Let’s begin with a piece of trivia that will definitely surprise you: Adam West is the longest serving cinematic Batman. For 26 years, West’s Caped Crusader and his sidekick Robin, played by Burt Ward, were the most popular versions of the characters until Tim Burton and Michael Keaton changed things up in 1989. Like many modern Batman fans, I hate the Adam West series, even though I loved it as a kid when themes and drama weren’t my biggest needs, though it was drivel compared to my love of Batman: The Animated Series (and there is my weekly plug for the best Batman show of all time). The Batman TV show of the 60s wasn’t there to take the Dark Knight to seriously, and the comics of the time only enhance this state if affairs. The movie was released when the first season of the show, which immediately became a huge hit, came to a close and, in a sense, the movie can be seen as a lap of honor, a celebration of the success of the show.
Batman: The Movie isn’t interested in anything but camp fun. The characters have no depth, the tone is never anything deeper than loudly comical, the acting is sometimes utterly horrendous (Frank Gorshin as The Riddler is the biggest culprit here) and the stakes never feel that big despite a plot that could affect the entire planet. Director Leslie H. Martinson (who worked on two episodes of the first season) and writer Lorenzo Semple Jr., have created the plot that is so ridiculous that it makes Mr. Freeze’s permanent winter look like a good-natured jape. Here are the basics as I understand them.
The Penguin, The Joker, Catwoman, and The Riddler have kidnapped a sea captain who has created a dehydration gun (a genius invention, but the captain’s one of the dumbest characters in the movie) which the team of supervillains use to turn the World Security Council (which is the Gotham version of the U.N.) into piles of colored dust so they can ransom each nation’s representative for the amount of one billion dollars each sent by carrier pigeons that have been trained by the Penguin. With me so far? The league of mediocre villains is smart enough to know that Batman and Robin will try to stop them, leading to the insane plan of using a projection of a boat that will lure Batman to into the water were a trained shark will either eat Batman or blow him up. This is where the famous shark repellent spray comes in handy – lucky that the Batcopter has a full shelf of the stuff.
“To lovers of adventure, lovers of pure escapism, lovers of unadulterated entertainment, lovers of the ridiculous and the bizarre. To fun lovers everywhere… this picture is for you.”
The movie opens with this shrewd message because it invites – nay, orders – the viewer not to take things to seriously. That’s absolutely fine, I like movies that are nothing more than escapist fun, but this is not where Batman: The Movie falls down. I’m fine with the super villains who are complete idiots, same with the police, and sometimes Batman and Robin themselves. I realize that it’s supposed to be fun and games, but Batman: The Movie doesn’t have the raw materials that every movie, every story needs to work. Not one single character, and this includes Batman, has a specific character arc. Every character is the same person at the end of the movie as they were at the beginning, except the World Security Council. In the end, the plot is a bunch of problems to solve, and there is some flair to how Batman and Robin keep themselves in the fight: the sequence in which Batman can’t get rid of a bomb is pure unadulterated slapstick comedy, but there’s never any feeling of dramatic tension to go with it.
As the longest serving Batman, is Adam West a worthy version of the character? The answer to that is yes and no. West was definitely the best Batman of his day: the one that quips with Robin, flirts with everything that moves, and gets out of scrapes by pure luck (no joke, both Batman and Robin are saved from a missile because a brave porpoise got in the way), but the character has moved back to his darker roots since then. In terms of reverence to the character, Batman: The Movie has more iconography that the 1943 version. The Batmobile is here (though sans iconic fins), the Batcave is a visual feast of computers, science equipment, and an instant costume change button on the fire pole entrance. There may even be too much iconography, as the film has a habit of waving it in your face in the hopes of papering over the numerous cracks in this storyline.
Batman: The Movie is a fun ride if you don’t think about it too closely – or, indeed, at all. It’s also become a curiosity as modern versions of Batman, apart from Joel Schumacher’s, have done everything to distance themselves from West’s Caped Crusader. It’s still surprising that Batman was ever this camp, while harkening back to a time where the character was a symbol of fun and was little anarchic (just look at the fate of the World Security Council) though it has some strange character moments such as Robin wondering if Batman saved a roomful of people from blowing up just because that room happened to be a bar. It’s also the only movie in which Batman and Robin screw everything up at the end – they even sneak out of a nearby window instead of facing up to their mistakes.
Next week in our Batman retrospective: Michael Keaton and Tim Burton want to know “Now you wanna get nuts? Come on! Let’s get nuts!”
If you enjoyed this retrospective, please be sure to tune in next week for our look at the first Tim Burton/Michael Keaton Batman movie. You can also take a look at our other cinematic universe retrospectives, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Jurassic Park movies! And, as ever, if you enjoyed this and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting us on Patreon.
By Kevin Boyle
(header image courtesy of Fact Fiend)