The 1966 Batman movie opens with a series of title cards, which proceed from a sincere and sober salute to the law enforcement community to a no less sincere but slightly less sober toast to the strange people of the world. While far more subdued in tone than what follows, these title cards are an apt summation of the picture, which is about a very strange enforcer of the law.
Produced following the first season of the hugely popular television series, Batman shares the silly, brightly-colored tone of the show, written and directed as it is by two series regulars, Lorenzo Semple Jr. and Leslie H. Martinson, respectively. Revisionists of comics history and those who take the form to be a serious art form tend to have either a complex relationship with the Batman television series, or simply loathe it outright. The fact is, however, for a very long period of time—and even, despite the best efforts of the Frank Millers, Alan Moores, and Christopher Nolans of the world, still to a certain extent today—the dominant image of Batman in non-comics fan culture was of the TV show.
I came of age before The Dark Knight Returns, and thus the first Batman I knew was the man in the bright blue cowl who came on right before The Monkees on Nickelodeon. As such I never had to have anyone explain the definition of “camp” to me (between that and being the only 2nd grader in the world who’d seen Mommie Dearest I was already a scholar), but this early association did mean even now, as a respectful fan and student of Batman as a character, cultural figure, and metaphor, I still have a hard time taking him entirely seriously.
This is partly because the television show and the 1966 movie do not take him seriously at all. Or anything else for that matter. The Batman television show/movie might be the single silliest entity ever created by an adult. One could, if one wished to experiment in the movie review as koan, sum up the entire Batman movie by the fact that within ten minutes of it beginning, Batman is hanging from a ladder with a rubber shark gnawing at his leg, as he futilely attempts to loosen the shark’s grip by punching it in the head, creating a deep, hollow rubber tone like that created by bouncing a ball. That Batman extricates himself from this situation with “shark repellent Batspray” should serve merely to confirm that this is one of the silliest things that ever existed. And there are so many more wonders yet to come.
The fact that there is a plot is silly enough, and the fact that it’s a diabolical plot is cause for cheer: the Penguin, Joker, Riddler, and Catwoman have joined forces to steal an experimental weapon and hold the United Nations Security Council hostage for NINE BILLLLLLLLLLION DOLLARS. Oh, be still my heart. Not to mention, they’re going to lure Batman and Robin to their deaths by kidnapping Bruce Wayne and having Catwoman pretend to be a journalist from the Moscow Bugle to seduce him. Oh, and a bunch of people get turned into small piles of colored powder. All these events, of course, are interspersed with untold other silliness:
Commissioner Gordon: Penguin, Joker, Riddler . . . and Catwoman, too! The sum of the angles of that rectangle is too monstrous to contemplate!
Batman: We’ve been given the plainest warning. They’re working together to take over...
Chief O’Hara: Take over what, Batman? Gotham City?
Batman: Any two of them would try that!
Commissioner Gordon: The whole country?
Batman: If it were three of them, I would say yes, but four? Their minimum objective must be . . . the entire world!
Adam West has been done a disservice by history. We today revere William Shatner for his idiosyncratic acting, the mildly disturbing intensity of his courtship of women (not to mention the sense that the force of his libido transcended gender considerations), and his ability to let himself be the butt of the joke yet also be in on it, but Adam West’s performance as Batman/Bruce Wayne is every inch Shatner’s equal in each regard. The fact that Shatner was on a mildly less silly show (fellow TOS fans, don’t you dare forget Tribbles) is unfair to hold against Adam West. His performance in the movie is a cut above his standard turn on the show, in that he is absolutely committed to the silliness (he would occasionally, especially toward the end, phone in episodes of the show). Burt Ward is a delight as well, bursting with earnestness; though Ward fell all over himself in later years to tell anyone who would listen that he was in on the joke as well, you couldn’t tell it from his performance as Robin, which is actually to his credit: too much ironic detachment is a very bad thing indeed.
The villains all do their standard hammy jobs, with Burgess Meredith’s broad, vaudeville Penguin faring slightly better than Cesar Romero’s clownish Joker and Frank Gorshin’s extremely caffeinated Riddler. Lee Meriwether, a late replacement for Julie Newmar as Catwoman, is the best of the lot though, turning in what at times inches toward being the closest thing to an actual performance a movie like this will allow; this makes it especially frustrating when she immediately retreats to the sidelines of fight scenes to make hissing noises and unsolicited comments, as her natural ferocity makes her seem more handy in a fight than the men.
As a movie, Batman: The Movie (1966) is little more than an hour and forty five minute episode of the television show, but that is hardly a complaint. It holds up better than nearly any other comedy of the mid-60s (an era whose comedy has aged, to say the least, badly) by being tightly paced, featuring well-constructed jokes, and most importantly, being completely self-aware about what kind of movie it is. It is quite simply something you should never call a “film,” but its makers knew this, and were not setting out to do anything other than entertain. In this, they succeed quite nicely. It may not be the Batman we want to remember, but it was a Batman very much of its time.