Monday, September 19, 2016

Recap: Batman: The Movie: Intro

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1966 Batman TV show. Perhaps this fact would not be as obscure if Star Trek hadn't also hit TV screens the same year. That seems to be getting more people's attention.

The Ghostbusters 2 prediction, Star Trek, Batman… it’s a good year for milestones.
But doubtless, part of the lack of widespread fanfare for Batman's 50th anniversary is because of the stigma unfortunately attached to the show. It's goofy, it's campy, it's funny. And that's why a lot of people decry it as having "ruined Batman."

But honestly... it kind of saved Batman.

So today, on this special day, I'm going to begin my look at this much-beloved and oft-maligned version of the character.

Happy 88th Birthday, Adam West!
With so many Batman films to talk about, I'll go over different parts of Batman's creation in each one. For Batman: The Movie (since the actual history of this film is pretty straightforward), let's talk about genre and tone. I mean, we might as well, since that's how people discuss this particular version of Batman all the time.

But before we begin, keep in mind that there is a lot of stuff I can talk about here, from the specific inspiration for Batman, to the original red costume, and much more. As I said, there are a lot of Batman films to go over, as well as an entire live-action TV series. I'm trying to keep this post at a reasonable length, so don't worry if I "forgot" to add something.

Batman. Bruce Wayne. The son of a rich couple, orphaned at a young age by a common criminal. Donning the mantle of a bat, he fights crime in a way to police officer could ever hope to. While the details change, the core remains the same. Everybody knows Batman's origin. And everybody has an opinion on what Batman is, and what he should be.

Bat-Mite said it best in an episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

Bat-Mite:  "Batman's rich history allows him to be interpreted in a multitude of ways. To be sure, this is a lighter incarnation, but it's certainly no less valid and true to the character's roots as the tortured avenger crying out for mommy and daddy.”

But in order to explain where such lighter, campier interpretations come from, it's important to examine Batman's original incarnation.

Back at the turn of the century (the early 1900s, not the latest turn of the century), crime dramas were all the rage. On the radio, in the comic books, et cetera. And this doesn't necessarily mean "super hero," since the genre was in its infancy. Vigilantes, supernatural entities, cowboys, private detectives... these were the forerunners of the super hero as we know it.

Enjoy it while you can, boys. You will never be this popular again.
While Superman's modus operandi was usually more along the lines of discovering some sort of crime or injustice and righting it, Batman focused more on solving crime, rather than fighting it.

I mean, obviously, there's some overlap, but Batman took inspiration from characters like Doc Savage, Sherlock Holmes, and the Shadow, who were known just as much for their deductive reasoning abilities as they were for their physical skills. (In fact, the very first Batman story is blatantly plagiarized from a Shadow story, “Partners in Peril.”)

And the villains were often like something out of Dick Tracy, with odd little quirks that made them easily identifiable, whether it be Dick Tracy's Pruneface and his... prune face, or the Joker and his disfigured grin.

During the early years, in the Golden Age of comics, Batman was a far more brutal character, who would often let criminals die. When he wasn't gunning them down himself.

Man, Golden Age Batman didn't screw around.
But in Detective Comics #38 (1940), they introduced Robin, the Boy Wonder as Batman's sidekick. The idea was to both give Batman a "Watson" to talk to, as well as appeal more to the kids reading the comics. Sales went through the roof, and kid sidekicks quickly became a comic book institution.

But with Batman running around with a kid, a story where Batman gunned down some giants to save the day was the last straw for editor Whitney Ellsworth declared that Batman would no longer use a gun. This slowly heralded a lighter, softer era of Batman, which was brought about on two fronts.

During World War II, Batman and Superman were popular choices as escapism for kids, who eagerly read about heroes who could save anyone from anything. But tastes will always change, given enough time.

Post-World War II, Batman was still going strong, but his popularity was waning by the 1950's. In fact, interest in superheroes was waning as science-fiction started becoming the new fad.

Comic books began incorporating more and more sci-fi into their narratives. For a character like Superman, who's already an alien, the change felt pretty natural. But for Batman... well, all of a sudden, Batman was undergoing weird transformations every other issue, like de-aging into a toddler. No, really.

But the Silver Age goofiness was also forced, in part, by Dr. Frederick Wertham's infamous 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent.

Seduction of the Innocent's impact on the comic book industry deserves a post of its own, so I'll just list the relevant details. Along with criticizing the blatant violence and sex in some comics (EC Comics was basically as bad as it got in those respects), Wertham lobbied complaints at DC's trinity of heroes. Superman was accused of being an un-American fascist bully. But the Last Son of Krypton quickly shrugged this accusation off, since... you know. He's Superman. Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Wonder Woman's tales were accused of just being an outlet for William Moulton Marston's lesbian bondage fantasies... and Wertham was actually kind of right on the money with that one.

I mean, Marston admitted that he had a wife, a girlfriend, and a bondage fetish. The man was not exactly subtle.
Batman and Robin were chiefly accused of being gay. Sleeping in the same bed didn't help.

The jury's out on whether or not they were taking cold showers together.
They added female characters like the original Bat-Woman and Bat-Girl to stave off the accusations that Batman and Robin were gay, they cut back on "realistic" crime drama in favor of stories with aliens and science fiction weaponry, and started focusing more on the gimmick of the issue, rather than the villains. Sometimes, the gimmick was the villain, other times, Batman would be turned into a baby. Or a magnetic zebra.

Welcome to the 1960s, where Grant Morrison gets all his ideas that aren't drug-induced.
But the complaints against violence sparked enough of an outrage that all the comic companies banded together and created the Comic Code Authority as a form of self-censorship. Again, the Comic Code Authority warrants a lengthy post of its own, but long story short, comic companies censored themselves before outside censorship was forced upon them, meaning that they escaped potential stricter censorship.The Authority seal placated people for the most part, as the Authority used to have strict guidelines about sex, violence, and the supernatural. So no more zombies. Not that EC Comics cared.

But you know what wasn't frowned on by the Comics Code? Science-fiction. Which is the other reason why sci-fi themes started emerging in the comics of the 60s. Notably, the Green Lantern was rebooted, making the main character a space cop as opposed to a man with a magic ring. And Marvel is slightly infamous for making Morbius into a scientifically-made vampire, thus getting around the ban on the supernatural.

The problem was that this new version of Batman, while he still had his charms, simply wasn't what many long-time fans wanted to see. And in fact, his campy, sci-fi stories weren't anything you couldn't find in something like, say, Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen, or the Flash. In fact, Batman was on the verge of getting canceled, something unthinkable today.

Luckily, Batman was about to get a metric buttload of new fans.

Long story short: Batman's slow slide into 60s wackiness was a result of changing tastes and censorship. So when Ed Graham Productions decided to make a Batman TV show in the 1960s, their vision of a darker, more serious Batman would not come to pass.

The rights ended up in the hands of ABC when DC Comics renegotiated them, who handed them to Harve Bennet and Edgar J. Scherick. In turn, they hired 20th Century Fox to make the show, who in turn hired William Dozier of Greenway Productions. After reading some Batman comics for the first time, Dozier concluded that comedy was the only way to make Batman work. But the way he added that comedy was entirely unique.

The idea was simple, but brilliant: Put a comic book on TV.

Don't just adapt a comic book for TV, but actually depict a comic book world. Pastel colors, over-the-top villains, comically serious heroes... and do it all with a straight face.

Originally, the plan was to have the show come after the movie, in the hopes that the film would allow them to sell the show better overseas, but scriptwriter and novelist Eric Ambler dropped out when he saw the tonal direction.

By the time Adam West and Burt Ward were hired for the lead roles, the debut for the series was scheduled for January 1966. The show was going to be a one-hour series, but when it turned out ABC had half-hour slots on consecutive days open, they decided to make the episodes each into two-parters, with part two airing the day after part one, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.

The film was written by series writer Lorenzo Semple, Jr, and directed by Leslie H. Martinson, who had two episodes of the show under his belt. Extra Bat-vehicles were introduced for the film in order to use them in a second season, and Glastron, the makers of the Batboat, were thanked by having the film premiere in their hometown of Austin, Texas on July 30, 1966.

The film… did not do well. I can’t find exact numbers, but it apparently got good word of mouth and managed to pick up a bit. Superman:The Movie had not yet demonstrated what kind of big budgets and high returns the super hero genre was capable of, so they called this a win and made plans for a second movie that never materialized. They spent so much time on the sequel that they didn’t put their all into the second season, meaning that interest for a second movie dried up. Oh well.

Luckily, the film has since become a cult classic, making more than its budget back in rentals.

So let's take a look at a film that's simultaneously loved and hated... for the same reasons.

Coming up in Part 1! The Bat, the Bird, the Cat, the... other bird, the clown, and... uh... the guy with the question marks!

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