There has been a lot of depictions of Batman over the last 50 years: from Michael Keaton’s brooding stiff-necked Batman, George Clooney’s “I’m doing this for the money’ Batman, Christian Bale’s angst-ridden Batman, and today’s psychotic thug of Batman as played by Ben Affleck. For many of us though, there is only one Batman and that’s Adam West, who played Batman/Bruce Wayne 50 years ago in Batman: The Movie.
Released in 1966 between the first and second seasons of the Batman television series, Batman: The Movie (‘The Movie’ seems to have been added onto the title outwith the US) featured West’s full frame squeezed into Batman’s suit alongside Burt Ward as Robin/Dick Grayson, Batman’s enthusiastic straight man sidekick. Alongside the Dynamic Duo saw Joker, Riddler, Catwoman and Penguin unite in a dastardly scheme to cause chaos. Frankly, the plot doesn’t matter a single toss, it’s just there to get all of Batman’s best known baddies to fight Batman and the Boy Wonder in a film that for many is 105 minutes of cringing because they don’t see this as ‘respectful’ to Batman, but this is a more legitimate version of Batman than say, Affleck’s brutal murdering thug. This is Batman of the 1960’s, when there was hope and fun and silly things like that future generations will only be able to read about on their iPads.
Big, loud, brash and joyful, Batman: The Movie is 60’s pop-art on celluloid with its bright prime colours, snappy one-liners, heroic heroes, villainous villains and on-screen sound effects that have become so ingrained into modern culture they still (sometimes tediously) reference anything to do with comics in the media with a ZAP, POW, or WHAM!.
Part of the success of this is that – although actors playing the villains are playing it for laughs – West isn’t, and he isn’t deadpanning either; he’s playing it straight, even in the famous scene where Batman is trying to get rid of a bomb, or when he’s got a clearly rubber shark stuck to his leg. Whereas people like Cesar Romero or Burgess Meridith can camp up to the Nth degree, West keeps it so that Batman is the solid, straight hero from the comics as he was in the 1960’s. Although this Batman isn’t broody; he’s just in a very strange world with villains who aren’t murdering lunatics, but actually quite jolly bad guys with a mad scheme that’s always stopped in the third act without anybody getting hurt.
And there’s the thing about Batman: The Movie: it’s a safe, joyful celebration of a character who was DC’s second biggest character (there’s a great story that Jim Steranko tells that DC for years underdeveloped Batman in order to pay Bob Kane less in royalties) at the time after Superman. This version of Batman was the definitive version until 1989, when Tim Burton’s film rolled along and, although this meant Adam West was typecast to the detriment of his career, people like myself who grew up with this film still had it imprinted on them. Looking now at the darker, grimmer, superheroes that dominate film or TV adaptations of DC’s character, I do long for the occasional POW! or WHAM! to lighten up the sounds of bones breaking. But that’d end up being too postmodern and joyless, but we’ll always have the memory of Adam West running around with a fake bomb to keep us smiling.