The recent passing of Adam West – who made Batman his own despite the many higher-profile claimants to the cape – reminds us of the feature film based on the witty TV show. Here, critic M. C. Myers finds much to appreciate in the now obscure Batman: The Movie. From the text: “The film, and the show for which it’s a feature length ad, that once put the fizzy ’60s at the butt of all its jokes, now has more to say about Hollywood’s biggest super-genre. The film’s conscientious farce turns out on re-watch to be a startling exercise in retroactive parody. I mean that even though it’s 40 years beyond its reach, The Dark Knight and all its distempered descendants have become the true laughingstock of Batman: The Movie, ably overseen by the super-serious fulcrum of fortitude standing watch in the eye of its comedic storm (and occasionally looking a bit like Adam West).”
* * *
Superheroes may be adults, but they must be understood by children. This simple truth (more marketing than storytelling) represents an identity disorder inherent in the whole establ ishment, if comics depict a grown-up world that has to look up at itself. Batman: The Movie nurtures this effect not only by being a comedy – the religion of adolescence – but by being so with the most perfectly innocent seriousness. In that way it resembles how such a child views the adult world, and all its talking up and down, all its grave riddle-making that from a point of view three feet from the ground just seems pretty darn funny. Eventually someone – maybe a parent, but probably a movie critic – told them that Batman: The Movie was camp and camp doesn’t count for much. But the film, and the show for which it’s a feature length ad, that once put the fizzy ’60s at the butt of all its jokes, now has more to say about Hollywood’s biggest super-genre. The film’s conscientious farce turns out on re-watch to be a startling exercise in retroactive parody. I mean that even though it’s 40 years beyond its reach, The Dark Knight and all its distempered descendants have become the true laughingstock of Batman: The Movie, ably overseen by the super-serious fulcrum of fortitude standing watch in the eye of its comedic storm (and occasionally looking a bit like Adam West).
Anyone passingly familiar with 1960s television, even sideways through modern meme culture, knows how silly Adam West and Burt Ward look as the Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder. When Batman suggests that it would be quicker to run, to reach the United World Organization before The Penguin (Burgess Meredith) dehydrates its Security Council into little piles of colored sand, who could expect the two of them gasping at the camera against a crazily out-of-focus background? Batman galumphing around with a cartoony bomb over his head while nuns, a tuba quartet, and a string of little duckies block his path is such a sure reminder that superheroes wear tights and undies that you have to wonder how they ever survived the swaggering ’50s in the first place.
Let’s not even start on The Riddler’s (Frank Gorshin) criminal conundrums. “But wait!” Robin chirps, “It happened at sea … Sea? C for Catwoman!” There’s a breathless absurdity to the screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (who penned the show). As stupid as it sounds when written out, the effect in-film is not so much eye-rolling as baffling, like this is a window on a stage play put on by a race of aliens who read a comic book once, or by one of DC’s “elseworld” dimensions. The Dynamic Duo speak with such alacrity you could swear they’re making perfect sense. And they do make sense, in their world. Batman particularly seems to be on a first-name basis with all the primal powers of his universe, even when talking in logic that would be bonkers for Scooby-Doo. Batman makes fun of other movies’ worlds, but about his own he is perfectly sincere.
All this would be out of place in a movie about a flying boy scout or super suffragette. But Batman is a vigilante (here, a police-sanctioned mercenary). His approach to law and order, and to personal identity, tend more than a little toward the sociopathic. His most treasured comic books are ones that twist his humanity into feral grins (The Dark Knight Returns) or that reduce him to his founding nightmare symbols (Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth). The sociable insanity inherent in the character, which Christopher Nolan muted in favor of a techier, Bond-style international man/broody boyfriend of mystery, is what West brings to the role in every suppressed smile and cockamamie bat-plan. Particularly in matters of sex and socializing, Batman: The Movie so quietly slips on the nightie of a darker anti-hero that you might miss it, since it isn’t telling you in a scraggly voice how scary and deep it is.
With Miss Kitka (an acronym, we discover, for Kitayna Ireyna Tatanya Kerenska Alisoff) Bruce Wayne (West) seems like a child in love, plumed by his wealth but awkward and self-contained, like he can afford Playboy bunnies but never quite knows what to do with them. Bruce dates Kitka not knowing she’s really The Catwoman (Lee Meriwether, able-bodied but not quite purr-fect against the show’s Julie Newmar). He talks love from her boudoir over hot cocoa and kissing, but lacks a human presence – while Meriwether sizzles with conscious deception, Bruce has a look like he should be doing something else, if he could only remember what. When captured by the villains (Cesar Romero is the one I haven’t mentioned, as the most jovial of all Jokers), Bruce promises in a moment of gruesome clarity to kill each of them, to “rend them limb from limb,” should Kitka be harmed. Harsh words, not just for a man who should be thinking about his disguise, but for a Saturday morning role model (can you imagine George or Chris Reeves’ Supermen saying that?). And then, when Batman discovers that the object of his affection is The Catwoman, Robin looks at him worriedly. Batman scoffs at him. “It’s just … one of those things in the life of every crime fighter. It means nothing. Slap on the Batcuffs,” he says, and moves on. The humanity of the situation seems lost on him, now that he has his cape and cowl back on.
Now, I like Batman comics, particularly those by Grant Morrison. He is like a gleeful mythologist, mining this cartoonish thing for the hidden Oedipus and Minotaur, the universal nightmare cave things. But as per the character, I’ve always considered Batman to be simplistic, merely given the appearance of depth by style. His parents die so he hates criminals (who wouldn’t?). In fact, he’d be more surprising if he didn’t hate them, or was forced to deal with a world devoid of crime, or had to face the prospect of his own happiness conflicting with his mission of vengeance. But as much as the Batman character does, there’s never anywhere for it to go.
