Friday, August 28, 2015

Does “Batman ’66” hold up nearly a half century later?

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter you might have noticed that every day since March I was posting a daily “vlog” wherein I reviewed an episode of Batman ’66 (aka the Adam West Batman TV show). I recently uploaded the last vlog and it was quite a relief to have finished that project. Not because I didn’t like doing it (though there were a few pretty terrible episodes), but just because it was a much bigger project than I thought it was going to be.


batman banner
So how exactly do you “review” an entire television series?

You don’t.

I couldn’t possibly review Batman ’66 in one blog post, not even if I rambled on for 10,000 words. So this post won’t be so much a review as some general, overall impressions.

IT STARTED OUT SOMEWHAT SERIOUS, BUT GOT CAMPIER OVER TIME  

When you mention Batman ’66 in any context, the first word that comes to most people’s mind is “campy.” Even those who have never seen the show, or have only seen snippets of it here and there, still think of it as literally a live-action cartoon. There are indeed entire episodes that are so preposterous in premise, as well as individual scenes and even moments that are quite silly and absurd, but I would not consider the show to be as simple as a live action cartoon.
Atomic batteries to power. Turbines to speed.
Atomic batteries to power. Turbines to speed.

When the show first started, it was intended to be somewhat plausible. The first episode is actually rather dark in tone. The famous image of the “Batusi” dance comes from that pilot show, but what most people forget is that it also contains an on-screen death! The Riddler’s moll, Molly (I assume that name was a pun), actually dies (sorry, spoilers). It’s a very strange and surreal moment, especially since it happens due to her own incompetence (Batman really had nothing to do with it).

The series lightened up after this episode, though the first season was played fairly straight for the most part. True, each show had the POW! BIFF! CRASH! moments during the fight scenes, but there was still a good amount of mystery to each plot and actual detective and forensics work on Batman and Robin’s part. Perhaps it’s not something the laymen would notice if they were to watch a standalone Season 1 episode, but that is something I noticed having seen all 120 of them.

batman and robin

IT’S ONE OF THE BEST-LOOKING SHOWS OF ITS ERA   
    
What also comes to mind when you say Batman ’66 is bright colors and pop art imagery. I don’t think the show was trying to be avant garde; I think it was just trying to be the best-looking show on television at the time. Watching it in high definition today is a treat for the eyes. There’s a celluloid quality to the visuals – something we’ve lost in the Digital Age. It’s a je ne sais quoi quality that modern generations might not notice or appreciate.

It’s not just the picture itself that looks good (though it is amazing how crisp and clear the picture is), it’s the costumes, the set designs, the cinematography, etc. Using the word “gaudy” to describe the look of Batman ’66 may sound like a harsh criticism, but I think it’s actually quite complimentary. That’s not to say every moment of every episode was fluorescent pink and green, but it’s one of the few shows where the color palette makes it so memorable.

It was also able to accurately predict future technologies. To wit: the Bat Cellphone.
It was also able to accurately predict future technologies. To wit: the Bat Cellphone.

Additionally, it’s the little details that stand out (especially now). Consider that nearly everything in the Batcave and in the villains’ hideouts has a label on it. This is subtle sight gag and it never gets old (my favorite: “Secret elevator to umbrella show” in the first Penguin episode).

Of course, some of the props and practical effects have not aged well, though it’s always fun seeing them now. A great example of this is Mr. Freeze’s ice gun which is clearly just a fire extinguisher.

BATMAN AND ROBIN WERE THE LEAST INTERESTING CHARACTERS

Kevin Smith has repeatedly said on his various podcasts – I completely agree – that Batman tends to be a lot less interesting to watch than the villains in any of his shows or movies (though I find the opposite is true in the comics). That’s definitely true here, since Batman and Robin are portrayed as being uptight, serious, and without much of a sense of humor. Despite the fact that they are the stars of the show, there’s not a lot of depth to Batman and Robin, nor to Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. They never really have any motivation for doing what they do; it’s just accepted that they’re the heroes, they’re always in the right, and as long as they get the villain their actions are justified. Bruce only mentions his dead parents as a throwaway line in one of the early episodes; Dick’s parents – and what happened to them – are never mentioned. Too grisly for the era, perhaps?

