Batman: The Movie (1966) – Directed by Leslie H. Martinson – Starring Adam West, Burt Ward, Burgess Meredith, Lee Meriwether, Frank Gorshin, Cesar Romero, Alan Napier, Neil Hamilton, and Stafford Repp.
As long-time readers of the Anxiety know, I was never much of a Star Trek fan as a kid. I watched most of the movies, and while I liked them enough to keep going back for the next one, one Trek story every couple of years was more than enough. I was quickly bored with The Next Generation and The Original Series never really hooked me. It’s been fun watching The Original Series now to see how my middle-aged attitude compares to my adolescent and teenaged attitudes.
In comparison, I hated the BATMAN television show as a kid. Hated it. Loved the Superfriends and their related cartoons, loved the comics (especially the Doug Moench, Steve Englehart, and Frank Miller stuff), and absolutely hated that goofy ass BAM! POW! nonsense. I’ve always preferred my Batman either dark or heroic – the campy stuff didn’t really work for me. Heck, few campy things work for me in extended form, so don’t get all huffy, interwebs.
But now that I’ve finished Series 3 of Doctor Who, I’m looking for something quick to watch and review before starting Series 4. I’m watching Spartacus: Blood and Sand, but it’s not really a show that’s worth reviewing every single episode, so I figured I’d hit up a few of the DC animated movies, since I’ve only watched a few of them. That led to putting a bunch of Batman and Superman stuff in the Netflix queue and the 1966 BATMAN movie just seemed like the right thing to watch whilst downing a ridiculous amount of pizza. (If you’re going to give yourself one cheat meal a week, make it worth it.) The fact that I hated it as a kid makes me want to watch it even more now so I can reconsider it. I find I’m always more eager to watch something I used to hate or was indifferent about than something I loved because it’s always a better feeling to reevaluate up rather than down.
BATMAN: THE MOVIE (not really called, “The Movie,” but the term has become attached to the film like “The Original Series” has been to Star Trek’s first television show) is exactly as campy and silly and stupid as I remember it, but now I don’t mind so much. In fact, I quite enjoyed watching it. Maybe the existence of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Returns allows me to appreciate a take on Batman from the other end of the stylistic spectrum. Maybe just being older allows me to appreciate the campiness, as much as I’m not a fan of the style. (Let’s be honest, as a kid I wasn’t like, “Camp is stupid.” Well, okay, I said that, but it was in relation to Boy Scouts and not Batman.)
What makes the film work is the combined efforts of Burgess Meredith, Lee Meriwether, Frank Gorshin, and Cesar Romero. Adam West’s Batman and Burt Ward’s Robin feel like cardboard cutouts more than characters, while the others bring a real energy and sense of wholeness to the parts. It’s little things, too, like the way Gorshin scowls in the background or how Meriwether licks her paws and then cleans her face on the far left of the screen while the main action is taking place elsewhere. (Seriously, go watch that clip; that’s solid directing from Leslie Martinson.) I don’t know if it’s simply a matter of the Villainous 4 being better actors than West and Ward or the way the parts are written, but this film works much better when the bad guys are on screen as opposed to the good guys.
Well, except for when Neil Hamilton’s Commissioner Gordon is on-screen because that dude is flat-out fantastic.
The second most important reason why this movie works for me is that it feels like a movie. Even though it retains the look and feel of the television show, the inclusion of all four villains gives the movie a real sense of being an event.
The baddies steal some device that turns people into brightly colored powder in order to kidnap the United World Organization’s Security Council. Yeah, that’s pretty much it. The movie strings together one chase after another in a series of uneven action sequences.
There’s parts of this whole campy style that still make me cringe, like how everything is labeled. I get that this is done for kids. Or maybe it’s because Batman is forgetful. Whatever the case, it’s pretty hilarious that when the secret panel in Bruce’s study opens to reveal two fireman’s poles that they’re labeled “To the Batcave.” When they bring the Penguin (in a disguise that fools no one) to the Batcave, the Penguin asks for water and Batman points him in the right direction, stating, “The drinking water dispenser is clearly marked.”
Or when Batman is being attacked by a rubber shark while on a rope ladder. Bats tries to punch the shark off of him, but all his blows do is sound like a guy hitting rubber. He calls up for Robin to get him the Shark repellant and, sure enough, we get a shot of four canisters, one of which is labeled “Shark Repellant.” (I wonder if Aquaman gets to borrow the Manta Ray Repellant.) Robin then walks the repellant down the ladder to hand it to Batman. While no one talks about how bad-ass Adam West’s Batman is, I would like you to remember that the next time you’re having an argument with your pals about which Batman is the baddest ass of them all that Adam West had a shark clamped down on his leg and he didn’t scream one bit.
Take that Diedrich Bader.
It’s not just the shark, either. Later, while in his Adam West persona, he’s kidnapped while putting the moves on Miss Kitka Karenska (really Catwoman) in her hotel room. When he’s brought to the villainous lair (a flimsy room upstairs in a dive bar), he promises the bad guys he’ll kill them if they’ve hurt Kitka. Not, “I’ll bring you to justice, evil doers,” but “I will f*cking rip your heart out of your chests, feed it to the others, then sh*tstomp your faces so hard people will think there’s four f*cking Clayface’s running around.”
