Growing up on Adam West’s Batman, Christopher Reeves’ Superman, and the Saturday morning cartoons of the 1970s, I prefer that the difference between the good guys and the bad guys be pretty cut and dry. While I liked the Tim Burton Batman movies, and even Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (don’t hate!), I’m burned out on dark and twisty superheroes. I fell asleep during Batman Begins and haven’t watched a Batman movie since. I just can’t. I’d love to. I’ve been a fan of Christian Bale for years and Heath Ledger as the Joker is legendary from what I’ve read. I just don’t get why movies have to be close to three hours long. Unless you’re adapting an 800 page novel or making an epic, such as Titanic or Saving Private Ryan, please keep it to 90 minutes!
And 90 minutes of absolute smart, fun, action is what Batman: The Movie, starring Adam West as Batman, is! What? How could a movie based on a 1960s TV show, based on a comic book character who first appeared in 1939, even come close to comparing with the dark, gothic vibe of Burton’s Batman or Christopher Nolan’s even darker, grittier Batman? Hey, I did see the first one. I said I fell asleep watching it, but I finished it later.
First of all – that theme song! It’s in the holy trinity of 60s TV theme songs with the themes from The Munsters and Peter Gunn.
Second of all – that cast! Adam West put on the cowl and cape and became Batman, forever (Ha! Batman Forever! Yeah, I went there, again) owning the character in a way Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, Christian Bale, and Ben Affleck never could. Then you have Burt Ward, who had no professional acting experience prior to the Batman TV series, playing Robin. And no, he wasn’t a good actor. But what he lacked in acting skills, he more than made up for with intensity, attacking his role like every scene was a matter of life and death. At a time when the generation gap was worse than ever, Batman and Robin showed that the twain can indeed meet – without the homo-eroticism of Val Kilmer and Chris O’Donnell’s Batman and Robin.
[Editor’s Note: Why knock the homoeroticism? That’s the only thing that works in the entire Chris O’Donnell Robin performance, as far as I can tell!.]
Add Cesar Romero as The Joker, the amazing Frank Gorshin as Riddler, Burgess Meredith (star of one of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone ever filmed) as Penguin, and the gorgeous Lee Meriwether as Catwoman. Ok, I have a real affinity for Julie Newmar’s Catwoman from the first couple of seasons of the TV series and found it difficult to accept Meriwether in the role; but she grew on me as the movie progressed. She gave Catwoman a feline ferociousness that made up for her inability to recreate the statuesque sultriness of Julie Newmar. Speaking of Cesar Romero, anyone else think Danny Elfman was totally channeling Romero’s Joker look during his Oingo Boingo years? He did compose the scores to Burton’s Batman movies after all.
And that is where Batman: The Movie has them all beat! Four, count them, FOUR villains in one movie.
Third, the limited budget made for some laughable sets and special effects, which just added to the movie’s charm. Can we all agree that the exploding shark at the beginning of the movie is the fakest looking shark in movie history? It’s attached to Batman’s leg, yet doesn’t even get one tooth into his calf. And the best part? It’s an exploding shark! No wait, the best part is that Batman just happens to have some Shark Repellent Batspray handy! This proves that Bruce Wayne must have been a Boy Scout because he is always prepared. Yes, Batman has a batspray or some other gadget, weapon, or chemical compound for every conceivable situation.
Adam West as Batman and Bruce Wayne is the epitome of cool. He plays Batman with a subdued James Bond style, both debonair and campy. Mike Myers could just have easily drawn inspiration for Austin Powers from this movie as he claims he did from the actual James Bond movies. As I watched Lee Meriwether play Catwoman’s Russian alter ego, all I could think of was Ivana Humpalot from the second Austin Powers movie was a carbon copy of Meriwether’s Miss Kitka. Da, it is true!
There are smaller details in Batman: The Movie that make it a true joy for film buffs. For example, some of the sight gags are hilarious. In the set where many of the scenes with all four villains take place, there are shelves in the background. The camera zooms in on one of the shelves and you see an aquarium with several fish in it. Above the aquarium is a sign that says “Penguin Food.” In fact, EVERYTHING is labeled in the villains’ lair and in the Batcave. There is a lot of dialogue where Batman is explaining to Robin what they are doing like a caped Captain Obvious, so I imagine the labels are either a takeaway from the comics or a necessity born from having too low a budget to fill the set with objects that looked like what they were supposed to be.
