“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
The above quote appears in a completely unrelated trilogy of films that have absolutely nothing to do with Batman, but the description could easily and accurately describe Gotham City. Each Batman film has faithfully portrayed Gotham City as a hub of corruption, darkness, and crime. The depravity of Gotham is so thorough that Bruce Wayne’s mission to save the city seems nothing less than complete absurdity.
In order to really accept Gotham as a setting, Gotham must be viewed as a sort of hypothetical Rome in which the state of the city indicates the state of its empire. Like Rome, Gotham is the center of its world, and therefore when things go wrong in Gotham (such as mass hysteria or anarchist government overthrows), there is really no higher power to appeal to. As a viewer watching The Dark Knight Rises for example, it is clear that Gotham represents the entirety of Bruce’s world, and any setting depicted outside of Gotham is on another continent, and therefore outside Batman’s realm of influence (with the exception of the abduction in The Dark Knight). Also like Rome, Gotham City has world significance. It is a center of trade and commerce, drawing companies and corporations from around the globe.
The conflict of The Dark Knight Rises reflects multiple parallels to the French Revolution, so much so that I can’t help but be slightly impressed by this bold interpretation on the part of the writers. Although the French Revolution did not have a particular revolutionary to credit with its launch like Bane in Gotham City, both the French and lesser classes of Gotham target the wealthy upper class. Looking at Gotham as a fictional and futuristic Paris, the same motives seem to apply. Selina Kyle whispers threateningly into Bruce’s ear “There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you're all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” Soon after, the “aristocrats” of Gotham (the politicians, company owners, and tycoons) are violently targeted and attacked.
Many accounts of trials during the French Revolution reported mock-trials in which the accused aristocrats were brought before a biased judge and jury to be scornfully tried. Once the accused were inevitably found guilty, the only thing that remained was to await their appointment with madam guillotine. Similarly, the fallen Gotham creates a mock-court, led by former nemesis Dr. Crane/Scarecrow setting himself up as Citizen Robespierre. Crane’s flippant and derisive attitude perfectly communicate how the purpose of the trials are to parody legal proceedings and deal out justice to those who have lived well while most of Gotham struggled.
Those found guilty as charged do not face the guillotine, but an equally certain sentence of death. Crane offers most of the accused a choice of death or exile. Those who choose exile are pushed onto thin ice and forced to walk out on it until the ice yields, resulting in death by drowning or hypothermia. Furthermore it does not take a historian to recognize the mass breakout from Arkham asylum as bearing close resemblance to the storming of the Bastille.
After all the organized crime, disorganized crime, and criminal incidents that Gotham has hosted, a full-scale anarchist overthrow really shouldn’t be too big of a surprise. Gotham seems to be the breeding ground of criminals and corrupt powers on all levels, or at the very least the culminating point for them all. It would stand to reason then, that Batman is wearied by his schemes to weed out these poisonous influences. Unfortunately, Batman and the rest of the good guys are vastly outnumbered. Gotham is a place of corruption, darkness, and danger. The city is a squalid poison that grows ever more venomous, entrenching even noble hearts with the best of intentions in the filth of its depravity.
The pulse of the city clearly reflects the hearts of the people. Gotham is in deep trouble. This is not a place you want to live if you can possibly help it, but the perspective of the Batman movies do not offer a real alternative within the pseudo- United States. Certainly the wealthy of Gotham have the arts and high life to enjoy, but as The Dark Knight Rises reveals, that lifestyle comes at a high price. Gotham is its own world, and it is not a pretty one.