A film review by Craig J. Koban
BATMAN: THE MOVIE
40th Anniversary Retrospective Review
1966, G, 105 mins.
Adam West: Bruce Wayne/ Batman / Burt Ward: Robin/ Dick Grayson / Cesar Romero: The Joker / Lee Meriwether: The Catwoman / Burgess Meredith: The Penguin / Frank Gorshin: The Riddler / Alan Napier: Alfred / Neil Hamilton: Commissioner Gordon
Directed by Leslie H. Martinson / Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr.
"FOR THE FIRST TIME ON THE MOTION PICTURE SCREEN IN COLOR!
Adam West As Batman and Burt Ward as Robin together with all their fantastic derring-do and their dastardly villains, too!"
- Tagline from the original theatrical movie poster for BATMAN: THE MOVIE
Holy open-mindedness, Batman!
In the history of pioneering creative forces behind some of the last century’s most pervasive of popular characters, no other figure can stand apart as being more easy-going and flexible about his creation than the late Bob Kane.
When he first created “The Bat-man” (hyphen dropped within his first few appearances in DC Comics’ Detective Comics) in 1939, Kane always envisioned this persona as a polar opposite of the other significant spandex clad hero of the time – Superman. Whereas Kal-El was decked out in the bright colors of the America flag and fought for Yankee virtues that bordered on incredibly saccharine, the Dark Knight Detective was an ominous, dark, and fearsome foil to him as a hero. Batman was a neurotic vigilante who took matters into his own hands and dished out the type of vengeful justice that he felt the system had failed to do.
In hindsight, Kane was an incredibly forgiving artistic force if you look at how the Batman character has been portrayed in the annals of popular fiction. Arguably, no other creation in the history of comics (or any other literary medium, for that matter) has seen such incredible paradigm shifts in terms of how he was presented to readers and audiences. Sure, the Caped Crusader made his first foray into the screen in two woefully under-budgeted adventure serials in the 40’s (they attempted to preserve the somber tone of the early comics, as best as you could of a shoestring budget), but Batman’s image would gain admired and fashionable acceptance to audiences with his premiere on the TV airways in 1966. The character would never, ever be the same.
As far as ABC was concerned in the mid-60’s, Batman sort of single-handedly saved the network. In 1965 ABC was a failing network that constantly lagged behind in the ratings and needed a huge hit to take them out of the red. After failing to option Superman and Dick Tracy for big budget, boob tube adaptations, producer William Dozer set his gaze squarely on Kane’s gloomy hero. After reading and digesting as many Batman comics as he could, Dozier realized – rather astutely – that the key top making Batman a stellar TV hit was to market the character to as wide of a demographic as possible. In essence, he had to attract both young children and adults.
He then had an epiphany – the show needed to be done as sternly and as seriously as possible, so much so that it would come across as solemn and death-defying to the tykes and – simultaneously – as uproariously funny to adults. The key with his approach was simple – the heroes (cast by then unknowns Adam West and Burt Ward, playing Batman and Robin respectively) would portray their roles as straight as possible, so straight that their tongues would appear not just in their cheeks, but to the point of puncturing them. The villains around them could be as outlandish as necessary, but Batman and Robin would be as earnest and stoic as humanly possible, treating the inane and inhumanly improbable events that happen around them with a large grain of salt.
That was the key to the show’s “camp” appeal, and the show sort of has grown through the decade to epitomize camp. Overplaying scenes to hammer home the chuckles did not generate the laughs; they were played earnestly so that the laughs would emerge from the performances. This approach for comedy predates Leslie Neilson’s famous work in great screen comedies like AIRPLANE! and the NAKED GUN films. He was funny because he was not in on the joke. The same could be said of Batman and Robin. They are such unrelenting Boy Scout figures that adhere to noble principles with such obsessive tunnel vision that they really have no clue how hilarious they come across as to the audience.
The TV show was the downright antithesis of the early Kane Batman comic strips. He was not a brooding and somewhat deranged night stalker; the 1960’s Batman was as wholesome as apple pie and as morally righteous as a preacher on Sunday. Any other creator could have cried foul at this completely 180 degree portrayal of their creation, but I think that Kane realized that – at the right time and place – popular characters needed a shake up for more mass consumption. The 1966 Batman is not the definitive Batman, nor does he even aspire to be. Instead, this Batman is a mirror reflection of the aesthetic milieu of the decade. It was bright, colorful, and whimsical – tying in its style to the enveloping Pop Art movement of the time – but it also was one of the first live action comic adaptations that understood comic books. The show used skewed angles, much like in comic panels, and did an underrated job at presenting a comic book universe on screen. Sure, Batman’s hide his visage behind a flimsy party mask, but that’s not the point. He’s endlessly amusing because of how seriously he takes himself wearing the mask.
