In 1966, Batman made his big-screen debut in the the comic-book genre, Batman: The Movie. But what special quality of the masked crusader endeared him to the American public? Taking a closer look at the film that helped make Adam West and Burt Ward pop-culture icons adds insight into one of the most popular heroes in the DC franchise.
Four of Batman's greatest foes - the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler and the Joker - have banded together to steal an experimental invention that can dehydrate people into piles of dust. Their dastardly plan is to use the device on the United World Security Council and hold the world to random. Holy evil plot, Batman. The Caped Crusader and his ward Robin must foil their sinister scheme, bottling exploding sharks and disposing of troublesome bombs along the way. Now that is a plot I can buy in to.
Running Time: 104 minutes Release Date: 30 July 1966Director: Leslie H. Mortinson Writer: Lorenzo Semple, Jr Cast: Adam West, Burt Word, Lee Meriwether, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, Frank Gorshin
The transition from black and white to color had a strange but wonderful effect on television shows in the 60s. With color came camp, and nowhere in the pantheon of US cult series is this felt more acutely than in ABC's Batman, starring Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin.
It's OK if you're already na-na-na-ing your way through the theme tune. One glance at West in his Bat-suit, and it's nigh-on impossible not to think of words like 'Pow', 'Thwack' and "Kapow'.
The first series aired early on in 1966, becoming an instant hit, and by that summer the dynamic duo made it to the big screen in Batman: The Movie. Just like the show, it's a brightly colored, off-beat masterpiece of kitsch with some absolute zingers in a script that never takes itself too seriously. The film is also more knowing that it's given credit for, with a great cast of villains to boot.
The plot, such as it is, is classic TV Batman: Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson receive a call for help from a yacht heading to Gotham. The delightfully bombastic narrator (voiced by producer William Dozier) tells us that a revolutionary scientific invention and its creator are aboard and in peril. The two make their way to the Batcave, magically changing out of their civvies and into superhero garb as they slide down the bat pole, thanks to the immensely handy 'instant costume change lever'. You just know the set designers had a ball when it came to labelling everything.
From the get-go the tone is highly stylized, with tongue firmly in cheek. Dozier infamously wasn't a fan of comic books; he felt they were a bit childish. His way around the problem when creating Batman was to 'overdo it' - that way the over-the-top humor would appeal to adults and the adventure would entertain kids. Look around the Batcave, and you see this philosophy everywhere, from the 'Emergency Bat Turn Lever' on the Batmobile to the 'Interdigital Bat Sorter' machine - one of many bizarre contraptions that litter the set.
There's a childlike energy to these opening moments, too. While Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne took a while to get back into the swing of things in The Dark Knight Rises, here a tip-off is all it takes to get these two running to the Batmobile, and their enthusiasm is very endearing. Couple that with a Dutch angle, a turbo engine blast and that theme tune, and you've got a pretty strong start.
The movie's budget meant more gadgets like the Batcopter, which for some reason lives at Gotham airport. Before you start to question the paper trail that maintenance, fuel and personnel costs would inevitably incur, Batman and Robin are at the controls and flying over Gotham. Bikini-clad girls wave at them (oh, that 60s male gaze), the police take off their hats in solemn thanks and eventually they reach the yacht.
Even if you haven't watched this film, you will know this scene. Batman lowers himself towards the speeding boat using the 'bat ladder' (again with the labels). As he nears the ship, it disappears and Bats ends up in the water. When he's raised out again a shark is clinging to his leg - although to the untrained eye it may look vaguely like a prop shark that has been put through the ropes of the ladder - while West punches it repeatedly. You know what's coming: "Hand me down the shark repellent bat spray": words that shall live on in infamy. The shark explodes as it hits the water, which makes perfect sense. It's not the last sea-bound creature to die in †his film either: Batman and Robin casually mention that they were saved from a missile by "the nobility of the almost-human porpoise" that sacrificed itself so they might live. It's these absurdist, self-aware moments that tickle the most.
The rogues' gallery features Catwoman (played by Lee Meriwether, as series regular Julie Newmar had a scheduling conflict), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and the Joker (Cesar Romero), all struggling to work together as a team. The invention they steal is a dehydrator which can turn people into dust, then re-form by adding water - because, science! The four combine their talents well most of the time, but the Joker is relegated to the odd chuckle and bringing their hostage his tea.
Meriwether's Catwoman gets the lion's share of screen time, as she's also used to romantically manipulate Bruce Wayne in the guise of Russian reporter Miss Kitka. She and Bruce end up on a date and are later kidnapped by the master criminals as bait for Batman. Of course, he doesn't show up, but it gives West the chance to show off his fighting skills without the Batsuit. The actor plays Wayne with a degree of sexual naivety and boyish sweetness - even when he tries to be threatening, it comes across as rather teenage.
West's deadpan delivery and talent for slapstick really shines through. His funniest gag happens as Batman stumbles across a bomb in the villains’ tavern hideout, prompting him to clear the rest of the bar, before desperately trying to get rid of the explosive on the pier outside.
He goes one way and sees two nuns; he goes in another direction and there's a mother with a pram, then a brass band. Batman races through the crowd to the other side of the pier, gets to the edge and still can't catch a break – a kissing couple on one side, ducks on the other and somehow the nuns and pram again.
"Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb." It's the kind of line you want to hear in a packed movie theatre.
As for the evildoers, you've got to love antagonists who have bad science on their side. Their fiendish plot to take over the world by reducing the United World Security Council to dust sounds ridiculous on paper, but their earnest performances are enthralling. Gorshin's maniacal grin, Romero's trademark laugh, Meredith's comic quack and Meriwether's Sultry seriousness are all delightfully daft.
Meanwhile, back in the script, Batman tracks the contemptible quartet to their submarine lair, and a glorious end fight scene takes place, complete with comic onomatopoeia splashed across the screen Poor Bots sees Catwoman without her mask and realizes she's been posing as Miss Kitka all along. "Holy heartbreak!" All that's left for Batman, wearing his utility belt over his apron, is to sort the piles of dehydrated council members into separate vials and rehydrate them as the world waits with bated breath. Thank goodness he had that 'Super Molecular Dust Separator' machine to hand. The movie ends with the delegates speaking in the wrong languages, implying that the procedure has messed with their minds a little. But hey, it's Batman, and he can just slink out the window and leave them to it.
In the first live-action Batman serials of the 40s, the character was very much an establishment figure. Batman: The Movie, on the other hand, is practically counterculture, which is no surprise considering the time in which it was made. Authority figures like Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) and Chief O'Hara (Stafford Repp) are benign and toothless - they do nothing bar gasp at hilariously paper-thin riddle deductions. A Pentagon official who sold a submarine to the Penguin is shown playing tiddlywinks - it's safe to say that this film sneers at the establishment.
Robin's judgmental outbursts about riff-raff and cheesy lines about supporting the police and doing the right thing may seem like clichéd boy-scout prattling, but he's also part of a clever pastiche of a simpler, more straight-laced time. You can't have a superhero pop a cat in an inflatable dinghy while saying the words "Bon Voyage, pussy' and not know what you're doing.
Batman: The Movie, like the TV show, is a brilliant send-up of the classic serials of the 40s and the Silver Age of comics. Somewhere along the way, the audience started to laugh at rather than with this incarnation, which for its time was a bold reimagining. Batman was designed to be a pop-art parody that took the pompous wind out of our sails through silly setups and purr-fect puns. It's a deliberate farce that is both colorful and subversive.