“Of what use is a dream, if not a blueprint for courageous action?”
-Adam West, Batman: the Movie
Today I woke up to a typical Saturday morning of coffee without sugar and chasing my toddler around the house, blissfully unaware that an icon was gone. I was not confronted with the sad news until I checked my Twitter account: Adam West had passed away at the age of 88. Mr. West will be fondly remembered for his role as Batman, perhaps most warmly remembered of all the men who have played the role.
To clarify my own history with West’s rendition of Batman, I was born in the mid-80’s so I missed the Bat-craze of the 60’s. I saw snippets of the show as a child but by then it was too antiquated to really catch my eye. It wasn’t until I revisited the series with any semblance of seriousness as an adult, after having endeared myself to Batman via the animated series of the 90’s and Batman ’89, that Adam West’s self-described “Bright Knight” hit home with me. A wealth of history opened up to me. This is a forever isolated portrayal of Batman and entirely distinct from the brooding, hulking, ultra-violent versions of the character we’ve come to know in modernity.
Yet looking back from the vantage point of the 21st century, I can appreciate West’s Batman. There’s more to the impact of this Batman than the odd “Pow! Zap! Bang!” that’s become a cheesy referential mainstay. West’s contributions to the character through the Batman TV show of the 1960’s, and the subsequent legendary personality he achieved despite never having landed another part as big again, ensured that his Batman became foundational for our current interpretations of the Dark Knight. How so?
Consider how influential 60’s Batman was, a virtuous, innocent, hilarious, lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek take on the character that impacted a generation. It’s been said that 1960’s pop culture could be defined by the three B’s: James Bond, the Beatles, and Batman. But the backlash against the campiness of 60’s Batman has helped define him since.
Would we even have had the dramatic course correction in the character’s film history had we never experienced the chemical-colored “Kapow!” of 60’s Batman? Would Tim Burton’s Batman ’89 have felt so fresh and edgy at the time without the brightness of 60’s Batman to contrast against? Would Schumacher’s neon-tinted Batman movies have been so off-putting if they hadn’t felt like a return to 60’s camp? Would DC’s crown jewel character have continued to evolve toward seriousness, realism, and gritty darkness in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy without 60’s Batman in the back of everyone’s minds saying “never again”? Would we even be talking about whether Affleck’s tortured Batman in BvS went too far, crossed a line and was too violent if there was no 60’s Batman to remind us how far we’ve gone?
The rampant cynicism of today gave us these versions of Batman but Adam West led a lighthearted series that grins with its audiences, a series which is still remarkably funny in its own way. West’s Batman was a deputized agent of the law, not a vigilante. West’s Batman believed in the police force, never fighting against corruption within their ranks. West’s Batman championed abstaining from alcohol, wearing seat belts, and finishing your homework, not sleeping with supermodels and knocking out on liquor and sleeping pills. West’s Batman believed in a better world where leaders could come together and make peace, not a world where the war against crime would be endless. You could hardly believe that West’s Batman was once a tormented boy who lost his parents!
Perhaps it could be argued that Batman’s history in film would’ve played out somewhat the same thanks to the direction the character was heading in the comics since the end of the Silver Age, but it can never be denied that West’s Batman represents an entire era. Love it or hate it, 60’s Batman camp is as much a part of the interpretive progress of the Dark Knight as anything else in his history. You don’t have to enjoy it, but it deserves your respect for its influence if you’re a Batman fan. It’s significance cannot be overstated as the first appearance of the Caped Crusader on the silver screen (not counting serials).
So in light of Adam West’s passing, we’re hopping in a time machine and headed back to the dance-party, fun-loving, crazy 60’s for a look at Batman: the Movie, or as I like to call it: Batman ’66.
“I have the curse of thinking funny! And so with each script and new situation, I saw something funny in it. But I could never let the audience think that I thought it was funny.”
Coming on the heels of the overwhelming success of the TV series, the movie debuted shortly after the end of Batman’s first season. The first guarantee of its consistency with the TV show was bringing in series writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. as the writer of the film. The premise was bringing together the four main villains of the series to make a bigger story than ever. The movie was also directed by Leslie H. Martinson, who directed two episodes from season one. Translating the series to the big screen with this production team was only half of the victory, though. The entire cast (minus one) returned to reprise their roles for the movie.
West of course came through as the Caped Crusader. Nobody else could have nailed this role. West’s unusual rhythm of speech and whispery-pensive delivery made his Batman entirely unique. The blu-ray contains behind the scenes test footage of another actor (Lyle Waggoner) playing the part and there’s just something missing. West was able to say his ridiculous dialogue with such earnestness, wistfulness, and believability that it makes his Batman all the funnier. Though Batman never joked, he comes across as if he’s self-aware that he’s playing a part in a silly movie. When he says things like “It was noble of that animal to hurl himself into the path of that final torpedo. He gave his life for ours”, it’s like West is winking at you without actually winking. Endearingly, he made you feel like you were in on the joke.
And the movie is funny, but in a unique way. It’s not slapstick or stand up. It’s certainly not black humor. While the heroes are all playing puns like some straight-faced police series, the villains are pouring their energy into their roles and maniacal laughter, and the writing just keeps laying it on thick, amazing alliteration after alliteration.