In an odd move, BATMAN: THE MOVIE premiered in cinemas between the TV show’s first and second enormously popular seasons. Modern conventions usually see films adapted into popular TV shows, but the reverse is true for Batman. The film itself was originally intended as a pilot, of sorts, for the TV show. The producers instead opted to make the series first and, when it was an undeniable hit, the film was made and released when the show was on hiatus. This was a bold, yet ultimately successful move by the show’s creative forces. The film hit just when “Batmania” was taking off.
My first viewing of the film was at a re-issue here in Saskatoon at our oldest (and most beautiful) art-house theater – The Roxy – way, way back in 1979. I remember my father taking me and I further recall a delicate mixture of audience members. As a child the film thrilled me to no end; it was as serious as a heart attack to my young eyes. However, after viewing it endless times later in life (several times into early adolescence and even more times as an adult), the film breathed with a new, chaotic, daffy and capricious energy. As a child I never laughed through BATMAN: THE MOVIE. As an adult, I laugh all the way through it. The film, though my eyes now, is a wondrous achievement in cheese-infested, silly-without-mercy filmmaking economy. It's dumber than a bag of hammers, but it's gloriously dumb in witty and droll ways. You sort of roll your eyes with incredulous ridicule at its proceedings...in a complimentary way.
The plot of the film is sheer ridiculousness though and through. Millionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne and his “youthful ward” Dick Grayson are a homo-erotically laced duo out of costume, but when their Bat-phone goes off, they slide down the Bat-poles, hop into their Bat-mobile - or Bat-copter, or Bat-boat - to see Commissioner Gordon to discuss the latest Bat-emergency. When they arrive at police headquarters with characteristic speed and gusto, Gordon and the Caped Crusaders discover that their worst fears have been realized. Not one, not two, not three, but four “super villains” have teamed up in an attempt to take over the world. "Holy nightmare," Robin rightfully cries as they all discover these dark events. Gordon, on the other hand, is beside himself with worry. "A thought strikes me," he pitifully states, "so dreadful I scarcely dare give it utterance..."
It seems that the Joker (the brilliantly decadent Cesar Romero), the Penguin (immortalized by Burgess Meredith in a performance of sheer evil joy), the Catwoman (the incredibly sexy Lee Meriwether), and the Riddler (played with the manic intensity of multiple Jim Carrey’s after all of them have had ten espressos by Frank Gorshin) all have a dastardly plan. They want to kidnap the major leaders of the UN and de-liquefy them. This plan appears very nasty, which allows Gordon to lapse again into one of his insidiously funny musings. “Penguin, Joker, Riddler...and Catwoman, too! The sum of the angles of that rectangle is too monstrous to contemplate!” Uh…yeah…and how about the fact that they want to de-liquefy the world leaders?!
The film is wall-to-wall madness and foolishness that gets more contagiously entertaining as it progresses from one idiotic set piece to the next. One of the silliest moments occurs where Batman has a shark gnawing on his leg (the fakest-looking shark in movie history…easily) and Robin just so happens to give him some Bat-repellent-Shark spray that was laying dormant in the Bat-copter. He gives it too him while climbing down the Bat-copter's Bat-ladder (which has a label on the bottom of it - "Bat-ladder" - just in case the heroes forget what they are using). There is yet another giggle-inducing moment where both of the heroes seem trapped by a giant magnet that holds them to a buoy in the middle of the ocean. A torpedo is hurdling towards them. Of course, Batman has a gadget that will easily stop the weapon. He gets rid of the first two by can’t seem to stop the third. Why? His batteries went dead, confound it! Thankfully, there was a dolphin that willingly gives his life for the heroes. No, seriously. After it has saved their lives, Robin politely reflects, "Gosh, Batman...the abilities of the typical human porpoise."
Story wise, BATMAN: THE MOVIE is completely disposable…but maybe that’s the point. This comic book film is about tone, mood, energy, and presentation. The narrative and the adventure that Batman and Robin engage in are almost superfluous to their respective mugging of the camera for carefully placed comedic effect. The direction and dialogue alone greatly assists the characters to create such a fluff-filled pastry of daft delights, to take a page out of Robin’s handbook. This is one of those rare comic films that – despite being unfaithful to the source material – has an incredible amount of fun with the characters. In a modern age where our heroes are so often presented with broad and nihilistic strokes, Batman and Robin in this film are so refreshingly square and wholesome. It’s really hard not to like them.
