The rent better be cheap in Gotham City, or the Tinder scene thriving, because the downsides to living there are overloading the “con” side of the ledger. Ever since the 1980s, when a progressive new generation of comics creators decided that imperiling the entire city was a much more compelling way of engaging Batman than, say, the exploding mice of Nora Clavicle and the Ladies’ Crime Club, the threats facing the good people of Gotham have grown increasingly dire.
That trend continues in Arkham Knight, the latest and last in developer Rocksteady Studios’ Batman: Arkham series of video games, which finds Gotham City almost completely evacuated following a fear gas threat by the Scarecrow. Having to be bussed out of town to avoid chemically induced terror is no doubt a hassle, but as our list below indicates, the denizens of Gotham have certainly endured worse.
11. Joker tries to blow up Gotham with a nuke (Batman: The Animated Series, “Harlequinade,” 1994)
This underrated B:TAS episode revolves around the Dark Knight’s uneasy partnering with the Joker’s squeeze Harley Quinn as he attempts to rescue the kidnapped Mayor Hamilton Hill and stop Joker from detonating a stolen nuclear bomb over Gotham. Though Joker comes close to pulling it off, he’s ultimately foiled by Harley when she realizes that he’s planning on leaving her and her beloved hyenas to be vaporized: “The babies! We can’t leave the babies!” / “I’ll buy you a goldfish!”
10. Swamp Thing turns Gotham into a jungle (Swamp Thing Nos. 52–53, 1986)
One of the city’s strangest disasters occurs in, of all places, Alan Moore and Steve Bissette’s mid-1980s Swamp Thing comics. After his human lover Abby Holland is arrested for “unnatural acts” (they had a sexual relationship), Swamp Thing appears in Gotham and demands her release. When the police fail to do so, he restores the city to its pre-habitation state, with trees and foliage exploding from the ground. Finding himself unable to defeat Swamp Thing, Batman changes his tack and convinces the authorities that Abby’s incarceration is unjust. She’s freed and, in turn, Swamp Thing releases Gotham from its flora prison.
9. The Mutant Gang / Gotham riots (The Dark Knight Returns, 1984)
Aimless and unhappy in his retirement, the older, hulking Bruce Wayne of Frank Miller’s famed mini-series decides to once again don the batsuit and confront the Mutant gang that has overrun Gotham. The Mutants’ stranglehold on the city is broken after Batman brutally beats their leader — but that would prove to only be the appetizer of Miller’s tale. In DKR’s fourth book, “The Dark Knight Falls,” a Reagan-sponsored Superman narrowly saves the U.S. from a soviet nuke. During the resulting nuclear winter, Gotham burns as wide-scale rioting breaks out. Batman manages to enlist disaffected former Mutants and copycat vigilantes into a non-lethal army, and with them by his side, order is restored to the city. (Then Batman and Superman fight.)
8. Ra’s Al Ghul attempts to drive everyone insane (Batman Begins, 2005)
The thrilling third act of Christopher Nolan’s first bat-flick finds the League of Shadows enacting a Bond-villain-esque plan to destroy Gotham with a microwave weapon, a fear-toxin-contaminated water supply, and a hijacked subway train. Ra’s (Liam Neeson) hopes to force Gotham’s citizens to tear the city apart, just as the League has done to other once-great cities in the past — and he doesn’t have much difficulty setting the plan in motion.
“You are defending a city so corrupt, we have infiltrated every level of its infrastructure,” Ra’s gloats to Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) before leaving him to die in his burning mansion. While Batman and a Tumbler-driving James Gordon (Gary Oldman) are ultimately able to save the day, the crisis underscores how much work they have ahead of them in cleaning up Gotham.
7. Joker enacts his “Endgame” (Batman Nos. 35–40, 2014–2015)
In writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo’s “Endgame” story line — which commemorated Batman and the Joker’s 75th anniversaries — the Clown Prince unveils a go-for-broke plan to unleash an airborne virus that turns Gotham’s citizens (and the Justice League) into murderous Joker zombies. The “Endgame” arc extended to Bat-family titles such as Batgirl and Gotham Academy, where the Joker’s threat was used as a jumping-off point for unusual one-shot stories. But, naturally, it’s Batman who saves the day, deriving a cure from the Joker’s own altered biology. Though uneven, “Endgame” is unique for the way it turns Batman’s own city against him.
