“Under this garb, we are perfectly normal Americans.”
“Well said, Robin.”
It says a lot about Batman, the phenomenon, that it can be reinvented time and time again across the board from comic-book, film and TV, radio and videogame and never feel stale or regurgitated. It says even more that it can survive being sent-up so uproariously in a camp cliff-hanger 60's television series that then goes on to attain a distinctive cult niche just for its own outrageous self. The fabulously ripe Adam West/ Burt Ward starring live-action cartoon was both a product of its time and also, ironically, way ahead of it, too, in respect of its quirky balance of acting styles, line delivery and overt and outright farce. The mix was eclectic and trailblazing and the performances legendary. That kids of all ages took it to their hearts is not surprising - it supplied everything that they could hope for from escapist fantasy, from wholesome heroics, a pro-law-and-order stance in the face of the social problems of the era and colourfully hissable villains to sexy cat-suits, awesome gadgets, plenty of fisticuffs and wildly imaginative episodic mayhem. The Batman comic-books had been ailing after several decades of popularity and the show provided the necessary shot in the arm to bring the Bat back to his roost for a new audience's shifting sensibility that sought something fresh and immediately cathartic. The sixties was the time of great social upheaval and, true to form, Batman, just like James Bond, proved that he was willing and able to move with the times and not just “fit in” with the vogue, but actually end up spearheading it.
“That pompous, waddling master of fowl-play!”
When the first season met with huge success and glued millions to their screen for its twice-a-week (at first) top slot airings, the next logical step was obviously to make a movie out of the concept. Bringing in the show's regular cast - all except Julie Nemar who was unavailable to portray the slinky, alluring Catwoman she had made so popular - was a cinch. With Lee Meriwether assuming the part, a former Miss America who could pout and hiss like a pro, as well as delivering a wonderfully arch Russian accent - as Indy would like to call it “those wubble-u's” - the fearsome foursome come together in an unholy quartet of anarchic lunacy to hatch a sea-faring plot of such heinous implications that Batman, Robin, Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara seek to huddle in one of those famous crowded-frame shots or to pace the floors in deep distress like a team of synchronised worriers as they attempt to fathom it all out. Think an episode stretched out to feature-length and crammed full of all your favourite guest-stars at once and you've found the approach that director Leslie H. Martinson was striving for. After all, why fix what isn't broken?
“Devilish Clown Prince of Crime! Oh, if only I had a nickel for every time he's baffled us!”
There is so much camp appeal to the format that it is testament to Bob Kane's creation that he stands up to such lampoonery and still comes out looking like a hero. The plot here is ridiculously slight - the formidable Rogues Gallery of Joker (Cesar Romero), Penguin (Burgess Meredith), Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and Catwoman (Meriwether) have banded together to combine their delinquent tendencies in a hideous plan for ubiquitous global domination by reducing the delegates of the United World Security Council to dust and, well, taking out Batman and Robin and having some serious fun with Polaris missiles and a Penguin-powered atomic submarine along the way. The story, naturally, is not the point of the exercise, though. Martinson and the TV network really wanted to give the show's loyal audience a taste of Big Screen Colour razzmatazz as opposed to the still predominantly black and white experience that they were having twice weekly at home. It was also a canny way of both maximising revenue from the character and the set-up and selling the show overseas on the lurid, comic-book eyeball-scorching primary-colour overloaded shirt-tails of a lavish blockbusting movie. A win-win scenario if ever there was on.
“What ... the Riddler loose, too?”
“So it seems. Loose to plague us with his criminal conundrums.”
The script is a perpetual bouncing of visual puns, verbal micky-taking and alarmist retorts, but it serves as a super-streamlined and wholly economic narrative that, although dependent on schemes and convoluted explanations, needs no exposition whatsoever. Then again, having such a loved and well-known series as its backdrop has to help, doesn't it? Lorenzo Semple Jnr, who would go on to pen Dino De Laurentiis' King Kong in 1977, has a field day with the material that already swamped Batman. In fact, he added very little to the mix that wasn't already spread thickly across the roof of the Bat-Cave - he just allowed its gooey daftness to drip more freely down into the story and onto the characters, themselves. The gadgets, the vehicles - well, ok, Semple added the Bat-Cycle, Bat-Boat and Bat-Copter - the baddies, the stalwart hangers-on such as Alfred, the Chief and Commissioner Gordon - everything is upped and enlarged, inflated to what may seem preposterously overblown caricatures but, in fact, are really only slight exaggerations of the original incarnations, merely heightened to match the quick-fire pantomime that surrounds them. It is perhaps that this accentuation is really only slight that some dedicated Bat-fans so loathe the gaudy excesses of the spoof - it serves to remind them how ridiculous their cherished concept can be when viewed objectively and dispassionately. Now nobody loves the serious Batman more than me, but even I can see how faint the line is that separates the brooding version from the lampooned version. The tension-screw that would have the comic-book detective plunging through successive levels of psychotic discovery in the likes of The Killing Joke or Hush or the demented Arkham Asylum is over-tightened so that such schizoid deviances are deemed hokey and harmless, mere oafish traits that disguise the deeply disturbing inner-workings of so many unhinged minds. The impenetrable maze of murderous conundrums that Batman faces in the likes of The Long Halloween and Dark Victory is playfully re-rendered into fortune-cookie riddles whose ticking-clocks count down the seconds the next gag rather than to depraved demise. And the heroic deconstruction that Denny O'Neil and Frank Miller would bring to the character in something of a retaliation to the Adam West incarnation would never have happened if such giddy, camp spoofing had not taken place. And this would have probably have meant no triumphant Chris Nolan/Christian Bale adaptations now - which would be unthinkable. So, Bat-fans have a lot to thank this gaudy spectacle for. Except the influence that it exerted over Joel Schumacher, of course.