The two are also aided by a great supporting cast. Following the TV show’s insistence on utilizing big-name celebes for filling out the roles of the villains, BATMAN: THE MOVIE was no exception. All four of the villainous roles are so marvelously portrayed with those types of broad, no-hold-barred sensibilities of absolute over-the-top enthusiasm that it’s also hard not to like them either. Many like the Joker by default, but my vote has to go with the intangible intensity Gorshin brings to the Riddler. He’s arguably the most sympathetic of all of the villains. He toys with the heroes with what he thinks are unbreakable riddles, but when Batman and Robin solve them and – gasp – are not eradicated by his schemes, he feels such a large amount of pain and frustration that it’s downright depressing. The Riddler proves in this film that the best costume clad villain with aspirations of world domination should always live vicariously through the heroes they want to slaughter. At one point he tells the Joker, “Outwitting Batman is my sole delight, my heaven on earth, my very paradise!” Okay, so he’s a few fries short of a Happy Meal, but when he puts his life in perspective like that, it’s so hard to see him fail.
As for the heroes, Burt Ward plays his role as The Boy Wonder as a young lad oozing with bright eyed exuberance, the kind that a boy may have after just discovering self-gratification for the first time. His energy is hilariously infectious. Some of his lines are delightful in their witty alliteration and demonstrate a poetry that many boys of his age only dream of having (my personal favourite is, “It looks bad Batman. That brassy bird has us Buffaloed!”). His constant brush with Herculean naivety also generates some incredible laughs. I especially loved one instance where he realizes the sheer insanity of the world they populate. He tells his partner, “When you think, Batman, with those four supercrooks hangin' around, it's amazing somebody hasn't already reported this place to the police!” Of course, Batman takes it all in stride and offers up a insidiously silly response that attempts to put his ward’s mind at ease. “Well, they live in a low neighborhood," he explains, “They’re used to curious sights, all of which they attribute to alcoholic delusions.”
West owns his dual role as much as anyone could. As a counterpoint to Ward, he is the stone cold authority figure that utters all of his lines with the command and emotional resonance of a doomed, Shakespearean persona…in blue and grey tights. He is so wonderfully mannered and nuanced. His Batman is so immeasurably hammy that you keel over with unbridled laughter at what a textbook narcissist he really is. Batman has no real clue how ridiculous he is and how unintentionally humorous his thoughts are. He engages in such wild, hyperbolic rants that how anyone does not chuckle at his presence is beyond me.
At one key point where his experiment to re-hydrate the world’s leaders back to their human form has failed with disastrous results, he matter-of-factly explains, “Who knows, Robin? This strange mixing of minds may be the greatest single service ever performed for humanity!” Yup, sure Batman. Uh-huh. West also engages in one of the film’s funniest moments where he tries to dispose of a large bomb planted by the villains in local tavern. He tries to throw it away, but too many things impede his progress, like nuns, baby carriages, kissing teenagers, and even small baby ducks. He grows slightly exasperated by stating, “Gee, sometimes you just can’t get rid of a bomb!” When he finally does get rid of it and Robin asks him why he would risk his own life over “the riffraff in the bar,” Batman straightens him out. “They may be pathetic drunks,” he tells him, "but they are also human beings.”
BATMAN: THE MOVIE is not the quintessential film of the famous DC Comics character. That honor would go to last year’s BATMAN BEGINS. Yet, the film – 40 years after its release – is one that kind of seems purposely forgotten when recalling the best of the Batman films. It’s not a film of an emotionally wounded anti-hero like Christopher Nolan or Tim Burton’s cinematic offerings (which have always been my preferred take on the character). Yet, for what it does, BATMAN: THE MOVIE is enormously entertaining with a slight-of-hand and whimsical comic brilliance. This take on the Batman mythos is pure cornball throughout its 105 minutes, but it’s a polished and slick production that is able to effortlessly endear and engender giddy laughs in ways that even modern comedies fall to do. The film amazingly still holds up as a breezy, carefree camp classic that stands apart as a unique work even from the best of the Batman films. To loosely paraphrase Commissioner Gordon, BATMAN: THE MOVIE is, “Clever…fiendishly clever!”
what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of the BATMAN films:
1. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) 2.
BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)
4. BATMAN (1989) 1/2
And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of the BATMAN films:
1. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)
4. BATMAN (1989) 1/2
5. BATMAN: THE MOVIE (1966) 1/2
6. BATMAN RETURNS (1992)
7. BATMAN FOREVER (1995) 1/2
8. BATMAN & ROBIN (1997) 1/2