RETRO ACTIVE: Batman: The Movie (1966)
by Nick Schager
[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Christopher Nolan's trilogy-capping The Dark Knight Rises.]
There's absolutely nothing dark or particularly knightly about the Caped Crusader in Batman
(also known as Batman: The Movie
), with the only brooding found in Leslie H. Martinson
's 1966 film—based on the popular 1966-1968 TV series—coming courtesy of billionaire Bruce Wayne (Adam West
) staring passionately into the eyes of Dr. Kitka (Lee Meriwether
), a/k/a the disguised Catwoman. Such lust overpowers him so completely that even Robin (Burt Ward
), monitoring the rendezvous via closed-circuit TV in the Batmobile, has to turn away, admitting, "Some things have to be private, even for a crime-fighter." That cheeky moment boasts the only trace of actual emotion found in this goofball comedy, which was initially intended to launch ABC's bi-weekly television program but wound up being produced after the second season was completed, and released in between seasons one and two. And it's also, ultimately, indicative of this saga, given that it comes during a scene that runs far too long and, consequently, prolongs its joke—here, that Bruce is a horndog, and also a nitwit who can't recognize that Kitka is actually Catwoman—for far longer than it can possibly sustain itself. One can almost hear the film straining to stretch its runtime out to feature-length, its jokes and sight-gags extended to their campy breaking point.
Certainly, the Batman
TV series didn't by definition necessitate a bigger canvas; in fact, the small-screen is what afforded the program its greatest strengths: a visual focus on kaleidoscopic colors and skewed-angle close-ups of its larger-than-life villains; a lighthearted tone; a smirking self-awareness of its own insubstantiality; and an episodic structure that was marked by memorable cliffhangers and accompanying narrator reminders to tune back in next week, "Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel." Most of those elements are also present in Martinson's big-screen version, but the lack of a cliffhanger structure is surprisingly missed, as this 105-minute adventure never quite gets itself into a proper rhythm. It's a nagging problem felt from the outset, in which the narrator quickly helps provide the who-what-where-when-why as we see Bruce and "youthful ward" Dick Grayson race into Wayne Mansion, change into Batman and Robin while sliding down a pole to the covert underground Batcave—a notion rife with weird sexual and pedophilic connotations—and head out in the Batcopter to investigate a yacht carrying a super-secret device.
That outing leads to the film's funniest moment, in which Batman, descending to board the yacht, only to have it disappear into thin air, winds up with a hungry shark attached to his leg—a dilemma solved by some Shark Repellent Bat Spray, but not before the Caped Crusader wallops the beast with a series of hard punches that resound with fists on rubber. Alas, the rest of Batman
's lunacy is of a far more mild wink-wink variety, with the story only truly justifying its existence through its central selling point of bringing together the show's four biggest villains, with Cesar Romero
's Joker, Frank Gorshin
's Riddler, Burgess Meredith
's Penguin, and Meriwether's Catwoman (replacing Julie Newmar
, busy on another production) teaming up as the United Underworld to use a dehydrating device to turn the delegates of the United World Organization into pastel-hued dust. It's a scheme that involves convolutions of a typically cartoonish sort, including the fiends' intentions to kidnap Wayne in order to lure Batman to their lair (a plan obviously destined to fail), where they'll then use a giant Joker jack-in-the-box springboard to send Batman flying out a window and into the waiting arms of Penguin's exploding octopus.
Serious scripting is, of course, of no interest to Batman
, which exposes its own silliness at every turn, from the Dynamic Duo solving the Riddler's mind-benders via borderline-insane deductions, to Robin schoolmarmishly expounding on the greatness of the police and the evils of drinking, to Batman racing around a dock trying to ditch a ridiculously bulbous black bomb and finding disposal routes blocked by all manner of innocents (nuns, babies). Martinson's colorful, canted-angle cinematography has a vibrancy that's in keeping with the cheery tone, and Romero, Meredith and Gorshin are a boisterous trio who enliven their many contentious scenes together. It's West, however, who defines the film, his Batman (wearing a cowl with drawn-on eyebrows!) a suave smarty-pants hero with a calm arrogance and a self-seriousness that's completely at odds with his habit of using "Bat-" as a prefix for every gadget he owns, or the "Bam!" "Biff!" "Bap!" graphical explosions that accompany his fisticuffs (albeit here, only in the finale). Without anything approaching a dangerous, unpredictable, or indecent impulse, West's hero is a neutered joke, to be sure, but his cadenced line deliveries and spry physicality remain consistently amusing, reimagining the Caped Crusader as some sort of bizarre Halloween-costumed Rat Packer.
Posted by ahillis at July 22, 2012 3:40 PM