“Holy Long John Silver - a pirate-periscope!”
The set-pieces are exhaustive and classic to a one. The very opening air-sea rescue is now the stuff of legend. Batman unfurling a ladder from the Bat-copter that deliciously has the sign “Bat-Ladder” emblazoned across the bottom rung and then doing violent battle with a patently fake shark that has conveniently clamped its rubber jaws around his leg - the resulting fist and foot salvo from the usually unflappable Caped Crusader only ending once Robin has tossed him the ever-handy Shark-Repellent Bat-Spray! The shot of the Dynamic Duo apparently climbing up a wall on a rope which you are meant to realise is just the camera turned on its side. Bruce Wayne's athletic attack and defence as the entire mob of malicious marauders set upon him not once, but twice - who doesn't love a dummy catapulted through a sky-light into the ocean and a squabbling group punched away by opening a door onto two flung fists? A squadron of jet-pack umbrellas carrying the villains through the skies like something out of the Wizard Of Oz. The hilarious sight of Alan Napier's wonderful Alfred wearing a superhero mask with his glasses on the outside!. The terrific notion of self-sacrificial, disaster-averting porpoises and Batman spotting a very convenient mound of foam rubber out of the corner of his eye whilst the Bat-copter is in a death-defying spin earthwards. All wonderfully lunatic stuff and dealt with a straight-faced absurdity that simply cannot fail to tickle the funny-bone. But, of course, the trophy must go to the immortal sequence when Batman simply cannot get rid of a Pink Panther-style pudding bomb due to the hilarious proximity of passing nuns, courting couples, Salvation Army brass bands, and young mothers pushing prams and, in the ultimate sight-gag, a procession of ducklings floating in the path of imminent obliteration. As the Dark Knight so rightly says, “Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!” Ahh, yes, we all know that feeling, don't we?
“Salt and corrosion ... old enemies of the crime-fighter.”
Sometimes, the film feels laboured, as though trying too hard to keep the laughing-gas pedal floored. The first season episodes didn't feel the urge to go for quantity over quality quite so much and, as a consequence, the film can occasionally run out of breath and steam at roughly the same time. But with such a non-stop cavalcade of cornball enthusiasm, the number of hits far outweigh the number of misses. But it is the performances of all those involved that ensure lasting cult favouritism. West's sure-fire deadpan imitation of William Shatner's hesitant line-delivery is immaculate, his stuttering, over-enunciated sentences be... coming brilliant ... moments of ... pen...sive de...duction. His entourage of Ward's emphatically enthusiastic Robin (with such an endless stream of palm-punching jingoism that his “Holy” pre-fix blurb could literally be applied to absolutely anything), Neil Hamilton's simply majestic Commissioner Gordon (so wildly serious in the face of absurdity that I can barely hear him speak over my own laughter) and Stafford Repp's perpetually agog Chief O'Hara gather momentum and literally feed off one another to create scenes of such spiralling idiocy that it would take a sourpuss indeed not to be cajoled by their group dynamic.
And it is this very group dynamic that works to even greater effect when it comes to the rowdy Rogues and their incessant bicker-bantering. Meredith's waddling squawk and carefully poised cigarette holder established Penguin as the perfect hybrid of debonair deviousness and aquatic aristocracy. Romero's frighteningly preening pompadour masters the perfect maniacal cackle and even if he eschews the character's innate malevolence he embroiders such devilish pranksterism that you wouldn't want to be left in a room alone with him. Gorshin's the Riddler is a work of boundlessly energetic genius, though. Leaping and cavorting like the most ungainly sprite imaginable, the question-mark-garbed mastermind comes across like a circus-incarnation of Jimmy Cagney. He, too, has a wonderfully insane giggle, but he tops it off with a wildly delirious jig as well that Jim Carrey simply could not resist paying pure unadulterated homage to when he filled the lycra bodysuit for Batman Forever. And Meriwether's captivating Catwoman may not be quite as immediately sultry and sexy as Julie Nemar, but she soon purr-fects the role by proving to be fabulously manipulative in the sister-part of the bogus Russian journalist who connives her way into Bruce Wayne's heart.
A true delight from start to finish, Batman: The Movie is just as perfect a cinematic interpretation of a comic-book as any of the more serious adaptations that have since come our way. Indeed, director Martinson frames many of shots in exactly the same skewed-angle manner as found in the panels of his 2-D inspiration. The 4-colour aesthetic is also proudly emblazoned from opening to final frame and the exuberance of the original material is thunderously adhered to. He orchestrates chaos and then is wise enough to simply let his manic cast do the rest.
With all the other Bat-movies and animated releases floating down from the belfry at the moment, this film is a welcome relief to all the darkness and the soul-searching. Given the choice, I'd take Christian Bale's Bat and be eminently happy to never see Robin cropping up ever again, but this version has its place and should not be overlooked. The evolution of Batman is dark, weird, excessive and open to all sorts of interpretation. Adam West stamped his mark on the progress of the character from the printed page to the gritty avenger that we have today and, no matter how much violence and intensity Christopher Nolan brings to the character nowadays, a part of you will always hear Neal Hefti's insanely catchy title tune playing somewhere in the back of your mind.