Production designers for 2008’s two biggest comicbook adaptations ranged far afield from the comics to gain inspiration for their differing visions of the battle against evil.
Nathan Crowley (“The Dark Knight”) and J. Michael Riva (“Iron Man”) studied different cinematic models and real-life architectural styles in an effort to tie their films’ looks to their billionaire heroes: Bruce Wayne the tortured outsider and Tony Stark the determined outsider.
Says Crowley, who was also art director on the earlier “Batman Begins,” collaborating with helmer Christopher Nolan on both films: “It became clear that with our Joker character’s chaos and anarchism we could delve deeper into realism, and try to make the city feel really familiar for the audience — creating boundaries for Batman in the modern world.”
“Knight” sees idealistic D.A. Harvey Dent cleaning up Gotham City and making civic offices work again. Meanwhile, with Wayne Manor and the Batcave out of commission, Wayne needs somewhere to hole up and reassess his life’s purpose.
Knowing that “there’s such great ’60s and ’70s modernism in Chicago,” Crowley wondered what it would be like “if all the government facilities were in that period. Wouldn’t that give us a colder, sharper feel? Instead of sweeping Gothic halls, we wanted something raw: big, hard-hitting spaces. If we put (Wayne) into a big, powerful building and used modernism, how lonely would that feel?
“We realized that if he lived downtown we could play up the coldness of an unhappy man — a reluctant hero. It was very intentional to stick with clean lines and squares, empty spaces, blank walls and big, low ceilings” — a sense of order the villains go out of their way to disrupt.
Official Gotham’s big spaces coexist with narrower ones underground. The Joker first appears in a cramped institutional kitchen. “The film starts with the claustrophobia of the Joker — the way he stands under the low ceilings, hunched, all repression, about to explode,” Crowley says.
The pivotal confrontation with Batman — “where the chaos really takes over” — occurs in another small, white box with plain walls, the police interrogation room.
“You’ve got a messed-up Joker, with blood and makeup, purple and green, against a stark white wall — that’s very powerful,” Crowley continues. “My big epiphany was to try to bring this huge simplicity into it.”
By contrast, there’s a messiness at the heart of “Iron Man” that revels in its comicbook origins as much as “The Dark Knight” tries to transcend them.
“There’s a lyricism to the ’50s vernacular of science fiction — wonderful modern-age stuff that informs our movie,” says Riva, who shared the vision of helmer Jon Favreau. “The innovation of the designs lean toward it, as opposed to a totally unemotional, modern-invention-driven world that seems to be all the rage now. We tried to give Tony some of that ’50s grease-monkey feel: How do you take apart a car and put it back together so it works?”
That ease extended to the design geometry as well. You can count the number of curved lines in “The Dark Knight” on the fingers of one hand, but “Iron Man” is all curves: the sweeping garage out of which Tony Stark flies; the arc reactor power supply; his beachfront home, which looks like a giant breast when seen from above.
This included Stark’s armored suit. “When I first came onboard, it looked stealthy, hard and angular,” Riva says. He began nudging the suit designers toward a more natural style. “Elegance is paramount,” he believes, especially for an urbane and essentially human hero.
“He has the tension of opposites in him. When we first meet him, he’s a total asshole. But I loved the opportunity to suggest in the design that his innate talent tends toward elegance and compassion. His design is his touchstone — he takes it for granted, he’s flippant about it, but it defines who he is.”
That tension is carried out in the pic’s broader line: the contrast between Stark’s elegant, easy Los Angeles and the gritty reality of Afghanistan.
Says Riva, “In this picture, in every picture, it’s not about architecture or design; it’s about the story — using that design to help create a visual narrative.”