In the new Flash film, the lead character returns to a familiar place to team up with Batman (not a spoiler, it is on the poster). Both DC and Marvel Comics were based in New York (although the former has now moved to Burbank, California as a fully operative multi-media node within Warner Bros), and many of the comic book creators and editors are New York natives. So the presence of the city as the world outside the window isn’t too surprising.
For Marvel, in particular, New York has a ridiculous gravity. In the long years of his old aged anecdotage, Stan Lee had reiterated that one of the things that made his Marvel heroes, created in the 1960s, different from the DC heroes created at the dawn of the Second World War is that they were rooted in a real place.
Spider-Man grew up in Queens, and swings between the skyscrapers of Manhattan; Daredevil is the defender of Hell’s Kitchen; while the Fantastic Four’s Baxter Building is a landmark on the skyline of the Marvel version of NYC, in a similar way to the Stark/Avengers Tower in the movie version. The appeal of the Marvel universe, Lee had frequently said, is that a reader could imagine looking out of their window and seeing Thor fly past – and that window would normally be one in New York.
New York works as a setting for superhero stories – partly for the presumptions and prejudices readers have about the modern city, but also because of a general cultural knowledge of the diversity of New York itself. We all have a vague idea from countless other films, TV shows and so forth what the different parts of New York are like, of the differences between Manhattan and the Bronx and Harlem.
Adaptations in other media have often succeeded when capturing if not the real-life mood, but the reputation, of a specific part of New York – Netflix’s Luke Cage works best when it centres its vision of Harlem as a nexus of African American history in the stories, many of the Spider-Man movies’ most memorable moments come from local colour, while the Punisher movie that relocated the action from cold, urban New York to the sweaty sprawl of Florida lost a lot in the relocation.
The universe of DC Comics does have a New York – at various points the Justice League have been based there. But the city is also cited as an influence on the two most famous cities in comics, arguably the two most famous fictional cities in pop culture: Metropolis and Gotham.
Adapting Gotham and Metropolis
There’s a quote everyone uses talking about New York and the homes of Superman and Batman, and it’s so good I’m not going to resist using it here. Dennis O’Neill, a writer and editor who made pivotal contributions to both Superman and Batman comics, said that, “Batman’s Gotham City is Manhattan below 14th Street at 11 minutes past midnight on the coldest night of November. Metropolis is Manhattan between 14th and 100 Streets on the brightest, sunniest July day of the year.”
Even if you don’t get the exact geographical references, you know what he means. Metropolis is New York from the eyes of the gawping tourist staggered by its striking beauty and modernity, as Clark Kent is in most versions of the origin, rocking up at the Daily Planet in the hope of getting a job with a red and blue costume stuffed in his rucksack, a small town boy arriving in the big city.
Gotham is the New York of the urban nightmare, dark and threatening, with emphasis on the cracks and the gargoyles and the tenements rather than the shining lights, and like Metropolis we’re seeing it through the eyes of a very specific guide, a scion of one of the city’s oldest families who combines the deep memory of the city’s grubby history with the personal trauma of losing his parents to the city’s crime at an early age.
So if Metropolis and Gotham are both New York, and there’s also a New York in the DC universe, then where do they all fit?
Well, as with everything in the world of superhero comics – where continuity shifts over time based on changing priorities and different creators not remembering or, frankly, caring much about what went before – there is a generally accepted idea that Gotham and Metropolis are not far from New York City itself, and close to each other. One placement has the cities on opposite sides of the Delaware Bay, with Metropolis in Delaware and Gotham in New Jersey.
At other times they’ve been further apart. And to confuse matters Clark Kent’s home town of Smallville was cited as being in Kansas, meaning that either Smallville is a long way from Metropolis or Metropolis is a long way from the firmly East Coast Gotham. Both interpretations are valid, and as Superman can fly and Batman has access to a supersonic jet it rarely makes much difference to the stories how far the cities are apart from each other. Superhero stories are expressions of our concerns and desires, and really it’s psychology, not geography, that keeps Superman and Batman out of each others’ cities, rather than distance.
Similarly, while the fate of superheroes is these days controlled less from New York, home of print publishing, and more from Hollywood – Marvel Comics is owned and controlled by Disney – it’s hard to imagine Metropolis or Gotham warping into a version of Los Angeles. Gotham and Metropolis may both be versions of New York, but they’re also abstractions of the characters who inhabit, drawing from real-life cities but then twisting geography and architecture to fit their heroes better.
The gothic edifices and gargoyles of Gotham wrap around Batman, and the shining towers of Metropolis complement Superman, as snugly as the tight costumes they both wear. They’re inspired by New York, but having existed on the page for 80 years and filtered through the imaginations of countless readers who have, themselves, grown up to write and draw comic book stories, they have an existence of their own in our collective psyche.
[Read more: Everyone and no one belongs to New York]