Sunday, July 15, 2012

Dark Knight Rising, Part 1: Batman: The Movie (1966)

    Part 1 in our countdown to the release of The Dark Knight Rises, in which we learn that, some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb…

THE BAT-FILM: Batman wasn’t always a dark creature of the night. Of course, he also wasn’t always the deputized Boy Scout the 60’s Batman TV show made him out to be, either. But for a generation, when you said the words “superhero,” “comic book” or “Batman,” it immediately brought to mind images of Adam West and Burt Ward running around in tights, biffing and powing various celebrity guest star villains. Such was the success of the Batman TV show - one of the stranger crazes to come out of the 1960’s, and pretty much responsible for turning Batman into the institution he is today.

    When a proposed Batman television series crossed the desk of producer William Dozier, the only way the producer felt he could make it work was by making into a campy, pop art adventure series - one that kids could thrill to while the adults watched and laughed at the outlandishness of it all. Dozier’s instincts proved to be correct, as the television series took off to record ratings, launching the nation into “Batmania.” It was so successful a feature film was put into production following the completion of the first season, and Batman: The Movie was released the following summer.

    A lot of people misunderstand the word “camp,” which is essentially the entertainment of the past viewed through a modern lens for humorous effect. The Batman TV show took many of the old-fashioned tropes of the movie serials of the 40’s and 50’s and put them through the filter of Lichtenstein and Warhol, gently poking fun at attitudes and behaviors that were becoming increasingly square by the time the show hit the airwaves. The best writer for the original show (and probably the best overall purveyor of camp humor) was Lorenzo Semple, Jr., who here brings the deft balance of character and absurdity that made many of the early episodes of Batman so much fun to watch. You can’t not smile at a movie that has an exchange like this:

Commissioner Gordon: It could be any one of them... But which one? Which ones?
Batman: Pretty *fishy* what happened to me on that ladder...
Commissioner Gordon: You mean where there's a fish there could be a Penguin?
Robin: But wait! It happened at sea... Sea. C for Catwoman!
Batman: Yet, an exploding shark *was* pulling my leg...
Commissioner Gordon: The Joker!
Chief O'Hara: All adds up to a sinister riddle... Riddle-R. Riddler!
Commissioner Gordon: A thought strikes me... So dreadful I scarcely dare give it utterance...
Batman: The four of them... Their forces combined...
Robin: Holy nightmare!

    Holy paranoid assumptions, Batman. Still, corny exchanges like the above are harder to pull off than they look - one of the many reasons why Adam West was perfect for this iteration of Batman. West is just about as perfect as it gets for this material, his comic timing and deadpan delivery as sharp and spot-on as they ever were. He also gets to spend a good amount of time outside of the tights and into ascots and tuxedos, where we get to see West as a rather dashing and suave Bruce Wayne. There’s even a small glimmer of pathos when Batman realizes the woman he’s fallen for early on in the picture turns out to be his nemesis Catwoman - a nice subtle bit of acting from West in a movie about as unsubtle as it gets.

    Equally up to the task is Burt Ward as Robin, who here solves vague, impossible riddles like nobody’s business. Ward doesn’t get to be as cool as West’s Batman (Robin is way too excitable), but his youthful energy really captures the spirit of old-timey boy’s entertainment, in the best “golly-gee-whiz” way. Considering the strength of the character Robin has always resided as kids imagining themselves in Robin’s shoes, helping Batman out in the never-ending war on crime, Ward provides an excellent vehicle to kick-start young imaginations everywhere.

    And while the film is fun in parts, it really doesn’t hold together as a feature. It feels more like several episodes of the TV series strung together without much rhyme or reason, as Batman and Robin run about the city to stop the latest schemes of Catwoman, the Joker, the Penguin and the Riddler. Without a coherent, singular narrative, the film just meanders aimlessly from set-piece to set-piece. Enjoyable in fits and starts, Batman: The Movie very quickly wears out its welcome - much like the TV show, which was played out and cancelled after it’s third year. Some days you can rid of a bomb.

THE VILLAINS: The four most popular villains from the show pop up again here, all played by the series regulars - minus one.

    Cesar Romero probably gets the least to do out of all four, surprising considering the Joker’s overall popularity. Still, Romero hams it up with much class in his mustache-smeared performance. I don’t know what compelled the actor to give the Joker a strange, R-rolling Irish brogue, but I like it.

    Frank Gorshin also feels unfortunately sidelined, as his manic depiction of the Riddler was one of the TV show’s highlights. Still, Gorshin eats the screen away anytime he’s on-screen, toning down the mania a but and settling on a slightly-menacing nutjob prone to giggling.

    Is there a villain any lamer than the Penguin? Several writers over the years have tried to make a guy based on one of the least-threatening animals out there into a formidable villain, but until the Caped Crusader fights a criminal calling himself the Koala, Penguin will have to settle for the bottom rung of Batman’s otherwise excellent rogue’s gallery. Despite all that, Burgess Meredith waddles and quacks and umbrella-fights with the best of them, getting a chance to shine in an amusing scene where Penguin tries to convince Batman and Robin he’s an English sea-captain.

    The MVP for the villains in this movie however goes to Catwoman, here played by Lee Meriwether. Original series Catwoman Julie Newmar was unavailable when they shot the movie, but Meriwether fills out the skintight outfit rather nicely in her stead. The absolute best part of the film is Catwoman’s seducing of Bruce Wayne, posing as a Russian reporter to get into the millionaire’s good graces (and/or pants). Meriwether’s scenes with West are magnetic, and the way the two of them flirt and trade double entendres rivals the best of James Bond.

    The film also sets up a contrivance that pretty much every Batman movie thereafter falls prey to: having the villains team up to defeat Batman, no matter how unlikely or unwieldy it makes the overall plot.  

I’ll go ahead and say it: this is the best Batmobile that ever was or ever will be. All the vehicles Batman and Robin tool around in are the best the character’s ever had - here Batman gets around by Batcopter, Batspeedboat, and Batcycle (with detachable sidecar for Robin), and there is honestly nothing cooler than seeing West and Ward zip around town in each.

    This is also where the infamous Bat-Shark Repellant is used, as Batman is harassed by a rubber shark whilst hanging off his Bat-ladder flying from his Batcopter. Less well-known are the other Bat-Spray Repellants lying in wait, to be used for everything from Barracudas to Manta Rays. That Batman, he sure does plan for everything.

    The villains also get a few nifty gadgets to play with, like the Penguin’s bird-shaped submarine and rocket-propelled umbrellas, or the amazing invention that somehow removes all the water from a person’s body and turns them into a pile of dust (and then is able to miraculously revert them back to life by returning said water).

THE BAT’S IN THE DETAILS: When Batman and Robin first board their Batcopter, they drive to a hanger where several workers are preparing the copter for takeoff. That must be the best job ever: waiting around for the special occasion Batman needs a helicopter.
    When driving the Batmobile, Alfred dons a mask underneath his glasses.

    For all his paranoid-preparedness and ability to formulate answers out of thin air to extremely vague mysteries with only the slightest of clues, you’d think Batman would be able to see through Catwoman’s play-acting as a Russian reporter. I mean, she calls herself “Kitka”! And she’s wearing a leopard-skin outfit when we first meet her!

BEST QUOTE: So many to choose from, but my favorite has to be one of the more somber ones: “Of what use is a dream, if not a blueprint for courageous action?”

THE LAST LAUGH: While never short of fun and memorable moments, Batman: The Movie proves that the Adam West iteration is best taken in half-hour chunks.

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