CULT CORNER: Batman: The Movie (1966)

With the release of the entire series on Blu this week, Dylan makes a visit to 1960′s Gotham.

Who made it?: Leslie H. Martinson (Director), Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (Writer), William Dozier (Producer), 20th Century Fox.

Who’s in it?: Adam West, Burt Ward, Lee Meriwether, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, Frank Gorshin, Alan Napier, Neil Hamilton.

Tagline: “For the first time on the motion picture screen in color!”

IMDb rating: 6.3/10.

Only thirty years ago, Batman was not a serious character in the popular eye. Most would only have access to him via the Batman television series, a huge hit back in the sixties. Produced by the maker of The Monkees, it is essentially a slapstick comic book on-screen. And crucially, a comic strip – this is about as far as you can get from the Watchmen-esque graphic novels of recent years. Its tone is somewhere between a Carry On film and a forties weekly serial, and is bedecked with colourful villains, ridiculous props and even sillier scripts. It has passed into popular culture, with the music and the style becoming infamous for camp entertainment.

After the first season a movie was produced, and became the first feature-length outing for Batman in history. The plot follows the Caped Crusader (Adam West) and the Boy Wonder, Robin (Burt Ward), who chase down a ship only to discover that it’s a trap. Most worryingly of all, it seems that The Joker (Cesar Romero), The Riddler (Frank Gorshin), Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), and The Penguin (Burgess Meredith) have teamed up to take over the “United World Headquarters” by dehydrating the ministers. Cue jumping plastic sharks, popping henchmen and utter madness from start to finish.

Let’s just get one thing absolutely straight – this film is ridiculous. This is a movie where an ordinary ladder is deemed a gadget and thus is worthy of the moniker “Bat-ladder.” The direction, cinematography and writing is exhausting to watch on-screen. The plot is essentially irrelevant, and even what keeps it moving relies on insane logic. The only reason they are stopped from being blown up is because a shark threw itself in front of the missile, and their escape from a fall is due to a foam rubber convention breaking their fall. This is equally the case with the detective work. The pair realise that Catwoman is involved because the first trap is at sea; sea = C for Catwoman. I’m not joking.

Of course, with hi-octane gags constantly being wheeled out, it doesn’t always work. The flying scenes in the Batcopter go on for far too long, and the amount of time Batman and Robin spend dodging missiles probably amounts to fifteen minutes – and you could cut twenty off the picture without thinking. Although the bad choreography is funny to begin with, by the time we reach the fifth round of mock fisticuffs it gets a little tiresome, even if seeing the Dark Knight fighting with a house cat is hilarious. On top of that, the film contains perhaps the least amount of character development of any movie ever. The acting falls into two camps; shouting/laughing or sombre monologues. Each character is summed up purely by their stereotypes, and nothing more – The Riddler even has a shelf of riddles, The Joker a shelf of jokes, and so on.

Don’t get me wrong, many of the visual gags are superb, and infamous scenes such as Batman running about with a bomb still work. However, does this really give it any merit? Is this version of Batman any better than the more ludicrous Bond films of the late seventies/early eighties? And, most importantly, is it a disgrace to the name of an iconic character? I think not. Several factors must be considered when looking at Batman: The Movie. Firstly, this isn’t too far from what the comics were like at the time. From the bright blue suit to the ridiculous plots, Gold and Silver Age Batman was very silly indeed, and a far cry from the Gothic, noir crimefighter we see today. Although the tide was definitely changing, this was a legitimate representation of the character.

Not only that, it manages to absolutely nail the feeling of the television show. Although the programme might not have had the most depth to emulate, this really isn’t as easy as it sounds. Dad’s ArmyRising Damp and even On the Buses tried to bring their feeling to the big screen and failed. Despite the huge number of remakes in recent times, virtually all have been either a disappointment or a re-translation. From the music to the cartoon sound effects, this film is a spot-on representation, and fans of the television series will be delighted.

And also, Batman: The Movie does have more to it than tomfoolery and silliness. As bizarre as it sounds, it contains some genuinely sharp satire in places. It is anti-authoritarian, with the police and the army being seen as both stuffy and hopeless. The United World Council is just a bunch of stereotypes from across the world fighting and not even attempting debate, let alone an argument. When Batman rings up the Admiral to enquire whether he has sold a bomb, he not only picks up the phone whilst playing tiddlywinks with his secretary, but admits to selling one and even finds the name and address of who he sold it to. With the Cold War riding high, it’s clear the writers were happy to lampoon those in charge – this is a long way from McCarthyism.

No more is this reflected than in the Dynamic Duo themselves. The funniest thing about West and Ward’s performances is that they play the pair absolutely straight. They are beyond paragons of virtue, pausing mid-mission to discuss the evils of drink, and out of their costumes dress like they are in a fifties advert for cigarettes. They are hopelessly inept in places, letting baddies go, making huge leaps of faith, and even messing up their final plan. Although by definition the heroes of the piece, their laughably uptight values and lack of skill makes them ridiculous rather than iconic.

Whilst this is going on, the baddies get to hang around in cool hideouts, in bright clothes, mocking the law at every step. Catowman is the only woman in the film, and manages to bring an air of sex appeal to a product that is full of the sterility usually seen in a PSA film. In many ways that sums up the film as a whole; what if the stereotypes of conservative fifties America were attacked by flamboyant madmen? And at least within the broad spectrum of popular culture, is that not what a lot of sixties counterculture came to represent?

I don’t want to get too carried away – this is still a film where shark repellent is used as a legitimate weapon. Batman: The Movie is very, very silly, but is genuinely reflective of its time, and any fans of the TV series who haven’t seen it simply must check it out. This is not a disgrace on the Dark Knight’s name, merely a different representation, and compared to similar attempts with the same characters in both comic and film form, has a great deal going for it.

Although there were plans for more films, after the waning of the television series these were shelved. Burt Ward found it incredibly hard to get work after, appearing in a string of low-budget movies and working the convention circuit, whilst also getting on with charity work and investments in other areas of the film business. Adam West has re-emerged in recent times, with a recurring role in Family Guy. Both appeared in 2002′s Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Alex and Burt, albeit without the costumes due to copyright reasons. We will check it out in a future entry.

Best Scene

The “some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb” scene is a nice summary of what this film is like – although I’m pretty sure it would’ve gone off about halfway through the clip.

Also, this is essentially the end of The Dark Knight Rises.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Originally planned as the pilot film for the Batman TV series, the movie was instead produced between the show’s first and second seasons. The producers took advantage of the larger budget to have a number of new Bat-gadgets constructed, such as the BatBoat.
  • Bruce Wayne drives a Chrysler Imperial convertible, while the Batmoblie is a 1955 Lincoln Futura prototype car customised by George Barris Inc.
  • Julie Newmar (Catwoman in the TV series) does not appear in this film because she did not know about it and had signed to do another project. By the time she was informed, she could not get out of the other commitment in time to do this movie.
  • At the end of the film one of the delegates is seen banging his shoe on the table while yelling. This is a parody of Nikita Khrushchev’s famous behavior during a debate in the United Nations General Assembly in 1960.
  • Adam West agreed to do the film partly with a stipulation to have more screen time as Bruce Wayne.
  • Dick Grayson appears outside of his Robin persona only twice and very briefly in the film. First, at the very beginning, and later when Bruce returns to Wayne Manor after being kidnapped. Dick’s only spoken lines are in the latter scene.

Dylan Spicer

Dylan graduated from Brighton Film School and and went on to complete an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. He has worked on award-winning short and feature films. He is currently experimenting with Narradu Memories, and his online audio drama giantcannibals.co.uk.

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