6. The construction of “Arkham City” (Batman: Arkham City, 2011)
Rocksteady’s follow up to 2009’s Arkham Asylum finds a large chunk of the city, including Crime Alley and the Industrial District, walled off as an Escape From New York–style superprison. While Gotham’s elite are largely unaffected by this, many of the city’s poor remain inside alongside the “dissidents” thrown in by the deranged warden Hugo Strange. (Compounding the situation, a “seismic event” results in the flooding of portions of the city.) Inside the prison, various criminal factions battle for supremacy while Strange and a mysterious benefactor prepare to enact “Protocol 10” and kill all the inmates. Also inside the prison: Batman.
5. Gotham’s “Zero Year” (Batman Nos. 21–27, 29–33, 2013–2014)
An earlier effort by Snyder and Capullo, “Zero Year” was a modern update of Batman’s origin that finds him struggling to save Gotham after the Riddler has successfully taken control. Just months into Bruce’s career as Batman, Riddler plans to force Gotham’s citizens into forming a smarter, more sustainable society by prodding them with a crisis in the form of wide-scale destruction and chaos. The strength of “Zero Year” is how Batman’s relationship with the people of Gotham comprises the story’s core — the resolution, whereupon Batman attaches electrodes to his heart in order to restart the city’s power grid, is an unsubtle but fitting end.
4. Scarecrow turns Gotham into a ghost town (Arkham Knight, 2015)
Rocksteady’s third and final Bat-game pits the Caped Crusader against a gauntlet of menaces coordinated by the Scarecrow. The game’s opening sequence drives home the threat faced by the city when a seemingly quiet evening at a downtown diner devolves into chaos after patrons are exposed to Scarecrow’s new and improved fear toxin. Scarecrow’s subsequent pledge to release the toxin citywide prompts a full evacuation, with Batman staying behind to contain the ensuing riots and preempt the chemical attack.
3. The Joker’s terrorism campaign (The Dark Knight, 2008)
Nolan’s Batman Begins sequel is the quintessential Batman story, a combination of moralistic philosophizing and explosive action movie. Rather than enacting wholesale destruction, the Joker (Heath Ledger) opts for an ideological attack on Gotham that targets specific places and people. Like his predecessor Ra’s Al Ghul, the Joker wants to make Gotham’s own citizens responsible for the city’s destruction. His plan relies not on high-tech weaponry but rather the presumed moral failings of everyday people. When a group of criminals and ordinary citizens refuse to kill each other at the Joker’s request, it’s as much a spiritual victory for the city as it is for the Caped Crusader.
2. Talia and Bane’s occupation of Gotham (The Dark Knight Rises, 2012)
Nolan’s final foray into the world of Batman is a variation on the plots of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, but with one distinct difference: The bad guys win, at least for a number of months — they cripple Batman, plunge the city into violent anarchy, and hold America at gunpoint with a neutron bomb. Only through the efforts and sacrifice of a philosophically revitalized Batman is the city liberated, and the Gotham seen at the end is stronger than ever, one that no longer needs a protector.
1. Gotham is declared a No Man’s Land (Various media, 1999–2000)
Gotham’s darkest hour came not at the hands of a supervillain but from the fallout of a natural disaster. The yearlong story line, later adapted into a novelization by Batman writer Greg Rucka, finds the city abandoned by the U.S. government after a powerful earthquake. In the resulting chaos, Batman winds up estranged from Commissioner Gordon and the city’s few remaining police as they try to maintain some semblance of order amid total institutional collapse.
No Man’s Land’s influence can be found in many earlier entries on this list, and for good reason: The story focuses on a variety of characters — from detective Renee Montoya to an oddly sympathetic Two-Face to a psychotic SWAT Team captain — and smartly conveys the scale of the adversity faced by the city at large. Alliances are forged and broken; people live and die. While there are arguably better Batman arcs, No Man’s Land is unsurpassed as far as great Gotham City stories go.