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Review

ekm’s BAT-MANUAL: CHAPTER 2 – BATMAN ‘66

ekm’s BAT-MANUAL: CHAPTER 2 – BATMAN ‘66

I never liked the BATMAN TV show, even when I was a kid.  I still don’t.  This has nothing to do with the Camp factor, nor do I have any particular grudge against its very period-specific take on the Dynamic Duo.  It just never spoke to me.  It wasn’t what I wanted out of my four-color costumed adventurers, and so when my friends would rush home from the swimming pool on a Saturday afternoon to catch reruns on the local affiliate station, I’d crash on the couch with a beaten-to-hell-and-back issue of The Amazing Spider-Man I’d already consumed a hundred times, and that I’d consume again a hundred times more.  Maybe I’d grab two, because STAR TREK was on right after, and I couldn’t get into that shit, either. 

While I would eventually discover the adventures of Kirk & Co. via the combined magic of early HBO and STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, Batman was, both as a character, and as a television series, a complete wash for me.  I was a Marvel kid. A family member who knew I loved Spidey and Daredevil might occasionally make the mistake of assuming that automatically meant I was in for the DC characters, and would kindly but erroneously gift me the latest issue of Detective Comics.  I’d try to read it, but I just didn’t get it.  The artwork, the self-seriousness, the outright blandness of it all, simply put me off.  The image of Adam West, standing there in a form-fitting outfit that lovingly embraced his Dad Bod, lecturing Robin about the importance of performing one’s Important Civic Duties, very likely corrupted the comics’ ongoing, intentional move toward the tone of Bob Kane’s original 1939 adventures; it did for me, at least.  I just couldn’t take the guy seriously.  He was goofy and boring, just like Superman was goofy and boring.  It was an opinion that would last until later that decade, with the combined publication of The Dark Knight* and The Killing Joke, followed by a 1989 movie you probably haven’t ever seen or heard of.**  Superman, however, is still goofy and boring. 

While BATMAN ’66 might have enforced my opinion that the Caped Crusader was kind of a square, it’s not like I was allergic to the show or something.  I didn’t hold up my fingers in the form of a cross to ward it off; that’s what the remote was for.  Nonetheless, I didn’t hate it.  If it was on, and there was literally nothing else to do, I’d let it run.  That being said, I’d probably check out halfway through, but being then a prepubescent, I’d yet to discover other ways with which to occupy myself, so yeah, whatever: BATMAN.  Like with STAR TREK, I’d only come to understand the intent of the show in spite of its datedness once I was old enough to appreciate this latter element (which was odd, given my then-equal love for 80s Slashers, Hammer Horror, and the Universal Monsters); but it’s important to note that my exposure to BATMAN reruns was during an era in which Superman could believably fly on screen, and STAR WARS was challenging our expectations of what adventure stories could and should present to us.  Adam West and Burt Ward climbing a wall by way of a sideways camera looked hopelessly clumsy rather than intentional. 

Years later, the show developed a near-hilarious public response to its near-sinister reputation.  Comic Book Nerds were worked into paroxysms of rage during the build-up to Tim Burton’s BATMAN Summer ’89 release.  I can still smell the nachos on the breath of many a Heroes World customer, and I can count the corn chip crumbles with which imaginary birds had built equally imaginary nests in their beards; in fact, the one I’m thinking of now looks an awful lot like Devin Faraci.  The NEW MOVIE is the REAL Batman, not that STUPID show that COMPLETELY MISREPRESENTED the CHARACTER, they ranted between swigs of Jolt Cola and deep gasps of the sweet, precious wind that further inflated the bags that made up the whole of their respective selves.  While the mantra of Course Correction that made up a considerable slice of Warner Brothers’ hype machine would be cast into the void following the film’s gargantuan success, and although BATMAN ’66 would ultimately go on to become simply one of many iterations of the character – some beloved, some less so – it never fails to generate an impassioned response, either For or Against.  To this day, one particular film critic I know personally runs into serious danger of heart failure if and when you mention any Batman-related film or television series beyond the Adam West show, and do so without scorn; whether the potential fatality of such an outburst lies in his truly bizarre devotion to the show, or whether this has more to do with the management of his personal and professional life, remains to be seen.  TUNE IN NEXT WEEK!  SAME BAT-TIME, SAME BAT-CHANNEL!

My not-friend’s well-being may be called in to question, and his taste in what constitutes an idealized Batman is undeniably iffy, but neither is without merit.  BATMAN ’66 is universally regarded as “Camp,” both lovingly and with derision, but much of what renders it thus is its almost slavish accuracy to the very comics the audiences thought the show was making fun of.  It wasn’t.  Anyone who calls themselves a fan of the character and then dismisses the show as “inaccurate” has never bothered to read the very books DC was publishing up to and including the 1960s.  If they had, they’d understand that TV’s Batman not only looked, felt, and stank of the content rolling off the line, but even went so far as to faithfully adapt stories straight from the source.  This can’t be emphasized enough. 

