The Globe and Mail got some online knuckle-rapping this week when it unveiled its series of reflections on various Batman movies, kicking off a discussion of Tim Burton’s memorable 1989 entry with the words “In the beginning …”
Beginning? For those of us who grew up with the outrageous 1966-68 TV series and its 1966 big-screen off-shoot, the word amounted to blasphemy. While preceded by a Saturday-morning serial from the 1940s, one of the most memorable Batmans will remain the one played by Adam West, sidekicked by Burt Ward as Robin, the Boy Wonder.
Many hardcore comic book fans would like to keep the TV show buried under a dark cape, given that it parodied their hero. But the show’s and movie’s constant double entendres, rich satiric sensibility and celebrity cameos left an indelible mark. For me, Batman will forever be West, delivering his lines with that trademark, hilariously intentional woodenness. “Really?” the actor seemed to be asking. “You expect to take a man in long underwear and a cape seriously as someone who could actually fight crime?”
With its garish colours and odd-ball villains, the show had nods to pop art – Andy Warhol was a fan, as was Roy Lichtenstein. And the fight scenes punctuated with Wham! Smash! Kapow! kept the entire enterprise true to its comic-book roots.
While the New York Times called the original movie “avant-camp,” West never liked the camp label, saying it insinuated there was something homosexual hanging over the affair. “I never really knew the definition of camp,” he told me last year in an interview. “I thought camp referred to the prostitutes who followed the Roman legions … it was just a term of convenience for the media at the time.”
One of the film’s signature sequences is indicative of its comic approach. When hanging from the Batcopter, Batman and Robin are forced to perform a daring rescue operation, one hindered by the attack of a giant (but obviously rubber) shark. They fended it off with a spray-can marked “Shark repellant.” (Almost everything in the show had a label.)
What the show did do admirably was perform a high-wire act, appealing to kiddies with its screaming-in-Technicolor sets and garish costumes while also providing laughs for adults with its self-effacing ridiculousness.
And then there were the villains. Burgess Meredith as the Penguin and Cesar Romero as the Joker were standouts, bad guys out to be bad because it allowed them to wear wacky outfits and have fabulous gangs ready to do their bidding. A visit to the lair of any bad guy was met with a simple camera trick: Everything was shot in a slight angle, making clear the twisted ways of the antagonists. It also made for a skewering of expressionism itself.
And despite West’s protests to the contrary, there was something so gay about the movie and show. Take the guest-villain list alone, which included Joan Collins, Victor Buono, Tallulah Bankhead, Lesley Gore, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eartha Kitt, Liberace, Roddy McDowall and Ethel Merman cast as various troublemakers. Holy gay icons, Batman – this was arguably the queerest show in pre-Stonewall history!
So I stand by my love of the series and the movie (though the movie suffered at feature length; this over-the-top parody worked better in shorter installments). But I also understand why Batman purists hate it. They have spent more than 45 years recovering from the memorable silliness of the show, attempting to drag Batman back into the domain of the serious ever since. As those behind the James Bond franchise found out after their forays into Roger Moore parody, that’s a mighty hard thing to do.
I still recall the rumour that Tim Burton was going to cast Adam West as Bruce Wayne’s father in his 1989 Batman. The director immediately dismissed the rumours. He knew full well he was running an Olympic sprint to distance himself from the zaniness of West’s Batman.
The franchise still seems to be running.
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