20th Century Fox
Directed by Leslie Martinson
Written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.
Based on BATMAN created by Bob Kane
Most moviegoers today are mostly familiar with the Tim Burton film version of BATMAN in which The Caped Crusader was re-invented as the grim and somber guardian of a Gotham City that looked as if a lunatic designed it. That version was inspired by Frank Miller’s legendary ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ which in itself was inspired by the revolutionary reworking of the character back in the ‘70’s by Denny O’Neal and Neal Adams, who took the character from his campy ‘60’s incarnation and brought him more back in line with what Batman’s creator, Bob Kane had envisioned.
And more recently Christopher Nolan has done his version of Batman in two movies that have given us what is the most realistic film version of the character to date. Nolan wanted to do a ‘real world’ Batman and I think he did a helluva job. “The Dark Knight” was the first superhero movie to sell a billion dollars worth of tickets at the box office and rightly so. The story, the characters, the performances and the direction were all so on point that “The Dark Knight” elevated the superhero movie to a new level.
However, it’s the ‘60’s version of BATMAN that has been playing on my DVD lately. I recently watched it one Saturday afternoon. Which for me is the best time to watch it, along with the largest bowl of potato chips I can find and a 3 liter bottle of Coca-Cola. Thus armed I relived one of my childhood pleasures with a great deal of fondness and fun.
Y’see, I was there when Batman was originally shown on ABC and like every other kid (and more than a few adults) I went absolutely nuts over the show and watched it faithfully. It was shown two nights a week and the first episode always left off with a cliffhanger than forced you to come back the next night to see how Batman and his trusty sidekick, Robin The Boy Wonder would escape. Batman was always a hot topic at school the next day and the TV show was also my first exposure to Bruce Lee, who appeared as Kato in a legendary two-parter that guest-starred The Green Hornet. Kato and Robin had a memorable fight that ended in a draw when realistically, Kato would have handed The Boy Wonder his ass in two seconds flat. But I digress…we’re talking about the movie here….
BATMAN: THE MOVIE has The Dynamic Duo up against Underworld United, which is an alliance of four of their greatest enemies. The Joker, The Penguin, Catwoman and The Riddler have all joined forces to once and for all destroy Batman and Robin and take over the world. They mean to achieve world conquest by kidnapping the members of The World Council and using an experimental dehydration machine to reduce them to dust and hold them until the nations of the world capitulate. Meanwhile, they spend their time thinking up increasingly bizarre traps to kill Batman and Robin and good googlymoogly do they spend a lot of time doing that. There’s about five deathtraps they think up that take an amazing amount of time, money and sheer wasted energy when somebody could have just taken a gun and shot The Dynamic Duo dead.
Some of these deathtraps have become cult favorites among fans of the movie. Right at the beginning there’s a trained exploding shark that tries to eat Batman’s leg while he’s hanging from The Batcopter. Luckily he’s got a can of Bat Shark Repellent handy. Don’t even ask why he would have a can of Shark Repellent in a helicopter, okay? He’s Batman. And then there’s the big black bomb with the world’s longest fuse which Batman is trying desperately to get rid off but he keeps running into innocents in the way of him throwing it (A mother with a baby carriage, a group of nuns, a Salvation Army Band) which causes Batman to mutter the film’s most memorable line; “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!” But he does manage to get rid of it. How? Need you even ask? He’s Batman.
The fight scenes in the movie are extremely entertaining and downright exhilarating in their sheer destructiveness. Clearly inspired by Saturday morning serials, they’re huge set destroying melees in which not a stick of furniture is left standing. There’s no blood, nobody gets hurt and the actors (it’s pretty obvious that they’re not using stunt doubles) all are incredibly energetic and lively. Two of the best fights is one in which Bruce Wayne (!) has to fight his way out of the United Underworld hideout and at the end where Batman and Robin take on all the villains and their henchmen in a sea battle aboard The Penguin’s submarine. Batman and Robin fight something like two-dozen bad guys at one time and everybody is thrown and knocked into the water and climb back aboard the sub for more good-natured ass-kicking mayhem.
Okay, how about the performances, you ask? It’s pretty clear to me at least that everybody was having a good time making the movie, especially the actors playing the villains. When Tim Burton gave the character new life in 1989, every actor wanted to play a Batman villain. And why not? The only fictional character with better bad guys is Dick Tracy. And it was the same way back in the 60’s. Quite a lot of talented actors actively sought out roles as villains on Batman and four of the best are in this movie. Burgess Meredith and Cesar Romero are just fine as The Penguin and The Joker. Romero especially had the kind of manic energy that The Joker needs. I only wish that Eartha Kitt had played Catwoman in the movie because she was the one Catwoman who really turned my crank. Lee Meriwether is fine in the role but hell; Eartha Kitt could make me turn to crime any day. And I’ve always loved Frank Gorshin as The Riddler. He’s the only villain with more than one outfit. When he’s in action, he wears a skin-tight green jumpsuit, but he also has this cool double-breasted green suit complete with a derby, spats and tastefully placed black question marks. Gorshin also has one disturbing scene aboard The Penguin’s submarine where he horrifyingly shows the sheer psychotic insanity of The Riddler, as well as a blood thirst for Batman’s death. Wait for the scene where he screams at The Penguin to stop fooling around and kill Batman without delay. Make sure you look at the reactions of the other villains. They are clearly aware at that moment that this guy does not have all the spots on his dice. It’s a great moment in the movie and it shows that Frank Gorshin perfectly understood what made The Riddler tick and more importantly, he understood what made a Batman villain tick.
And what else can be said about Adam West and Burt Ward that hasn’t already been said? The two of them made the perfect Batman and Robin for this more innocent and light-hearted version of the characters and part of the fun of the movie is that West and Ward know they look ridiculous but they give it their all and even in the silliest of situations they play it with straight faces.
And to give Adam West his due, there’s a scene near the end when Batman discovers that his emotions have been played with by Catwoman and it’s perhaps the finest acting West has ever done as Batman since he has to communicate his thoughts and feeling with only his eyes and his lips and it’s an effective scene, indeed.
In recent years the movie has been derided by comic books fans who claim that the movie “ruined the character” without taking into account that the Batman of the comic book at that time was even wackier than the TV version. At least the TV version never had Bat-Mite. But it did have Yvonne Craig as Batgirl. Yowsa. And y’know, I really feel sorry for those who can’t get into this movie and enjoy it for what it is. I really enjoy watching BATMAN: THE MOVIE. It’s an innocent movie, designed for nothing else than to entertain and make you feel good. And maybe that’s its true charm: It’s simple, good-natured fun and if you stick that part of you that’s become oh so sophisticated and worldly in the closet and access your inner 10-year old, you might find yourself enjoying it. Catch it in the right mood on a Saturday afternoon.