First, let’s talk about the Camp factor.  We need to get this out of the way, because it’s inextricably linked to the show, and rarely in the proper fashion.  There’s a common misperception that the producers were in fact making fun of Batman, when the truth is that they understood the inherent silliness of the concept, and chose to present it as-is, with everyone involved in on the joke.  Rather than mock the concept, they played it completely straight, and allowed the outlandish premise to drive the laughs rather than the actors performing it.  This is key to its humor, and why something that’s supposed to be funny (BATMAN & ROBIN) is, in fact, not — Uma Thurman is trying so hard to play Camp when she ought to be going for the Oscar the role would never win her, while the film around her made the character look absurd.  Adam West didn’t go for yuks by soliciting them; he went for yuks by not soliciting them.***  There’s a key difference, and it’s one that likely went over my friends’ heads and allowed them to take the show seriously, while simultaneously going over mine and causing me to grumble: This shit’s stupid.  We were both right, and all wrong.

I know some of you have got to remember the garbage DC was publishing at the time.  Raise your hand if you remember the one where Alfred the Butler got the flying robot armor?  Or Batman’s rainbow of costumes?  How about the one where Batman was forced to hold a gorilla over his head to prevent a bomb from going off?  Or the one that tapped into the “Paul is Dead” rumors by featuring zombie Beatle-stand-ins?  What about the issue that featured Batman too busy to fight crime because he was watching the BATMAN television show…??? 

“Camp,” indeed.  Marvel was just a few years old at this point, and already its content was delivering a Jack Kirby-style uppercut to National/DC’s historically weak chin.  For further evidence, look no further than the original Captain Marvel, a character published by Fawcett, and one who managed to outsell Superman despite being a complete and total rip-off of Superman.  More to the point, Batman, the comic series, was in danger of being cancelled.  That’s how bad things were in the the DC Funnybooks.  So let’s take the notion that BATMAN ’66 committed some crime against the so-called “Dark Knight,” stuff the argument in same sack as all the other cute kittens (including, but not limited to, the notion that THE NEXT GENERATION is good, and BABYLON 5 is not), and throw it into a fucking lake.  That cat needs to drown. 

This doesn’t make BATMAN ’66 the particular iteration of the character fans necessarily want, but it’s an interpretation every bit as valid as the substantially more-racist serial from 1943 (or its 1949 follow-up, which manages to be even more grueling than the first).  The chief difference between the two is that BATMAN ’66 knows exactly what it is, and invites you to have a laugh at its absurdity; THE BATMAN is so po-faced in its Patriot sensibilities as to be equally funny, albeit for all the wrong reasons.  Nonetheless, neither is any less accurate than later works by Nolan, Burton, Snyder, and, yes, Schumacher.  

For one thing, the series — as well as it’s big screen tie-in movie, simply titled BATMAN (and best known for its Shark Repellant bit, which is only funny because we all know that Batman is so badass that he actually punches sharks in the face) — completely nails the villains as presented at the time.  Arguments can be successfully made that in some cases, they haven’t been topped.  Casting consisted of a notable stable of slumming character actors hamming it up to full effect, all cranked up to eleven while West and Ward keep things reasonably low-key-earnest.  Make no mistake: there are no MOVIE STARS here, which is a distinctive reminder that there’s nothing less funny than a person who thinks they’re beingfunny, and isn’t  There’s not a weak banana in the bunch; even the boring Baddies are boring only because they were bad ideas at the time of creation.  When we’re all still talking about Egghead, we know it has less to do with the legacy of a beloved character than the fact that it’s Vincent Price chewing scenery like a shark due for a good face-punch. 

Off the top, you have what is probably the most faithful live-action Joker, even if Caesar Romero’s mustache is clearly visible beneath the greasepaint; bring the performance down a notch, or shift it even slightly to the left, and he’s potentially the best version of the character, Mark Hamill’s voice work notwithstanding.  TWILIGHT ZONE thrice-player Burgess Meredith might lack the girth, but he’s the only Penguin that’s worth a damn as of yet; and Frank Gorshin’s Riddler is The Riddler.  There were three different actresses playing a single Catwoman, and while each neatly summarizes the pre-YEAR ONE cosmetic reinterpretation (and one that would later inform the depiction seen in BATMAN RETURNS), Julie Newmar remains the one to best fill out the contours of the outfit.   

All credit due to Newmar, Kitt, and Meriwether, the lady to make the strongest impression was Yvonne Craig, whose Batgirl was interchangeably gorgeous in both her civilian and crime fighting guises; I’m a sucker for redheads, so the wig does good things for a woman who was already the standout of my favorite Terrible Elvis Movie, KISSIN’ COUSINS.  Superficialities aside, it’s probably the only time the character has received her due via animation or live-action, and looks as ready to pole-dance as she is to kick nefarious ass.  Neither can be said of Alicia Silverstone. 

