Batman rewatch: We will never see anything like Adam West's Batman again, alas
Every Wednesday from now until The Batman hits theaters, we're watching Batman's theatrical films in chronological order. This week: the 1966 feature from the classic TV show's cast and crew. Available to rent on VOD, but track down the glorious Blu-ray. See you next Waynesday, when we dance with the devil in the pale moonlight.
By the time Adam West published his memoir in 1994, it was conventional to think of him as a bad actor and his Batman as a travesty. Dark Knights on page and screen were moping through BDSM role-play, getting spine-crunched by philosophical 'roidheads, and carving steel cleats across Superman's chin. West's version looked like a toothless punchline in reruns. Which was, of course, the point. "We were farce," West explains in Back to the Batcave (co-written by Jeff Rovin). "We were a lampoon." The book reads defensive. Critics were wrong to call his series "camp." Comic book fans were wrong to say his silliness ruined the character. The creators of the TV show were wrong not to pay him more money. The mega-grossing 1989 film Batman was wrong, because Michael Keaton's moody hero was "psychotic," "addle-headed," "shallow," and "unpleasant." (West wishes the film had starred West.)
No one reading Back to the Batcave had seen Lookwell, the astounding pilot West filmed a few years earlier. He plays a struggling actor semi-famous for a long-gone, three-season TV show: Hmmm. Former fake TV cop Ty Lookwell tries to solve actual crimes, and still chases hot-young-dude casting calls. He should be adrift in the wrong era, a turtlenecked Gloria Swanson washed up on grunge beach — but his baritone assurance warps the world around him. The script came from two young whoevers, Conan O'Brien and Robert Smigel, and they realized West's stentorian I-Am-So-Normal manners had gotten weirder (and funnier) with age.
Lookwell didn't get a pick up, but the absurdist-referential clique loved West and kept him employed. Steady cartoon work and sitcom cameos rebuilt his nostalgic legacy. By the time he died in 2017, inflated self-parody was very lucrative, and maybe the default mode of American masculinity. "His serious delusions made him funny in a goofy way," is how West describes his Batman. He could be talking about Lookwell, or the version of himself he played for decades. Now it's conventional to overpraise his Bat-show's wacky mentality as Pop Art, and no one thinks "camp" is an insult.
But 1966's Batman movie still arrives revitalized in this century. The feature was made right after the show's runaway debut season, and the silliest scenes are shocking in the context of everything that followed. Colors pop, performers shriek. Batman by daylight, Batman at the harbor, the Batboat, the Batcopter, the Batcycle, literal pirates steering a Penguin-shaped submarine: Yo-ho! It's the only Batman film for a toddler, and the best one for a 30-year-old bored after decades of grimacing.
"THIS YACHT!" starts the narrator (William Dozier). "Is bringing a REVOLUTIONARY SCIENTIFIC INVENTION to GOTHAM CITY!" Cut to "millionaire Bruce Wayne" (West) and "his youthful ward Dick Grayson" (Burt Ward) driving a convertible, top down. To 2021 eyes, Dick dresses like a middle-aged man, which makes it funnier that Ward gives his lines ("Holy Long John Silver!") a little rascal squeak. Whereas Bruce looks like a sitcom husband who left his wife for an ascot. West was twice-divorced and living hot in Malibu. His hair is sunkissed; the memoir makes it clear his '60s were well swung.
They park at Wayne Manor, played by a Pasadena insta-castle. After a costume change, they drive the Batmobile to their private helipad. High above sunny Gotham City, they greet an adoring public. A swarm of bikini-clad ladies wave at them as they pass overhead. That's a direct echo of the helicopter prologue from La Dolce Vita, except the Italian women were gawking at a Jesus statue, and Batman never had to die to get worshipped.
The movie was written by Lorenzo Semple Jr., who had developed the TV show, and directed by Leslie H. Martinson. It wasn't the first time the Caped Crusader ever played in theaters. (That honor belongs to a 15-part serial from 1943, one of the worst things I've ever seen.) But it would be the first proper feature, and a bigger screen required a bigger idea. So four guest villains unite into one superbad team, the United Underworld. Penguin (Burgess Meredith) waddles. The Riddler (Frank Gorshin) has his crazy laughter. Joker (Cesar Romero) has, errr, different crazy laughter.
