Representations of New York City in the Superhero Genre

Metropolis in the Daytime, Gotham City at Night.

Bachelor Thesis, 2014
30 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. He Said, She Said

3. As the Names Imply?

4. Some Frenchmen in New York City
4.1. Michel Foucault “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias” (1984)
4.2. Henri Lefebvre The Production of Space (1991)
4.3. Michel de Certeau The Practices of Everyday Life (1984)

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

Declaration of Authenticity

1. Introduction

In June 2005, Batman fans and comic enthusiasts alike were excited about the premiere of Batman Begins, the first of three movies in director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Released nearly a decade after the last Batman movie adaptation, then directed and produced by Tim Burton, fans and critics were looking forward to the revival of one of the most famous superheroes of all time (Reynolds 7). With Batman Begins, however, Batman was not the only comic character coming back to life on the big screen; with him, some of the best-known comic antagonists also returned - Scarecrow, Two-Face, The Joker and Catwoman (Reynolds 24). With audiences focused on protagonists and antagonists, Frank Miller, creator of the comic book miniseries The Dark Knight Returns1 , which served as a model for Nolan’s adaptations, gave way to a discussion long fallen into oblivion among comic critics. A discussion that did not revolve around the characters as such, but around the city they called home, that is, Gotham City. Asked to give a brief description about his vision of Gotham City, Frank Miller stated: “Metropolis is New York in the daytime; Gotham City is New York at night” (Coogan 6, MacDonald Article).

With this statement, Miller had opened comic culture’s Pandora’s box. It fueled manifold discussions - discussions, which revolved around the location, relation, and representation of both Gotham City and Metropolis, that is, the home of fellow superhero Superman. Critics and fans negotiated Gotham City and Metropolis as representations of New York City, attempted to find ‘evidence’ of the location in both comics and film and tried to determine whether or not the presumed location, representation and consequent relation of the two cities - or one city - affected the overall narrative of the respective superhero series (MacDonald Article).

The Dark Knight trilogy is the most current representation of Gotham City in film. To verify or negate Miller’s comment, I thus had to find a just as current representation of Metropolis that enabled multi-layered comparisons; comparisons of the two cities as such and their presumed relation to New York City. To me, the ideal object of comparison to conduct my analysis is the representation of Metropolis in the TV series Smallville, created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, which had premiered only four years prior to Batman Begins and which narrated the coming-of-age of Superman, then known as Clark Kent.

Miller’s comment on New York City’s two faces in the comic book world might have triggered renewed discussions about and comparisons of Gotham City and Metropolis; however, it was neither the starter nor the source of the dispute of whether Gotham City and Metropolis are in fact two representations of the same city (MacDonald Article). Batman and Superman were among the first superheroes to be invented in what is known as the Golden Age of Comic Books (1930s-1950s)2. Within this era, many superheroes familiar today were invented: Batman, Superman, Captain America, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Captain Marvel and many more. Despite their more or less simultaneous coming into existence, superhero characters, and more specifically the spatial framework they move in, are not simply interchangeable; superheroes move within different ‘universes.’ Two rival comic book publishers have marketed the most famous superheroes we know today: DC Comics and Marvel (MacDonald Article). By creating new characters and inventing new storylines, they have woven nets; interconnecting the lives of their superheroes and the locations they take action in. When comparing the cities with which individual superheroes are associated, it is crucial to remain within one ‘universe’; by writing on Gotham City and Metropolis, I will stay in the DC universe.

Characterizing a fictional city and subsequently relating it to another fictional city within a comic universe requires the existence of an ‘Other’ - that is, a location with which Gotham City and Metropolis can be compared. Gotham City and Metropolis have often represented an alternative or ‘other space’, one that is, however, inextricably linked to the construction of the American city as such. To characterize both Gotham City and Metropolis, their representation has thus to be embedded in an outlying area about which information is given; information against which Gotham City and Metropolis can be subsequently compared. This, however, is not the case in many adaptations since those often focus on plot rather than on spatial details3. The Dark Knight trilogy and Smallville, however, provide their audiences with information about places Gotham City and Metropolis can be related to; places for which both Gotham City and Metropolis represent an ‘other space.’ The Dark Knight trilogy’s Gotham City and Smallville ’s Metropolis thus fulfill fundamental criteria for comparison: they are located within the same comic universe, that is the DC Universe, and they are embedded in an outlying area, whether factual or fictional.