If the show (and movie) are stupid, it’s intentional, but most importantly, it’s faithful.  The “Dark Knight Detective” model is young insofar as Batman’s overall career — that particular rendition hasn’t existed even half the character’s lifespan as of 2019.  What Frank Miller unintentionally popularized was the notion of heroism as an extremist version of vigilante justice, which served as a response to the very brand of Grim n’ Gritty book he established with Daredevil; and his semi-satirization launched a thousand copycat Grimdark takes on costumed heroes who neither wanted nor deserved the additional shading.  While it’s true that The Dark Knight Returns may have restored Bob Kane’s original conception of an outsider who countered Evil with a strong right hook that left both bruising and the a stinging hint of fascism, Miller’s rebranding was hardly some sort of radical departure from a brief but memorable miscalculation of concept.   

In other words, TV didn’t “ruin Batman.”  The Batman we’re told made so powerful an early impression was gone within his first year.  The moment Robin made his debut in Batman #1 — a decision made to lighten the hero up, it’s important to note — the writing was on the wall.  Soon, the Dynamic Duo were walking the streets in broad daylight, receiving the key to Gotham City, and faced with such memorable scenarios as that time Batman was transformed into Bat-Baby.  One has to ask themselves whether BATMAN ’66 would have attempted such a storyline had the special effects existed to pull it off, and then go ahead and scream YES as loudly as possible.  

One hangup the show managed to avoid was the one most frequently associated with Batman and his long-legged male companion.  There couldn’t be any less sexual chemistry between Adam West and Burt Ward (though, to be honest, there couldn’t be any less sexual chemistry between Adam West and anyone).  Deep dive analysts engaging in a homosexual reading of the pair’s relationship are experiencing a homophobic response, and should kindly include themselves as the previously-mentioned sack of adorable, drowning kittens.  Yes, they slide down poles in order to change into their homoerotic outfits, and then ride down a deep tunnel.  Show me a dude eating a hot dog, and we can all make very superficial observations of that, too.  Batman comes off as such a dopey Crossing Guard when talking down to a Robin who seems ready to either 1) jerk off , or 2) eat Pez, that the thought of either one introducing the other to The Long Arm of Justice seems almost unthinkable.  This is perhaps aided by Ward’s unique presence as an ageless Manchild: he’s too young to be the hero, but too old to be playing with the hero’s action figure.****  One could make a similar observation about the 1943 serial, which featured a 16 year-old Dick Grayson and just seemed bizarre rather than the eyebrow-raising partnership of the comics.  It’s queer, but only in the traditional meaning of the word.  A blatantly Gay Reading would eventually become justified in the Batman and Robin relationship (as dramatized), but it would take nearly thirty years to get there, and it had nothing to do with BATMAN ’66.

You probably had to have been around when the show first aired, or young enough to have appreciated it when it entered syndication. Age plays an important factor in how Pop Culture establishes its legacy and then protects it by bearing new fruit ripened for each subsequent generation (STAR WARS), or how it withers in the sun after a brief flowering.  DC has finally gotten around to acknowledging the show’s place in the Bat-Legacy, and has produced subsequent comic book adventures set in the world of BATMAN ’66.  It’s cute, but overdue, and unlikely to bring new audiences to something that was near-unwatchable even during the era of release.  The whole is not equal to the sum of its parts, despite BATMAN ’66 having some very strong components.  

It’s greatest contribution to the legacy — and the one that is so commonly overlooked — was the way in which it gave writers like Denny O’Neil the impetus to take Batman down a new direction in the comics: one in which his world grew darker, and villains like The Joker were homicidal maniacs instead of gimmick-based petty criminals.  In other words, BATMAN ’66 directly influenced that transformation into the character you in fact love so much.  So stop hating the show, 1989 Fanboy, and for God’s sake: brush the beard.

  

*Not The Dark Knight Returns, as it was (wisely) retitled for trade paperback publication. 

**YOUNG EINSTEIN, a film whose trailer played before all seven times I saw BATMAN on the big screen, and which all my friends and I made fun of for the next year or so.  To this day, I’ve not met a single person who claims to have seen it, or remembers what the hell I’m talking about.

***When Jon Peters and Peter Guber would propose a pre-Tim Burton version of BATMAN played for laughs, their (admittedly brilliant) casting choice for the titular hero was Bill Murray, known best for his dry, droll delivery, and stubborn refusal to do anything even remotely funny now that he’s A SERIOUS ACTOR.  

 

Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)

Pretentious Filmmaker

@ekmyers   

https://www.facebook.com/ekmyers

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