For a couple of "superheroes," Batman and Robin found themselves in A LOT of overly elaborate death traps!
For a couple of “superheroes,” Batman and Robin found themselves in A LOT of overly elaborate death traps!

Batman and Robin come across as quite fascistic at times. You notice they talk down to regular people as if they’re superior (no one is ever sir or ma’am, they’re “citizen”). Some of that is rooted in the culture of the time, such as the episode in which Penguin wants to shoot a movie which apparently contains a nude scene and the “Gotham Film Board” is appalled. Or when Batman is forced to marry a villainess for some archaic supposedly honorable reason (both those episodes featured Marsha, Queen of Diamonds, interestingly enough). Police and government are infallible and revered, even though Batman’s entire existence is predicated on the fact the GCPD are a bunch of inept boobs.

joker

I will say that some of the funniest and most memorable moments are due to the fact Batman and Robin are portrayed as stiffs; when they’re not fighting crime, they do look rather silly. There are quite a few episodes wherein they find themselves in a store or a restaurant and feel obligated to patronize the business like any other customer. Are they so obtuse they don’t realize how much they stand out from the crowd in their costumes? In this world, apparently not.

dining

MANY VILLAINS WERE FASCINATING

Since our heroes have so little personality, it’s not surprising that the villains are nothing but personalities. Each of them has their own distinct characteristics and it’s what makes them so interesting to watch. Many of the actors playing the villains were absolutely brilliant in their roles, too. Burgess Meredith as The Penguin and Frank Gorshin as The Riddler don’t just chew scenery – they devour it! Cesar Romero as The Joker is actually a bit more reserved since his character is portrayed as the Silver Age villain who was simply a wacky crook rather than the psychopathic killer we associate him with today. Julie Newmar was very sensual as Catwoman; she doesn’t really seem like she wants to be a criminal, she just wants Batman to chase her. I also really like Victor Buono as King Tut – a character apparently created for the show. At first I thought he was completely ridiculous, but after each appearance I noticed how hilarious this character is and how Buono was great as the zany lout. He reminds me of John Goodman.

penguinking tutriddler
There are too many villains to name and critique here, though I’d say the aforementioned ones were the best either because they had the best scripts or because the actors portraying them were so great at their job (or both). Not all of them were that good, though; one-off villains like The Archer, The Minstrel, Black Widow and pretty much every villain in the entire third season were pretty boring for one reason or another. Still, each of them had at least one trait that made them interesting for one reason or another, even if they were portrayed by a lousy actor (e.g. Milton Berle) or the victims of an awful script (e.g. Louie the Lilac).


catwoman

SO I GUESS WHAT I’M TRYING TO SAY IS…

Batman ’66 was a fun show to watch from beginning to end. I liked it so much I’m actually watching it in its entirety a second time! And I’m noticing that it actually seems to improve with repeated viewings. This time around I have a larger frame of reference, so I can see how well-written some of the better episodes really are (and, by contrast, how bad some of the turkeys are).

There’s really so much to say about this show that I’m actually considering writing my own book to document it all. There are already a few Batman ’66 guides and whatnot, but I’ve found most of them to be rather amateurish, incompletely and boring, frankly. They say the best way to criticize something is to do it better yourself, so I think I just might. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the show’s debut, and no doubt there will be a market for Batman ’66 merchandise and other paraphernalia, so I’d better get started now!

NOTE: I admin a Batman ’66 Facebook fan page and upload screen shots daily. If you’re on FB, please give it a like!

One of the many subtle WTF moments peppered throughout the series.
One of the many subtle WTF moments peppered throughout the series.

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