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Designing Gotham

Batman and his city are inextricably linked, and in developing their Dark Knight movies, filmmakers from Tim Burton to Matt Reeves have always paid special attention to how that city looks

Jonathan Bartlett

The Caped Crusader is back: On March 4, Robert Pattinson will become the seventh actor to don the cowl in a live-action film with The Batman. To prepare, join The Ringer this week as we navigate the grime of Gotham and explore the history of one of the most recognizable superheroes in the comic-book landscape.


Before shooting began on Batman Returns, Tom Duffield looked at the sidewalk and started to panic. Tasked with helping tweak the look of Gotham City for Tim Burton’s sequel, the art director noticed construction workers pouring cement into neat squares. If Gotham had originally been meant to look like hell had “burst through the pavement and grew,” the smooth walkway suggested an entirely different movie. “They didn’t understand how to [lay] it badly,” Duffield says. “We couldn’t have that.”

Eventually, Duffield found a concrete mixer who understood his disjointed vision, which would capture Gotham’s crumbling infrastructure and carry the spirit of Burton’s original design. Once the disheveled footpaths had dried, he and production designer Bo Welch built Gotham Square and its imposing, gothic high-rises up to the rafters, updating and expanding the claustrophobic nightmare of Batman’s Gotham with a neo-fascist spin. “Everything is built on top of the old city,” Duffield says. “That’s why it gets so big and so overpowering.”

The oppressive architecture and foundational neglect produced a bold and fantastical cinematic impression. Most importantly, it took on the dark and dented identity of Michael Keaton’s winged protagonist. After all, Batman and Gotham have a deeply symbiotic relationship, one that began when Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed in one of the city’s notorious back alleys. That tragic origin story—and the role Gotham plays in it—binds Bruce to his traumatic, orphaned past and motivates his eventual obsession with ridding the city of crime by dressing as a bat and inflicting vigilante justice. “Gotham made Batman,” says Will Brooker, an author and professor of film and cultural studies at Kingston University. “If there was no crime, Batman wouldn’t have a reason to be there.”

But unlike Superman’s Metropolis or Spider-Man’s New York City, Gotham’s corrupt and nocturnal urban landscape has never remained static or consistently mapped. Over the past three decades, filmmakers taking on the Caped Crusader have heeded Burton’s evolutionary approach, adapting Gotham to become a reflection of their own versions of Batman. Whether that’s hued closer to an escapist crime fighter or a more tortured Dark Knight, Gotham has been tinted with everything from Joel Schumacher’s colorful camp to Christopher Nolan’s gritty realism, its streets and skylines refashioned with each successive movie. “There is no definitive Gotham,” says Barbara Ling, the production designer on Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. “The excitement is reinventing with each new vision.”

To achieve so many rebrands has required shooting on Hollywood and international sound stages, in New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Detroit, and—as most recently depicted in Matt Reeves’s The Batman—in and around British urban plazas. “Batman is about the fear and thrill of the city,” Brooker says, and throughout each interpretation, artists and designers have continually found ways to express those competing extremes in dark and imaginative ways.

Batman Returns (1992)
Warner Bros.

In his 1939 comic debut, Batman lived and operated in the shadows of New York City. Throughout his early adventures with Robin, the term “Gotham”—first popularized by author Washington Irving in his satirical literary magazine Salmagundi—was only occasionally used as a nickname for the Northeastern metropolis. But two years later, cocreators Bill Finger and Bob Kane officially renamed Batman’s backdrop “Gotham City,” exaggerating its New York–adjacent architecture while nodding to its heavy influence. (Allusions to Gotham City began with Batman No. 4, while the first declaration of Bruce Wayne living in Gotham City is found in Detective Comics No. 48.) As Finger once said, “We didn’t call it New York because we wanted anybody in any city to identify with it.”

Still, throughout the TV movies of the 1940s, and later, during Batman’s campy 1960s televised run, Gotham had little shape or scope. Despite referencing New York–based landmarks, Adam West’s sun-lit adventures—mostly shot on Hollywood stages—looked like they took place in a beach town that boasted more trees than skyscrapers and rendered Batman’s signature shadowy presence useless. Not until the 1970s, when Dennis O’Neil began authoring the comics, did Gotham gain a vertical identity and become integral to Batman’s pivot into darkness. As O’Neil later distinguished, Gotham took on the shape of “Manhattan below 14th Street at 3 a.m., November 28, in a cold year,” exuding a timelessness with its 19th-century, gargoyle-heavy architecture. Conversely, O’Neil considered the art-deco Metropolis—Superman’s “city of tomorrow”—as Manhattan on “the brightest, sunniest July day of the year.” These stark contrasts—along with an established continuity of landmarks like Crime Alley and Arkham Asylum—peaked during Frank Miller’s 1986 limited comic series The Dark Knight Returns, which interrogated an older Batman’s traumatized psyche, manifested in Gotham’s terrorized and sickly streets.