The dialogue is sharp, hip, and full of lightning-fast wit. After the scene where Batman is running around trying to find a safe place to dispose of the bomb (which was by far the FUNNIEST scene in the movie), Batman tells Robin:
Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!
And of course there are several Robinisms spoken throughout the movie. My favorite:
Holy Long John Silver! A Penguin periscope!
Another great thing about this movie was the chemistry between Adam West and Lee Meriwether. The scene where they’re on a date as Bruce Wayne and Miss Kitka pushed the limits of decency for its time. They’re rubbing their faces against each other and he says something about reaching a climax and she says “not so fast darling – one of the best scenes in the movie!
Despite that moment of double entendre and another line Adam West says about a pussy (cat), there is an innocence to the movie at times. Someone might almost think that Batman and Robin are stupid because of how easily they are fooled into dangerous situations by the villains. This requires a suspension of disbelief, like most superhero movies still require to some extent, but is representative of the naïveté of the times. Yet it always turns out that Batman has a plan. Sometimes he’s even one step ahead of the villains.
Another thing that I love about Batman: The Movie is how they give a nod to their own far-fetchedness when they conveniently crash land on a bunch of foam rubber because there just happens to be a foam rubber wholesaler’s convention. The heroes have a brief conversation about what the odds were that there would be foam rubber covering the ground they crashed on.
And that’s the thing about Batman: The Movie – it is almost all tongue in cheek. To a younger audience more familiar with the dark and twisty Batmans, this might seem like one of those cheesy, “so bad it’s good” movies. They’re wrong. It’s so good it’s great!
The greatest moment of the entire movie is near the end, when Batman finds out that Miss Kitka and Catwoman are the same person. The camera zooms in on his face, which is wet from the previous water scene. Batman is silent for most of the scene, but Adam West’s pained glare through the eyeholes of his cowl and the subtle, slight tremble of his lips, makes you wonder if there are tears mingling with the water on his face. It’s a very effective scene that reminds the viewer that West was a serious actor with real chops.
It’s not a perfect movie by any means. There are a couple of weak spots besides the awful rubber shark. The stereotypes of the World Security Council members were cringe-inducing. The movie gets a little lazy here, as if the producers and director were in a hurry to finish, or running out of money, and didn’t pay as close attention to detail. For example, when the Council members start getting dehydrated, the member from the UK keeps talking at what has to be empty air. To make matters worse, Batman screws up the restoration process, which results in a “Tower of Babel” level of confusion as the Council members’ minds come back in the wrong bodies. Even this mess is salvaged by Batman’s eloquent speech about how the world leaders getting to experience each other’s existence might lead to a more peaceful world. It’s a message that addresses the Cold War and the fight for civil rights that were going on in the real world at the time.
So, yeah… Batman: The Movie is the first and best of the Batman movies. Disagree and I’ll use my A-hole Repellent Batspray on you.
One last thing: The Batmobile was badass!
Welcome this week a speical guest! Brendan Foley organizes a weekly film club on Cinapse called Two Cents that Justin also regularly contributes to (as a member of the Cinapse staff, himself). This week they also took on this great film and their coverage can be read: BY CLICKING HERE. He hosts a kickass creepy story podcast called Black Sun Dispatches and likes to make snide remarks about Justin’s well established shitty taste in films.
After you’re done reading this and checking out the Cinapse Two Cents piece linked above, be sure to check out Brendan’s podcast!
For a long time, the accepted wisdom with regards to the Adam West Batman was that it was an embarrassing, so-bad-it’s-good goof, Ed Wood-ian in its ineptitude. But that’s not the case at, all, as any five minutes of Batman: The Movie will quickly prove. This movie knew exactly what it was trying to do and it accomplished that with skill and aplomb. Everyone knows exactly what tone they are trying to hit, and everything from the costumes to the scripts to the wacky set design are tuned to the same comic frequency. Batman: The Movie runs a bit long (its origins as a series of 20-minute episode is very apparent) but thanks to West and Ward, the film maintains a jovial energy and cheeky sense of fun throughout. I love it.