Although the discussion about the relation of Gotham City, Metropolis and New York City is not new, it remains to be refined (MacDonald Article). With this paper, I want to provide a scholarly analysis of the discussion triggered by Frank Miller’s comment quoted above. On the following pages, I want to analyze the representation of Gotham City in Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy4 and the representation of Metropolis as fictional version of New York City in selected episodes5. I will start by a disambiguation of the respective city’s name and continue with an analysis of the resulting relation of factual and imagined place. In the following, I will discuss the possibility of understanding the city, both Gotham City and Metropolis, as character within the framework of the respective superhero narrative. To do so, I will introduce three different theories of space and spatial practices: Michel Foucault’s “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias” (1984), Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (1991), and Michel de Certeau’s The Practices of Everyday Life (1984). These theories and their respective approaches to space, as contradictory as they might seem, will open up various ways to discuss the city as character. By means of conclusion, I will then discuss the possibility of understanding the city as protagonist. Based upon my findings in the discussion of the city as character, I want to negotiate the possibility of space as an active ‘participant’ within the superhero narrative; thus, I want to negotiate Gotham City and Metropolis not only as minor characters or foils, but also as active protagonists, which are as crucial to the narrative as the two superheroes themselves.

2. He Said, She Said

Comics in general and superheroes in particular are part of American pop culture (Reynolds 7); as such, first-generation Golden Age creations like Batman, Superman and their cities, have been subject to a multitude of scholarly publications. However, when looking closely at what has been published on Batman, Superman and their cities to date, focal points of research are not as manifold as the amount of publications might suggest: in terms of Cultural Studies, the focus of research is almost exclusively on its ‘Big Three,’ that is race, class, and gender. In Art, criticism mainly focuses on the artistic value of the comic genre, that is, its artistic development.

In the broadest sense, research differentiates between analyses of comic originals and their filmic adaptations. When looking at comics of Batman and Superman, there are three main topics: the felt sense of “disdain [of comics] by the literary establishment” (Reynolds 7), the intrinsic messages of the genre, and comics’ artistic value. As Véronique Sina, a member of the ComFor Society6 and mentor for Media Studies at Ruhr-Universität Bochum stresses in a conversation on the genre’s status today7, as a genre of pop culture, comics have long been banned from the literary canon - and so Batman and Superman are still marginalized in studies of literature today. Critics have argued that, despite the comic genre’s American originality and its influence in re- shaping an American identity and self-understanding particularly after World War II, the genre continues to be perceived as a ‘discipline of second quality’ (conversation Véronique Sina). Reasons for this marginalization range from the relatively recent invention of the genre - Batman and Superman were invented as late as the mid-1930s - to its lack of the actual, written word, with the predominance of images simply sidelining the literariness of the genre (Coogan III). The genre itself, however, has been consistently refined - and thus has been constantly calling for new definitions.

With regard to its cultural role the superhero comic genre has been praised by its proponents because it “animates and ritualistically resolves basic cultural conflicts and contradictions“ (Coogan III). Consequently it is often analyzed with regard to its intrinsic messages - and so are Batman and Superman. Comics are often said to promote patriotism, that is American national values, and thereby also “hegemonic and sometimes overtly authoritarian” (Reynolds 7) American political views. Thus, they are criticized for their recurring representation of stereotypes, which too often promote and confirm predominant prejudices of society and contradict liberal political currents; a thought I will come back to later when addressing scholarly approaches to the superhero genre in film and its representation of both protagonists and antagonists in Batman and Superman movies.

Comics are, however, not just analyzed for their message and presumed social and political power but, thirdly, also for their artistic value. There are numerous publications that approach the comic genre from the perspective of art, analyzing the development of comic series through the ‘ages’ of the genre and classifying the respective artistic surplus of the genre if it is compared to literature written in words. Hence, the narrative and artistic development of Frank Miller’s, Jerry Siegel’s, and Joe Shuster’s8 adaptations and creations are measured by the illustrators’ drawing skills (Reynolds 10).

