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Batman: The Movie (1966) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 03 September 2008
ImageThis is the movie based on the TV series, which was released while the show was still on the air.  The story is simple: Gotham City’s four most notorious bad guys (and the four who turned up most often on the series), The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), The Joker (Cesar Romero), Catwoman (Lee Meriwether) and The Riddler (Frank Gorshin), kidnap a scientist to get their hands on his dehydration device.  It turns living things into neat little piles of colorful sand, and can restore them again later.  Somehow this is part of their plan to conquer the world, but it’s never entirely clear just how this was to be accomplished.  Police Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) turns to Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) for help.  They have secret identities—millionaire Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson.  Only Wayne’s loyal and very British butler Alfred (Alan Napier) knows who Batman and Robin are. 

The movie budget allowed more exterior shooting—at sea and in the air—than was possible on the TV series, and they were able to add a couple of gadgets, the Batcopter and the Batboat (a speedy runabout).  There are also a few scene with Bruce Wayne romancing Catwoman, in disguise as Russian journalist Kitka, but though the actors are trying hard, these are boring—probably the point at which kids ran out for popcorn. 
The TV series “Batman”—the one starring Adam West and Burt Ward—was an unexpected hit, kicking off a short-lived but intense craze for all things Batman; Robin’s “Holy (whatever), Batman!” was so thoroughly adopted by society that even reviews of 2008’s “The Dark Knight” occasionally used that very stale joke.  The straight-faced spoofery of the show was very unusual—only a handful of movies had gone down that tricky path, and no TV series before this had dared to try this approach.
That offbeat but on-target style helped the TV series achieve hit status, but kids under 12 or so—probably the show’s largest audience—took the show absolutely seriously.  Even today you will encounter people who were fans of the original show, including in its decades-long syndicated career, who are surprised, even mortified, to learn that the show they loved so much was a spoof, a comedy, a satirical attack on superheroes, and not the real deal.  Virtually all of the talking heads interviewed for the several featurettes are adults who loved the show as kids, and who regarded Batman and Robin as untarnished, straightforward heroes. The primary reason the show evoked this divided response is that it was derived fairly closely from the Batman comic books of the 1950s, which were strait-laced, without a trace of mockery and only a few jokes.  The dialogue wasn’t arch or ironic, it tended to be pompous and extremely serious, barring a few last-panel wisecracks by Batman (or sometimes the Joker).  The age of the kids who took the comics absolutely seriously (as was the intention) and of the later kids who regarded the series the same way was comparable.  They were the target, and the comic books and the TV show hit it.
It’s also true that sales of comic books—across the board, all styles, all genres—had fallen off by the mid-60s; the series gave the entire market a huge, if temporary, boost.  DC Comics, the home of Batman (and Superman, for that matter), somewhat awkwardly tried to satisfy the TV market by adding “Go-Go Checks” to the top of the cover, and by emphasizing sound effects (“Bam!” “Pow!” “Thud!” etc.) as the TV show did.  But at the same time, editor Julius Schwartz had taken over the Batman line of comics and had greatly (and effectively) restyled them.  Gone were stories like “The Phantom Batman,” “The Alien Batman,” etc., in came stories focused on cliff-hanger escapes and scientific deduction.  The art style became much more realistic, quite different from the Dick Tracy-inspired square-jawed look the comics had featured since the first story.  And yet at the same time, Schwartz had to try to appeal to the TV show audience.  For a while, Batman comics became positively schizophrenic.
As soon as the first season of the show wrapped, to capitalize on the sudden, massive fame (similar to but smaller than the Davy Crockett craze of the early-to-mid 1950s), 20th Century Fox quickly put together a “Batman” feature.  (It’s called “Batman” even on this print; it was never called “Batman: The Movie,” nor was the later, serious, Tim Burton movie.  They simply have the same title.)  Since he helped shape the series and wrote 16 episodes, Lorenzo Semple, Jr. was a logical choice to write the screenplay, very different from most of his other work.  Like, say, “Pretty Poison, “The Parallax View” and “Three Days of the Condor.”  But in 1960s interviews, he rarely failed to emphasize that he intensely disliked comic books and fantasy in general;, his smirking, condescending scripts for “King Kong” (1976), “Flash Gordon” (1980) and “Sheena” (1984) demonstrate his contempt for this genre.  Here, he supplies a monotonous, uninterested commentary track; he refers often to his better, more serious screenplays, just in case the listener might think he actually liked “Batman.”
There’s also a commentary track by stars Adam West and Burt Ward, both of whom sound like pleasant guys, but their comments are minor and uninteresting.  Some other options are minor—you can invoke a map of southern California while the film unspools, but so what?  Few locations are recognizable or distinctive.  The featurette on the Batmobile, hosted by its creator (and owner) Chuck Barris, is of interest solely if you’re deeply into the Batmobile.  The same is true, even more so, for the tour of the car.  I couldn’t invoke the trivia track on my machine.
Leslie H. Martinson is primarily a TV director, with a long career of helming mostly dramas and crime shows—but not a single episode of the “Batman” series.  His theatrical features were largely trivia, like “The Atomic Kid” or “Lad, a Dog,” though he did helm “PT 109,” about JFK’s war exploits.  He doesn’t bring anything special to the “Batman” movie, and instead simply follows suit: the show brightly colored and overlit without very much contrast, and so is the movie.  Occasionally there are tilted camera angles—“Dutch angles”—and in the semi-big fight scene of the climax, he brings out the hugely-letter “Bam!”s, “Pow!”s and “Wham!”s.  There’s a modestly amusing sequence in which Batman can’t seem to rid himself of a bomb that’s about to explode—too many innocent bystanders—that’s not much like the series, but it’s one of the few scenes here that might be considered memorable.
