Published on July 23rd, 2014 | by Michael0
The argument will rage for generations to come. What is the best on screen Batman? Is it Tim Burton’s 1989 effort perhaps? Of course not. As my colleague put it so recently, Tim Burton makes Tim Burton films and then annoys you by naming characters in it after characters you love. But the first three films in the series Burton started aren’t without merit. Neither are the three Christopher Nolan films, which at least give the superhero genre the proper, honest-to-god trilogy it had previously sorely lacked. All six films (your author has not had the pleasure of watching Batman & Robin) fall woefully short of the gold standard in not only Batman films but superhero movies in general, set way back in the swinging sixties.
Initially conceived as a pilot for the wildly popular TV series, Batman: The Movie was eventually made between seasons 1 and 2. The film therefore need waste no time setting up its players and instead grabs the audience by the throat early on and proceeds to take them from thrilling set piece to thrilling set piece, stopping only to allow the cavalcade of hams in the cast utter some of the best dialogue ever committed to screen. It’s silly, it’s campy, it has scenes in which no fewer than five actors attempt to outdo each other in an all-you-can-eat scenery buffet. It is, in short, absolutely glorious.
The film stars Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin, reprising their roles from the TV show. Also making the transition from the small screen to cinema is scriptwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. Semple had written the pilot for the TV series as well as the first four episodes before being named Executive Story Editor for the first series. Part of the reason he got this gig, aside from his undoubted talent, is that he had written a TV series featuring the son of Chinese detective Charlie Chan. Late into the process, this series had been cancelled as the studio didn’t want a show with an ‘ethnic lead.’ ABC producer William Dozier felt they owed Semple one, so he was approached to adapt Batman. Semple, whose late career included script work on The Parallax View and Papillon sadly died in March this year, aged 91.
The cinematic Batman is among the late screenwriter’s best work and starts with an excellent credit sequence in which the major players are caught in a roving spotlight. A message from the film makers sets the tone:
We wish to express our gratitude to the enemies of crime and crusaders against crime throughout the world for their inspirational example. To them, and to lovers of adventure, lovers of pure escapism, lovers of unadulterated entertainment, lovers of the ridiculous and the bizarre— To funlovers everywhere— This picture is respectfully dedicated.
The film doesn’t fail to deliver. Inside the first couple of minutes we are treated to our heroes speeding along not just in the Batmobile (the definitive Batmobile, no less) but also a brand new Batcopter, making use of the film’s bigger budget over its TV counterpart. Compare that to how long it takes heroes to suit up in films these days. Bruce and Dick had been enjoying a rare day off but when trouble calls they respond with ‘characteristic speed and resolve’ (narration is provided as ever by Executive Produce Dozier). The distress call takes them out to sea and a luxury yacht. As Batman attempts a daring rescue the yacht vanishes and in its place a shark attacks the Caped Crusader. Luckily, the Boy Wonder is on hand to pass Batman a can of Shark Repellent Bat-spray with which he can fend of the fish (if you think this is uncanny, the spray was one of four, killer whales, Manta rays and giant octopuses were also accounted for).
After a press conference in which Batman flat out lies to the Gotham public and encounters for the first time the beguiling Miss Kitka, the Dynamic Duo along with Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) and Chief O’Hara (Stafford Repp in a ridiculous Irish brogue) get down to the business of deducing which criminal was involved in the maritime shenanigans. After some truly heroic logic from these great minds, a thought occurs to Gordon ‘so dreadful I scarcely dare give it utterance’. Our quartet of heroes faces an equal number of villains, the four marquee villains from the TV series: The Joker (Cesar Romero, white face paint over his famous moustache) The Riddler (Frank Gorshin, impersonator extraordinaire) and The Penguin (prolific thespian and Twilight Zone stalwart Burgess Meredith). Julie Newmar, TVs Catwoman, had a scheduling conflict but is well replaced in the role by the stunning Lee Meriwether. What manner of scheme could bring such a cabal together? Batman thinks that four such criminals could have only one target: The entire world!
The plot neatly marries the air of camp parody for which the series is justly famous with the 60s penchant for colourful absurdism. The villains steal a revolutionary new device developed by Commodore Schmidlapp (Reginald Denny) ostensibly created to aid in the production of whisky but which can be repurposed to reduce human beings into piles of dust to be reconstituted later. Their target is the World Security Council, a UN style organisation with 9 global representatives dedicated to finding world peace. Before they can put their diabolic plan into action however they must deal with Batman and Robin. What follows is a string of attempts on the lives of our heroes, the most convoluted of which involves a giant jack-in-the-box, a kidnapping plot and an exploding octopus. Needless to say the Dynamic Duo survives every one of these attempts though a running joke has the villainous quartet celebrating every attempt as a success before learning the truth. The closest they come is when Batman and Robin are trapped to a buoy by magnets and torpedoes are launched at them from a Penguin-shaped submarine (which doesn’t even stand out as strange at this point). Batman deflects the first missiles, reversing the polarity years before John Pertwee did it. The last one appears to have hit but Batman and Robin were miraculously saved by ‘the nobility of the nearly human porpoise’. That’s right; a sea mammal selflessly hurled itself in front of a torpedo to save them.
