'Batman': The American superhero built in Britain
As the moonlight cuts through the tombstones, a cloaked Batman throttles his charcoal grey motorbike through a Gotham City graveyard. However, this is not some dystopic east coast city in need of a Caped Crusader.
This is the Glasgow Necropolis — a sprawling Victorian cemetery now serving as a location for Warner Bros’ latest Dark Knight movie The Batman. It is February 2020.
Robert Pattinson is the new Bruce Wayne, and a pandemic is about to riddle the Dark Knight a whole catalogue of production adventures. Yet, if anywhere has traditionally been a Bat Cave, Robin, and Alfred the Butler, to Batman’s movie fortunes it is Britain.
As the world celebrates Batman Day on 17 September, we look back at how Britain became twinned with Gotham over the years.
Back in the summer of 1988, production began on Tim Burton’s Batman (1989).
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Opting for Pinewood Studios over Warner Bros’ Burbank lot in California, production designer Anton Furst and set decorator Peter Young set about transforming the old Supergirl Midvale set in a studio that desperately needed the Bat cash.
Rightly keeping the DC vibes, Midvale’s asphalt roads became Gotham’s main streets, with a gargantuan city set mounted alongside and within the mighty 007 Stage. All of which holds its own holy irony, Batman. 007 producer Michael G. Wilson and the House of Bond own the 007 Stage.
It was Wilson’s father Lewis who was the first onscreen Caped Crusader in Columbia Picture’s 1943 serial, The Batman. Cut to the fall of 1988 and Michael Keaton’s sprawling Batcave set is built within the 007 Stage.
Already used onscreen for 1981’s For Your Eyes Only and in 1987’s Empire of the Sun — starring future Dark Knight Christian Bale — designer Furst proved he had form for transforming British locations into movie hell holes by also converting London’s Beckton Gas Works into Vietnam for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987).
Another such Furst moment was using another disused power station in Acton, west London, as the Axis Chemicals HQ.
And great use was made of Knebworth House and Hatfield House for Michael Keaton’s baroque Wayne Manor.
After Warner Bros’ successful Superman the Movie (1978) and its 1980s DC movie siblings Superman II (1980), Superman III (1983) and Supergirl (1984) were lensed at Pinewood and the British Home Counties, it made sense 1989’s Batman continued the production tradition.
It also allowed a vast cast of British artists to be artistic Commissioner Gordons to Batman’s burgeoning movie fortunes.
Miniatures and visual effects maestro Derek Meddings (Thunderbirds, The Spy Who Loved Me) was tasked with creating models of Gotham and oversaw the smaller scale Batwing and Batmobile reproductions. British conceptual designer Julian Caldow designed the Batmobile proper. And a large entourage of British stuntmen, art directors, second unit managers, set dressers were all involved.
It was notoriously a tough shoot, but Batman ‘89 came at a good time for Pinewood. It financially helped end a 1980s that had seen many announcements about the death of the studios.
Read more: Looking back at the making of Batman Returns
Sadly — and with Pinewood’s Gotham sets long mothballed just in case — the subsequent Batman Returns (1992) opted to shoot in Hollywood instead, with the end results that look deliciously Burtonian but which loses that exterior grandeur and rustbelt art-deco that Pinewood and Anton Furst gifted Batman.
The subsequent day-glo Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997) also replaced Burbank for Buckinghamshire. It seemed Bruce Wayne’s British sabbaticals were over.
However, eight years later a British director was finally given both the cape and a new movie crusade: to bring back the Bat.
Christopher Nolan (Oppenheimer, Tenet) had long admired the British production sheen, skills and history of Superman the Movie, Batman, and the Bond films. Using Pinewood’s H Stage, but predominantly the sister lot Shepperton, his first Batman Begins (2005), Nolan shot his Dark Knight trilogy — in part — throughout Britain.
Read more: Why Michael Keaton quit Batman
Alongside Batman ‘89’s Hatfield House and Knebworth House, the 19th Century Mentmore Towers down the road in Buckinghamshire became the new Wayne mansion. London’s Garrick Theatre, Senate House, St. Pancras International Train Station, Canada Place and ExCel Centre all played various location roles, as did Essex’s Tilbury Docks.
