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting. For the story-maker who allows himself to be “free with” Nature can be her lover not her slave. It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.
This is one reason why so many fantasy books include one of my favorite world-building elements…a MAP. From the moment you open the front cover you are thrown into another world entirely (a “Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches,” to quote Tolkien a bit more), immersed within the creative imagination of the author.
I’ve argued before that Batman and Superman are the closest things to proper ‘myths’ that 20th century America gave us, so – even moreso than the (arguably) more “realistic” stories from the Marvel Universe – the settings of these ur-heroes are inextricably tied to these characters.
I’ll put it this way: Spider-Man happens to live in New York; Batman has to live in Gotham (and so too for Supes in Metropolis).
How are Gotham and Metropolis different? How are they similar?
Much like how Batman and Superman represent opposite polarities on the heroic spectrum (or, if you like, one is Yin to the other’s Yang), their homes are similarly inverted. Metropolis radiates hope and progress, demonstrating scientific achievements and the best that humanity has to offer; Gotham, in contrast, is known for dark spires and lightning flashes – we know far more about Gotham’s alleyways than its university. Even down to the time of day we typically see them (Gotham after dark and Metropolis in the light), these twin cities reflect each other at their cores.
Why does Metropolis need Superman?
When it comes to needing a hero, Metropolis is like a streetlight after dark: the city itself is bright and good, so that light attracts the pests that plague it. Many of the villains that come to Metropolis are there precisely because of Superman, either traveling from the stars (like Darkseid, Doomsday, or Brainiac) or from some plot of Luthor’s aimed at bringing the Man of Steel down (like Metallo).
Why does Gotham need Batman?
Regardless of whether Batman was there or not, Gotham is perpetually a city in need of help. Often described as diseased or infected, Gotham is an urban manifestation of oppression and fear; the villains that call Gotham home are often embodied twists on various psychopathies (like Scarecrow and the Joker) or are victims themselves of some accident or experiment gone wrong (like Poison Ivy and Two Face). Much has been written on how Batman is himself a reflection of his rogue’s gallery (see, in particular, Morrison and McKean’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth), which only serves to underline the hero’s connection to his city (and it’s contrast to Metropolis). Consider this: Superman sends his criminals to prison; Batman sends his to Arkham.
If Batman and Superman succeeded as heroes to the point where they were no longer needed, how would these cities look different?
I’m honestly not sure how to conceptualize an answer to this question; Gotham is Gotham because it is Batman’s home, just as much as Metropolis is where Superman can be found. Certainly, there’s the fictional point that “Clark Kent moved to Metropolis, so it can’t have always existed with him,” but from our perspective as the reader it very much has. On some fundamental level, I find the idea of either hero no longer being needed by their cities as incoherent – just as I can’t imagine a living being without some kind of mind or a triangle without all three of its sides.
What does villainy look like in each city? Why do we see the types of villains that show up in each?
Ah, I suppose that I answered this up above, but I’ll add here a consideration of genre. Because many of them are aliens or interdimensional beings (like Mr. Mxyzptlk) or humans granted strange powers (like Parasite) Metropolis’ villains fit comfortably within the realm of the “science-fiction-fantasy” category. In contrast, the literal monsters that fill Gotham (like Man-Bat, Clayface, and Killer Croc) are much more in the vein of the “horror-fantasy” world.
Both cities mirror their heroes. Metropolis is bright and optimistic, and Gotham is dark and disillusioned. Would the cities benefit at all from swapping Heroes?
No. Should I say more?
I’m actually reminded here of an episode of Superman: The Animated Series where Supes actually has to fill in for Batman for a day (for reasons I can’t now recall). Luckily, he has Robin there to help him understand the role because, time and again, he’s confused by the workings of this very different city. Here, as in other stories, it’s played up for laughs, but the result is clear: Superman belongs in the sterling city of Metropolis and Batman in brooding Gotham.
Put yourself in the shoes of a resident of Gotham or Metropolis. What do you think your opinion of the city and its hero would be? Where would you rather live?
Absolutely in Metropolis, no question. I love Batman to no end, but that’s largely because of his fight to do what’s right regardless of his dismal circumstances; if I had the choice to settle in the pristine setting of Superman’s city (instead of the broken boroughs of Batman’s) I would not even have to think about it.
Really this question is like asking “Would you rather live in the 23rd century with fancy technology and Jesus flying around” or “Would you rather live in the 14th century where barbarians might pillage your town at a moment’s notice”?
What are your favorite representations of each city that you’ve seen in film, television, video games, or comics?
I actually think the stripped-down versions of these two cities found in Superman: The Animated Series and Batman: The Animated Series offer some of the best representations of each city to date. Particularly in the case of the latter, when I think of these heroes, I still hear the music playing over the opening credits and envision the painted backdrops that I grew up with. There are plenty of other good examples (I really like Waid and Yu’s take on Metropolis in Superman: Birthright and the Gotham we see in Loeb and Sale’s Batman: The Long Halloween), but these cartoons offer a simplified setting that sets the perfect tone for both heroes.