Three years later, Burton and production designer Anton Furst plastered a similar hellscape onto the big screen, establishing Gotham as grotesque, cloistered, and rotting. Influenced by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Furst’s initial sketches show an almost impenetrable collection of buildings, exemplifying the idea that Gotham was “all the elements of Manhattan exaggerated,” he told Bomb Magazine. Inspired by New York’s whiplash of classical structures sitting on top of filth and grime, Furst “imagined what it would have been like if it had been run by a criminal organization for a long time.”

Indeed, in the opening shots of Batman, the entire frame is smothered in smog and steam, enhancing the German Expressionism and noirish qualities of a city enveloped by night. Based in Pinewood Studios outside of London, Furst and his team also built a variety of jarring architectural styles, juxtaposing Italian Futurism with the expressionist work of Antoni Gaudi and Frank Lloyd Wright. “We even took things like prison architecture and stretched it into skyscrapers,” Furst said in an issue of Starlog magazine. “We ended up with this rather interesting idea of canyons, with cantilevered forward structures and bridges over them … condensing the city even more and stretching it higher.”

Furst’s surrealist structures and vertical high-rises would eventually echo the interplay between Keaton’s rigid Batman (whose cowl barely lets him turn his neck) and Jack Nicholson’s caricaturist Joker. Rotting with corrupt police lieutenants and bands of criminals, Gotham quickly turns into a suffocating enclosure, its macabre shops and plazas at risk of vandalization and destruction at any moment. “Any New Yorker is aware of that 5 percent balance, where the place could just fuck up on a moment’s notice,” Furst said. “Con Ed ripping up the pavement or a [truck] creating gridlock for miles.”

When Welch and Duffield took over Gotham’s design for Batman Returns, they kept building higher, using miniature sets to overscale the city so that, as Duffield describes, it looked like “a concrete jungle meets the Pyramids of Egypt.” This time, with Gotham layered in a thick coat of snow, Burton leaned into his characters’ black-and-white imagery and dual identities, allowing the Penguin and Catwoman to practically blend into their surroundings. “I loved the Orson Welles, Gregg Toland, deep-focus, wide-angle-lens photography,” says cinematographer Stefan Czapsky, who dramatized Welch’s urban environment with extreme angles and lighting. “Being able to light in that spotlight technique had the aesthetic of film noir, black-and-white photography and hard shadows.”

After two dark movies, Warner Bros. grew cautious of Burton’s ink-stained aesthetic, worrying it had turned away the superhero’s younger demographic of fans. As a rebuttal, the studio hired director Joel Schumacher to take the reins of the franchise and return Gotham to its campier origins. As Batman Forever cowriter Janet Batchler remembers, “Joel wanted to make what he called a ‘living comic book’” to transport Batman into the escapist, Bob Kane–inspired illustrations of old. Where Burton had practically erased all color from Gotham, Schumacher and production designer Barbara Ling lightened the palette with reds, blues, and greens to appease the studio’s toy-driven demands and soften the storytelling tone. “We wanted to have something joyful, a little bit more colorful,” Ling says.

Of course, Ling was careful not to erase everything that Furst and Welch had previously established. She started with a “World’s Fair proportion,” keeping the larger-than-life buildings of the previous two movies so as to “not lose Gotham’s sensibility of overbearingness burdened by crooks.” Basing her designs on Schumacher’s inspired casting (beginning with Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey), Ling incorporated modernist Japanese architecture with Russian constructivism, mixing styles to break out of a strict gothic look. “When you’re in Tokyo particularly, there’s something that’s almost Gotham-like within the tops of their towers that you have never seen before,” she says. “I started meshing those worlds together to create something that felt fresh.”

