More than Metropolis is for Superman or Coast City is for Green Lantern and perhaps even more than New York City is for Spider-Man, Gotham City is a character unto itself within the Batman mythos. And although the Dark Knight was nowhere to be seen, that quality largely held true for the origin story of his greatest villain with Gotham turning Arthur Fleck into the Clown Prince of Crime in Joker. On the special features of the film’s digital release, director Todd Phillips revealed which real city his Gotham was based on, saying:
Even though we don’t really say when and where the movie takes place, in my mind, it was always New York City, 1981, what did that look like and what did that feel like from my memory of it. I was only 11 or 12-years-old, but my memory was kind of what you see in the movie. A very run down, broken down city on every level.
Before Joker was released in theaters and before we had really seen anything from it, the word was that the film would be a period piece set in the late '70s or early '80s, in keeping with its primary influences Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. And although the film itself doesn’t explicitly define its time period with a title card revealing the year, director Todd Phillips had a very specific city and time in mind: New York City in 1981.
The director, who was born in Brooklyn, based the Gotham in Joker on the New York City of his youth and that’s what guided him while making the film. He wanted to recreate the look and feel of the real-life city of that time period in Joker’s Gotham as the setting and conduit for Arthur Fleck’s descent into madness.
In addition to being based on New York City, Todd Phillips also shot Joker in the Big Apple. So in theory that made it easier to recreate the city from the 80s for Joker’s Gotham.
The Gotham we see in Joker is a run down and broken city with crippling income inequality and where basic social services are failing. Cruelty and apathy runs rampant in Gotham, giving rise to despair and violent revolt. As Todd Phillips says on the Joker special features, he took a lot of this from his memory of New York in 1981.
Violent crime in New York and in the United States generally has fallen over the past 25 years, but in the 80s and early 90s New York City was a very violent place. There’s actually an article from The New York Times from February of 1981 calling the previous year the worst year of crime in the city’s history.
So it makes sense that Todd Phillips would base his Gotham on such a city at such a time as it seems like the kind of place a Joker could come from. Although just because it’s based on 1981 New York, doesn’t mean it is 1981 New York. Todd Phillips didn’t want it to be specific within the film itself, saying:
We purposely set the movie in the past to kind of remove it from anything else anybody knows. And it’s not even really set in the past. It’s sort of set in an alternate universe in a way.
We’ve heard in the past that Todd Phillips made Joker a period piece to make a strong distinction between his film and the DCEU as separate entities and he reiterates that here. But it’s also sort of an Elseworlds thing, where the story takes place in an alternate universe. Arthur Fleck isn’t the Joker, he’s just a Joker in this alternate reality version of the story.
New York City in 1981 or not, alternate universe or not, what Todd Phillips’ Gotham in Joker does better than a lot of true Batman films is show the character and the people of Gotham City and what kind of place it is. Gotham in the Christopher Nolan Trilogy, which was based on Chicago, told us a lot about how Gotham was a bad place but we didn’t see it, it just looked like a normal city. In Joker you can really see and feel it and that’s one of the film’s true accomplishments.