‘Batman’ flashback: ‘Batman: The Movie’ (1966) (Movie review)

With “Gotham” back for its final season, I’m looking back at past “Batman” projects from the perspective of someone who enjoyed “The Animated Series” as a kid and now enjoys “Gotham.” Next up is “Batman: The Movie” (1966).

WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT IT

“Batman: The Movie” is an interesting time capsule of the pre-“Superman” (1978) superhero era that you can polish off in less than two hours in order to get a feel for the TV series without having to watch it. If someone really digs cheeseball comedy, there are some OK jokes in here. And the designs of the Batmobile, Batboat and Batcopter are nice.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD ABOUT IT

This movie, and the accompanying TV show, has a mission statement of not taking comic books seriously. It even gives a pseudo-apology for this in an opening card about how the film is for people who love escapism. It doesn’t hate the source material, it is just utterly uninterested in digging into the themes or treating the characters as real people. Even for what it is, it often chooses a cheesy joke over an expensive action sequence or stunt (and when you see the stunts, it’s clear why). For example, Batman and Robin escape from a submarine missile off-screen, with Batman later remarking to Robin about the porpoise that jumped in front of the missile, saving their lives.

BATMAN

We respect Batman (Adam West) because of the gadgets he presumably invented and the fact that everyone looks up to him. Certainly he means well, but in terms of heroic acts, Batman doesn’t have a great batting average in this movie. The Penguin even keeps him on the ropes by waving his umbrella like a sword.

ALLIES

Dick Grayson/Robin (Burt Ward) respects Batman’s guidance and direction, and there’s a lived-in respect between them. It’s refreshing in contrast to the whiny Robin of the Schumacher films.

VILLAINS

The prototypes for the villains in the 1989-97 movies can be found here. The later actors would turn the performances up to 11, but we can see how Jack Nicholson’s Joker comes from Cesar Romero’s constant laughter; Danny DeVito’s Penguin comes from Burgess Meredith’s “Wah, wah, wah”; and Jim Carrey’s Riddler comes from Frank Gorshin’s prancing around. Catwoman (Lee Meriwether) is more toned-down, and sometimes even annoyed by the boys in her alliance of evil.

One cheesy running gag I think lands well is how Batman and Robin always correctly solve the Riddler’s clues, even though thousands of solutions would be possible. This is one aspect of the saga that deserves to be parodied.

THAT’S FAMILIAR

  • When Batman runs around trying to dispose of a bomb, and keeps encountering nuns and women with babies and marching bands, I was reminded of the humor of “The Naked Gun.”
  • When Bruce daydreams on Kitka’s shoulder and speaks of reaching the “climax” of his dream, the infusing of adult humor into a kids’ movie is a precursor to Disney animated films from years down the road.
  • When the villains flail around after the submarine is hit by Robin’s pulse missiles, it calls to mind the Enterprise bridge when that ship is struck in the original “Star Trek” series.
  • Romero’s mustache, covered in white face paint, is the most famous hidden mustache in superhero movies prior to Henry Cavill’s in “Justice League.”

THAT’S SURPRISING

  • “Batman: The Movie” supports local government but questions bigger governments, giving it an old-fashioned conservative bent. Batman believes local police should be supported, but he’s annoyed by the bureaucracy of the Pentagon, which sloppily sells a decommissioned nuclear submarine to the Penguin. He and Robin take it as a given that it’ll be good for the world to reconstitute the members of the United World Organization, but Robin expresses interest in “improving” them, and both are pleased when the nine councilmen get jumbled up and are speaking each others’ languages.

THAT’S WEIRD

  • This film generally plays by the old superhero rules that if someone is wearing a mask or disguise, they can’t be recognized. Hence, Bruce doesn’t know Kitka is Catwoman. Yet Batman and Robin do recognize Penguin when he adds facial hair and a captain’s hat.

FINAL THOUGHTS

“Batman: The Movie” — and its accompanying TV series, I assume – is a parody of its source material. If you think about it, it’s weird that this is the style for Batman’s first jump to the screen aside from a couple serials in the 1940s. And it’s also a shame, since it wouldn’t be until 1989 that Batman would get a more serious screen interpretation – and as I noted, even then the influence of Romero’s Joker lingers. I think the 1960s “Batman” is given too much of a pass for being a product of its time. Consider that “Superman” hit screens just 12 years after this movie, “Star Wars” 11 years after, “Jaws” nine years after, and “Planet of the Apes” and “2001” a mere two years after. Those movies prove that quality, thoughtful genre films could be made, and there’s no good excuse why “Batman” had to be treated as a joke.

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