The differences are apparent in Schumacher’s first establishing shot of Gotham. It features an avenue lined with spotlit crowds and police cars, drenched in the violet glow of skyscrapers whose cleaner, flatter exteriors have a dreamlike quality. Throughout the movie, Schumacher circles around his Gotham’s ludicrously grandiose statues, multiple levels of bridges and highways, and the gaudy, rock ’n’ roll–inspired lighting rigs that saturate them in color. Considering the zany outfits and motives of Harvey Dent and the Riddler, Ling’s extravagant depiction paints Gotham as a kid-friendly theme park of wacky villainy. “Gotham is a very exaggerated world,” Batchler says. “That was the direction that Joel pointed us in.”

In a decade of commercialism and excess, Schumacher and Ling only enhanced the vision for their 1997 sequel Batman & Robin, which substituted George Clooney for Val Kilmer in the lead role and introduced even more operatic characters and flamboyant designs. With its three competing villains and protagonists, neon colors, and graffiti-lined sets, Gotham had turned into a kaleidoscopic carnival. “You’re creating something in which the sky’s the limit,” Ling says. “That one kind of got away … but if you’re not changing it up, it becomes the same thing over and over.”

Batman & Robin (1997)
Warner Bros.

By all accounts, Batman & Robin jumped the shark. It lost big at the box office, earning $107 million domestically against its $125 million budget (a far cry from Burton’s original blockbuster, which grossed $250 million in 1989) and received scathing reviews for its thin characters and over-the-top spectacle. “Joel’s movies and Tim’s movies really spoke to the exuberance of the time,” Batchler notes. But by the end of the decade, Schumacher’s gaudy vision of Gotham had become a cautionary tale. If superhero movies were to succeed moving forward, they would need to be treated seriously and realistically.

Nearly a decade later, Christopher Nolan was up for the task. In the wake of more critically successful, grounded endeavors like X-Men and Spider-Man, the director approached a rebooted version of Batman with a gritty sensibility. Along with writer David S. Goyer, Nolan gave Bruce Wayne a fleshed-out origin story and turned Gotham into a recognizable metropolitan location, shooting in real locations and connecting it to the outside world for the first time. “Since we were going to be seeing Gotham from the outside,” Nolan says in The Art and Making of The Dark Knight Trilogy, “we wanted to frame it as one of the great cities in the world, like London or Los Angeles or Paris.”

Although Nolan initially conceived Gotham as a “New York on steroids,” he didn’t want to lean on the Big Apple’s iconography in the way Burton had mirrored the Guggenheim or Schumacher had staged fights around a Statue of Liberty stand-in called Lady Gotham. In a major break from tradition, Nolan situated Batman Begins in a quasi-version of Chicago, knowing it contained a variety of subterranean levels, crime-riddled history, and the kind of gothic architecture only available in a few other East Coast cities. “There’s a lot of back alleys, lower roadways, old architecture, cool, old clubs or restaurants,” says the movie’s location manager, James R. McAllister. “It’s visually a great place to stage [crime] and sell that feeling.”

In Nolan’s reboot, an early aerial shot gazes upon a smoky Gotham that has decayed into mob-run madness—half the city’s cops are on a kingpin’s payroll, the monorail system has turned decrepit, and the drug trade fills the Narrows, a large subsection of slums. Still, against Chicago’s elevated trains, bridges, and winding river, Nolan elevates his bat-eared protagonist, played by Christian Bale, into a complex crime fighter that could plausibly exist in a decomposing ecosystem. “Our core concept was, ‘What if Batman were real?’” production designer Nathan Crowley told Chicago Magazine. “That alone set it apart. The previous two films were very fantastical, very comic book-like. We really wanted to push the realism and the belief that this could really happen.”

Though he shot in Chicago for only three weeks on Batman Begins, Nolan would eventually give the city its IMAX close-up in The Dark Knight. Written with his brother Jonathan, the sequel made better use of the city’s wide boulevards and unique underground streets, turning Chicago into an ideal narrative playground. In this version, Gotham begins as a spotless metropolis—Batman and Harvey Dent have rounded up the city’s criminals—but it slowly descends into hell once the Joker unleashes his chaos. “Chicago’s downtown is very clean and has a new look, even though there are some older buildings,” McAllister says, which, according to Crowley, “gave us the great opportunity to then bring in the anarchist to start destroying it.”

To enhance the movie’s realism, Nolan spent months in Chicago, opting to shoot more scenes on location as opposed to relying on Crowley’s sound stages from the previous film. As the location team would eventually find, the city’s clean and crisp architecture—exemplified in the Richard J. Daley Center and Board of Trade Building—synced with Dent’s sturdy handle on crime. “The authorities had taken back the city from the hoodlums,” Crowley said, “and I felt that the clean architecture—modernist yet not super modern—communicated that idea.” In terms of action, Chicago’s underground roads proved just as helpful, and the city allowed the production to shut down large avenues and fly helicopters between its concrete canyons. “Chris likes to do as much in camera as he can, and would prefer to stay away from CG when possible,” McAllister says. “I think that helped and added to the realism.”

