REVIEW: Batman: The Movie
Produced by: William Dozier
Written by: Lorenzo Semple, Jr.
Edited by: Harry Gerstad
Cinematography by: Howard Schwarts
Music by: Nelson Riddle, Neal Hefti (theme)
Starring: Adam West, Burt Ward, Lee Meriwether, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, Frank Gorshin, Alan Napier, Neil Hamilton, Stafford Repp, Madge Blake, Reginald Denny, Milton Frome, Gil Perkins, Dick Crockett, George Sawaya, Van Williams
Based on the DC Comics character created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger and the TV series created by William Dozier
Confession time: Though it is one of my earliest memories of being at a theatrical showing, Batman Returns was not my first exposure to Batman. There was already a lot of love for Batman instilled in me by that point. Part of that was likely due to Tim Burton’s first film, but, honestly, it was far more likely that I was introduced to the Dark Knight in the form of the campy Caped Crusader portrayed in in the 1960s TV series starring Adam West. As a little kid, I didn’t quite understand that the series was essentially a satire of the comics and serials rather than a serious attempt to adapt the character to television. When I was finally exposed to the darker, grittier stuff, I pretty much thought it was silly because it was old, and older stuff was always sillier! Why else would they release all those ridiculous musicals back then that my mom enjoyed so much, right? With age, of course, I did catch on, and after getting over an initial feeling of betrayal that came with the understanding that the show was poking fun at my favorite superhero (and, by association, me), I also came to embrace the series for what it was.
(Hey, I wasn’t the only one!)
The series would grow to be extremely (albeit briefly) popular in its time, and it has since gone on to become a cult classic, thanks primarily to reruns and its uniquely campy tone – and probably with a lot of thanks to its iconic theme song, too. One might think that the film was made to cash-in on the craze; however, it was actually produced during the show’s first season, and series creator William Dozier intended to drum up interest in the TV series through the film. The film brought along with it most of the series’ more well-known cast members, including Adam West, Burt Ward, Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero, and Frank Gorshin, with the one exception being Julie Newmar, who was replaced by Lee Meriwether in the role of Catwoman due to scheduling conflicts. The film’s higher budget allowed it to have more elaborate set pieces and gadgets while also allowing for a then-unprecedented team up of the series’ most famous villains – a trope that would go on to permeate and plague superhero movies well into the 21st century.
While the series typically had Batman and Robin taking on single villains of the week alongside their daffy henchmen, the Dynamic Duo’s first mainstream film (not the serials) had them going up against the combined forces of the Riddler, Penguin, Catwoman, and Joker, who have managed to get their hands on a secret ray gun that is capable of immediately dehydrating people into a fine, multicolored molecular dust. They also kidnap its inventor, Commodore Schmidlapp, in the process – all without the oblivious old man noticing, too. The villains plan on using the dehydrator on the world’s leaders, who are meeting at the UN-esque World Organization’s Security Council to discuss the little matter of achieving world peace, and holding them captive in their dusty state so that they can take over.
Batman: The Movie (often just titled Batman, but I’m going with the subtitle here) isn’t a film to go to if you want a compelling plot, let alone a coherent one. The film veers around from one preposterous setup to another without much regard to traditional character-driven story development. The closest you get here involves Bruce Wayne’s misguided infatuation with Soviet reporter Miss Kitka, who we already know to be Catwoman in disguise, and it’s mostly played for innuendo-laden laughs, particularly since the clueless Bruce is supposed to be the world’s greatest detective. This does lead to one of the film’s more hilarious gags, in which Bruce realizes he’s been duped and attempts to hide his apparently profound sorrow. Performances across the board save the movie from its mundane plot, at least, and it’s Adam West’s bizarrely earnest line delivery and facial expressions that really save the movie from falling prey to its decidedly laidback and underwhelming plotting. Not to be outdone, Lee Meriwether holds her own amidst hammy legends Cesar Romero, Frank Gorshin, and Burgess Meredith, getting a bit more material to work with compared to the other guys with the whole Miss Kitka bit. She even gets to ham it up a bit more than even Romero as the Joker with her character’s ridiculous catlike tics. Burt Ward’s golly-gee-whizz performance as Robin is also as entertaining as ever and works perfectly alongside West’s pontificating Batman and delivering a few good laughs along the way, too – his answers to the convoluted riddles, for instance.
The film has a lot of fun poking fun at the absurdity of the whole superhero premise, particularly Batman’s narcissism, absurd intelligence, and even brand recognition. The satire actually comes off as a lot more biting these days, in fact. Back then, with comic book publications adhering to the strict Comics Code Authority to avoid being accused of corrupting children, Batman was seen as campy and ridiculous in the comics, and the show was essentially mimicking them on some level. Since then, Batman has become more widely known as a dark, brooding, and mature hero, but one who basically has the seemingly accepted superhuman ability to figure any problem out, to be prepared for anything, and to overcome even the most impossible of odds, all while evading a corrupt police force. Here, Batman and Robin are portrayed as altruistic do-gooders who have been officially deputized, recognized as respected citizens by the government, and who are saluted even by soldiers. Remarkably, even when they do manage to find themselves in a seemingly no-win situation, even nature’s noblest creatures will sacrifice themselves in order to protect the Duo and ensure that Good will always save the day from Evil!
Batman: The Movie will never be recognized among the best movies featuring Batman, and with the Lego Movie Batman spin-off on its way, there’s even a possibility that it won’t be the best comedy starring him, either. Fans of the darker interpretations may also scoff at the film for not taking the material seriously, as many did more recently with the animated Batman: The Brave and the Bold TV series, which took a lot of inspiration from this era of zany, campy comic book adventures. The thing is, though, even if this series was basically made to ridicule the absurdity of superheroes, it’s always important to keep things in perspective and, even if it’s through satire, appreciate just how much work goes into making these, let’s admit it, absurd adventures seem so plausible while you’re consuming them. Batman: The Movie is very fun and often hilarious, too. It’s keenly observant of the material it’s adapting while never fully being beholden to it, either. It’s certainly telling that even the modern, serious extensions of the Batman franchise have made affectionate nods towards this adaptation, whether it be through special costumes in video games or a whole segment dedicated to the campy classic in Batman: The Animated Series. It’s also unlikely we would have gotten those things without the boost in the mainstream consciousness that this movie and the TV series that spawned it gave the character. They’re most definitely deserving of their cult classic status.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3.5 / 5