Another attempt sees the villains attempting to blow up their own lair (a seafront bar) in perhaps the most famous set piece in the film. Batman’s attempts to dispose of the bomb safely (thwarted by the Salvation Army, two lovers in a boat, propane tanks and some ducks) provide the template the finale to The Dark Knight Rises in which a much gruffer incarnation tries the same thing. This scene also gives rise to some of the film’s greatest lines; when Robin asks how Batman could risk his life for the riffraff in the bar his mentor replies ‘They may be drunks Robin, but they’re still people’ and Batman’s exasperated ‘some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!’ has justly gone down in cinematic history.
It’s not just Adam West as Batman who has all the fun. The actors playing the bickering villains dive into their roles with real relish and are each given a chance to shine. Many of the TV guests loved playing roles on Batman because it gave them a chance to ham it up and the film is no different. Cesar Romero and Frank Gorshin bring a manic glee their roles, though Romero’s Joker is relegated to an oddly subservient position- he pretends to be the captured Commodore’s servant and acts out the Penguin’s orders aboard the submarine. Gorshin on the other hand attempts to outdo West in the strangest delivery stakes with his supremely odd inflections. Burgess Meredith is perhaps the finest actor among the cast and had a prolific career on both the small and silver screens. He brings class as the squawking Penguin, whether quoting Benjamin Franklin’s classic ‘we must hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately’ or ad libbing his ‘every one of them has a mother’ line about the villains’ dehydrated henchmen. Lee Meriwether has a rare triple role, playing Catwoman, Selina Kyle (very briefly) and Miss Kitka a phony Russian national and skilled seductress whose charms fool even Bruce Wayne. She also has the rare honour of getting the better of both Batman and Robin in the film’s climatic fight.
Said fight takes place atop Penguin’s submarine and is a battle royale between the Dynamic Duo and the United Underworld and their minions. The famous Pow! Blam! Effects of the TV series make a welcome appearance during this fight and everyone involved appears to have a ball. Everyone ends up in the drink at least once before Batman and Robin get the upper hand and secure the dehydrated remains of the world security council. However, fate intervenes and Commodore Schmidlapp accidentally smashes the test tubes! Naturally enough, having failed to prevent the attacks on the council in the first place as well as not managing to return them safely, Batman and Robin are tasked with reconstituting the 9 men themselves as the world holds its breath. The Council is successfully revived but each one now speaks with the voice of another! Batman is canny enough to recognise this as a sort of allegory of international co-operation and understanding and audacious enough to claim it as a victory. He and Robin make their exit (through the window and down the side of the building in order to be inconspicuous) as the caption informs us that we’ve reached
The Living End?
It’s a perfect end to an imperfect but wildly entertaining film. So where does the film stand in the Batman pantheon? For me there’s something very odd about the film and the 120 TV episodes that make up this iteration of Batman. And that is that they are a spoof which uses the very intellectual property it spoofs. Another example of this would be the version of Casino Royale which would come out the following year and used the name James Bond throughout, as well as being loosely based on the first Ian Fleming novel of the same name but generally this is very rarely seen outside of Comic Relief skits. The 1960s Batman frequently plays up to its own ridiculousness in a manner which would have benefited, say, Tim Burton’s equally wacky but oddly humourless films. Christopher Nolan’s efforts are grim and worthy but while that approach has long worked well in the comics it comes across as incongruous on screen. Batman is, when all said and done, a man who dresses up as a rodent to catch bad guys. Batman is often considered to be a dark and tortured character but consider this: his response to the death of his parents is to create an awesome alter ego, to invent gadgets and vehicles to capture criminals and prevent other children from going through what he did. As arch nemesis The Joker observes in a Batman/Punisher crossover ‘he reacted just like a child would’. Adam West may be more Caped Crusader than Dark Knight but that doesn’t mean his take on Batman is any less valid than subsequent portrayals. I’d argue that his Batman and this film are truer to the essence of the character than anything that came later.
So why no more films? Well series two of the series suffered a decline in ratings from which the series never fully recovered and plans to do a second feature starring Batgirl between series two and three never materialised. The series concluded after more than one hundred glorious episodes which while frequently rebroadcast have not been available on home media due to legal disputes. That is set to change though and this November the entire series will be released on Blu Ray. As well as the stars of this film, you can keep an eye out for such luminaries as Vincent Price, Tallulah Bankhead, Liberace, Bruce Lee and the recently deceased Eli Wallach. The film is already available on Blu Ray so if you haven’t already seen it there is no excuse not to go and do so immediately. After all, it is for all lovers of unadulterated entertainment.