Take the Lower Wacker Drive chase sequence, which features Batman and the Joker on a collision course underneath the city. As Batman Begins had briefly established, the Batmobile was now a functional driving machine, capable of legitimizing and expanding Gotham’s downtown scope. When its engine dies, and Batman spins off into a makeshift motorcycle, Nolan stays behind it to highlight his crusader’s innate sense of the city. “We needed some kind of connecting tissue between Lower Wacker and LaSalle [Street],” McAllister says. “We ended up going to the metro station where you see him blast through the doors and ride through the interior mall—there were a couple of small, really narrow alleys that Chicago’s loop provides to race through.”

The Dark Knight (2008)
Warner Bros.

In bringing Gotham into the real world, Nolan had rebranded Chicago as a legitimate comic book city (The Dark Knight’s $1 billion–plus global box office haul and widespread acclaim helped, too). But in setting out to complete his trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises, he moved filming locations again, returning the majority of his ever-changing dystopia to Manhattan and supplementing it with parts of Pittsburgh. Because the movie’s new villain, Bane, uses the sewers and subways to take over the city, going back to Gotham’s original stomping grounds made practical sense. “New York’s subway stations gave me an immediate underground network,” Crowley said. “My thought was that if we filmed in some of those subway stations, we’d have half of Bane’s world without having to build all of it.”

The abrupt jump from a Chicago drawbridge to the Queensboro Bridge offers the clearest example of Gotham’s inconsistent nature. “I think what it enforces to me is that Gotham is not real,” Brooker says. “It’s an imaginary geography.” But even Nolan would slightly challenge that assertion. When Bane circles specific subway stations to explode, Nolan shows glimpses of an official Gotham map—the city is separated by two rivers and surrounded by large bodies of water—initially established in 1999 by Eliot R. Brown. In that imagining, the government abandons Gotham after an earthquake, allowing criminals to thrive in its isolated aftermath. It’s no surprise then that The Dark Knight Rises considers the effects of a Gotham without access to the outside world, pushing Manhattan’s island status to the foreground as Bane destroys the city’s numerous exit points.

Several years after Nolan’s trilogy, Zack Snyder took his own crack at Gotham, briefly using Detroit to portray dreary housing complexes, industrial landscapes, and dark high-rises in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Not typically used in major Hollywood productions, Detroit turned Batman’s hometown into a Midwestern, manufacturing relic stuck in an undefined past. “It has some ruins, it’s a nitty-gritty city,” art director Troy Sizemore recalls of shooting in Detroit. “We filmed in the old main train station, and it was dangerous there, but we did it because it was a great look.”

The decision to film in another Rust Belt city proved Gotham as a continuously flexible concept, while also reinforcing Detroit’s storied history and deeply-rooted American mythos. “It’s got to have certain bones that make it believable as Gotham,” McAllister says. “Whatever fits within that feeling works.”

The Batman (2022)
Warner Bros.

In the opening sequence of Batman, sirens ricochet off monolithic storefronts and crowds of houseless Gothamites loiter in front of a bustling theater. Within the chaotic sprawl, an elegantly-dressed couple steals a taxi from a husband, wife, and son, forcing the family of three to cut through smoke-ridden back alleys filled with sex workers and drug addicts. It’s not long before a mugger pulls out his gun and steals the father’s wallet with the help of a partner. As the two thieves count their loot from a nearby rooftop, Batman quietly descends from the shadows and throws them to the ground to identify himself.

Within the span of a few minutes, Burton captures the essence of Gotham and its fearless protector. Mimicking Bruce Wayne’s own childhood trauma, the scene paints an atmosphere of desperation, highlights the indignities of the city’s extreme wealth gap, and portrays a criminal underbelly that only a violent, symbolic figure could ever aim to correct. “The defining characteristic of Gotham must be that there is always crime,” Brooker has previously stated. “Because Batman is, on one key level, the man who fights crime.” And throughout Gotham’s 80 years of existence, that characteristic has tied each cinematic and television depiction together.