RACHAEL HAUSCHILD: We lost a good one in the film and TV world. Adam West formed so many people’s childhoods and continued to do so to this day. Every once in awhile if I had off work on a Saturday, I’d watch a few episodes on TV here and there. Nothing brought me more happiness then seeing the Caped Crusader on TV.
I must admit, I haven’t seen the 1966 Batman. I just never got to it. So this was a first for me. I was equally sad and happy watching this. Sad for the loss of Adam West, happy because everything that was gracing the screen was pure fun. I get such a kick out of Robin’s (Burt Ward obviously) corny phrases, the over reaction from villains, and the slyness of the 60s vibe. Don’t forget the iconic shark scene… no one does it like Batman.
If you want just something fun to watch, kick back, get some popcorn, and turn this movie on. You won’t be disappointed in this blast from the past! Rest in peace Adam West. Thank you for the memories.
LUKE TIPTON: Batman may not be the best Batman movie, but Adam West remains the best Batman.
This film adaptation of the 1960s TV show is stuffed with slaptstick, and the camp laid on thick. Bat Shark Repellent; a fiendish plot hatched by the Joker and Penguin involving projections and dehydrating world leaders; Batman’s chintzy batcopter; the actually-pretty-cool batmobile; Robin’s groan-inducing puns; it’s corny and walks a fine line between funny stupid and stupid stupid, but it’s fun. The film even has Batman and Robin as official police deputies, working with the full cooperation and approval of Gotham City, just to make sure the kids at the matinee don’t go home thinking, god forbid, that vigilantism is ok.
But it’s more than just the camp factor; West’s Batman is likable. Kind of a dope, but in a likable way. His Bruce Wayne is a swinging bachelor, who just sorta fits (official police sanctioned) crime-fighting into his busy schedule of being a rich playboy. You almost feel bad for the guy when he fails to recognize that “Miss Kitka” is obviously Catwoman.
I’d take West’s rich, creamy voice, his soft, spandex-clad body, and boy scout squareness over the dark, gritty Batman of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, or the haunted, militaristic batman of the post 9/11 Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy. This Batman is both a farce and a throwback to the escapist fare of the 1930s pulp, radio and serial heroes like the Green Hornet, and the Shadow. Both were rich playboys who fight crime and champion the downtrodden little people during the Great Depression. They project an escapist fantasy of wealth and class, while sticking up for those left behind by the institutions that failed them. And that escapist and farcical tone is what ultimately makes West’s Batman the best.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not the darkness of Batman that I don’t like. It’s more the presupposition that the Batman mythology is rooted in; that the fictional world of Batman is one of chaos and madness, and needs a powerful strongman to bring order by force. It’s right wing power fantasy. I’m not particularly sympathetic to an exceptional rich white man circumventing the rule of law and meting out his own ideologically pure justice in an evil, sinful world. It has the ring of that old, dark puritanism that runs deep under the surface of the American psyche.
JUSTIN HARLAN: I could spend hours writing about how Luke doesn’t understand Batman at all and is misreading nearly everything about the character, but I think we’ll save that for another time, perhaps on an upcoming episode of the podcast (Yes, Luke, that IS a formal challenge). I will gladly note that he’s not 100% incorrect… only about 95%… ok, maybe 99%… but I digress.
West is/was/forever will be Batman. I love Burton’s Bruce Wayne. I love Bale’s Batman. I appreciate Val Kilmer in how he handles both sides of the role. I even really like Affleck, both as Wayne and Batman in fact. Even Cloo… ok, we can’t expect everyone to nail it. However, West is not only THE Batman, but is also the best example of camp perfection I’ve ever witnessed. He’s a pure straight man, earnest and genuine. His absurd comments and decisions are make without any sense of irony. It’s what the very definition of “camp” is all about.
It is this campy performance (especially as paired with the equally brilliant Burt Ward as Robin) that solidified the top Batman spot as West’s for all time. Batman is the world’s greatest detective and that doesn’t change just because Luke doesn’t understand him. It does, however, take a huge hit when the greatest among the Batmen leaves our world forever. Goodbye Mr. West, let’s get those atomic batteries to power and turbines to speed one last time, on that journey to the great Batcave in the sky. POW!