I can take them or leave them, but put Lee Meriwether on Supervillain Mount Rushmore. She took over as Catwoman from Julie Newmar, and the central nefarious plan requires her femme fatale to go undercover in commie drag. As "Miss Kitka," she seduces capitalist pig Bruce Wayne. Their date night turns into a paranoid masquerade of shifting identities. The Underworld wants to flush out Batman by kidnapping Bruce, because they don't know he is Batman. Bruce wants to protect Miss Kitka from villains like Catwoman, who she herself is. Robin and Alfred (Alan Napier) secretly watch the pair via closed circuit Bat-camera. The other baddies receive secret updates via Cat-morse code. It's a dizzy surveillance circus, and a dreamy interlude. Bruce and Kitka dance in a lounge, serenaded by a magenta-lit vocalist singing "Plaisir D'Amour." He really likes her, and one decent ambiguity in this howling megaphone of a movie is that she sorta seems to like him.
They cozy up in a horse-drawn carriage, and the Bat-signal fills the sky. Bruce assures her that Batman and Robin must be racing to police headquarters.
"I close my eyes," Kitka/Catwoman says, "And I dream of those savage Cossacks racing over the steppes on their brutal mission."
"How strange," he responds. "I close… MY eyes.. and I dream of something… quite… ASTONISHINGLY different."
Their eyes close. His cheek rubs her temple.
"Da, da," she says, "Keep your eyes closed. Continue with this dream."
"The dream continues," Bruce whispers. "It approaches a climax!"
"Nyet," she purrs. "Not so fast. Be more slow."
Kapow! Meriwether was 11 years past a Miss America crown. West had only just been that guy from that Nestle Quik commercial. These roles would later be played by various Oscar winners, and I'm not sure either performer is being asked for anything here beyond attractive teasing. But their scenes sizzle like nothing else in Bat cinema. His patrician demeanor, her thick Badenov accent, the fact they're both lying to each other about almost everything: We're in the realm of pure screwball.
And this is all before Batman has to spend two minutes running around a pier, desperately trying to find a safe place to throw a gigantic bomb. Watch out, nuns! Oh no, a baby! Mind the tuba! Now surely, Batman, you won't blow up those poor birds?
Will Batman ever stop running? WarnerMedia prays no. As long as I've been alive, the character has been a prize jealously guarded by his corporate parent. One movie every few years, one cartoon at a time, no Smallville cameo for fear of brand diffusion — and remember the near-decade separating George Clooney from Christian Bale? The latter wasn't one of our modern franchise extensions, Spider-Verse or Cobra Kai or Force Awakens, a sequel-as-rescue-mission that honors and fixes what came before. Batman Begins hated Batman & Robin, and wanted you to know.
That business model collapsed. Witness the infinity buffet. Barring further COVID delays, we are two months from Robert Pattinson headlining The Batman. He's taking over the cowl from Ben Affleck — except not, because Affleck will be back in The Flash. So will Michael Keaton — thanks, multiverse! — who will also be in Batgirl. Every era can coexist, and must, really. The primary vehicle for filmed blockbuster entertainment is no longer the individual film but the Holy Archive. HBO Max has already planned two TV spin-offs from The Batman, which will play alongside a new animated series (Caped Crusader) and the aggressive animated parody of Harley Quinn. I count six or seven semi-regular Batman titles published monthly by DC Comics, not to mention a galaxy of Gotham titles: Catwoman, Nightwing, Joker, Robin, Batgirls. I'm forgetting something. I'm forgetting Titans.
