And now we turn our eye on the most critical design element of any Batman story. Gotham City.
If anything, the Gotham City you get is the biggest indicator of what you can expect from any iteration of Batman. Dark and Brooding Gotham begets Dark and Brooding Batman, Garish Gotham begets Campy Batman, Rea–World Gotham begets Realistic Batman.
And so the nature of Gotham has led to some interesting production design choices. I’m not going to bother going through the history of each, or even try to delve into the “depth” of each vision. Just examine how Gotham itself has often been our most revealing and ambitious character in any of the Batman movies.
First of course is the 1989 film.
In it, production designer Anton Furst established a very gothic Gotham. Just as importantly, the cinematography by Roger Pratt turns a studio lot into a grim, shadowed pararllel-universe New York City of the pre-Giuliani era. Full of rich menace and fear when the sun goes down, regardless of who you are. Looking at this Gotham, it looks like the type of place where muggings are not only common, they’re expected. Hell, it looks like you’d be disappointed if you weren’t mugged once in a while, as if it were a statement about you.
So this is totally in line with what they were hoping to portray on the whole for Batman in this film. Brooding, gothic and gritty. Also, apparently it rained all the time there when the cameras were turned off; I have trouble recalling a scene where the streets don’t look like a street–sweeper just rolled through. However, it really works to the advantage of the film as the streets look slimy most of the time. I think that’s really neat.
And to be honest, it’s the image of Gotham I latched onto through the next three films. Mentally, I refused to let go. Now let me tell you why.
Batman Returns is where the production design started to slip and Tim Burton’s stranger sensibilities started to creep in through the margins. After the success of Batman I suppose it makes sense he got a little more creative control, but the road Burton would travel through Edward Scissorhands led to the redesigned Gotham City.
It makes sense that the look would be similar, because the same cinematographer for Scissorhands and Ed Wood, Stefan Czapsky, takes over from Roger Pratt. Why? I don’t honestly know. Maybe Pratt was forced on Burton the first time around and they didn’t get along. It happens after all; George Lucas and Gil Taylor notoriously disliked working together, and Taylor was reportedly a hedge from the studio to try to ensure the investment on a strange film.
Production design was taken on Bo Welch, who worked with Burton on Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice. Sadly, that’s probably due to the fact that Anton Furst died in 1990.
But the point is, Gotham changed. Instead of a very realistic–yet–Gothic city, we got our first taste of giant statuary populating the film. Combined with some off moments of cinematography, the back–lot set looked considerably less convincing. This Gotham presented a little more of a twisted and cartoonish take on the character, which definitely bears out in how the characters themselves are treated.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Batman Returns just fine, but it’s certainly a let-down after the first film. The production design and photography have a lot to do with that.
Then the madness started.
Gotham City devolved in Batman Forever into a neon hodge-podge looking like Tokyo had sex with New York and made Fritz Lang the caretaker. Honestly, while it may have looked neat for a few frames, it was a definite step away from the dark reality of the first two into the fevered dream of a 5 year old with crayons. Interesting, but not functional for reality.
And while I’m a huge fan of “interesting,” this Gotham looks like it belongs more in Star Trek III (watch that scene with McCoy in the bar again) than a Batman film. This is, of course, fitting because this Batman film aspires to nothing greater than forgettable entertainment. At least, I wish it was forgettable.
The point, though, is that this Batman is starting his divorce from reality. Scaling vertical walls in cars? No problem. Shouting your secret identity in a room full of people and not being heard? No problem. Batman possessing ray-shield technology on his suit to withstand a fiery explosion? No problem.
I suppose fans sort of lost their right to be surprised after the first few shots of the credits, when Gotham City telegraphed this particular punch. And like I said, I am a big fan of “interesting,” so I’m not bashing Barbara Ling‘s design itself. I’m just saying that like the first two films, this Gotham City told us what to expect.
Shouted it, really.
Batman & Robin
And then it fell into the pit of despair with Batman & Robin. Anything redemptive about the Barbara Ling’s first designs of Gotham are gone. Completely and utterly devoid of anything except camp and giant naked statues. Honestly, the place looks like an Ayn Rand novel as interpreted by Andy Warhol.
The neon’s amped up, the statues are bigger, the geometry of the city makes less sense than Lost Highway and did I mention the black-lights that populate the entire city to make paint glow? And it fits with this incarnation of Batman and his villains. Hollow flesh automata randomly stringing sentences together and occasionally conflicting.
I’m typically a positive guy. I look for the good in people and experiences. I try to see the silver lining. I believe that, even if I didn’t like a movie, there’s typically something about it that was pulled off successfully. Usually for me, design is that thing.
Batman Begins and The Dark Knight
I combine these two because they’re the first f*ing time in the entire series they used the same people in the key design and photography roles. And it shows.
They used a real city to film these two, so maybe Chicago shows through too strongly in some moments. But by and large, the use of a real city – albeit with a heavily altered skyline in establishing shots – give us a route by which we can recognize this Batman and therefore his world. Whereas the previous films varied from heavy gothic sensibilities to cartoonish nightmare, these films offer a subtle visual reassurance that dismisses the need for establishment. We know this world because it looks like the one in which we’re living.
And that’s fitting here because this Batman deals with the same issues we face. We demand a higher sense of reality in our fantasy now. We don’t want just to accept that a thing exists, we want to know how it works. And if we find out how it works, we need to know that it’s in line with our expectations of science (as most of us understand it). Just look at a Star Trek technical manual, or guidebooks to fictional places, to see our new demand to see how it can be explained and believed.
So in a sense, while Nolan’s Gotham delivers a believable Gotham for Batman, it also anticipates the need for the nerd audience to believe that it’s a world in which they could live, too. This is present in the comics, why not in the films now as well? We all want more reality in our fantasy, for better or worse.
I suppose that’s a good thing overall. Tolkien labored to make his worlds believable enough to have us buy into Hobbits, elves and orcs, why not make Batman’s reality just as rich?