Saturday, September 24, 2016

Review: Batman: The Movie

I'll admit one thing right now. Batman: The Movie is largely a matter of taste. If you like the goofy 60s campiness, you won't be disappointed. And if you don't like it, well, that's fine. Everybody's entitled to an opinion.

But how can you not love this?
But it's important to address why the distaste some have for this movie's tone leveled up and evolved into disdain.

There's an overused saying these days.

"Turn your brain off and just enjoy it."

The whole internet disagrees on when such an argument should apply, but here's my two cents.

When this entails ignoring ridiculous nonsense, you get a movie like 1998's Godzilla, which asks you to ignore how a gigantic lizard monster can hide between New York buildings from the Army while taking itself as seriously as possible.

But when this means reveling in nonsense? You get the more well-received Independence Day, which happily brings us a cheesy alien invasion story filled with B-movie illogic and just having an absolute ball doing so.

And to the surprise of probably nobody, I love Independence Day to death. And for the same reasons, I love this movie. Yes, it's goofy, nonsensical, and occasionally kind of stupid. But it never asks you to pretend that it isn't. And because of that, it's easy to love it for what it is.

But this movie is basically the starting point for most Batman movies since the 60s. And by that, I mean that they start with this movie's tone and try to get as far away from that as possible. Modern DC has a well-documented aversion to silliness, and it's partially this aversion to silliness that gave us The Dark Knight Trilogy, which led in turn to the DCEU and it's version of Batman. Many people think that a "darker" Batman is automatically better, though "darker" doesn't necessarily equate with "better." Of course, "dark" does not equate with "realistic," either, despite what some people think. Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns were dark and ridiculously silly.

But the iconic campiness of the 60s Batman ended up falling out of favor for various reasons I'll go over when I cover that period in Batman's history with Tim Burton's '89 film. And when Batman Forever and especially Batman & Robin revisited those roots... well, the genre briefly died, threatening to go the way of the Western, and the pirate film. But the genre returned in the early 00s with the dark and bloody Blade, which many people didn't even know was based on a comic, and X-Men, which helped to cement a more "realistic" (see: less colorful) look in superhero films. And with this new tone for the genre in general, the light silliness of yesteryear was frowned upon more than ever.

So while Batman & Robin and Batman Forever are actually bad (possibly so bad it's good, depending on your tastes) the backlash for Batman: The Movie these days, while it was still present decades earlier, definitely owes a lot to people's distaste for the ridiculous elements present in the movies that killed the genre.

But really... superheroes are inherently silly. Even the Dark Knight Trilogy has moments if silliness, as much as some claim otherwise.

And you know what?


I mean, look at the current DC and Marvel movies.

Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad. Grey and grim, with largely disappointing results. Compare that to the more successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, which gleefully pokes fun at itself on occasion.

When people complain that there isn't enough fun, joy, or wonder in the DC films... it's our own fault.

Those of us who fear a return to movies like Batman & Robin.

Those of us who demand darker, more serious superhero fare.

We are the ones who spooked DC into making grey, gloomy, joyless movies.

The moral of the story?

And who's going to disagree with Willy Wonka?
The scripting is definitely one of the weaker parts of this film. What works for a TV show doesn't exactly work for a movie.

The deathtrap escapes do lose a little bit of punch when you don't have to wait 23 1/2 hours for the conclusion, and after so many deathtraps and escapes, it's easy to forget that the United Underworld does have a masterplan that they're waiting to carry out, as opposed to just trying to take out Batman and Robin.

The plot is like an extended episode of the TV series, with the same twists and turns that you would find in the series. While that does lead to aforementioned pacing problems, it does give each villain a chance to shine.

Overall, the end result is a fun romp as Batman matches wits with each villain in their own way.

Having been made during the Cold War, references to Soviet Russia show up often, whether it be one of the delegates of the UWO banging his show on the table, or Catwoman's disguise as a Russian reporter. For the most part, these seem to just be there for flavor; seeing Batman interact with a "Soviet Russian reporter" then would be similar to having him interact with... well, anything I can type here to demonstrate a "modern" update of the idea would probably be just as outdated in little time. But you get the idea.

