The back of the DVD case reads: “When Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) get a tip that Commodore Schmidlapp (Reginald Denny) is in danger aboard his yacht, they launch a rescue mission. But the tip is a set-up by four of the most powerful villains ever, who seek to defeat the Dynamic Duo once and for all! Armed with a dehydrator that can turn humans into dust, the fearsome foursome intends to take over the world! Can the Caped Crusaders use their high-flying heroism and groovy gadgetry to declaw Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), ice the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), upstage the Joker (Cesar Romero), and stump the Riddler (Frank Gorshin) in time?”
Holy camp classic, Batman! If that doesn’t sound like a fun time, what does? Batman and Robin, four villains and a deadly dehydrator?! Sounds like director Joel Schumacher time-traveled to the 60s with the moisture-robbing plot device from Batman Begins in tow! Sounds like something … meant to be laughed at … on purpose. Hm.
While in my pupae stages I thought this movie was just poorly conceived, like a bunch of guys went out to make a really epic Batman movie and failed miserably. I was used to the Batman in Batman: The Animated Series and Tim Burton’s movies, where he’s a dark, brooding anti-hero spending every agonizing moment of his miserable life stewing in the childhood memory of the murder of his parents. If Adam West’s Batman witnessed such tragedy in his youth there’s no sign of it. He prances, flirts, waves his arms in the air as he leaps around and everything in the Batcave is obsessively labeled, even the water cooler – the Bat Water Cooler. He’s still a bit unhinged but he’s nicer about it in this version. Now that I am older and wiser I can appreciate the beloved hero in his various interpretations, especially this warm-hearted, well-written goofy version. He’s a farce, a parody of action/adventure yarns, one that actually influenced the comic books to take on a less-serious tone, and it managed to increase sales and popularity of the character.
Based on the 60s TV series, Batman the Movie is the first in my new series of superhero movie reviews that will continue right up to my inevitable review of anticipated The Dark Knight, out July 18th. I’m a tremendous Batfiend bristling with excitement for the new release, so it’s with great pleasure I stalk, glide and pratfall down the memory lane of Gotham Cities past. Welcome to the latest installment of …
Batman starts with a dedication to crime fighters and fun lovers everywhere. How awesome is that? The movie thanks you, the audience, even before it begins. I remember Return of the King thanks fans in the end credits but how often does a movie dedicate itself to people who love fun from the outset? With words illuminated by a searchlight on a brick wall?
The music’s awesome, too. And by awesome I mean really cartoony, building up constantly with each new ridiculous dedication. I can imagine fans of the show getting really excited, popcorn and soda in hand, ready for the wackiness about to begin. The opening credits follow colorful, gaudy spotlights chasing some random guy in a trenchcoat, and Adam West and Burt Ward trot out for their roll call. Then there’s overblown opening narration detailing Bruce Wayne’s and Dick Grayson’s attempt to rescue the Commodore.
In minutes they prance through the Batcave, prep the Batmobile (Robin: “Atomic batteries to power. Turbines to speed!”), drive to the airport to get in their helicopter, fly over supermodels and militarymen who take off their hats in respect and Batman battles a rubber shark that bit onto his leg while hanging from a ladder over the ocean. After pummeling it with his fists unsuccessfully, he defeats it with Bat Shark Repellent. Then the shark drops back to the water and explodes.
And that’s just the intro.
Everything Batman owns is bat-shaped – the car, the chopper, the boat – or given a “bat” prefix with the appropriate label. When matched with Adam West’s bizarre, Shatner-esque line deliveries these gadgets provide a lot of the laughs. “Drop … the Bat Ladder, Robin.”
This Batman also maintains a hearty, wholesome image and does his best to pass those good manners and values onto Robin. “They may be drinkers, Robin,” Batman says of bar riff raf, “but they’re also human beings.” He cooperates with the Gotham police, too, enough to be quite chummy with them. Vigilantism? Pah!
Robin: “Support your police! That’s our message.”
