Film News

Feature: Gotham City, A Visual History

Wednesday, July 23, 2008 | 1:51 PM


By Matt Singer

Since 1940's "Batman" #4, and his first movie serial three years later, the Caped Crusader has called Gotham City his home. On screen and on the printed page, its visual representation has changed quite a bit over almost 70 years. At times, the look of the metropolis has been an afterthought; at others, directors have paid more attention to Gotham's appearance than to the characters living in it, and its latest appearance, in Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight," may be its most unusual yet. (None the least for sparking a heated New York/Chicago debate.) Here's a look at eight movies full of gargoyles, dark alleys, and, yes, big naked statues.

07232008_batman1943.jpgBatman (1943)
Directed by Lambert Hillyer
Production Designer: Uncredited

This bargain basement production didn't even bother giving the Dynamic Duo a Batmobile, letting them make do with a generic black sedan, so it's no surprise Gotham is equally indistinct. The "Gotham City Foundation" is just a backlot street, and the chase scenes look an awful lot like the Bronson Canyon back roads where the '60s "Batman" would eventually house its Batcave. The only memorable location is Gotham's "Little Tokyo" where the serial's shockingly racist narrator informs us "a wise government" has rounded up all the residents and sent them off to internment camps, turning it into a "virtual ghost street." It makes for a nice contrast with the numerous scenes set on streets with some un-Gotham-like white picket fences; apparently, Mayberry is one of the town's rarely discussed suburbs.

07232008_batman1966.jpgBatman (1966)
Directed by Leslie H. Martinson
Art Direction by Serge Krizman and Jack Martin Smith

This big-screen adaptation of the iconic mid-'60s "Batman" television show was filmed between the series' first and second series, which explains the series' notably small scale and scope. Little to no attempt is made to disguise the fact that the production was shot in and around Los Angeles; when the Batcopter winds its way over Gotham, it looks suspiciously like the Hollywood Hills. Most of the action takes around water: at the docks where the super-villains have their hideout, in the Batboat, or atop the Penguin's pre-atomic submarine. None of these sequences, all shot in water tanks, include any shots of a Gotham skyline. The only major municipal landmark we see is the United World Building, headquartered on "Gotham East River." This, of course, is simply stock footage of the real life United Nations Building in New York City.

07232008_batman1989.jpgBatman (1989)
Directed by Tim Burton
Production Design by Anton Furst

If audiences still had the Adam "Pow!"-"Zot!" West's Batman on their minds when they walked into movie theaters in the summer of 1989, the first shot of Tim Burton and production designer Anton Furst's Gotham City erased all of that in a moment. Their Gotham was a moody, messy tangle of granite and steel peaks and spires. When Burton takes us down to street level, the city assumes even more nightmarish proportions: buildings, which look like they've been built on foundations of garbage, are encased in tentacle-like steam pipes. Jack Napier's transformation into the Joker takes place at Axis Chemicals, a factory that looks like some kind of cancerous growth of concrete, and the finale is set inside the tallest church bell tower in history. Furst's creations are weird amalgams of different types of structures: apartment buildings with smokestacks, an art museum that looks like a bank vault, as if the place itself is as schizophrenic as its wildly costumed citizens.

07232008_batmanreturns.jpgBatman Returns (1992)
Directed by Tim Burton
Production Design by Bo Welch

Though Furst's sets for Burton's first "Batman" had been preserved for the inevitable sequel, the director decided to scrap them and hire Bo Welch to design a revamped Gotham City. The major location is Gotham Plaza, an obvious analog of New York City's Rockefeller Center, it houses Shreck's, an art deco style department store, and the Gotham Christmas tree. Statues begin to work their way into the city's architecture, with huge figures dwarfing the local dignitaries at the tree lighting ceremony. What space there is feels entirely vertical: the buildings seem to go on forever — Burton repeatedly uses single shots to take us from street level to the rooftops and back again — but there doesn't appear to very much real estate in Gotham beyond the central Plaza, and there's certainly far more back alleys than thoroughfares. Though sequels, as a rule, ramp up the effects and the budget, "Returns" feels a good deal more intimate, perhaps even more claustrophobic than its predecessor. The mood the sets evoke is one of grandeur, but also precariousness: many of the tallest structures in establishing shots look like they're being propped up by enormous angled beams while ominous steam leaks from every visible crevice.