Yet, much like Gotham’s architecture and geography, the portrayals of crime and justice have repeatedly been renovated based on their current social and political climates. In both of Burton’s movies, Gotham’s toxic urban environment (especially when the Joker spreads a noxious gas through the city) reflects a Reagan era fear of street crime in major cities, fostering a distrust of political and judicial institutions. And though more cartoonish, Schumacher’s outsized and flamboyant villainy echoed the decade’s mass consumerism and the growth of gay culture in the mainstream.

This cartoonish criminality changed once Nolan grounded Gotham City in a post-9/11 climate. Throughout Batman Begins, Bruce suits up to take on the “League of Shadows,” a large terrorist organization trying to spread fear throughout the city. Though he vanquishes their threat, Batman’s masked presence suggests the incitement of even crazier criminals in Gotham. “We start using semi-automatic, they buy automatic,” warns Detective Gordon. “We start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor-piercing rounds.” In The Dark Knight, Batman uses a specialized sonar device that taps into Gothamites’ phones, breaching citizens’ personal liberties and prompting Patriot Act paranoia in pursuit of the Joker. “What if Batman is punishing Gotham? What if he’s not saving it?” Brooker asks. “What if he’s beating up on it every night?”

These aren’t illogical questions, especially considering Bruce’s unresolved vengeance for the night that changed his life. As Brooker notes in his book Batman Unmasked, “if the Batman is removed from his crusade against urban crime, many of his key characteristics are placed in question: his costume, origin, and motivation all stem from a mugging in Gotham City and the vow against the symbolic figure who murdered his parents.” In essence, Batman’s “broken window” policing, which keeps Arkham Asylum full and Gotham’s prison industry thriving, offers only a temporary fix. The need for future nightly campaigns never dies.

That continues to be the case in the franchise’s latest installment, The Batman, which envisions Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) as a cathedral tower recluse who commits entirely to his alter-ego’s crime-fighting mission to atone for Gotham’s sins. Calling himself “Vengeance” over the course of Reeves’s rain-soaked, noir-lit mystery, Batman slowly discovers the lies and corruption that have been crippling the city—thanks in part to a series of murders committed by a dark-web, social-media-savvy Riddler. Solving crime in this pitch-black Gotham is a different game: Now, Batman uses video-enabled contact lenses and relies on real-time face recognition technology.

As a way to build out contemporary villainy in an older, rotting city, Reeves aimed to “create a version of [Gotham] that you haven’t seen before.” Teaming with production designer James Chinlund, the pair concocted a backstory for the city to explain how the textured, gothic infrastructure coexists with its more modern elements. “We were playing with Gotham as having this prewar boom time, looking at a lot of architecture from movie palaces where we could play with ornaments and shapes in different ways,” Chinlund says. “It created this idea that the city has fallen on hard times and had various booms and busts along the way, with a lot of unfinished skyscrapers and partially complete construction projects.”

Leaning extensively on the grounded streets and town squares of Liverpool and Glasgow and the geography and landmarks of New York City, Reeves and his team digitally composited elevated train lines and sleek high-rises, piecing together a unique metropolitan island of slight resemblances and iconic familiarities. “As a designer, a lot of it was pushed toward, ‘How do we create a skyline that feels like a real American city, but still gives you these haunting shapes?’” says Chinlund, who integrated some of Furst’s original designs into his vision. “My challenge was to create blends that worked.”

Perhaps most importantly, The Batman gives a more holistic vision of Gotham—there are scenes in apartments, night clubs, train stations, city halls, and sports arenas—that suggests its citizens are not all binary perpetrators or victims of crime. It’s a welcome change of pace from previous depictions of Gotham as a strictly hierarchical, high-and-low caste society relying solely on Bruce Wayne’s upper-crust political connections and unseemly wealth—and then on Batman to clean up its streets. “The citizens we see are the only ones that matter to Batman—the people that attend society functions and the people he saves on the street,” Brooker says of the previous movies. “I don’t get a great sense of who Gothamites are and why they would want to live there.”

The Batman at least tries to answer those questions, proving there is still fertile city ground to keep tweaking, expanding, and exploring. As Ling suggests, building a nocturnal landscape “gives you a lot more latitude [because] a city can transform itself into many different things,” but the goal for any Batman artist and designer is to fit those new pieces into the same puzzle—to try different ideas without losing Gotham’s fundamental identity. “As production designers, it’s the most exciting challenge you could possibly be presented with, to create your own take on such a loved city,” Chinlund says. “At the end of the day, they all combine to create this universal Gotham.”

Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com, and The New York Times.

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