In Pursuit of the Batmobile

Look at that, the Batmobile. A brand new Batmobile. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but then it’s been through a lot…

It’s a month until a new Gotham City is unleashed on the big screen, from the gargoyles and grapple points lining the rooftops to Croc footprints in the sewers. And in between rising steam winding in the wake of the  Bat’s new vehicle of the night . I had a good look at the new Batmobile last week when it randomly and thankfully materialised in Leicester Square. Up close, it’s deceptively wonderful. A mix of bold design and rugged style, with tapering fins and exposed cogs that puts it firmly and proudly in the best tradition of Batmobiles. A worthy addition to a cultural landmark that’s an icon in its own right.

Wheels of time

It’d be great to say you can tell a good era from its Batmobile, but you can’t. In the mid-1960s television series it was a converted 1955 Lincoln Futura concept, making a statement with a length of 226 inches. When Batman’s film career seemed to be irreparably ruined by Batman and Robin in 1997, poor George Clooney wasn’t only unable to turn his neck in his nipple enhanced bat suit, but drove a garish beast of a Batmobile that mutated its 60’s cousin’s colour and styling. Like that Batmobile’s predecessor, of course destroyed by the Riddler during Batman Forever before it was allowed to burn too much tarmac, it was a perpetuation of the Batman of excess. The most fascinating thing about the extraordinarily impractical skeletal design of the Batman Forever Batmobile was the illuminated hubcaps, engineered to keep the bat symbol static in motion. Imposing yes, but the idea that the Batmobile should be an unwieldy beast is a misinterpretation. In 1995 its length had risen to 300 inches, by 1997 it had stretched to a staggering 396 inches, despite dropping its cockpit down to a one-seater. That’s a good five and a bit Batmen. And as if to prove the uselessness of a yacht sailing around the dark streets of a gothic mash of New York and Chicago, the size of those vehicles on the neon-drenched streets of Joel Schumacher’s vision, never let them show off any degree of speed. No wonder hoods and goons could often track the Batmobile down. These beasts just shot slow.

Entering the 21st century, Christopher Nolan’s rugged Tumbler was the product of a hard time, belligerently tough in a solid Gotham that maximised realism in a post-9/11 world. There was little overt style in Nolan’s trilogy, even The Dark Knight which remains one of the best assembled films Hollywood’s every produced, as it was kept innate to the story, rather than through showy bat suits and vehicles as obligatory in previous Bat films. Everything in The Dark Knight trilogy was a clinical piece of a larger puzzle, and that included the Tumbler. Come the conclusion of that Tumbler trilogy, villains wouldn’t destroy this Batmobile but turn it against both city and defender. Loads of them. Coming in at a compact 182 inches in length, that Tumbler was at least the easiest Batmobile design to tessellate . Well, beyond the standard Alfred chuffeured Cadillac of the 1940s Batman film serials.

Furst Place

Nolan’s Tumbler may have arrested the growth of bat fleet, but the car that kicked off the mobile-inflation remains the peak-mobile. In what remains one of Batman’s finest hours, the cusp of the ’80s and ’90s pulled the fledgling Caped Crusader through a prism of an art deco mash that recalled the decade of Batman’s origin as much as the unravelling ideas of Tim Burton’s mind and the distorted American Dream that Gotham City should be. And through those sozzled, studio streets a one-of-a-kind Batmobile tore. It really did. Production designer Anton Furst’s design remains unbeaten, with its sleek, pneumatic fender curves, stop-motion locking shield and ridiculously brilliant if inexplicable giant pacifier on the hood (actually a turbine and not a gigantic missile). That distinctive feature was wonderfully more mysterious than any Batmobile figurehood since. It was edging toward the unwieldly at an awkward 260.7 inches, but from the mini-bat fins forward it didn’t matter. It may take the blame for the behemoths that followed, but it set a bar for low slung jet sculpture that none of its successors could match. Even when it was crawling, it really moved, and was a joy to observe at in the employ of one of the strangely homicidal Dark Knights. There was always going to be another use for that turbo.

After the 1989 film, a film I was too young to even notice, I stumbled across a poster magazine focusing on Furst’s Batmobile that hung on my wall until it tore to tatters. By happenstance, a few years ago I found a mint duplicate that’s now framed on my wall for un-tearable posterity. An iconic shot from the film, that isn’t actually one at all: The hero, the damsel in distress, the escape and the carriage resplendent in the foreground. That’s Batman. The romance of Batman. And that’s the Batmobile.

Anton Furst’s Batmobile from 1989’s Batman as worshipped in the folds of The Batman Poster Magazine No.1

But Furst’s definitive design would always be one of many and continuous iterations. That evolution, never so much reflecting their time as keeping an artistic eye on the past, have become as much part of the original comic run as breakouts from Arkham and low clouds primed to reflectlt bat signals.

In adaptation, while 1989 found an early Batman getting slick first try, there was every chance that the 2000’s Tumbler of Batman Begins was the blunt start of a process from a rookie Batman that would lead to the sleek stylings and elongated missiles of previous films… Until The Dark Knight Rises concluded the trilogy as a truncated interpretation of the whole myth. 

Fortunately, you can’t keep a good Batmobile garaged.

This year, Batman v SupermanDawn of Justice brings a ragged, older Batman to the screen, for the first time well into his career, having already long suffered the slings and arrows of Gotham City and now forced to look outside to the wider DC universe. His Batmobile may well sit at the end of a long line of iterations itself, but stands the chance of a reappearance, previously reserved for the early-day introductions of the Tumbler and Furst creation. It’s a great creation in it’s own right, a clear directive for a film intent on fusing hard-hitting stylism with the realism that Nolan’s trilogy made it hard to ignore. What’s amazing in a vehicle that’s been poorly showcased in marketing material so far, is how clearly it draws on the rugged might of the Tumbler while nodding to the flow of Furst’s iconic achievement.

Leaving Leicester Square it was almost inevitable I’d stumble into a parked mass 1940s vehicles, in which the likes of Alfred might have chauffeured Bruce Wayne seven decades before. Of course I did. And behind them, in the well of Trafalgar Square, union flags were waving excitedly under Nelson’s Column in a film set reconstruction of what must have been V.E. Day. It turned out this was a scene from the forthcoming Wonder Woman film, following her unchronological introduction in Batman v Superman. I somehow managed to avoid walking into her invisible plane, unless I’m still concussed.

Even in London, especially in Hertfordshire where the first Justice League film is about to start lensing, the extended DC universe is growing quickly and something about this Batmobile tells me it was built to last. That is, as long as those giant fists of Krypton give it a break.

Gallery: The Batmobile 2016 up close and laser-guided personal…


The Batmobile, Leicester Square, London, 21 February 2016. Shot on with Galaxy S6 and Canon IXUS

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