Midnight Screening: Batman (1966)

It’s been a couple weeks, so here’s a double-dip of classic cult comic book movies for you, and some prime so-bad-its-good filmmaking on both counts. 

It’s been a long way for Batman, and superheros in general. Over the past fifteen years, comic books have been codified and examined and re-examined until there’s nothing left, but very rarely do they ever bring anything new to the table. This can not be said of the ’60s Batman television show, nor can it be said of the film spun off from it. The show was an absurdist trip through modern society’s fascinations as they had been captured on celluloid and in other well-worn forms of media. Undeniably campy and decked out to the teeth with kitsch, the whole affair worked like a playful rib at the cheerful superficiality of a day and age where the world was changing around its inhabitants so fast they couldn’t even comprehend it in terms of reality. It was on a dangerous path to surrealism, and Batman, like a less vicious Bunuel, was there to catch it with its pants down.

For, after all that has been done with the Batman character over the years, for however much he has been used and abused and appropriated for everything from insight into what makes modern society tick to a prop for production design and recalling old horror and noir (the likes of which Batman was birthed on, after all), there is something singularly pure about Batman. There’s all sorts of pop art zaniness and cultural parody going on every which way around him, yes, but the titular character always retains a certain assurance and center that the other films never gave him. Burton mostly wrote him out of the film, Nolan had too much on the mind, and Schumacher, well the less said about him the better. While these films, as useful and sometimes masterful as they are, feel encumbered in various ways, Batman floats freely.

Thus, this particularly voracious entry into the superhero mythos actually captures something fairly nuanced in its bones, and it’s not even silly or oblong to say it intends this: that any and all superheros are products of their time, and that whatever that time wants them to be or do they will likely follow suit. The mid ’60s (for this is not an early ’60s nor a late ’60s but an undeniably mid ’60s film) desperately needed a straight man, a figure upon whom to throw all of its color-coded zaniness and uncut giddiness, and that is exactly what the film provides. It’s chaos in a bottle, but at least there’s a nice whitewashed, just slightly self aware piece of meat in the middle to keep all the sharp edges from denting each other. There’s something delightfully plainspoken about Adam West’s droll turn, something flustered and utilitarian, something human in the way he’s just about given up reacting to all the silliness and revelry happening in the world around him. His matter-of-fact turn is essential to selling the lazy-day, almost anti-narrative, storytelling so central to the very idea of 1960s pop culture, that sense that the theater of the absurd was now the theater of the mundane and the everyday. He’s accepted the nonsense, and in the world of ’60s pop culture, what else was one to do?

Outside of this, it’s hard not to turn the film into a gag-show (for it turns itself into one mere seconds into the production), so I will do exactly that. It has a story, but it’s a mere excuse to gather together the series’ four biggest and brightest villains, The Joker (Cesar Romero), The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), Catwoman (Julie Newmar), and The Riddler (Frank Gorshin). Something about a giant octopus set up by The Penguin’s dastardly strange pirate crew (penguin? sea? pirates? Something must have linked the two in the writer’s heads) to introduce Batman to his end, but the film doesn’t really insist on it. It is transparently an excuse for all manner of things that go zip and zow in the night.

Now then, a gag-show is it? For starters, the famous bomb scene is absolutely wonderful, building and building with the cheeky wonder of a train forever picking up steam, and featuring one of West’s best lines in the film (I won’t spoil it, but its just lightly flustered declamatory style is just perfect for the scene). Elsewhere, a bit about “Bat Shark Repellent” is the one of the snarkiest knocks at ’60s era consumerism and the need to have products for seemingly every conceivable (and inconceivable) need you can imagine (not unlike the somewhat more deranged and less genial Wile E Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons for the ’40s and ’50s). Perhaps the film’s best line, a completely straight-laced dig at deus ex machinas and the survivability of comic book heroes involving porpoises, is the film’s biggest surprise for how never-mentioned it is. The Riddler’s riddles are some of the series’ looniest, and there is one absolutely dumb-foundingly amazing bit of would-be delirium where the camera zooms ever so slightly in to West, in the midst of realizing something truly soul-destroying (by the standards of ’60s Batman that is), and he seems to genuinely lose his mind with an expression that can only be described as transfixed. For this one moment, I would pay far more than Batman 66 asks.

Ask it does though. The film isn’t perfect (nor, I suspect, could it be). It’s a bit bloated, especially in the final act where things get just a tad too narrative focused for this sort of candy-coated absurdism to handle. The script also gives The Joker and The Riddler too little to do in favor of Catwoman and The Penguin (then again, apologies to Romero and Gorshin, Newmar and especially Meredith are on top form here so this is less a flaw than a moral call for egalitarian villainy on my part). And as a documented subscriber to the church of abstract color backgrounds, it’s a shame they didn’t survive the transition from the show (which was positively replete with them) to the big screen. Still, when your film boasts such off-handedly absurdist dialogue as “the sum of the angles of that rectangle is too monstrous to contemplate”, you’re cooking with enough protoplasmic gas that only the particularly dead among us could possibly not give in.

Score: 8.5/10

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