When Tim Burton’s Batman hit theaters 25 years ago, it was more than just a pivotal film in the superhero genre. It was a pivotal film in any genre — largely due to its phantasmagorical sets and vehicles.
The 1989 vision of Gotham City, the Batmobile and the Batwing all sprang from the dark, fertile imagination of the film’s Oscar-winning production designer Anton Furst.
Watch some of Furst’s earlier films and it’s easy to see how his and Burton’s aesthetics would play well with each other. For The Company of Wolves, Neil Jordan’s 1984 horrific take on the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, Furst created a world that merged storybook fantasy with gothic gloom. For Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, he created crumbling sets and morphed actual locations in the UK into a war-ravaged Vietnam.
In Batman, Furst’s vision would synthesize fantasy and realism into a dystopia crawling with life. Like the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, Batman’s Gotham City is a retro-futurist hellscape. Its look is influenced by Art Deco, Streamline Moderne and Brutalist architecture. Batman’s stalking grounds are layered with trash and caked-on soot, giving it the feel of NYC at its sleaziest and most decadent. The best of times and the worst of times. It’s as if Furst took a once-gleaming dieselpunk metropolis and smeared it into the sticky floor of Travis Bickle’s taxi.
Furst’s all-encompassing vision didn’t stop at the street level. The steel and concrete canyons of Gotham were a perfect setting for the Caped Crusader’s fleet of war machines.
Batman commanded the night skies in the Batwing, Furst’s flying machine-age terror. It was designed to look like the Batman logo when viewed from above or below, a stylistic choice that could have (and maybe should have) been laughably impractical. However, Furst managed to make it seem functional. More than that, he blended the craft’s wings, engines and fuselage into a menacing work of art. His effort paid off when the film served up one of the most memorable sight gags ever:
Similarly, Furst’s Batmobile would look absurd in a real-world setting. The phallic turbine jutting from the front and the towering tailfins suggest a biomechanical melding of Darth Vader and H.R. Giger’s xenomorph.
But the beast looks right at home prowling the streets of Gotham, and that illustrates why Furst’s designs have proven so ageless. They are a monumental mishmash of gleaming metal and grimy filth that exist in no discernible time period. Like Star Wars‘ far, far away galaxies, Furst’s environments are at once nostalgic and futuristic. His designs form a sinister yet beautiful organic whole.
Twenty-five years on, Furst’s work on Batman has proven to be his crowning achievement. Tragically, he’s not here to celebrate the quarter-century anniversary of his triumph. He took his own life on Nov. 24, 1991, at age 47. Friends and colleagues at the time remembered him as an inspirational and eccentric innovator.
It’s hard not to wonder what other worlds Furst carried within him that we’ll never have the privilege to see.