The Avant-Garde Of The New Aesthetic: Batman ’89, Destroyer And The Changed Face Of Gotham City
I’m not a big fan of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this week, but there’s definitely one thing that I think it did right. Burton’s Gotham City, redesigned for the screen by Anton Furst, is absolutely beautiful. The Academy Award-winning production art direction is stylish, terrifying, visually engaging and arresting on a level that the rest of the movie has a hard time living up to, creating a world that looks like Batman could exist there.
It’s also one of the movie’s lasting influences on the world of the comics. Ever since Furst and Burton unveiled their version as a backdrop for the Joker blasting Prince from a boombox while trashing an art museum and Batman blowing up a chemical plant with his remote-control car, Gotham has adhered to their vision of the city, transforming from the bustling stand-in for New York that it was before and becoming its own unmistakable entity. And in true comic book fashion, the comics accomplished this by blowing everything up and starting over.
It happened in a three-part saga called “Destroyer” that ran through Batman, Legends of the Dark Knight and Detective Comics back in 1992 — the year that Batman Returns came out and sent Furst’s vision of Gotham into a head-on collision with the love of Creepy Circus aesthetics that Burton had been cramming into his films since he came out of the gate with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure — but when you get right down to it, that’s really where the story ends. See, while “Gotham City itself is a character in Batman stories” is one of those truisms that everyone seems to know and accept without really thinking about it, right up there with “Bruce Wayne is the mask,” it’s not quite that simple. It’s true, and Gotham’s distinct character as a background for Batman’s adventures is definitely a pretty cool part of Batman’s history, but it certainly wasn’t always that way.
Owing to the influence from pulps like The Shadow and its hero’s nocturnal theme, Gotham was always a little darker than average, but there’s really nothing in those original stories that required an environment that wasn’t, say, New York City. It’s not until creators like Dick Sprang start playing around with the environment to make chase scenes and set pieces more exciting that Gotham really becomes distinct as this strange world of larger-than-life props and “advertising displays” mounted on the sides of buildings:
I love that idea, that Gotham is by its very nature a place that’s bigger than life, where everything — advertising, crime, heroism, everything — is operating on this massively grand scale. That’s the kind of environment that could produce the Riddler, and I think it’s easy to draw a line directly from that take on Gotham City through the ’66 TV show’s dutch angles and complicated deathtraps all the way to Burton and Furst.
In the ’70s, though, fueled by a push for more realistic art, Gotham was updated to reflect a modern city, which basically meant that it was full of giant glass rectangles. There were a few exceptions, of course, from the design for Wayne Tower that was essentially a weird open skyscraper built around a giant fake tree that disguised an elevator down to the Batcave to the conscious throwbacks to the Dick Sprang days that showed up in the Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers run:
The prevailing idea, though, was realism, pushing Gotham City into looking more like New York, and nowhere was this more prevalent than in Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One. Their Gotham is a terrifying, crime-ridden urban sprawl full of greed and corruption, but really, it’s basically the same city that they’d used as the backdrop for Daredevil. Denny O’Neil’s line about Gotham being “Manhattan below 14th street at eleven minutes past midnight on the coldest night of November” was becoming an increasingly literal description.
But then there was Batman ’89.
Burton and Furst’s vision of Gotham City was less about recreating New York and more about building something that fit the characters, and moving away from the campiness of the ’60s show and its pastel colors and pop-art sets. Looking back, they ended up with something that was exactly as campy, just in a slightly different way. But visually? It worked like a charm.
Sam Hamm’s script for the film describes the look of Gotham as “Hell erupted through the pavement and built a city,” a place where crime had such a stranglehold on every part of life that there weren’t even rules for how buildings were supposed to work. They were crowded together, stacked on top of each other, bridges crowding over the streets and throwing everything into shadow. It was a city that literally existed in the same kind of darkness that you’d get at O’Neil’s eleven minutes past midnight because the buildings were sprawling in every direction, blotting out the sun. And I love that about that movie.
My favorite thing about the film honestly doesn’t come from the actors or the story, it’s that even in the fanciest buildings in Gotham City — the art museum, City Hall — there are exposed air ducts and fans. Everything in the city was slapped together and given a varnish of respectability, something that underscores the theme of a city that needs Batman.
It’s worth noting that Batman ’89’s aesthetic had a retro-Art Deco design sensibility that wasn’t limited to the architecture, too. The cast, especially the background characters, were decked out in ’40s fashions that were meant to echo the early days of Batman’s career, all fedoras and wide ties. There’s a great clash with seeing that aesthetic in this decidedly modern setting, but again, it’s not hard to make a leap from that to Batman: The Animated Series, which combined that idea with the style of the pre-war Fleischer Superman cartoons and ended up with this gorgeous world of slick Art Deco computers and TVs.
Considering how successful that movie was, it should be no surprise that the comics wanted to follow suit. Thus, “Destroyer,” a story focused on a madman blowing up the boring rectangles of Gotham City to reveal the Furst-designed structures beneath.
That wasn’t quite what Alan Grant, Norm Breyfogle and Jim Aparo were doing within the story, but it’s pretty close. In Batman’s Gotham, the buildings weren’t Furst’s; they were designed by an architect named Cyrus Pinkney, who crafted Gotham as a trap for evil itself, confusing and terrorizing demonic forces through its oppressive architecture. But the thing is, those stories were thematically and literally about tearing down the “realistic” Gotham to reveal Furst’s version beneath — they were even billed as such, with Legends of the Dark Knight #27 featuring a gallery of Furst’s designs.
Story-wise, it wasn’t just about looking cool, even if that was the primary motivation. The genius of attributing Furst’s designs to Pinkney was that it made Gotham City itself scary. It took the themes of evil forces being in control, something that had been introduced and played with as a quality of Arkham Asylum, and applied it to the entire city, underscoring the idea that Batman wasn’t just fighting crooks, he was dealing with an evil that was supernaturally prevalent.
Not a bad visual legacy for a movie that opens with Batman getting shot and falling down.