Bat-fever may have died down a little, but The Dark Knight Rises remains the most discussed film of this Blockbuster season. Damon Carter is heading further back in time to take on the contextually derived 1960’s Batman outing, Batman: The Movie.
Who’s your favourite Batman? Let me guess you’re probably torn between Christian Bale and Michael Keaton. If you said Val Kilmer or George Clooney then go to the back of the class. The chances are very few of you would have said Adam West, the star of the 1960’s hit television show that culminated in this film and three series throughout the late 60’s. All of these Batman’s have their merits but Adam West’s interpretation has had the most impact on popular culture.
His deadpan delivery placed firmly in between farce and serious is an eclectic mix. The comparisons with William Shatner’s Captain Kirk are completely justified. His lines are spoken with an unnatural rhythm that reaches lows and high’s at random points. It is an iconic interpretation and has been referenced on countless occasions with The Simpsons Bee keeper’s scene being a particular favourite (Nicolas Cage also recently mimicked the performance in Kick-Ass). Adam West has gone on to become something of a cult icon and his bizarre style of humour is there for all to hear in numerous episodes of Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy. It was quite the revelation to discover that he was offered the role of James Bond but turned it down as he believed a Brit should always play the role. Who knows what he makes of British Batman Christian Bale?
The television adaptation of Batman was a juggernaut of a success and after it first aired in 1966, circulation of the comic book increased from around 300,000 to just under a million. The show’s first series encapsulated viewers with its 60’s bright primary colours and its good, honest crime fighting duo of Batman and Robin. The show was such a success that its influence on the comic books began to swing into a more family friendly type of comic book, much to the protest of many traditionalists. Six months after the show first aired the inevitable movie version was released.
The film was essentially a feature-length adaptation the television show: Batman and Robin are trying to solve the mysterious vanishing of a yacht (it must have been a slow week) and eventually figure out that The Joker, The Penguin, The Riddler and Catwoman have teamed up for their most dastardly plan yet. The grouping of these four most popular villains was a draw. It had the added draw for the audience of the time by being on a big screen and in glorious Technicolor (The IMAX of its day?).
So what exactly was the appeal of these characters? Chiefly what needs to be remembered was that at the time this was good clean family fun (Except for Lee Merriweather’s pointy bra). Despite that this was the 60’s in the United States, a time that is chiefly now remembered with the loss of America’s innocence, the Vietnam War plagued the decade and a sexual revolution was happening. Batman was actually a very square character for the 60’s. A respectful philanthropist Bruce Wayne and a polite as punch crime fighter with his enthusiastic accomplice Robin. He was a hero for traditional American’s. He was also a man that felt the need to put on tights and wear a mask to fight equally odd villains in some of the most zany plots that have ever been conceived. This show was clearly working on several fronts for many different people.
One of the keys to the success was of the film lies in its comic wit (since tagged as an example of classic camp). Exposition is littered throughout the dialogue and the amount of inventions that just so happen to fit the situation is hilarious. In the first act of the movie Batman is lowered into waters and ends up with a shark attached to him and the ladder, when I say a shark I mean a foam figure that you would be disappointed to win at a coconut shy. If you’re not laughing at this point in the film you will be when Robin gets him out of the scrape by unnecessarily hanging upside down from the ladder and passing Batman the anti shark repellent spray. The shark drops to the sea and promptly explodes. Later on, Batman struggles to get rid of a bomb safely and delivers the line “Sometimes you just can’t get rid of a bomb”. Robin also wrestles unnecessarily with the factor of common decency when his voyeurism leads him to watching Bruce Wayne and Miss Kitka involved in some heavy petting. Alfred who is wearing a lone ranger disguise over his normal clothes in the batmobile seems quite up for continuing to watch.
The villains are just as much a hoot as in the TV show. Cesar Romero plays the Joker with an innocent glee that you won’t find in Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s interpretation (What is brilliant is that Romero refused to shave his moustache for the role). Burgess Meredith’s penguin is as dastardly as they come and loves the theatrics of his role with the famous waddle and the unexplained penchant for all things umbrella like. Frank Gorshin’s delivery as the Riddler undoubtedly inspired Jim Carrey’s incarnation and Gorshin achieves a menace the rest in the group. Special mention has to go to Lee Merriweather who brought a different element to catwoman’s criminal temptress following directly after Julie Newmar’s version.
Add to this we have the famous recurring themes and scenes that make the show and the film what they are. The fight scenes that are so crap they’re brilliant. Batman and Robin will jump and swing off anything they can and when they land their punches the comic book words of “zok” “Pift” “Thwack” and “Kilmer” appear. There are few things more funny than watching these fights, especially when you realise the villains are using stunt doubles. I swear at one point Cesar Romero was in the background drinking tea whilst his stunt double was taking haymakers from Burt Ward. Climbing up a building becomes even more entertaining when you turn your head and realise what Adam West and Burt Ward were really doing. The cameos of celebrities opening the window added an extra flavour. The batphone, the idiocy of Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara whose answer to everything is to call Batman and Robin. The tone never shifts and if you tune in then you will have a blast.
Batman has been reinterpreted many times and since the advent of Tim Burton the preference has always been for one of a darker more serious tone. When Joel Schumacher tried to push the tone more towards the campier elements of Lorenzo Semple Junior’s penned TV show it didn’t quite work. Chiefly because the tone of acting didn’t match the tone of the script. Everyone in the 60’s TV show knew exactly what they were doing and it was pitch perfect. Now that Christopher Nolan’s genre redefining film versions are coming to a close it won’t be long before the next incarnation is being talked about. Christopher Nolan’s masterpieces will be hard to ever get close to. So when the inevitable disappointing reboot comes along in a few years do yourself a favour and remind yourself how different and brilliant Batman can be. Be it Christian Bale, Michael Keaton or Adam West.
Damon can be found on Twitter – @dimski