“I think our Batman had to be fun, light-hearted, funny, tongue-in-cheek … and I think that made kind of an homage to those earlier comic books, where Batman always had a quip or something. Now if I were doing it today, I’d make changes, but I wouldn’t make it as violent, as loud, as noisy, with the explosives going on and on … the crashes … as what they’re doing now to try and titillate a younger, teenage audience. I wouldn’t do that. I’d just make the relationships more important.”
Is it the best Batman movie ever? Not by a long shot. I’d say it’s better than Schumacher’s Batman and Robin, so it doesn’t take the prize as the worst Bat-film there is. Comparing the two, for example, Batman ’66 is like a cartoon full of actors being serious whereas Batman and Robin is a bunch of actors pretending they’re in a cartoon. The difference is palpable and it’s part of what made the self-satire of Batman ’66 lovable rather than eye-rolling, as in the case of Batman and Robin, the film that killed the Bat-film franchise for eight years.
These are the top five funniest moments in Batman ’66, in my opinion.
- Solving the riddles
“What does a turkey do when he flies upside down?” Well of course the answer is “He gobbles up!” “What has yellow skin and writes?” “A ballpoint banana!” Obviously. The leaps of intuition that Robin the boy wonder makes solving these schoolkid riddles are one of the best parts of the movie.
- The domino masks
There’s a scene where Robin and Alfred are tailing Bruce Wayne for reconnaissance and for some reason, Alfred is wearing a domino mask. Later, the villains capture Mr. Wayne during a steamy scene with Ms. Kitka and when they jump through the window they’re all wearing masks too… Why?! As if anyone could mistake the Joker’s white makeup painted right over his mustache.
- Punching the shark
I can’t watch this movie without laughing and the titters and guffaws start right away in one of the earliest scenes with Batman dangling from a ladder over the ocean, punching a rubber shark fastened to his leg. When he calls for Robin to bring him the “shark repellent bat-spray”, as if his life depended on it, you know that you’ve never seen another Batman like this.
- “Some days you just can’t rid of a bomb!”
What film would be brave enough to waste this much time? Batman runs across the docks, smoking bomb held above his head, looking for a safe space to toss it before it blows up. Only problem is there are nuns and baby carriages, ducklings and that one marching band everywhere he turns. That’s when he delivers the best line in the movie.
- West’s straight-faced and bizarre line deliveries
Kind of like Christopher Walken, Adam West had this almost sing-songy pace to his speech. On occasion, he punctuated every word. Like I mentioned before, he was uniquely made for this role.
Batman ’66 is best watched with a group of friends in a good mood. It makes good moods gooder. It’s paced slowly enough to talk over, it isn’t ashamed in becoming the butt of any joke, it’s got that cool 1960’s Batmobile, and it’s as hilarious as “a sparrow with a machine gun”.
The 8-bit Review
This score is judging the film primarily in the context of its own decade, as it’s clearly lackluster and ancient compared to the special effects we regularly see in film today. I wonder what it must have been like to live in the era of the dawn of color television. Batman ’66 was marketed on the inclusion of color. For many, seeing the film in the theater meant seeing the Dynamic Duo’s adventures in color for the first time. In retrospect, I can’t imagine how anyone could appreciate the film or the series in black and white. The movie relies on explosive colors vividly dancing and streaking across the screen.
Another unique trait of the movie, and one which I tried to uncover if the film had pioneered or not, is the skewed camera angle that the cinematographer employed. During the movie, there are plenty of scenes where the camera is looking straight at the set and characters. In other scenes, most notably with the villains, the camera is tilted on its side, skewing the whole picture, making the moviegoer feel strange or uneasy while at the same time evoking dramatic panels of art ripped straight from the comic books.
Yeah the special effects don’t hold up to modern standards but that’s not the point. Stylish pop art and primary colors ooze from this movie and the action words leaping off the screen when Batman throws a punch, “Kapow!”, are just icing on the sugary, sugary cake.
Very few things have permeated our culture as much as the “Batman theme song” from the TV series. Does anyone not know this song? If you start singing nana-nana-nana-nana, what are the odds that someone will immediately respond by shouting “Batman!” The theme song doesn’t feature hugely into the movie but you can tell that the jazzy soundtrack is influenced by it.
After the Dynamic Duo discover a missing yacht, they and the police come to the conclusion that a plan of such magnitude is unfolding that can only be attributed to four villains: the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin, and the Catwoman. These criminals of the United Underworld have captured Commodore Schmidlapp and they wield a variety of bizarre gadgets (an exploding octopus, a penguin submarine, a dehydration gun, etc.) to terrorize and take down Batman and Robin for good.
After some hijinks that feels suspiciously episodic, the Dynamic Duo uncover their foes’ master plan to dehydrate the United World Organization’s Security Council members and take over the world. Only by keeping their wits about them do Batman and Robin defeat the villains and restore the council members, though each of the world leaders now speaks a non-native language. Batman hopes that this will somehow help to bring a new understanding of one another to the world, and thus the day is saved and hope prevails.
