[Note: The Dark Knight Rises is out next week, on July 20th. To celebrate we're reprinting Batman movie articles I wrote back when The Dark Knight came out in 2008, updated and re-edited for 2D-X. These articles encompass the 1966 Adam West movie, the Burton/Schumacher flicks and the last two Christopher Nolan films. All this will culminate in a TDKR review... if there are any tickets left. For now, enjoy a look back at the camptastic 1966 Batman movie!]
The back of the DVD case reads: “When Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) get a tip that Commodore Schmidlapp (Reginald Denny) is in danger aboard his yacht, they launch a rescue mission. But the tip is a set-up by four of the most powerful villains ever, who seek to defeat the Dynamic Duo once and for all! Armed with a dehydrator that can turn humans into dust, the fearsome foursome intends to take over the world! Can the Caped Crusaders use their high-flying heroism and groovy gadgetry to declaw Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), ice the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), upstage the Joker (Cesar Romero), and stump the Riddler (Frank Gorshin) in time?”
Holy camp classic, Batman! If that doesn’t sound like a fun time, what does? Batman and Robin, four villains and a deadly dehydrator?! Sounds like director Joel Schumacher time-traveled to the 60s with the moisture-robbing plot device from Batman Begins in tow! Sounds like something … meant to be laughed at … on purpose. Hm.
While in my pupae stages, I thought this movie was just poorly conceived, like a bunch of guys went out to make a really epic Batman movie and failed miserably. I was used to the Batman in Batman: The Animated Series and Tim Burton’s movies, where he’s a dark, brooding anti-hero who spends every moment of his life stewing in the childhood memory of his parents’ murder. If Adam West’s Batman witnessed any tragedy in his youth there’s no sign of it. He prances, flirts, waves his arms in the air as he minces around. He obsessively labels everything in the Batcave, including the water cooler – the Bat Water Cooler. So, he’s still a bit unhinged, but he’s nicer about it in this version. Now that I’m older I can appreciate the beloved hero in his various interpretations like this warm-hearted and well-written goofy version. He’s a farce, a parody of action/adventure yarns, one that actually influenced the comic books to take on a less-serious tone and increased the comic sales and popularity of the character.
Let’s get into it: Batman starts with a dedication to crime fighters and fun lovers everywhere. How awesome is that? The movie thanks you, the audience, even before it begins. I remember Return of the King thanks fans in the end credits, but how often does a movie dedicate itself to people who love fun from the outset? With words illuminated by a searchlight on a brick wall?
The music’s awesome, too. And by awesome I mean really cartoony. It builds up constantly with each new ridiculous dedication. I imagine fans of the show got really excited, popcorn and soda in hand, ready for the wackiness about to begin. The opening credits follow colorful, gaudy spotlights as they follow some random guy in a trenchcoat until Adam West and Burt Ward trot out for their roll call. Then there’s overblown opening narration that details Bruce Wayne’s and Dick Grayson’s attempt to rescue the Commodore. They prance through the Batcave, prep the Batmobile (Robin: “Atomic batteries to power. Turbines to speed!”), drive to the airport to get in their helicopter, fly over supermodels and military men who take off their hats in respect, and then Batman battles a rubber shark that bites onto his leg while hanging from a ladder over the ocean. After pummeling it with his fists unsuccessfully, he defeats it with Bat Shark Repellent. Then the shark drops back to the water and explodes.
That’s just the intro.
Everything Batman owns is bat-shaped — the car, the chopper, the boat — or given a “bat” prefix with the appropriate label. When matched with Adam West’s bizarre, Shatner-esque line deliveries these gadgets provide a lot of the laughs. “Drop … the Bat Ladder, Robin.”
This Batman also maintains a hearty, wholesome image who does his best to pass those good manners and values onto Robin. “They may be drinkers, Robin,” Batman says of bar patrons, “but they’re also human beings.” He cooperates with the Gotham police, too, enough to be quite chummy with them. Vigilantism? Pah!
Robin: “Support your police! That’s our message.”
Batman: “Well said, Robin.”
Gotham itself is bright and sunny, green and clean — hard to believe it was filmed in L.A. (dohoho!) People picnic on lawns and nuns safely walk the street, all thanks to the Batman and Robin! Yup. Another guy remarks, looking up at the Bat Copter, “Gives a feller a good feeling to know they’re up there doing their job.” The movie’s absurdity just works.
In one of the best scenes, Batman takes a press conference for a bunch of reporters, including a Russian woman with a stereotypical Boris and Natasha accent. The movie’s rife with dumb stereotypes, and they take the center stage later. It’s cute how the woman asks Batman to take off his mask so she can get a better look at his face. It’s cuter how the police react to her request with outrage and astonishment. Why, Batman has a secret identity to keep! Silly foreigner. So afterwards, the cops, mainly Irish of course, and the Dynamic Duo figure out who all the villains are behind the plot through riddles written in the sky by a Polaris missile. It’s ridiculous wordplay, unbelievably silly, and really well-performed and well-written.
Everyone quotes Poe, Shakespeare, and they time every gag perfectly. It’s all staged like theater. Really silly theater. The actors pull their punches, you can see the strings on props (super-obvious when Batman and Robin “climb” walls), and the villains make grand sweeping speeches, gesticulating around way over the top. Frank Gorshin, who plays The Riddler, is especially interesting to watch. His expressions and are so intense that he upstages The Joker, who you’d think would be the craziest guy in the room. My personal favorite is Burgess Meredith’s sneering, quacking Penguin, but Gorshin’s manic energy is magnetic. He steals every scene he’s in.
The Joker, played by Cesar Romero, is fun but it looks like he wasn’t given a whole lot to do. Riddler keeps the silly plot moving with his sky riddles and is just bizarre to watch. The Penguin disguises himself as Schmidlapp, infiltrates the Batcave and has his own theme music, something no other villain can boast from what I can tell. And Catwoman, played by slinky Lee Meriwether, goes out with Bruce Wayne! So, aside from some puns, The Joker feels a little gypped. He finally gets his moment when he enacts the villains’ plot. I won’t spoil the silliness of it, but it does involve the world’s leaders — more dopey stereotypes. They’re so involved arguing over whatever they don’t notice the insane criminals who just waltz in.
The movie is a real ensemble comedy. It splits time between Batman and villains equally, something later Batman movies fail to accomplish for the most part, which is probably the only viable comparison that could be made. There are so many memorable lines and gags (“Confound it! The batteries are dead!”) it’s unsurprising Batman ’66 holds up so well today. Looking at it now it almost feels ahead of its time and it is, to my knowledge, the first successful live-action comic book film adaptation in color. It’s got a great soundtrack. The script is loaded with alliteration and verbose dialogue… there’s a real love of language present and everyone enunciates like hell. Burt Ward, who plays Robin (“Holy heart failure!”) practically chews his words. To hammer the theatrical origins home, Batman pokes at a bust of Shakespeare to gain access to the Batcave. And Bruce Wayne recites Edgar Allen Poe to impress Catwoman. So good.
Oh man, and the set pieces! Batman trying to get rid of a bomb on a pier must be the funniest part, but its the climactic brawl atop a submarine that might be the most fun. Everyone is involved, and the “POW!” “WOOSH!” “KER-SPLAT!” onomatopoeia the ’60s Batman has become known for finally makes its appearance. Actually… for some reason nearly every action scene is aquatic in nature. I know the Bat Boat was a new toy they wanted to use for the movie, or maybe it was cheaper to film at the studio water tank.
Two last notes:
The ending’s oddly solemn. Well, no, it’s still very dumb, but it’s hilarious that Batman the Movie turns out to be a message movie in the end.
And there are pirates. On flying umbrellas.
So, it’s a great film. I thought Batman should always be sad and serious — well, it’s still how I prefer him — but this is such a fun take on the Bat, it shouldn’t be missed.