Debriefing #19: ‘Batman’ (1966)

batman66-title

Batman (1966)
Director: Leslie H. Martinson
Writer: Lorenzo Semple Jr.
Cast: Adam West, Burt Ward, Lee Meriwether, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith and Frank Gorshin

Edgar: Back in the swinging 60s, Batman and Robin were one of the hottest pop cultural figures. The comics were still being sold, but a brand new television series made its debut around the middle of the decade. Light, colourful, amusing, the show was a smash hit. The natural progression from that point was, of course, to make a film, which they did in 1966 with the same cast as the show (for the most part). Now, people can debate all they like about whether this interpretation of Batman is worthy. What we can’t do is change the past. The show and the film exist as parts of Batman lore. James, I guess my question to you is, considering how, huh, different this Batman is, do you accept it as a legitimate interpretation or is this film more of a curious if ultimately inconsequential blip on the radar?

James: Hum, well I’m not sure how I’d go about calling this, or any interpretation illegitimate. I certainly have an essence of what I think makes a good Batman story, but given the popularity of certain other Batman films that I don’t like, it seems not everyone agrees with me. I think the core of the idea is here: a man dressed like a bat fights crime. I think that’s really all you need for a Batman story to be “legitimate,” but, of course, there are varying degrees of good to bad Batman stories. I guess I’d put it this way: Batman is not a great Batman story, but it sure is a lot of fun. Did you feel the same way?

E I’m inclined to agree. I suppose using the term ‘legitimate’ was a little harsh. What I had in mind was more along the lines of ‘should this version of Batman be held on the same high pedestal as the other, more serious ones?’ but ultimately it might not even matter that much for the very reason you pointed out: it is plenty of fun. I guess it could never be taken into consideration among the great Batman adventures because it is all so silly and over the top (intentionally so), but I dare anyone to watch this film, someone who has a passing interest in Batman even, and not smile at least a few times. The story is a big joke, but the humour is quite flexible I find. Sometimes the gags are visual, sometimes they involve crackpot dialogue and then at the time there is even some slightly politically oriented humour. There is a little bit for everyone. Much of the humour derives from the ability of the cast to deliver some terribly delicious lines. Are there any standouts for you so far as the actors are concerned?

batman66-riddler

J: Maybe it’s just me, but I thought Frank Gorshin as The Riddler was pretty funny. Part of it was that there seems to be moments where he almost wasn’t sure what to do and just did something really bizarre. There’s one scene near the end at the sub where it looks like he’s completely lost and then he lets out this hilarious laugh. So not a standout in a good way, but I found his performance to be funny on an unintentional level. I’m curious, did you think anyone in this film gave a particularly strong performance or, like me, did you just find some of the quirkiness of the cast amusing?

E: It’s tough to measure how good the acting is in a film like this. I mean, when is an actor ‘acting’ and when is he or she just going ape shit and quirky to get some laughs. I can definitely see how there is value in the latter case and, if you ask me, I doubt just any actor or actress can even pull that off, so credit where credit is due to this cast, however zany everybody is. My answer to the question might sound boring, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Adam West. He is so funny when speaking softly, sort of to himself but I guess to whomever is around him at the time as well. He’s thinking aloud essentially but the logic he uses is often so corny. West pulls that off splendidly. Again, is it great acting? I don’t know, but it gets me laughing nearly every time. I appreciate the fact that you gave Gorshin some love back there. He’s pretty swell too. James, I know how much you love Mark Hamill as The Joker in the animated series. I must know, how much better is Cesar Romero. A whole lot better is just better?

J: I don’t think he’s better, but I did think he captured the unbridled joking enthusiasm of The Joker very well. He’s flamboyant, over the top and constantly cracking wise. He doesn’t have the sinister undertones of Hamill, but this is a very bright, light interpretation of Batman so I think that would be out of place One thing that did bug me, not so much performance related, is that he had this tiny mustache that made the makeup look weird in some of the shots. Don’t know if you noticed that, but it annoyed me. Not a big deal, but I think it probably showed how this really isn’t a film with any attention to detail. It paints in big, broad strokes, and it comes across as sloppily made from time to time. especially almost half a century removed from its creation. Did you have any of those reactions to the actual craft of the filmmaking?

batman66-joker

E: So far as the craft of the filmmaking is concerned, I didn’t think it was that bad all in all. In fact, if one accepts that this movie is all in good fun and really needn’t be considered seriously as cannon or high art. I think they do a pretty good job all things considered. I liken this movie and the show to a live action cartoon. Heck the show’s title sequence is a cartoon! In that regard, I think there is a certain level of craft. It’s very colourful, especially with regards to the set and costume designs. There are maybe some instances where I questioned what the comedic angle of certain decisions was intended to be, like when Batman, hanging from the Bat-ladder attached to the Bat-copter, is attacked by a shark, only that it is clearly a rubber shark. Batman just keeps on hitting it and hitting it and hitting it. Is it the fact that it’s a shark out of nowhere that’s supposed to make me laugh or the fact that it’s a cheap rubber shark. Sometimes the cheese factor goes a little overboard. That actually brings me to another point. I don’t know about you, but I feel there is a difference in tone, somewhat, between the show and the film. The show, silly as it was, did tell adventure stories. In the film, it feels like literally everything is a the butt of a joke. Is that a difference you noticed and do you think that the movie goes a little overboard sometimes in taking absolutely nothing seriously?