This is the normal showbiz bet for the 2020s: No one will ever get tired of anything! Is that right, though? My predictions are always wrong, but I doubt The Batman will put up Dark Knight numbers (at least partly because COVID keeps crunching the theatrical window to dust). Batfleck, known for their amiable disposition, may yet wage a culture war against Pattzman. We live in a society where a Joker movie without Batman significantly outgrossed a Batman movie with Superman. The trendiest character from the Gotham corner of DC is Harley Quinn, whose whole vibe (pansexual bazooka graffiti?) is way more contemporary than the angry man with a butler. My own favorite piece of Bat-lore this past decade was Gotham, a garish nightmare soap that compellingly suggested Bruce Wayne is the worst part of his own mythology. How did we get here, and where are we going? Is Batman evolving past Batman?
Several thousand hours of my life have been spent reading, watching, or playing Batman in one form or another. This makes me embarrassingly uninformed in the context of terrestrial geekdom, so I can't pretend any unusual expertise. In fairness, Batman has been around long enough to disprove any expert opinion. Best to avoid definitive statements. Something in the canon always disproves something else in the canon, just like the Bible or the Constitution.
The films are a relatively small part of the legacy, in terms of pure intake hours. Yet their importance is obvious. Their stylistic decisions trickled down to other blockbusters, throughout the superhero genre, and into daily life. Bats are objectively disgusting animals, but I'm not sure the average person even sees the word "bat" without silently adding "-man" on the end.
In that vast history, West's Batman makes a strange place to start. It's a hoot, produced in a short burst. The seams show: Stock footage, obvious stuntmen. A climactic fistfight atop the pre-atomic submarine looks choreographed on-the-fly: What a fun day in the big water tank! Cheapness isn't always a virtue, and Martinson's framing is dangerously multicam. The Batman-Catwoman date is the best part of the movie, but the act loses that thread, and depends way too much on Meredith's clowning.
Still, nobody mentions murdered parents. The plot hinges on an "instant whiskey maker" which dehydrates humans into dust. A shark attacks, and explodes. The heroes get rescued from certain torpedo death by what Robin soberly calls "the nobility of the almost-human porpoise." (Ward gets all the best lines. The Riddler riddles, "What weighs six ounces, sits in a tree, and is very dangerous?" Robin misses no beat: "A sparrow with a machine gun!") As the Dynamic Duo drive their Batboat into open ocean, you spot the propellers of the camera helicopter filming them, and it's awesome. Will this character ever feel so weightless again? Is breeziness a lost virtue? It took half a century to make another proper Bat-comedy, and that one was built on computers, cost $80 million, and still aimed for post-ironic feels. In 1966, you could still drive up to a wharf in Santa Barbara, draw arched eyebrows on a bright blue mask, have a few laughs, and call it a Batman movie.
So the '66 Batman's contribution is crucial, and proof that there really might be nothing funnier than a rich man wearing Bat ears. The same year saw the release of Django, Tokyo Drifter, Persona, Seconds, Blowup, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. These were old traditions exploded, sexy and violent and out there. Did it feel like a new revolution every week? Batman sits square in that company, the proverbial middle manager at the acid test. (An early salute from an ethnically Irish police force suggests darkness on the edge of crazytown; it's basically the mid-60s LAPD waving hi to their Bat-buddy, which should terrify anyone who knows anything about the mid-60s LAPD.) But West and Ward were at the same wild cinematic party, and its achievements grew more singular as genre history turned against it. "We were the movie serials of the 1930s and 1940s done against a fun-house background," West declares in his memoir. A decade later, Star Wars went the other direction, reimagining the old serials with religious awe. We have so many cathedrals lately, and I miss the funhouse.
Back to the Batcave is very entertaining, by the way, and essential reading for fans curious about the Bat-grind. West is so funny about his costume's sheer impossibility: abrasive tights, mask so hot someone had to hairdryer sweat off him between takes. He had no peripheral vision. "It didn't take long for me to figure out how not to get choked by the cape." Don't you love that phrase, how not to get choked by the cape? And West summons his own Hollywood once upon a time, recalling years in an apartment by the beach with his dog (plus occasional motorcycle-dad visits with the kids). "In those days, Malibu was uncrowded and a lot of fun," he writes. "It wasn't tacky, a house on every square foot of beachfront; it didn't reek of new money, just mystique, a sense of fun and freedom and youth." Is he only writing about the California coastline? The first Batman movie is fun and free. Now we're crowded.