There does seem to be a recurring motif of peace and understanding, as lack OF understanding is portrayed as the barrier to peace. The United World delegates continually argue in their own languages, yet they're all telling each other that they need to work for peace. And this is why the mind-swap at the end is seen as a good thing; it raises the possibility that these very-different individuals might be able to come together in the interests of peace.

Oddly enough, there also seems to be a bit of a "Science is bad" moral, although I think this is largely intentional. Batman gives a speech about tampering with the laws of nature after the Penguin's henchmen die as a result of misuse of the Commodore's invention... which is also partially in thanks to Batman's atomic pile and its ever-growing body count.

I wonder if anyone ever made a dark-n-gritty Death of Carrie Kelley scene with this episode.
But I think the intended moral was one regarding the proper use of power and how easily evil intent or simple negligence could lead to a bad end, whether you be a villain with evil motives or just an admiral who sells pre-atomic submarines to people who don't even leave their full address.

Bruce Wayne/Batman (Adam West)
Ironically, given my opening spiel, Batman's humor relies on his seriousness.

He has a two-dimensional, "good guy" personality... played absolutely seriously. And that's the key.

When Batman says that his convoluted solution to the Riddler's riddles is the only possible solution in the most serious tone, HE believes it. And that's what makes it funny.

Saying the most absolutely ridiculous lines with a straight face is a cornerstone of comedy, and one that Adam West nails.

Other actors would be tempted to... well, to overact with their overacting. To deepen their voice, and make themselves sound like a cartoon character. To play the part.

But Adam West's gift is the ability to sell these lines with the utmost seriousness, to overact with the utmost conviction.

I mentioned Dr. McCoy's spiel from "The Omega Glory" in the Recap, and that's a good example of another actor with this skill. The man could take the most ridiculous scenarios (dehydrated humans, Spock's stolen brain, et cetera) and react to them with solemn seriousness.

As little as Adam West disguises his voice to distinguish between the two characters, he does play both of them differently. Batman is more stoic and seriousness, while Bruce Wayne is more laid-back.

Dick Grayson/Robin (Burt Ward)
Burt Ward is surprisingly good at portraying Bruce Wayne's young ward. I mean, the guys was in his 20s, married, and with a kid on the way. And somehow, his portrayal of an easily-excitable kid sidekick doesn't look as ridiculous as the adults playing teenagers in Grease, or Dawson's Creek.

Robin's purpose is to give the kids someone to connect to (even though most of them will still prefer to look up to Batman) as well as somebody who can get emotional and panicky to contrast Batman's calm demeanor, and his excitability makes Batman look even more serious by comparison, and therefore funnier.

Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton)
The man is absolutely unflappable. Though he shows surprise with exclamations of "Great Scott," nothing will render him at a loss for words. Though things might catch him off guard, he can usually find a way to roll with it.

As it turns out, behind the scenes, Hamilton was utterly convinced that they were working on a serious TV show. To the degree that he would chastise the other actors for laughing at the ridiculousness of it all, or making fun of the script.

Chief O'Hara (Stafford Repp)
I'm honestly not sure if he was supposed to be a parody of the Irish cop stereotype, or just a plain old Irish cop stereotype.

But... yeah, such things have not exactly aged well. At the very least, it's possible to see the character and laugh at the 60s for thinking such a character stereotype was okay.

At the very least, his buffoonery isn't too pronounced, since he's only as incompetent as any other cop in Gotham.

Alfred (Alan Napier)
Alfred has always helped Batman on his crusade...

But this is ridiculous.
Though it just goes along with the goofy charm of the movie. In the same way that nobody bats an eye as Batman runs down the street (no pun intended), nobody ever questions who that old man palling around with Batman is.

Joker (Cesar Romero)
I do so love this Joker.

The very first live-action Joker, and one who originated a surprising number of qualities from successive portrayals. Certainly those who grew up with Heath Ledger will probably do a double-take after hearing a similar laugh coming out of Cesar Romero's face.