There are several featurettes, with the participants including “Batman historian” Mark Cotta Vaz, comic book writers Mark Waid and Geoff Jones, movie historian Jerry Beck, film critics Kim Newman and Richard Holliss, collector Bob Burns, Paul Dini, who wrote the straight, non-spoofy “Batman” animated series, Semple and Martinson, and a few others, including Michael Uslan, who’s been involved with all the Batman features since this one, including “The Dark Knight.”  All of these except Semple and Martinson initially took the TV series utterly seriously.  And most of their remarks pertain more to the series than to this movie; there aren’t even any clips from the series.  (Why not?  The documentary made in 2001, also included here, includes such clips.)
A great effort is made to establish this movie as a fun-loving, harmlessly comic approach to the Batman mythos, and if you’re in a forgiving mood, you might take it that way yourself.  But it’s a pretty lame movie.  There’s no plot to speak of—the four bad guys try a scheme, and Batman and Robin counter with that; repeat as necessary until the running time (rather too long at over 100 minutes) is all used up.  Sprinkle in fights.
Although Adam West impressively manages the difficult stunt of playing it straight and comic at the same time, the best thing about the movies is the presence of the four villains.  Somewhere in the featurettes, someone admits that the initial idea was to pit Batman and Robin against only the Penguin; it’s easy to believe, because the Penguin seems to be the main schemer here.  He and the others work from a submarine amusingly redressed to resemble a huge penguin, with orange flippers instead of a propeller.  He also provides his partners in crime with flying umbrellas (furled, fortunately).  Burgess Meredith was always a good actor with a tendency to go over the top—but even then, he so clearly loved acting that all but the most extreme hambone turns were fun to watch. 
The same is true here.  Before the show made its debut, comic book devotee me couldn’t figure out how they could do such a cartoony character as The Penguin—but Meredith showed how it’s done.  He adopted a distinctive quacking laugh, found 1400 ways to express himself with his cigarette holder, and underwent discreet padding to build him out to the Penguin’s tubby frame.  To my astonishment (and, I suspect, everyone else’s), Meredith perfectly embodied the Penguin.  He played it straight, but of course the character itself is grotesque in the first place.  The mix was simply wonderful—and it is here in the movie, too, even if every scene with the Penguin seems like a buildup to a payoff that never comes.
It’s hard to decide if Cesar Romero should be criticized or applauded for refusing to shave off his mustache when playing the Joker.  He had a long movie career—even longer than Meredith’s—all the way back to the mid-30s.  He sometimes played good guys, even heroes (he was The Cisco Kid for a while), sometimes bad guys, but was always charming, debonair and elegant.  So his casting as the Joker was a bit of a surprise.  Sure, he was lean, like the Joker was in the comic books, but…Cesar ROMERO??  And like Meredith, he overcame all objections by his enthusiastic plunge into the role.  Wearing mostly cerise or purple suits, with green here and there (including his hair; even Heath Ledger’s hair is green), gloves, his clown-white face, huge red grin, his wildly gesticulating hands and arms and his memorable cackling laugh, Romero’s Joker was damned near perfect—for that conception of the Joker, that is.  Later, Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger also neared perfection for two different conceptions of the character.
Julie Newmar was off making the ill-fated “Mackenna’s Gold” and so couldn’t play her TV role of Catwoman, so Lee Meredith took over the part of the sexy, catsuit-clad villainess with lots of feline traits.  She’s just fine in the role, even in the unnecessarily prolonged romantic scenes with Adam West in his Bruce Wayne guise.
The Riddler had been a distinctly second-string villain in the comics, but Frank Gorshin—then known mostly as a pretty good impressionist—turned the green-clad jokester into an icon.  Jim Carrey’s later incarnation as The Riddler is essentially a duplication of this original.  Gorshin managed a difficult trick of seeming both insane and truly dangerous.  The odd thing about the featurettes is that not a single person points out that Gorshin’s Riddler is largely an extension of his brilliant impression of Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo in “Kiss of Death,” including Widmark’s distinctive cackle.
There are several scenes of the four villains aboard the sub or at the Penguin’s seaside hideout; they mostly laugh.  There are a couple of subtle gags: when the four invade the movie equivalent of the United Nations, they’re all wearing domino masks, apparently to prevent recognition.  But, of course, the Penguin and the Joker, in particular, are highly recognizable anyway—not too many bad guys with pointed noses and lavender top hats, or white skin and green hair.
It’s somewhat peculiar that Fox has released this movie, intended to look as much like the TV series as possible, in high definition on this Blu-ray disc.  Sure, the colors are bright and shiny, but the contrast is also very high, so the whole thing looks too much like a TV show.  There’s no reason to put out the extra bucks for this Blu-ray disc if you already own the movie in another format.  Neal Hefti’s famous “Batman” theme is heard only rarely.
If you’re a major fan of the TV series, this is for you—but you don’t need me to tell you that.  If you’re only slightly interested—there are other movies out there you’d probably be better off adding to your collection.

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