Twenty-seven years after Batman first appeared on the comic book page and seventeen years after he last appeared on the silver screen, 20th Century Fox released Batman to theaters. Of course, this wasn’t a new Batman on film, but rather a spin-off movie of the popular television series, the first season of which had aired between January and June of 1966. The loud colors, tongue-in-cheek humor, and satire made teenagers and young adults dig the show, while the same colors, action, and cool gadgets made younger viewers rediscover Batman.
The popularity of the TV series, which only lasted three seasons between January 1966 and June 1968, kept it in reruns and was my first live-action Batman in the late-1970s/early-1980s. The show aired nearly every day and like The Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves, in this time before cable television had taken a grasp on the world, it was common for these holdover shows to air a lot. To me, Adam West’s Batman and Burt Ward’s Robin were Batman and Robin for a great many years. When my father brought home Batman comic books, I couldn’t understand why Batman’s ears were so long and I couldn’t see his eyes. So I drew the eyes in. I remember playing with my Mego Pocket Superheroes Batman and Robin and mimicking the horns that played every time Batman or Robin punched someone in their brawls.
Batman: The Movie seemed to air on Sundays. Not every Sunday, but once or twice a year, usually on channel 56, out of Boston. It was cause célèbre. It had four of the best Batman villains, the Batmobile, Batboat, Batcycle, and Batcopter, and an exploding shark! And don’t even get me started on the bomb!
And I sometimes wonder why I didn’t have more friends when I was a little kid.
The cast is pretty good. Adam West and Burt Ward look like Batman and Robin and Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. Granted, West may have been able to work out a little for the role, but overall, his jaw is pretty Batmanish and he looks physically able to do some stuff. Burt Ward looked young enough to be, if not a boy, definitely a teenager. They also seem to really enjoy being these heroes. They relish the dialogue and silliness of it, but never give in to it. They play it absolutely straight.
Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, Lee Meriwether, and Frank Gorshin play the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, and the Riddler in a delightfully frantic way. They seem to understand what the show was about and seem to enjoy their roles, chewing up the scenery as they go. Romero as the Joker, even though he wouldn’t shave his mustache, is perfect. He represents the Joker’s lighter days from the 1950s and into the 1960s, when the Comics Code Authority were at their height. Meredith as the Penguin is phenomenal. He is the leader of the group of villains and is somehow simultaneously mean and hilarious. As the Penguin, there’s a gleam in his eye and you both fear and love him. Lee Meriwether stands in for Julie Newmar, who had prior obligations and couldn’t reprise her television role for the movie. Meriwether is excellent as Catwoman. She slinks across the screen, playing verbal ping-pong with Adam West. The Catwoman is pretending to be a Russian reporter and Bruce Wayne definitely has a thing for her. It’s great.
I actually want to single out Frank Gorshin as The Riddler. He’s the best of the villains in this movie, though he’s not given as much to do as The Penguin or Catwoman. He’s off-the-wall one moment and then very dark, even scary, the next, only to return to his hyperactive ways. Of all the villains, Gorshin makes the Riddler seem the scariest. His face can go from dead serious one moment, to insane laughter and glee. Perfection.
In terms of capturing what the TV show was about, the movie succeeds quite well. Shot at the very end of the first season, and released during the summer between the first and second seasons, it is an epic story that could easily have been several episodes, but uses the big screen to open things up. There are shots of Wayne Manor that one doesn’t see in the series, for instance. Also, the movie introduces three new vehicles in this Batman’s world: the Batcycle (with sidecar), the Batcopter, and the Batboat. Shots of the Batcopter flying over 1966 L.A. are priceless.
The small political statement that’s woven into all the silliness is also pretty cool. The writer, Lorenzo Semple, Jr., who was the head writer of the series, interjects some politics into the movie. The villains decide to kidnap the United World Orginization’s Security Council (a play on the United Nation’s Security Council), whose members spend all their time bickering and not getting much done. They argue so much, they never see the colorful villains in the room with them (see the above group shot of the villains) or realize they’ve been dehydrated into multi-colored dust and then rehydrated back to themselves, almost. There’s also a jab at then-president Lyndon Johnson, as well as the government selling old military vehicles.
