If you’ve never watched Batman: The Movie (1966) then first you need to forget everything you know about the character Batman. Well, not everything. Batman ‘66 is still Bruce Wayne and Robin is Dick Grayson. They’re still aided by Commissioner Gordon and hindered by the Joker, Penguin, Riddler, and Catwoman. They live in Wayne Manor, drive the Batmobile, and wear capes and tights.
However, they also do most of their work in the daylight in contrast to the near constant darkness of most other Bat media. The cops love them and they balk at the idea of being labelled vigilantes, as they are both deputised by the police department in a move that seems to take away the basic idea behind the character.
Batman ‘66 is a very different creature from the movies of Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan, and Zack Snyder, and the animated adventures by Paul Dini. In contrast to the characterisation of Batman as a violent vigilante operating in the shadows while nursing psychological scars and a deep seated lack of a sense of humour that we’ve come to expect in the post-The Dark Knight Returns world, Adam West’s Batman is a cartoon character come to life.
The plot of Batman ‘66 is that the four main villains (Penguin, Joker, Riddler, and Catwoman) have joined forces to steal some kind of McGuffin and the Dynamic Duo must thwart their plans. But you’re not watching this movie for plot. You’re watching it because it’s so utterly ridiculous and insane that each scene feels like you’re watching it after taking a bath in bong water. This is a 104 minute movie that took me four hours to watch because I kept having to go back to watch lines of dialogue and scenes again. I must have watched the scene were Batman, Robin, Gordon, and Chief O’Hara realise the villains have teamed up about forty times (‘[The theft] happened at sea. See? “C” for Catwoman.’) because of how wonderful it was.
West’s acting style is from the William Shatner thespian academy, all halting pauses and fluctuating tones and volumes. Burt Ward as Robin is having a whale of a time dropping weird exclamations like ‘Holy Polaris!’ and ‘Holy bikini!’. The four villains are a joy to watch: Caesar Romero with his Joker make-up painted over his moustache and Burgess Meredith quoting poetry and making squawking bird sounds. Frank Gorshin is a clear influence on Jim Carrey’s Batman Forever Riddler as he’s full of manic energy, dancing around with big wide eyes, seemingly on the brink of losing it completely. Lee Merriweather plays femme fatale with glee, seducing Bruce Wayne with ease and dropping cat puns like it ain’t no thing.
Batman has always been influenced by the comics at the time. The 40s Batman serials were based on early Batman stories when he mostly fought gangsters and occasionally had a gun. Modern stories all seem to exist in a world where no other comics were written other than Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman ‘66 was made during the Silver Age of Batman comics. The Silver Age of comic books is a remarkable time in which Batman was involved in such stories as when he was crowned king, had to wear a different coloured Batsuit every night, fought aliens, met Bat-Mite, and turned into a tiger. Keep in mind that as ridiculous as all this sounds, this is from a time when comics actually were written for children. They were colourful and full of fun, not dark, broody, ‘edgy’, violent, or bogged down in continuity.
The 1966 Batman movie reflects the 1966 comic book environment. The characters are having fun and clearly in on the joke. It becomes a very affectionate parody of itself and, at least retrospectively, of ’60s entertainment.
In that sense, the last fifty years have been kind to this movie. It’s still absurd, but it looks gorgeous. The costumes of the main heroes are insane with Batman’s weird eyebrow drawings on his mask and nose contouring. The villains all look the part and the Riddler especially wears some styling outfits covered in question marks. It’s a fun, crazy film, perfect for a Sunday afternoon or when you’ve got hardcore comic book bros at your house and you want to blow their minds. It’s a helpful antidote to grim and gritty superhero portrayals, but it also isn’t the most ridiculous Batman movie ever made. I’m looking at you, Batman and Robin. That’s right. The 1966 Batman movie, a movie in which a dolphin sacrifices itself to save Batman and Robin by jumping into the path of a torpedo, has aged less ridiculously than a big blockbuster 1990s adaptation driven by A-list talent and aimed at grownups. Think about that. That’s worth celebrating.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox