Film Review: Batman: The Movie
Directed By Leslie H. Martinson Written By Lorenzo Semple jR. Starring Adam West, Burt Ward, Lee Meriwether, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, Frank Gorshin and Alan Napier.
To date, the best Batman film of all time.
I get it, this isn’t going to get a universal nod of approval. Not everyone likes their Caped Crusader with a liberal helping of camp. Indeed, most Bat-fans at some stage in their lives will find themselves beyond frustrated at the lingering impression this Batman left on the public consciousness. Nobody wants their favourite hero to be laughed at.
For too long, many have felt embarrassed by Adam West and Burt Ward as the Dynamic Duo. All those lazy mainstream media headlines with Biff and Pow in them grate, there’s no denying it. But it’s beyond time that we look back at this long since shunned part of Bat-history and realise the truth. It’s not laughing at Batman.
It’s laughing with him.
The year of 1966 saw both the first series of Batman air on TV screens and then the release of this, feature length version. Originally, the plan was to start with the film, but 20th Century Fox felt this was a risky strategy. They worried about a financial flop, so wanted the TV show to debut first and test the waters.
Boy were those financial fears unfounded.
Bat-Mania was born. Never before and never since has Batman been so popular. His status today as the most popular superhero in the world owes pretty much everything to the overwhelming response this Batman got in the mid-sixties. Batman comics were in the doldrums, with plummeting sales figures. The Dark Knight was circling the drain. Then Executive Producer William Dozier pitched the Batman TV show and movie and, well, Holy History Batman!
As for the 1966 film itself? I'll come back to how uproariously funny it is. I’ll not forget to mention the performances, the villains, the set-pieces and the stunts. I’ll get to all that. But what you don’t expect going in, even avowed fans of the TV show, is just how staggeringly well written this film is. It opens at a million miles an hour and never takes its foot off the gas, rollicking along with a ferocious drive. It all feels so simple, the way it launches you into the story and carries you along each twist and every turn the plot takes. And it takes plenty. It’s a twisty turny thing, the narrative of this film, as scheme within scheme within counter scheme is hatched by The Dynamic Duo and their villains. To recount the plot in any significant way is nigh-impossible, such is the intricacy with which their attempts to arrest or kill the other weave in and out and all around.
You’d be staggered by just how much plot has unfolded within the first 20 minutes of this 105 minute movie. Not once, despite the break-neck speed, amongst all the myriad plot strands and narrative developments, does the audience lose track, feel overwhelmed or struggle to keep up. It carries you along effortlessly, a testament to the skill of writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. The writer of movies such as Pretty Poison, Three Days Of The Condor, The Parallax View, The Drowning Pool and of course Flash Gordon, felt Batman was the best thing he’d ever written. It’s not hard to see why.
His control over such a wild ride is never less than total. The ease with which he moulds the component parts into one cohesive whole demonstrates exactly why in 2008 the Writers Guild of America hailed him as a Living Legend. The elements he had to incorporate where so myriad and yet it feels completely natural, so organic to the story. Nothing is superfluous; studio mandated or not, everything is made to work and everything has its place. It’s a film of a thousand ideas, none of which are out of place, none of which are rushed through. It’s not too quick at all. It’s just remarkably, unbelievably well-judged.
With an enlarged run-time, inflated budget and much larger scale, Batman: The Movie wisely ups the ante with an expanse on everything the beloved TV show offered. Never-mind one special guest villain, here’s four. Cesar Remero’s Joker, Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, Burgess Meredith’s Penguin and Catwoman, played for the first time by Lee Meriwether, in the same story. Their goals are expanded, too. Here, it’s not some robbery, some theft or some plot to take over Gotham. Under the banner of The United Underworld, they have global aspirations.
It’s not just the number of super-criminals that is upped. We get not only the iconic Batmobile in this film, but a Bat-Copter, Bat-cycle and Bat-Boat, all of which are used to great effect. We get more set-pieces, more death traps and daring escapes, more trips to and from the Bat-Cave, more Bat-gadgets and more ambition.
Batman can be many things. He can be in many types of story. Here, it’s comedy. And what a comedy it is. The jokes are plentiful and every one of them hits the target. The variety of humour they’ve crafted into this film is astonishing. The amount of sight-gags alone is enough to reward every single re-watch.
The dialogue is, as you’d expect, delightfully funny. It’s so ridiculous that it’s sublime, with the most absurd lines being delivered with the most deadpan sincerity from the master straight-man, Adam West. He’s nothing short of brilliant as Bruce Wayne/Batman, playing the role of boy-scout, establishment man to perfection. He knows exactly what he’s doing, elevating the already brilliant writing to rarely matched levels of hilarity. Burt Ward, as Dick Grayson/Robin, is a whirlwind of enthusiasm, energy and gee-golly greatness. His innocence and exuberance make Robin a standout in every scene he’s in, with Ward’s commitment making you almost believe that he means every word.
Gordon, Alfred, Chief O’Hara, they all get ridiculously great lines. Indeed, Alfred’s exclamation of surprise, “Bless my dust-pan!” is one of the best you’ll ever hear in any comedy ever. They all perform admirably, too. Indeed, it’s a fine performance from the ensemble cast as a whole.
As good as the rest are though, it’s the villains that really shine. Meredith, Meriwether, Romero and Gorshin are all absolutely electrifying. We’ve covered how sticking them together was genius writing. Yet as well written as they are, as well directed as they were, it’s the performances that take it to another level. They bounce around the room, but there’s method in that madness, craft in that chaos. Quite simply, it’s a joy to behold.
We get a wonderfully joyous, terrifically wild Joker who can’t seem to help being overcome with hilarity. His flailing, flapping antics are so closely controlled by Romero that it’s impossible not to laugh with him. You can’t take your eyes off the former heart-throb. What it must have been like, to see the face of so many Hollywood romance flicks careening around like a lunatic, a prank-pulling sophisticate.
Burgess Meredith gives us a pompous, fierce, Machiavellian Penguin, one whose temper frays at a moment’s notice, his squawks more like roars. He chews the scenery as viciously as he chews those cigarette holders.
Meriwether fills Julie Newmar’s catsuit wonderfully, the original Catwoman unable to take part due to an injury. She adds a ruthless core to the character, a nasty manipulation in place of Newmar’s flirtation and occasional vulnerability. She’s some piece of work, the Catwoman of this film, given plenty to do when disguised as Miss Kitka. It’s here that some of the films funniest moments occur, her absurdly heavy Russian accent inexplicably fooling everyone.
Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, though? He tops even his fellow baddies. The manic energy bubbling away underneath and erupting in torrents of giggling, shrieking joy.
Gorshin is the reason The Riddler is in the upper echelons of the Batman Rogues gallery at all. He never was before Gorshin catapulted the character’s popularity via the TV show. He’s never really been as well handled since. Frank Gorshin and Lorenzo Semple Jr invented the character as we know him today; a man whose joy comes from matching wits with Batman.
This film has so much to offer. There’s the satire; Cold War tensions, Pentagon incompetency, Presidential glory seeking and international relations are all targeted for knowing barbs. There’s the parody of 60s culture and old school Hollywood serials. There’s the surrealist and absurdist humour sprinkled in amongst the broader comedy beats. There’s the brief foray into romance for Bruce Wayne, who suffers clouded judgement, wild emotional responses and a broken heart. We also learn that when he goes out for drinks with a lady friend, he opts for milk from a brandy glass. There’s the small matter of the toughest, most competent live-action Batman in history. He’s the smartest, most adept human being of all time, whose physical endurance borders on the supernatural. There are the intentionally po-faced messages, poking fun at Hollywood pontification. There’s the action, the have-a-go fighting and the overwhelming sense of adventure that delights those a little too young to catch all the jokes.
There’s the inherent fun of the thing, which makes watching this movie such a treat. Only those with no fun in their soul, who take themselves far, far too seriously, would fail to enjoy watching this incredibly entertaining romp. It’s infectiously fun and, above all else, absolutely hilarious.
If your Batman needs to be the absolutely serious absolutely all the time, you’ll force yourself not to enjoy this. If your Batman is the grim, gritty avenger that stinks of adolescence, you’ll be furious that Batman could ever be described as fun. This isn’t how I’d write Batman, not what I want him to be all the time, nor even in main continuity.
But come on, the guy is 80 years old and counting. He’s had some laughs over the years, and why not? There was a time, not too long ago, where he was absolutely hilarious. Adam West’s Batman was more Bright Knight than Dark, his world multi-coloured and garish and absolutely mental. But it was also brilliantly written, brilliantly acted and brilliantly fun.
With a Biff! Pow! And Thwack! Batman: The Movie is a triumph.
Batman! Atomic batteries to power. Turbines to speed.