He's definitely more of a prankster than later incarnations, largely because this was how the Joker had evolved as a character by this point. And I find it interesting that he only laughs when he finds something funny, which helps to differentiate him from the constantly-giggling Riddler.

I'm a little disappointed that, unlike the other villains, he doesn't get a moment of focus. Riddler has his riddles, Penguin dresses up as Schmidlapp, Catwoman dresses up as Kitka, and the Joker... well, he's just sort of there to do his part when he's needed.

Penguin (Burgess Meredith)
Certainly my favorite portrayal of the character across all media.

Burgess Meredith's portrayal of a smug, waddling twit, in my opinion, has ever been matched. Not only is Meredith a charismatic actor, but he imbues the Penguin with an enthusiasm that makes him fun to watch.

And that laugh (which he developed to cover up the cough from those cigarettes) is more instantly-recognizable than the Joker's, or the Riddler's.

Riddler (Frank Gorshin)
While the Joker is usually thought of as a constantly giggling madman, it's the Riddler who most closely fits this bill in this film and related series.

Out of all the villains in the United Underworld, with all their quirks and idiosyncrasies, the Riddler is clearly the craziest. Not only does he violently swing between being a calculating brainiac and a giggling loon, but he's the only one whose compulsion is shown to be an uncontrollable urge.

Sure, Catwoman meows and the Joker acts like a clown, but the Riddler can't stop himself from leaving a riddle even when he knows it will be detrimental to their plans.

And twice during the film, each time they think they've killed the Bat, he's the only one not celebrating. He just sort of looks pensive, like he's slowly realizing that he's destroyed the only person who can give him the thrills he wants with his need to outwit people.

Catwoman (Lee Meriwether)
Though I am a Julie Newmar fan at heart, Lee Meriwether was an excellent temporary replacement, as Julie Newmar had other commitments by the time filming dates were set.

I have to say, though, watching a woman act like a cat sounds hot in theory, but in reality....

It's kind of ridiculous.
Mainly, her constant yowls just make her sound like she needs to be spayed. No wonder the henchmen all look at her funny.

And the Kitka disguise is a clever way of adding a damsel in distress without resorting to... well, having a damsel in distress. And it plays on the already-present sexual tension between Catwoman and Batman.

Commodore Schmidlapp (Reginald Denny)
He only exists as a plot device. His invention is the lynchpin in the United Underworld's scheme, his disappearance sets up the initial mystery, and he gives Burgess Meredith the chance to play the Penguin with a funny disguise.

I mean, the Penguin's Schmidlapp disguise is more memorable than Schmidlapp actually is.
The film and TV show are meant to directly emulate the comics, with everything being brightly-colored and clearly-labeled. The costumes are pretty much directly translated from the 60s comics, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the written-out sound effects, which also help to distract the audience from the punches that don't connect.

I also love how that sound warranted two exclamation marks.
The general aesthetic is just so wonderfully 60s that this show's look is just as representative of the time period as the works of Andy Warhol.

Composed by Nelson Riddle...

No relation.
Still no relation.'s nothing you wouldn't find in the TV show, but it does its duty to strike a mood, enhance peril, or punctuate a fight scene. Sometimes to punctuate actual punches with trumpet blasts, which is yet another thing everybody remembers about this film.

Best Actor: Adam West
Out of all the actors, the show hinges on him striking the perfect balance of hamminess and utter conviction in his words. And since he succeeds with flying colors, I have to give it to him.

Best Character: Penguin
This is just personal opinion, but I love watching Burgess Meredith. Quoting Ben Franklin, using trick umbrellas, the whole bit where he pretended to be Commodore Schmidlapp... I just think he's the most fun to watch.

Best Line
Batman: "Some days, you just can't get rid of a bomb!"

Final Thoughts
While it's definitely not for everyone... it's simply a load of fun. While I'll admit that it does have its weaker moments, I'll love it forever as a time capsule of one of the wildest and most imaginative points in Batman's long history.

And I can only imagine that someday, I'll begin looking at the series proper. As for the films... well, just make sure you don't get whiplash from the sudden tonal shift.

See you then!


  1. Looking forward to "Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders", then?

    - Faceless Enigma