As a movie and as a TV series “Batman” belongs in a time capsule, not of Batman lore but of a loving tribute to the pop sensation of the swinging 60s. To watch it again after almost 50 years is to be reminded of a time when television – and for that matter pop culture in general – were relentlessly upbeat. It was a tonic to an era of Vietnam and Civil Rights. The outside world gave us war, riots, social injustice and Richard Nixon. The world inside the box gave us Andy Griffith, The Clampets, The Addams Family, The Munsters and Gilligan’s Island in the years before the enormous impact of “All in the Family” wiped them out like a massive hurricane.
“Batman” exists comfortably in the midst of all these shows. It exudes the kind of squeaky clean tone mixed with the fiery pop madness of the Connery-era James Bond. In short, it’s a bucket of fun that you can’t for one second take seriously. It’s hard to tell whether the show was trying to be true to the comic books or just a straight arrow comedy. Either way, what came of it cannot be discounted. It’s so cornball, it’s fun and so much fun because it’s cornball.
William Dozier who adapted the show for television developed this movie as a lead-in to the show. However, production problems forced it to be released after the first season had already aired. In that way, the movie got caught up in the hype for the show, which had become an enormous hit. That hype, by the way, came from a refreshing sense of good clean fun. It was corny, not broody, and that’s what made it a hit.
In a sense, “Batman” might also be invaluable based on what followed. In the 1980s, comic book heroes got broody and mean. Some sense of overriding darkness made its way into a medium that had never experienced it before. Even Batman himself got a refit in order to bring him out of the cornball era that Dozier had created. Frank Miller’s 1986 opus “The Dark Night Return,” a four-issue comic book mini-series reintroduced Batman as a broody crime fighter with serious mental and moral issues. In the context of the character, it was invaluable because it took Batman out of the hokey jokey era of the 60s and brought him up to date.
Still, one cannot discount Dozier’s contribution. It fit right into the blitzed-out 1960, by approaching the character with a pop art sensibility. The movie is just plain fun, pitting Batman and Robin against a quartet of their most nefarious bad guys, Penguin (Burgess Meredith), Joker (Caser Romero), Riddler (Frank Gorshen) and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether). They want to use a stolen evaporator gun to steal the members of the United Nations. Batman and Robin, of course follow the clues that lead them to the crooks. The movie isn’t much more than just a hook on which to hang the gags. Check out the opening scene in which The Caped Crusader is stuck on a ladder with a shark on his leg and order The Boy Wonder to toss down a can of Shark Repellent. Cut to Robin who pulls the can from a supply of repellant for various creature such as barracuda, whale and manta ray.
This is a comedy. It’s knows it’s a comedy and we aren’t expected to think that it’s anything else. In that way, it’s better than “Batman and Robin,” which attempted to have it both ways and failed miserably. We go into “Batman” knowing that it is a comedy. We love the oversized acting. We love The Penguin’s penguin sub complete with flippers. We love the signs posted all over the batcave that tell us the name and description of every single item in the room in big bold letters. We love the socko fight scenes in which the punches are punctuated with gonzo sound descriptions: Slam! Oof! Ulk! POW! We even love that crazy Dutch tilt that appears from time to time and apparently for no real reason.
Batman is, of course, the broodiest and most psychologically damaged of all the comic book superheroes, but as played by Adam West he’s a do-gooder, a boy scout in a cowl and knee-high boots. West never gives a single indication that he’s not in on the joke. He plays the role for laughs and that’s just about right. This is not a movie of complexity, it’s a movie of time and place, a time when comic book characters were good down to their toes and bad guys were bad only as far as censorship would allow. It wouldn’t last, but it’s nice to have a movie like this to remind us that such an era ever happened at all.