In Nolan’s films particularly, Batman seems like Bruce Wayne in a costume, the alter ego that Wayne becomes to fight crime, like the trash of his conscience has to be taken out every night. In Batman: The Movie, the opposite is true. The difference is crucial, to the point of being universal. Batman goes out during the day to fight crime. Bruce Wayne is Batman’s alter ego, the person he becomes at night to do menial social or obligatory human tasks. By the clarity of his nonsense and occasionally very human violence, West gives Batman the terrifically concealed insanity of a person who thinks his true identity is latex and cloth. He could solve the problems of the world but is a blissfully sociopathic buffoon in something as simple as love.
His movie approaches its weirdo universe no less earnestly: cartoonishness is its reality, like it doesn’t know how else to be. Jokes in this film are never superficial – even the dullest pun usually turns out to be a truth based on the silly rules of the cinematic universe. They deduce that The Penguin must be behind the disappearance of a yacht because a shark was involved and “Where there’s a fish, there could be a Penguin.” But the whispered punch line comes later when The Riddler exclaims, “You and your trained, exploding shark!” Their logic was perfectly sound. The Penguin replies as only Meredith can, with a voice like a train stopping too fast, “How was I to know they’d have a can of shark-repellent Bat-spray handy?” They’re like over-zealous playmates who all know the rules of playground engagement. And Batman is practically parental in how he deals with friend and foe alike: he doesn’t solve the film’s riddles, but usually just says “Exactly” at someone else’s answer, like he knew it all the time and was giving everyone else a chance. But did he? His persona disperses the issue just as it elevates West to a kind of tonal jury against which other incarnations are inevitably compared. Other people play Batman (how many times did Christian Bale’s Bruce say that as soon as he finishes this one last thing, he’ll stop pretending and be a good boyfriend?). West doesn’t have time for any of that; he is Batman.
If other versions of the character strive for believability, Batman: The Movie is laughing at them because the difference between the incarnations isn’t believability at all, but just awareness. Bale’s Batman travels from the Middle East to Gotham in minutes and knows every boutique on the East Coast that sells a certain perfume just by the smell. Where Nolan strains to make it seem like legitimate intrigue, the Semple script would have done the exact same thing, but as an intuitive little laugh at the dramas that try so hard to make it sensible. It’s actually the 1940s serials and not Bale’s hyper-physical badass that Batman: The Movie parodies, but they’re disarmed equally, once their tropes have been rent limb from limb for a confidential laugh.
So the essential spirit of the “darker” Batman that we value so highly is revealed by Batman: The Movie to be: formality. The psychoses (both dramatic and emotional) were clearer when presented with whimsical severity than with just severity. Consider how easily Will Arnett’s LEGO Batman has roasted the Bale archetype, just with a funny voice and a few references. West’s Batman could not be so easily thwarted: if you tried, you would still be at the mercy of his comedic apathy.
Director Leslie H. Martinson seems to view the heroes of Batman: The Movie in their magical else-sixties as from a child’s dumbfounding lucidity. He seems to be willing to accept any contrivance as perfectly reasonable, even a serious play on the seriously unwitting contrivances of other films. Every shot (every single one) of the villain’s hideout is in a dutch angle so severe it’s a wonder they don’t slip off the floor. As crooked as they are, Batman is as square against the camera as he must be in his own mind, to babble such insanity with a Boy Scout’s credulity.
Perhaps even after all this you believe that Batman should be broody and not silly, that the teeth-gritting desire to deserve Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel makes a better comic book than the romantic apathy West has for someone far prettier. But I like my comics to rest on their symbols, not their sensibility. I believe it’s no accident that Nolan’s pretensions digressed to Schumacherian levels of cheese (Bale grimacing while someone punches his spine back into his body comes to mind, and so does Bane emceeing a Super Bowl). Meanwhile Grant Morrison, to give the comics an unnerving edge toward horror, made with his Batman & Robin something very like the 1966 show. It was not the brooding superspy but the super-sane weirdo that Morrison saw as a rabbit’s hole of potential psychopathy.
But are the serious themes that Morrison sees implicit in all the camp, iconic to the point of being allegorical, really there? Was any of this intentional? In his TV (The Book), the critic Matt Zoller Seitz admirably called West as Batman “the establishment’s fantasy of itself” and the villains “the forces of chaos that kept threatening to engulf so-called civilized America.” But the common viewing of Batman: The Movie as a serious farce has been so undermined by imitators that people don’t seem to get the joke anymore. Whether the jokes were more or less intentional than their inherent social allegory, it’s the gallantry and the glee that Batman has lost since Frank Miller decided people should look up with fear when they see a superhero. It’s what we expect now of the DC Cinematic Universe, and it’s what I go back to Batman: The Movie for. As picnickers remark, “Gives a feller a good feeling knowing they’re up there doing their job.” It’s the matter-of-fact goodness that monetizes all the goof into a parody of the icons of its time, and undermines the modern Batman with good ol’ fashioned mirth as a front for a comment on heroes, their inherent insanity, and their real face.
But those upturned toy boxes of bliss celebrate their own absurdity even without a society to contextualize all the madness. It’s just that no one anymore even seems to realize there’s a joke to get. To plainly state the opinion of this particular feller, it gives me a good feeling indeed, even if my favorite Batman is one that would probably see my affection, with outrageous righteousness and the most practically-perfect humility, as an opportunity to teach me about split infinitives.