It’s a silly story that makes for some passive entertainment, though it’s somewhat boring now and then. In a lot of ways, moments from the film parody comic book clichés of the time before it. The Dynamic Duo are often saved through sheer luck. The film doesn’t shy from Deus ex machinas. Everything from a dolphin saving their lives to crash landing on a foam rubber sale yard occurs without a second glance. While these and other tropes like the cackling, plotting villains fondly represent a bygone era in comics, the film can’t stand on that alone. The story is perhaps the weakest part of the movie but this can be forgiven considering the nature of the TV show and the fact that it never aimed to be some self-serious drama or crime thriller or romance. It pokes fun at those things. It’s one of the stupidest superhero movies out there and it seems like that’s exactly what it set out to be.
Batman ’66 puts the hope of the world in our leaders. Batman goes to great lengths to save the dehydrated council members, saying “there’s always hope”, by which he means for world peace. Though “world peace” feels today like a pipe dream, a child’s fantasy, the Bright Knight was one to tout it like his life’s work. This is a very black and white Batman. When he discovers that Ms. Kitka is actually the devious Catwoman, he realizes they cannot be together romantically. His world is too law and order, good vs evil.
This depiction of the character has faded over time as the grays of postmodern relativism ate away at the Dark Knight’s unswaying sense of traditional virtue. And that’s why we have superheroes today that can act very much like pseudo-villains. We call them “flawed heroes”, “anti-heroes”. There’s no difference in merit between 60’s Batman and 2010’s Batman so far as storytelling is concerned but it is clear that the world seems to crave darker heroes these days. It has been said that superheroes reflect the times. They always have, through the war era, through the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, on into the cynical 21st century, into deconstructionism, into subjectivism. This is the same character, but West’s Batman is dramatically different from Keaton’s, Bale’s, and Affleck’s. Of them all, West’s exemplified goodness in a way none of the others have.
All of the silliness and camp aside, it’s no wonder that so many said of Adam West “You were MY Batman.”
Family Friendliness: 8/10
This is easily the most kid-friendly live action version of Batman, given the statements above concerning goodness and virtue. It’s certainly the least dark and least frightening take on the character. Future Batmen were hardly role-models in comparison to West’s Caped Crusader. Brush your teeth. Eat your vegetables. Support your local law enforcement. Man, those were simpler times. I feel like I have nostalgia for Batman ’66 and I was born 20 years later!
As I mentioned, the entire main cast from the show featured in the film with the only exception being Julie Newmar who was replaced by Lee Meriwether as Catwoman.
Virtually everyone dials it up to eleven in this movie. Burt Ward as Robin is lovable and full of youthful energy. Stafford Repp is as big a buffoon as ever as Chief O’Hara and Neil Hamilton seems like he got lost and thought he was in a crime drama as Commissioner Gordon. The villainous Joker (Cesar Romero) and Riddler (Frank Gorshin) laugh so deliriously that it seems like you’re watching them explode on screen. Burgess Meredith is one of my favorite veteran actors and his raspy cackling as the Penguin is iconic.
Who cares if the Romero refused to shave his mustache for the Joker part? Seeing all these villains on screen at once, for the first and only time since, is a comic lover’s delight and I challenge you to find a movie where the actors put even more energy into roles that could easily have been dismissed by them as “for the kiddies”.
Yeah some of the characterizations are off compared to what we’d expect. There’s a scene where riddler can’t control his compulsions and launches a missile to give the Dynamic Duo a clue. Joker tries talking him out of giving the villains away and shouts for him to come back. When the Joker sounds like he’s yelling “Listen to reason!”, there’s something gone awry. This is again why the film probably feels like such a self-parodizing feature more than anything else and by its light one wonders why so many films take themselves so seriously today. Well, there’s no going back to camp.
There’s never been another Batman like Batman ’66, nor indeed can there ever be. Even the recent hilarity of The Lego Batman Movie was a funny of another kind.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
Batman himself has proven to be one of the most enduring characters in American. Batman has been reinterpreted and reinterpreted dozens of times, and he will be a dozen more without fatigue.
I love Batman ’66 for its shameless silliness, the wit, the innocence of it all, the traditional family values. Though it’s far from the coolest version of Batman, this “pocket universe” featuring a Bright Knight instead of a Dark one is entertaining in its own way. Comic writer Mark Waid commented “…they managed to so beautifully wed the attitude of conservative, post-war America with a splash and a look and the visuals that were very hip and very now at the time.” And at the heart of all that was a man renown for his warmth.
The inherent childlike humor and optimism of Batman ’66 is what makes me miss Adam West the most. In an exchange between the Dynamic Duo, West’s Batman reminds us that human beings can be good and that virtue is a rewarder of those who practice it: the good guys always and should always win. That’s Batman ’66.
Robin: “Boy! That was our closest call ever! I have to admit that I was pretty scared!”
Batman: “I wasn’t scared in the least.”
Robin: “Not at all?”
Batman: “Haven’t you noticed how we always escape the vicious ensnarements of our enemies?”
Robin: “Yeah, because we’re smarter than they are!”
Batman: “I like to think it’s because our hearts are pure.”
Aggregated Score: 7.1