Rob Kelly’s got a Bat-tastic REEL RETRO CINEMA column headed your way … NOW!
UPDATED 7/30/16: Today’s the 50th anniversary of the BATMAN ’66 MOVIE, so we re-present Rob Kelly’s Reel Retro Cinema column from earlier this year! And check out the BATMAN ’66 MOVIE WEEKEND INDEX of stories — including the 13 GREATEST MOMENTS OF THE BATMAN ’66 MOVIE — here.
By ROB KELLY
I know what you’re thinking — does this site really need another look at the 1966 Batman movie? After all, 13th Dimension’s coverage and advocacy of the classic 1966-1968 TV series is so passionate and all-encompassing that I think, had it existed when ABC decided to scuttle the show, it could have single-handedly kept Batman from getting canceled (aside from the fact network execs would have been baffled over the whole “Internet” thing).
But to commemorate the show’s 50th anniversary, Editor Dan Greenfield has asked me to take a look at Batman: The Movie (as it’s now often called) and I said sure, why not? I grew up with the show, loved it as a kid, and continued to enjoy it even during the Dark Knight Returns/Tim Burton’s Batman years, when the “serious” Dark Knight really started to take hold in popular culture. So let’s get started!
After an ultra-mod, Day-Glo opening-credits sequence as pop-art stylish as anything Andy Warhol ever conceived, we settle into the case at hand: The Dynamic Duo (played by Adam West and Burt Ward, of course) jump in the Batcopter (just one of the impossibly cool Bat-Rides built with the movie’s enlarged budget) in an attempt to rescue Commodore Schmidlapp, whom they have heard is going to be kidnapped from his yacht. Shockingly, Schmidlapp’s ship vanishes just as Batman is about to climb aboard! For his trouble, the Caped Crusader is attacked by a giant (rubber) shark, but luckily he has a can of Shark Repellent Bat Spray on hand to get him out of the jam.
Back at Gotham Police Headquarters, it is deduced that the tip was faked, and is the work of United Underworld, a super-team of super-villains composed of the Joker (Cesar Romero), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether, subbing for an unavailable Julie Newmar). The four villains’ plan hinges on a dehydrator they stole from Schmidlapp that can turn people into dust. But to get Batman out of the way, they devise a plan to lure him to his doom: Catwoman goes undercover as Soviet journalist Miss Kitka and helps arrange the kidnapping of a prominent figure — who just turns out to be millionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne — as bait.
And it is here where Batman: The Movie really comes alive, and distinguishes itself from the TV series that spawned it.
Apparently, part of the reason Adam West agreed to do the movie at all was the promise that his role as Bruce Wayne would get more screen time than it did on the series. That promise was fulfilled, with West as Wayne getting a number of great scenes. He goes on a romantic date with Miss Kitka, which ends with one hell of a sequence where the supposed “millionaire playboy” shows some real butt-kicking ability, taking on the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler and some of their goons simultaneously! West really gets into it, throwing punches and kicks with wild abandon. It’s my favorite scene in the movie, its cartoon savagery 180 degrees removed from the more choreographed donnybrooks of the show.
After Wayne escapes, he returns to the lair back in costume, with Robin in tow — only to be greeted by a cartoonish bomb with its fuse lit — leading to a famous, frenzied attempt to get rid of it. After, the Penguin sneaks into the Batcave disguised as Schmidlapp (not fooling our heroes for a second), with Meredith clearly having the time of his life.
The four villains eventually turn their dreaded, stolen invention on the members of the United World’s Security Council, whose disappearance could throw the planet into chaos. Batman and Robin give chase in the Batboat, which leads to the kidnapped Schmidlapp (hey, that rhymes!) — who accidentally knocks the vials containing the world’s dignitaries over and into one giant mess of brightly colored dust. Batman then gets to work, using his gifted scientific mind to carefully separate the dust back into the appropriate containers. Then, at the UW headquarters, he rehydrates the dust, while the world (including an off-screen Lyndon Baines Johnson, taking time out from getting the United States further bogged down in Vietnam) watches with baited breath.
All seems to go well, except—all the dignitaries now speak each other’s native tongues! Amid the confusion, Batman surmises that maybe, just maybe, this will help lead to better understanding among the world’s leading nations, and a greater chance at peace. He tells Robin they should leave as inconspicuously as possible, which to them means climbing out the window using a Batrope. As our heroes descend, the film reaches The (Living) End …?
Batman: The Movie was originally conceived as an introduction to the live-action Batman concept, producer William Dozier hoping it would work as a sort of commercial for a potential TV series. The movie studio in question, 20th Century Fox, decided to skip the movie and go right to series, leaving the movie to be shot and released between the first and second seasons.
It does manage to be more than just an extra-long episode of the show, however, for a number of reasons: Its large-scale plot is something that never could have been attempted on the series, given time and budget restraints. Adam West gives an exuberant performance, as do Romero, Meredith and Gorshin, who seem to be practically bouncing off one another in glee. Lee Meriwether seems more at home in her role of Miss Kitka, leaving her Catwoman a bit overshadowed in the group villain scenes. (It’s really too bad mundane production schedules prevented Julie Newmar from being involved—seeing her on the big screen in that form-fitting Catwoman costume probably could have bumped the film to a PG rating all by itself, even if this was before the MPAA installed such a system).
It features a few moments of high comedy, at least one of which has become iconic: The scene of Batman desperately trying to get rid of the bomb became one of the first Internet memes — and one of its most durable. (Check out current mashups of Bats carrying around BB-8 if you don’t believe me).
Despite (or maybe because of) the TV show being a massive pop culture phenomenon in its first season, Batman was only a moderate success at the box office. And that’s really too bad, because who knows what we might have seen down the line: Imagine how fun a sequel might have been with the Dynamic Duo (and Batgirl!) facing off against Mr. Freeze, the Mad Hatter, King Tut and Egghead — or if the producers had decided to use the silver screen to finally introduce classic Bat-Baddies Two-Face or the Scarecrow to the fold.
Despite its slight also-ran status, Batman: The Movie is still way more fun than it has any right to be, and offers thrills, laughs, and at least one boffo fight scene. If you haven’t yet, give it a look!
Rob Kelly is a writer/artist/comics and film historian. He is the co-host of The Fire and Water Podcast (and the host of its sister show, The Film and Water Podcast), the co-creator and writer of the award-winning webcomic Ace Kilroy, and the creator of the book Hey Kids, Comics!: True-Life Tales From the Spinner Rack. He considers the time he realized that the Batman TV show was meant to be funny as the moment he became an adult. You can read more of his REEL RETRO CINEMA columns here.