The satire and parody of 1950s Batman comic books as well as the movie serials is pretty good, as well as the way comic books had to be watered down after Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent nearly destroyed the American comic book industry. Having Batman and Robin be deputies of the law, saying things like they are pro-police, and even having the police take their hats off to them as they fly by in the Batcopter, is all amusing.
I couldn’t possibly mention this movie, or the TV series, without giving some love to the Batmobile. For a generation, this was the real Batmobile. Last year I went to the Rhode Island Comic Con and saw the Tim Burton Batmobile, it was cool. But not as cool as seeing this Batmobile would’ve been. From its exterior to its interior, this car is a beauty. Love it.
For a big screen foray of an adventure series, it still feels an awful lot like the TV show. Perhaps the budget they were given for the movie wasn’t as large as it could’ve been. Maybe I’m writing this from the viewpoint of having seen Superman and General Zod destroy a huge amount of Metropolis. Whatever the reason, it’s not as big as it could be.
Some of the jokes fall flat. After recently watching the IFC marathon of the series, the movie feels watered-down. The jokes aren’t as sharp. The shark? It’s ridiculous, and I guess that’s what they were going for, but doesn’t feel very pop art funny.
The real darkness of not just the movie, but of the entire run of Batman, was its lasting impact. In the early 1960s, in response to the popularity of new comic book heroes like The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and, generally, all of the new Marvel characters at that time, DC decided to try to breathe new life into their comics. By recreating the 1940s character The Flash as a hip, young man with no ties to the original, DC spawned the Silver Age. One of the things they decided to do was to bring Batman back to his more serious roots, while changing the costume up and making him seem cooler to the kids of the time. Carmine Infantino is the artist credited with giving Batman the yellow oval.
Just as the new Batman was debuting in comic books, ABC aired Batman and the decision was made to make the comic book more like the TV series. By the early-1970s, with the show dead by a few years, editor Julius Schwatrz wanted to bring a more serious tone to DC overall, making it even more like Marvel. He experimented with Green Lantern and Green Arrow, two heroes that were not selling very well. When they succeeded, he moved the creative team from that book to Batman. The team, writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, brought Batman into the 1970s by updating him and his cast. Robin was now off at college, appearing when needed. Bruce Wayne left the huge Wayne Manor and moved into a penthouse apartment at the top of Wayne Foundation, which was run by Lucius Fox. The Joker became a killer again.
Here’s the thing, though, unless you actively read the comics–and there weren’t many who did–nobody knew of these changes. Mention comic books, and it’s Biff! Pow! Whammo! Sound effects that hardly ever made their way into the actual comic books before the TV series, never mind after! Batman and Robin were planted deeply in the mind of the general audience as Adam West and Burt Ward, sliding down Batpoles, using Bat-Shark Repellent, and serving public service announcements within dialogue. The damage done to the comic book industry as a result of the constant reruns of Batman almost killed it many times over. And even as Richard Donner’s 1978 masterpiece Superman: The Movie made people aware that comic books could be brought into modern times and be relevant, one can’t help but wonder if the relationship between Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and his sidekicks Otis (Ned Beatty) and Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) would’ve been different without the Batman TV show still so planted in the minds of viewers. And even now, in 2014, when comic books and comic book characters have become huge business, there are still articles and news stories that insist on using silly sound effects as a lead-in or in the title.
Serious comic book fans like to bash the Batman TV series and 1966 movie (the entire Adam West/Burt Ward series/movie has come to be referred to as either Batman 1966 or Batman ’66) for its silly take on the characters but the series and the movie are fun to watch. If you were born in the 1970s, you saw the show and movie on TV all the time and Adam West was your Batman. Hell, when I was younger, I dismissed the series as silly and insulting. Of course, this happened right around 1989, the year I turned 12, and that’s a tough age anyway.
For better or worse, Adam West left his mark on the character of Batman, a mark that wouldn’t be removed until 21 years after the cancellation of his TV series.
Ten years after his debut in Detective Comics #27, Batman returned to the big screen in the Columbia Pictures serial Batman and Robin. This go-around, Batman/Bruce Wayne is played by Robert Lowery and Robin/Dick Grayson is played by Johnny Duncan. Alfred (Eric Wilton) returns and Commissioner Gordon (Lyle Talbot) and Vicki Vale (Jane Adams) make their debuts. This time, Batman and Robin are up against the enigmatic Wizard, who plans on using a massive remote control to take over the world. I think. I can’t really remember what his overall scheme is.