Batman: “Well said, Robin.”
Gotham itself is bright and sunny, green and clean – hard to believe it’s L.A. (Ha!) People have picnics on lawns and nuns are safe to walk the street, all thanks to the Batman and Robin! Yup. Another guy remarks, looking up at the Bat Copter, “Gives a feller a good feeling to know they’re up there doing their job.” It’s the whole theater of absurd that makes this movie work.
In one of the best scenes Batman takes a press conference for a bunch of reporters, including a Russian woman with the stereotypical Boris and Natasha accent. The movie’s rife with dumb stereotypes, and they take the center stage later, but it’s cute how the woman asks Batman to take off his mask so she can get a better look at his face. The police are outraged and astonished. Why, Batman has a secret identity to keep! Silly foreigner. So afterwards, the cops, mainly Irish of course, and the Dynamic Duo figure out who all the villains are behind the plot, and that they are united, through riddles written in the sky by a Polaris missile. It’s ridiculous wordplay, unbelievably silly and really well-performed and well-written.
All the actors are superb, it’s clear these are professionals having a ton of fun. These guys quote Poe, Shakespeare, time everything perfectly and it’s all staged like theater. Really silly theater. They pull their punches so much it’s obvious, you can see the strings on props (super-obvious when Batman and Robin “climb” walls) and the villains make grand sweeping speeches, swinging their arms around and go way over the top. Frank Gorshin, who plays The Riddler, is especially interesting to watch. My favorite is Burgess Meredith’s sneering, quacking Penguin, but Gorshin’s manic energy is magnetic. His expressions and are so intense and strange it looks like he upstages The Joker, who you’d think would be the craziest guy in the room.
The Joker, played by Cesar Romero, is fun but it looks like he wasn’t given a whole lot to do. Riddler keeps the silly plot moving with his sky riddles and is just bizarre to watch, The Penguin disguises himself as Schmidlapp, infiltrates the Batcave and has his own theme music, and Catwoman, played by slinky Lee Meriwether, goes out with Bruce Wayne! So, aside from some puns, The Joker feels a little gypped although he does enact the villains’ dastardly plot. I don’t wanna spoil the silliness of it but it does involve the world’s leaders – more dopey stereotypes. They’re so involved arguing over whatever they don’t notice the insane criminals who just walked in.
The movie is a real ensemble comedy, splitting time between Batman and villains fairly equally – something later Batman movies fail to accomplish for the most part, which is probably the only viable comparison that could be made. There are so many memorable lines and gags (“Confound it! The batteries are dead!”) it’s unsurprising the flick holds up so well today. Looking at it now it almost feels ahead of its time and it is, to my knowledge, the first successful live-action comic book film adaptation in crisp, crisp color. It’s got a great soundtrack. The script is loaded with alliteration and verbose dialogue, like there’s a real love of language present and everyone anunciates like hell. Burt Ward, who plays Robin (“Holy heart failure!”) is practically chewing his words. To hammer the theatrical origins home Batman pokes at a bust of Shakespeare to gain access to the Batcave, and Bruce Wayne recites Edgar Allen Poe to impress Catwoman. So good.
Oh man, and the set pieces! Batman trying to get rid of a bomb on a pier must be the funniest but the climactic brawl atop a submarine is awesome because everyone is involved, and the “POW!” “WOOSH!” “KER-SPLAT!” onomatopoeia the 60s Batman is known for finally makes its appearance. Actually, for some reason nearly every action scene is aquatic in nature. I know the Bat Boat was a new toy they wanted to use for the movie, or maybe it was cheaper to film at the studio water tank.
Two last notes:
The ending’s oddly solemn. Well, no, it’s still very dumb but it’s hilarious how it turns out to be a message movie in the end.
There are pirates. On flying umbrellas.
So, it’s a great film and I was dumb for hating it as a kid. I thought Batman should always be sad and serious – well, it’s still how I prefer him – but this is such a fun take on the Bat, it shouldn’t be missed.