That might be a slight exaggeration of words, but not intent.
Of course, West delivers most of his lines so slowly you’ll swear the movie is ten minutes longer than it needs to be just for all of the extra time he needs to get his lines out.
The villains make the movie, though, and none more so than Burgess Meredith’s Penguin. For all his “waugh waugh waughing,” Meredith infuses his performance with an intensity far beyond the material he’s being paid to deliver. And do you know why he does this? Because Burgess Meredith is a pro. Curious to my contemporary eyes is the Penguin’s position as leader of this little “United Underground” in favor of the Joker, who really is just a brightly dressed clown here, willingly taking orders. They even totally give him the Sulu treatment when they’re on the Penguin’s submarine (and yes, I’m completely aware the movie predates Star Trek, so stuff it, calendar nerds), where the Penguin says things like, “Ready the torpedoes! Waugh waugh!” and the Joker picks up a phone and tells the henchman on the other end, “Ready the torpedoes! Giggle giggle!”
Lee Meriwether’s Catwoman/Kitka is equally awesome. As Kitka, she’s pretending to be a Russian newspaper journalist who entraps Bruce Wayne after playing smoochy faces with him. I don’t know where the list of Worst Onscreen Kissers in Movie History is kept, but Adam West has to have a highly ranked place on that list. He kisses Lee Meriwether likes he’s kissing a seal at Sea World. Dude, it’s Lee Meriwether. She might not be wearing the catsuit at the time, but damn. Making out with Lee Meriweather? That was a good day to come to work in 1966, son.
Random aside – I wonder if Tori Black based her performance more on Lee Meriwether’s Catwoman, Julie Newmar’s Catwoman, or Earth Kitt’s Catwoman.
Random aside admission – Yeah, I don’t really care. It’s Tori Black. In a catsuit. Win.
The movie cares little for subtlety so it’s hard to read how much Catwoman is aware that she’s really kissing Batman or even how interested she even has for Bats or Bruce Wayne, but for all of the Penguin’s position in charge of the foursome, when Catwoman talks or walks she’s the center of attention. She completely overwhelms Bruce Wayne while dressed as Kitka, turning the alleged playboy into a schoolboy struck dumb by his first night out with a woman. Martinson clearly films Catwoman and Kitka to take advantage of/exploit (you pick your word of choice) Meriwether’s sexuality, too. There’s plenty of shots designed to show off her breasts and butt.
Frank Gorshin really tries to bring the Riddler to life but he doesn’t have much to do. Still, in many ways Gorshin gives the most impressive performance in the film because the guy is totally committed to this character. Whether he’s at the front of a scene or lurking in the background, Gorshin always gives the Riddler something to do.
There’s a handful of small moments that help make the movie work. For some reason I find it hysterical that when the four bad guys are sitting around a table in their hideout thinking about what to do that they’ve all got a small yellow pad of paper in front of them. Like the Joker is going to jot down random ideas to bring up for discussion later on. Or when Robin doesn’t want to watch Bruce and Kitka make out in her hotel room so he shuts the surveillance feed off and Alfred is all, “Is that wise?” because the old bugger clearly wants to watch. And then there’s the Penguin – after he’s turned five henchmen into dust with the super special machine they stole, he has Catwoman sweep up the powder so they can be rehydrated later and he tells her, “Careful, careful, every one of them has a mother.”
How awesome is the Penguin getting all paternalistic?
Batman has a similar moment when Robin remarks that, “You risked your life to save those riff raff,” referring to the drunks and dregs of the dock-section of town, and Bats replies, “They may be drinkers, but they’re also human.” Good to know.
The movie is incredibly pro-law enforcement, taking pains to not be dangerous vigilantes. The Commissioner actually comes out and tells Kitka that Batman and Robin have been deputized, and the opening dedication is given, in part, to law enforcement officers. There’s even a weird dig at the military, who get portrayed as bumbling idiots willing to sell and old sub to a Mr. P. N. Guin.
The Penguin’s sub is all kinds of campy cool, and Batman gets four different vehicles to cart around in: the Batmobile, the Batcopter (a toy I actually had as a kid), the Batcycle, and the Batboat.
As a kid’s movie, too, there’s a tremendous use of color throughout the film to keep kids visually stimulated.
The ending of the movie is truly bizarre. I’m not talking about Robin almost blurting out that Bruce Wayne is Batman in front of the de-masked Catwoman, or that the Security Council members turned into different colored dust, but the re-hydrated Security Council members all speaking different languages. In a far-too-long sequence that sees Bats and Robin turning the Security Council members human, the members all start speaking different languages, so the German guy is speaking Japanese and the Japanese guy is speaking English or whatnot.
Now, this is a pretty big screw-up, but not to Batman, who ponders the benefits of this blunder to Robin: “This strange mixing of minds may be the single greatest service ever performed.”
And then they sneak out the window.
Good call, Batman. Good call.