While the Batman and Superman comic series are often approached by scholars to illustrate how and why the comic genre has been marginalized in Literary Studies, and what its genre-typical intrinsic message and its artistic value are, the focus of the research concerning their adaptation in film is somewhat different. There, critics rather concentrate on the portrayal of protagonists and antagonists, and the accuracy of the filmic realization based on the comic original (Brooker IX). As name-giving protagonists, Batman, Superman and their representations in film are most often in the focus of criticism. They are predominantly analyzed in terms of gender, that is, more specifically, their masculine and feminine qualities. While the majority of critics suggest that comics are somewhat static in their representation due to storylines which are merely developed and refined instead of rewritten, filmic representations are argued to offer the possibility of change and ‘keeping up with the times.’ Thus, the representation of masculinity and femininity is repeatedly re-explored by scholars, who over and over again seek to contextualize existing representations on paper in relation to most current representations in film with special regard to the societal progress since the invention of the original9 (Detora 80, 200). More often than not, the lack of gender diversity in male comic heroes and the neglect of important societal change concerning gender expectations is chastised - to date, for example, there is not yet a representation of

Batman, Superman or any of the other classic10 superheroes that characterizes them as, for example, homosexual, of Native American or foreign ancestry, or otherwise a- stereotypical (Detora 303, 306, 313/ Gray 4, 12). Interestingly enough, in terms of the changed social and cultural understanding and evaluation of the importance and meaning of race and class research has shown that not the protagonists like Batman and Superman but their antagonists have undergone important metamorphoses - especially in relation to political developments (Detora Introduction, Gray Introduction, Wandtke 4f.). While overall characteristics, such as appearance and signature behavior have been shown not to change dramatically, scholars’ focus on the ways in which stories about the villains’ gradual moral, personal or otherwise apparent decay pick up on current political problems (Detora 301ff., Gray 46 ff., Wandtke 197). According to the critics, the status quo of Batman’s and Superman’s respective main antagonists The Joker and Lex Luthor is maintained, whereas so-called minor antagonists are attributed with ever- changing features associated with the ever-changing features of the enemy at a certain time. Scholars thus focus mainly on the representations of antagonists, analyze the features attributed to them, and seek to trace the development and change of enemy concepts from the post-World War II era to current Muslim/Middle East stereotypes (Detora 301ff., Gray 46 ff.).

Thus, scholarly research has and continues to disentangle manifold conflicts and contradictions arising with and within the superhero genre, also with respect to Batman and Superman. They analyze the protagonists, antagonists and many other aspects, but critics have so far rarely focused on an omnipresent entity in Batman and Superman comics: the City. In research papers, neither Gotham City nor Metropolis have merited more than a side note. Rarely mentioned beyond the introductory stage, the city is introduced as a barely noteworthy player on an otherwise important team - part of the overall game but in no way decisive to its outcome. With this paper, I want to put the cities in both comic series, Gotham City and Metropolis, in the spotlight. Even though I can only focus on so many aspects, given the limited length of this paper, I will try to begin filling an otherwise gaping research gap. The microcosm of film, and more specifically the representations of Gotham City in the The Dark Knight trilogy and Metropolis in Smallville, will serve to throw some light on an otherwise dark spot in the Batman and Superman research history.


1 Following The Dark Knight Returns, Miller worked on several other Batman comic series as well as his own superhero narrative Sin City, calling his style ‘comic noir.’

2 Term coined by Richard A. Lupoff; archetype of superhero was invented, comics enjoyed great popularity; followed by Silver and Bronze Age of Comic Books which saw new characters emerge within the ‘universes.’

3 Zack Snyder’s recent Superman movie Man of Steel (2013) provides little to no information about Metropolis’s outlying area; analysis of Metropolis in itself is thus impossible.

4 Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises (2012); designed as a trilogy, only the combination of the three representations make an analysis as a whole possible.

5 Episodes will be taken from various seasons to make an analysis of a relation between Metropolis and Clark Kent/Superman, and thus the city’s involvement as character and potential protagonist, possible.

6 German Society for Comic Studies

7 Conversation took place at Ruhr-Universität Bochum on July 11, 2013.

8 Frank Miller has drawn Batman repeatedly since 1986, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman in the 1930s.

9 According to critics, the representation of Batman and Superman adjusts whenever gender expectations of society change.

10 References of classic superheroes commonly allude to their origin in the Golden Age (cp. Introduction).

Excerpt out of 30 pages


Representations of New York City in the Superhero Genre
Metropolis in the Daytime, Gotham City at Night.
Ruhr-University of Bochum
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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633 KB
representations, york, city, superhero, genre, metropolis, daytime, gotham, night
Quote paper
Ann Kathrin Weber (Author), 2014, Representations of New York City in the Superhero Genre, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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