In the lead up to the debut of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I’m reviewing every single Batman film. Check out more Batman-related content in my Dark Knight Discussion column.
If there is any Batman film that is a hard break from the rest of The Dark Knight’s cinematic entries, it is clearly the Adam West-led Batman: The Movie, a zany and colorful offshoot of the popular ‘60s television series. Full of wild moments, tongue-in-cheek parody, and pure camp, it’s still one of the most thoroughly fun entries in the Batman film canon, even if the clunky pace and overlong runtime add bloat between marvelously kooky classic scenes.
Acting like a blown up version of the series from which it sprang, Batman: The Movie spun out of the wildly successful Batman: The TV Show, coming to theaters after the end of the first season in 1966. Based around a team-up of Batman’s greatest foes, it’s up to The Caped Crusader (West) and Robin (Burt Ward) to stop a deadly menagerie of The Joker, The Penguin, Catwoman, and The Riddler, who seek to control the world.
Like the television show, Batman: The Movie subsists on having its tongue firmly planted in its cheek while still loving the characters within its narrative. But instead of constantly winking at its audience, the humor is played incredibly straight from start to finish, with elements like Shark Repellant Bat Spray, a plot to dehydrate the United World Organization Security Council to kidnap them, and how its characters express the silliest ideas with the utmost sincerity. It’s that straight-laced kookiness that helped the show and film appeal to kids as a fun action series and to adults as a comedy at the same time. It’s also the reason why the film holds up as well as it does 50 years later.
Each actor works on the same wavelength, as well, even to the point of it being unclear if they are in on the joke. Of course, they all are, and they stay committed to the tone throughout. West is the real star here as Batman, delivering deadpan comedy both in and out of costume. His steely gaze and staccato line readings are equal parts commanding and silly. Batman may be known as a grim and haunted vigilante in the modern era, but West’s bright and energetic crime fighter fits right in with the colorful superhero of the ‘60s. It is, obviously, a silly and subversive take on the character, but he’s never mockish of The Dark Knight, he’s just having lots of fun as a determined detective committed to cracking the case.
Outside of the lead, Burt Ward as Robin is the “aww shucks” plucky sidekick that most equate with the role even decades later, his wide-eyed wonder underlining the comedic zaniness of the plot. On the villainous side, Lee Meriwether’s Catwoman is the slinky seductress both in and out of the black jumpsuit, Cesar Romero’s Joker is mostly big laughs and sneers (painted-over mustache included), Burgess Meridith’s Penguin is a mostly dead eyed and cackling sociopath, and Frank Gorshin’s Riddler has just the right combination of wit and mad obsession to bring the character to life in all the right ways.
Director Leslie H. Martinson, who had directed several episodes of the show, fills the movie with a bright color palette that matches the look of the series. But the higher budget of the film also helps Batman: The Movie feel more real and robust than the show and is far from a made-for-TV movie. That technicolor look and Martinson’s use of dutch angles add a certain visual flair to the proceedings, even if the movie has no real shots that go beyond workmanlike television direction or a run of the mill film from the decade. Most conversations are played out in shot-reverse shot or cover two and the fights are given a wide coverage to catch the somewhat choreographed kicks and punches. That gets a bit tiresome by the finale, where the classic superimposed onomatopoeia of the TV series finally comes into play as the Dynamic Duo fights their enemies atop a submarine. That said, most every fight here lacks interest compared to the comedy on display in dialogue-focused scenes.
Where Batman: The Movie falter the most is in its pacing. This is a Batman film that lacks a certain zip needed to kick it up a needed notch. Simply put, everything takes far too long to get exciting. Whether that’s a death trap being sprung or Batman coming to a conclusion in his detective work, there’s at least three minutes too many to most scenes here. The results are slow beats that put a damper on the whole thing between the most memorable moments. But there’s still enough energy and wit to help viewers get over the hump, which has obviously been exaggerated by the way cinema’s pacing has changed in the decades since.
Time has been both kind and cruel to Batman: The Movie. For years, the Adam West era was derided in favor of the darker and grittier takes on Batman in the modern era. But public opinion has swung in favor of its retro camp as of late, with the series and film getting a new lease on life. The same can be said of the film in and of itself, as its pacing and style are more products of the ‘60s rather than a trend maker of the time. That said, its hard break from what would become the de facto template for superhero films still feels fresher today than many movies made in the genre of the past five years.
Best Batman Moment: Stuck with a giant bomb that is about to explode, Batman frantically runs around the docks, desperately seeking a place for it to safely explode. But when he’s confronted with babies, nuns, ducklings, and all other manner of innocents, Batman finds that “Somedays you just can’t get rid of a bomb.” It may be a classic dose of silly comedy, but it’s also a perfect example of the heroism makes Batman great.
When They Got Batman Wrong: On a date with a disguised Catwoman, Bruce Wayne is easily and completely seduced by his antagonist while on a car ride. It’s a fun little bit of comedy and double entendre, but seriously, this is Batman. He’d never fall for Catwoman’s paltry disguise or falsely romantic ways. Get it together, Bruce. The world is at stake here.
Comic Book Inspirations: While there is no single issue or comic book run that inspired Batman: The Movie or the series from which it sprung, the Adam West-led interpretation were the direct result of the comic books that starred The Dark Knight within the previous decade. The bright and cheesy comics were directly in line with the television series, with ideas such as Batmen of other planets, wild magical battles, and all manner of insane adventures being at home in the Adam West world, as well.
Fun Fact: Catwoman had already b een portrayed by actress Julie Newmar in the first season of “Batman,” but she was unavailable for the film, leading to her replacement by Meriwether. When the show returned for its second season, Catwoman was once again played by Newmar. But by the time of the third season, she had been replaced by Eartha Kitt.