07232008_batmanforever.jpgBatman Forever (1995)
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Production Design by Barbara Ling

With Joel Schumacher easing into the director's chair, Gotham got a substantial makeover from new production designer Barbara Ling. Though we still see the city mostly at night, it's certainly a much brighter place; even before the Riddler and his brainwave-leeching invention start pumping out waves of Ecto Cooler green energy, the town is swimming in bright spotlights and splashes of neon. Arkham Asylum, Gotham's jail for the criminally insane, makes its first onscreen appearance, looking quite the "castle of shadow" that writer Akiva Goldsman described in his screenplay. Schumacher clearly wanted to reshape Gotham, but he elided the problem of trying to live up to Burton's iconic representation by setting major set pieces over water instead of on land; Batman and Two-Face first do battle in a helicopter aimed at "Our Lady of Gotham" (a.k.a. The Statue of Liberty) and the climax finds the heroes scaling an enormous metal island shaped like one of the Riddler's super-TV receivers. Overall, this place belongs visually somewhere between Burton's moody Gotham and the gaudier one Schumacher would ultimately carve out in his second directorial effort (see below). As such, it's somewhat forgettable, even though it's not nearly as embarrassing as the black lit beast that was coming next.

07232008_batmanandrobin.jpgBatman & Robin (1997)
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Production Design by Barbara Ling

In the film that temporarily destroyed the Bat franchise, the Caped Crusader and company bounce around a city that looks like a rave inside the antiquities wing of the Gotham Museum of Art. Everything glows neon and fluorescent — even the graffiti lining the undersides of bridges is illuminated by ultraviolet light — and everything is propped up by completely nonsensical Greco-Roman figures the size of skyscrapers. One major chase sequence involves Mr. Freeze driving his Freezemobile off a highway suspended far above street level, crashing through the head of a enormous naked figure, driving down its arm and then launching himself off its middle finger. His plans to, y'know, freeze everyone revolves around the Gotham Observatory, a planetarium carved into the side of a cliff, held aloft by another illogical statue. Plenty of blame for this Battastrophe fell to screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, but in the "Batman & Robin" screenplay, his description of the observatory only notes that it is "set atop the banks above the Gotham River and the city beyond." Nowhere does it mention that a naked man the size of the Chrysler Building need be placed underneath it, so that one's on Joel Schumacher and Ling. Most hilarious design touch: the factory Batgirl and Robin drive through in the middle of a rough and tumble motorbike race that's abandoned except for a still-operational disco ball.

07232008_batmanbegins.jpgBatman Begins (2005)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Production Design by Nathan Crowley

While Warner Brothers let the series lay fallow for eight years, digital effects technology continued to improve, which meant that when Christopher Nolan finally took the reins with "Batman Begins" in 2005, we got our first look at a Gotham City skyline created without matte paintings or miniatures. When we see Gotham from above (the shot simulates what Bruce Wayne's seeing out the window of his private plane), it has a large central island, flanked on either side by two, smaller, crescent shaped ones; squint and it almost looks like a bat itself. Nolan filmed some exteriors in Chicago and even modeled Wayne Tower after the Chicago Board of Trade Building. As befits the movie's more serious tone, the city's previous outlandishness is removed — so no more statue buttresses routinely appearing in the backgrounds of exterior shots — but there is still a fair amount of comic book trickeration to the Windy City; particularly in the depiction of an fetid slum called "The Narrows" and in the notion that the gleaming city's beautiful glass towers hide a literal criminal underground. And if you're heading to Chicago on a "Batman Begins" locations tour, don't plan on getting from one sight to the next on that wacky two-level monorail; the L is cool, but it isn't that cool.

07232008_thedarkknight.jpgThe Dark Knight (2008)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Production Design by Nathan Crowley

The movement away from artifice that Nolan began in "Begins" reaches new heights with "The Dark Knight," where the production design by Nathan Crowley, or the seeming lack thereof, is one of the most interesting elements. No mention is made of the imaginary Narrows, no forward-thinking elevated trains are seen (nor is an explanation given for how Gotham citizens are getting around with their public transportation demolished), and we never see a shot of the city from the air resembling the one we got in "Batman Begins." Instead Nolan's sweeping aerial tracking shots of Gotham — presented in eye-frying IMAX — play up the natural drama of Chicago's canyons, rivers, and bridges. "Begins" had some Chicago flavor, "The Dark Knight" looks like it was shot entirely in the Windy City, even the dialogue scenes have that on-location feel thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows in the offices of the mayor, Lt. Gordon, and Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne's penthouse apartment. "The Dark Knight" is perhaps the first Batman movie that doesn't look like a comic book come to life and instead embraces an aesthetic that suggests what our own world would look like with comic book superheroes in it. Given the parallels Nolan's drawing to our own society and its reaction to terrorism, it's a stylish and apt choice.

[Photos: "Batman," Columbia Pictures, 1943; "Batman," Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1966; "Batman," Warner Bros. Pictures, 1989; "Batman Returns," Warner Bros. Pictures, 1992; "Batman Forever," Warner Bros. Pictures, 1996; "Batman & Robin," Warner Bros. Pictures, 1997; "Batman Begins," Warner Bros. Pictures, 2005; "The Dark Knight," Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008]


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