With a predominantly British main cast — the first for any Batman movie — Batman Begins also employed the best of the next generation of creative wizards and artists. Legendary visual effects supervisor Chris Corbould (No Time to Die, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) headed up the special effects for what became Nolan’s Bat trilogy. He would later win the the Academy Award for Visual Effects on Nolan’s Inception (2012).
In the UK’s Bedford, the colossal Cardington Hangers were adapted into more studio space for Begins. Crucial to the history of British airship, meteorological and barrage balloon history, the Cardington site already had a little movie history of its own already. Shed’s 1 and 2 had once housed the Yavin base sets for George Lucas and his Star Wars (1977) shoot.
Watch a teaser for The Batman
Nolan continued his Cardington residency with The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). In the Oscar-winning sequel, Chicago may have provided various Gotham city backdrops, Wayne Enterprise buildings and courtrooms.
But, once again Batman’s location sidekicks and good luck charm were the London based Battersea Power Station, the Criterion Theatre and Pinewood’s S Stage. When The Dark Knight Rises cast Los Angeles, New York, and Pittsburgh as the location tapestry for Gotham, director Nolan once again ensured his own home turf was also called into action.
With as many Wayne Manors now as cinema has seen Bruce Waynes, Rises opts for Nottingham’s Wollaton Hall for its baronial bat base.
By the time of the next Batman Vs. Superman – Dawn of Justice (2016) and a US-centric production that returned Batman to American soil, Bruce’s ancestral home is now Derbyshire’s brilliantly roofless Sutton Scarsdale Hall.
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One DC movie rehaul later and Justice League (2017) — with Ben Affleck as Batman — embraced Britain all over again with Warner Bros’ Leavesden Studios housing the epic ensemble actioner. Cardington Studios Bat-danced to the task once more, and Hertfordshire provided the Kent family farm on Bovingdon Airfield.
It is an ironic curio how the very comic strip hero that is Batman was very much the same World War Two era creation as these British airfields, RAF hangers, and aviation factories that were later converted into movie production hubs.
And like a Batwing going full circle across a Gotham moon, the franchise has now really gone bat to British basics, with a Brit once again donning the iconic cowl and cape.
Not only is the production core of Robert Pattinson’s first spin of the cape predominantly British-led, Matt Reeves The Batman (2022) now casts Liverpool with St George’s Hall, the Liver Building, Anfield Cemetery, and the Walker Art Gallery all adding some Gothic granite shade.
2021’s Batman Day saw the City Chambers lit up by the Bat signal – as did those Bat-linked locations of Liverpool and London.
Hot on the heels of Indiana Jones V, Glasgow has also now become a great DC Films production sandbox. So much so that Britain’s new ‘McGotham’ is already assisting the Bruce Wayne multiverse by housing not only The Flash (2022), but also HBO Max’s Batgirl (2022).
Big sums of production cash and local grants have gone into the Glasgow economy – with a rumour that Hartswood’s rather gothic former psychiatric hospital is the now unused Wayne Manor in The Batman.
Whilst the black-out screens, road closures and loud night shoots for the city have met with local comment and typical Glaswegian wit, Scotland’s second city has embraced its new adopted comic-strip pals.
Under the working title ‘Cherry Hill’ Batgirl has set up home in Glasgow with one actor causing great fan interest. Returning to the role in both The Flash and Batgirl, Glasgow’s new Bruce Wayne is none other than Michael Keaton.
Keaton's return to service also saw his former Wayne Manor brought out of mothballs, with a film crew for The Flash spotted filming at Knebworth House in May, 2021.
To paraphrase Prince and his top Batman ’89 soundtrack, stop the press: I have seen the future of Batman and it is definitely British.
The Batman is available to watch at home on VOD.
Batman (1989), Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, and Zack Snyder's Justice League are available to stream on NOW with a Sky Cinema Membership.
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