Like the 1943 serial Batman, Batman and Robin is fun to look at nearly 70 years later as a relic of a time gone by rather than any mastery of filmmaking. As with the first serial, one gets the sense that the producers are chomping on their cigars, not worrying about plot or realism because children (boys, mostly) are the main audience.
Batman and Robin is a sort-of-sequel to Batman. In the first episode, it actually shows clips from the previous serial as the narrator explains who Batman and Robin are, yet I don’t know if it is an actual sequel. This serial was released five years after World War II and any mention of Batman and Robin being secret agents for the U.S. are gone. They are crimefighters. It was also released six years after its predecessor, which would mean many of their original target audience might have outgrown their anticipation for such a release. And with different actors playing the roles, it makes the strong case against this story being a sequel that much stronger.
Robert Lowery is a better Batman in some ways than Lewis Wilson. He’s a tad more Batmanish. The costume is even slightly better…I think. Batman doesn’t get rescued as much and he also doesn’t get his ass handed to him as often.
Vicki Vale making an appearance is good and she’s only the damsel-in-distress a couple of times over the 15 chapters.
No uncomfortable racism. Political correctness may suck sometimes, but what was going on in the first serial was over-the-top.
The overall storyline isn’t that bad, I guess. I’m stretching here…
Robin is too old. Douglas Croft looked like a kid in the first serial. Johnny Duncan looks like a man in this serial, but is forced to be the Boy Wonder. His voice is almost as deep as Batman’s! His acting is all right, maybe even better than Lowery’s, but it’s odd seeing this man play Robin.
Batman is an asshole. I mentioned in the last essay that Batman/Bruce Wayne plays mean jokes on Alfred, and is very flippant about his girlfriend’s concerns. She needs help and he comes up with some lame reason for not helping her so he can run off and help as Batman. In this serial, Batman is just…well…an asshole. His (ass-)holiness pops up throughout. An especially great asshole moment is in episode 8. Someone points to Vicki Vale and asks, “Who’s this?” Batman smiles and responds, “Oh, don’t mind her. She’s always taking pictures nobody ever sees.” I mean, how much more of a douche can you be? Well, this Batman has ways. Alfred is the butt of jokes again. He ribs Vicki Vale tirelessly. He’s just an asshole.
Vicki Vale is a fairly strong woman character in this serial, but she does very little. There’s a point when The Wizard has turned himself invisible that Batman and Commissioner Gordon ask if she can use her camera to take The (invisible) Wizard’s picture with an infrared bulb. She asks, “And just how do you focus on someone you can’t see?” To which Basshole–I mean Batman–replies, “That’s up to you to figure out.” And she accepts this asshole’s “help.” She does what’s she’s asked to do, even so far as being able to have the picture not only see the invisible Wizard, but through his mask as well! Still, I wish she had more to do.
Plot inconsistencies. Of course. Moving on…
Guns. Again, there are guns that no one uses except for sometimes.
Batman and Robin are horrible at hiding their identity and the world around them are morons for not figuring it out. They drive Bruce Wayne’s car. At one point, they pull into his driveway, and jump out, running into the house. They are spotted several times in and out of costume. The bad guys do believe Wayne is Batman at one point, only to get thrown off when Alfred dons the batcostume so Bruce can escape. The funny thing is that Alfred also manages to change his body to wear the suit perfectly. Well…as perfectly as this suit fits anyone.
The costumes are horrible. All of them.
The city streets (i.e., the Columbia backlot) never has anyone walking on them. All the cars are the same, Mercuries, even the police cars, which don’t look any different than civilian cars. The backroads and country around L.A. is as prominent as in the first serial, and…and…and…
The mind spins. Again, the fun of watching these serials is seeing a piece of cultural history on display. These are not perfect films. The acting is shoddy, the writing is bad, and the production has little value or art. I can recommend this only to the hardcore Batman fan who wants to see a piece of the character’s history. After these 15 chapters played out, it would be seventeen years before Batman hits the silver screen again. Inspired by…these serials.