J: It’s been years since I’ve seen an episode of the show, but I can see what you’re saying here. This does feel like it’s a little bit on the jokey side. As you get later into the film, it does seem like this could turn into something far more serious and sinister, but the film plays it all for laughs. Honestly, I didn’t have a problem with that. I could see fans of the show feeling disappointed, but I liked that the film was consistently cheesy fun throughout. That being said, I think the little political message at the end was a bit overwrought. I still chuckled, but more for West’s delivery than the gag of what actually happens, which seems like it would really mess things up if it happened in reality. I guess that’s the only moment I can think of where I think the jokey nature of the movie crossed the line. Did you have any specific instances where you might have felt this way?

batman66-dynamicduo

E: Well, the odd thing is I’d have trouble pinpointing specific moments despite what I wrote earlier. I just thought the film could have at least tried to take something with a grain of seriousness, all within the context of the light hearted nature of the film of course. I see episodes of the show every now and then and I feel that as stupid as it is, Batman and Robin are dealing with a threat. I didn’t even get that impression here. Even the threat was treated like a joke. That being said, much of the film made me laugh, so who am I to complain? Both sides get a lot of screen time, that being the dynamic duo and the rogues gallery. Did you enjoy the scenes with one group more than the other?

J: I think I liked hanging out with the baddies more, mostly because they’re are more of them and I think they all play off each other well because they get to be a bit zanier than Batman and Robin. Plus, they had some really goofy plans and it was funny seeing their strange logic. I do have a question relating to the villain’s plan. What did you make of all The Riddler’s riddles and what they were supposed to mean? Did you, like me, find them hilariously esoteric (particularly the egg one) or did they make sense to you?

E: You know what, those riddles are actually an interesting example of some of the story elements that could have been taken with a degree of seriousness, but instead, they are insanely ludicrous. Totally nonsense. The one I always refer to is the ‘ballpoint banana’ riddle. What the heck? I get that the movie is supposed to be amusing, but those things don’t make a lick of sense to me. Funny? maybe in some instances, however they went a little too far sometimes in how silly they were. I noticed that on the bluray I own (and I assume the DVD as well) that you can listen to the isolated score along with the movie. I did notice how cool the music was, a jazzy style very much in vogue with the 60s, like with the 60s Spider-Man cartoon. What did you make of the score?

J: I think it fit the movie well. It’s upbeat, exciting and also has that sort of improvisational, loose feel of jazz that I think is endemic of the sensibilities of the film’s style of storytelling. Obviously, there is much better jazz to listen to in the world, but I always enjoy listening to a jazzy soundtrack when revisiting some of the pop artifacts from the ‘60s. I’ve got no complaint with it. However, I do have a major complaint related to Batman’s detective skills. As we just discussed, some of the riddles are off the wall and yet Batman never has a problem solving them. However, when it comes to women, it seems his deduction skills fail him. Catwoman passes off as the Russian Kitka, not only does it sound like “kitty cat,” but more than once she says “puuuuuuurfict” and he doesn’t seem to notice. there’s even a scene where he sees her as Kitka and then as Catwoman in the next scene. They have the same cut hair, same build, the only difference is their clothes and a mask. Batman fails to deduce they’re the same person. Did that bug you at all?

batman66-catwoman

E: LOL. Yeah, that is so silly. This version of Catwoman, played by Lee Meriwether, ain’t no Anne Hathaway when it comes to slipping in and out of various personas, let’s just say that. It is a bit much, which again goes back to my point about literally nothing in the movie having any dramatic weight about it. I will say this: that plot line concludes brilliantly when Batman discovers that Kitka and Catwoman are one and the same. He basically stares off for a moment,then spouts some crap like ‘It’s just another aspect about being hero. It means nothing!’ and goes about the mission. I thought that was pretty funny. There is another completely stupid sequence involving Penguin masquerading as the captain of the ship. ‘Excuse me, gents, but could you direct me towards the police?’ which leads Batman and Robin to take him to the Batcave! What the hell?!? What did you think of that?

J: I mean they state they know it’s The Penguin and they’re only playing along, but seriously, you take him to the Batcave? And then let him get away? Doesn’t that mean he’d know where the Batcave is/who Batman and Robin are? It’s all played for an elaborate gag, but yea, that’s another moment where It was funny, but maybe a bit too out there. Still, I feel like we might be missing the point a little bit by nitpicking. Part of the fun of some of these scenes is how stupid and implausible they are. This is probably the most unserious version of Batman ever made, and I find it charming and amusing because of how ridiculous it is. In some ways, I think it’s mocking how silly these kinds of characters inherently are by being so implausible and having these kinds of glaring holes.

batman66-batmobile

E: I’m under the impression that we have exhausted everything that need to mentioned about the film, save perhaps the quality of the Batmobile. That is a really, really cool looking car. I don’t why I love it so much, but it might be my favourite version alongside the one from the two Tim Burton films. Where does this Batmobile rank for you?

J: Hum, I’m not sure. I think I’d probably put it somewhere in the middle. I like it more than some of the clunkier looking Batmobiles, but It doesn’t have the elegance of something like the Burton Batmobile. I imagine it looked a lot classier back in the ‘60s, it’s a bit dated now, but it’s more streamlined than most, and no ridiculously huge fins, so that’s a plus!

E: In closing, I think Batman the Movie is more a curiosity than anything else. I find it quite entertaining despite what aspects irk me. However, I would never consider it to be essential viewing for someone who wanted to start exploring the character in various media.

J: It certainly shouldn’t be watched if you want your Batman to be serious and dramatic! As its own interpretation, I find it a lot of fun, but there are certainly a lot of better and more essential Batman stories and I think I find this film more interesting as a ‘60s cultural artifact than a Batman story. Still, I think people into Batman should give it a whirl because, taken in the right spirit, it’s a lot of fun.

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