The summer of 2016 has been a mixed blessing for Bat-fans. Blockbuster season kicked off in March with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, a depressingly morose and violent superhero picture that’s the steep price we had to pay to get more—and hopefully better—DC Universe movies. And now here at the end of the summer, Warner Animation is releasing an R-rated adaptation of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s beloved graphic novella Batman: The Killing Joke, at the same time that some of Batman’s best villains are about to appear in the darkly comedic live-action caper picture Suicide Squad. Batman devotees are used to seeing the character as grim and tortured, because that how he’s been in pretty much every major comics, television, and movie depiction since Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s The Dark Knight Returns came out in 1986. But this year has really driven home the idea that if you want to see Batman, in any medium, done well or done poorly, you’re going to have to be willing to disappear into the shadows… and to leave the littler kids at home.
It wasn’t always this way. A lot of the darkening of The Dark Knight in the 1980s was the culmination of a purposeful decade-long progression away from the image of Batman that had been burned into the American consciousness by the ABC television series, which ran from 1966-68 (and then for years in syndication). The show openly mocked superhero conventions, depicting Batman and Robin as unself-conscious squares in an absurdist pop-art tableau. So when Dennis O’Neil, Neal Adams, Steve Englehart, Walt Simonson, Jim Aparo, Len Wein, Marshall Rogers, and others tackled the character in the comics, they openly rejected the campy, and aimed for something more like a pulpy detective paperback, featuring a hero haunted by his tragic past.
But was the 1966 version of Batman really so egregious?
Earlier this year marked the 50th anniversary of the debut of ABC’s Batman; and July 30th is the 50th for the Batman movie, released in theaters between the first and second seasons. Originally, the show’s producer William Dozier had wanted to promote the series with a movie before season one, but had to settle for a quickie cash-in after the show had already become a phenomenon. The result was something like a quadruple-length episode (or two two-parters, as was Batman’s way), with every major guest villain represented: Cesar Romero’s Joker, Burgess Meredith’s Penguin, Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, and Catwoman, played by Lee Meriwether because Julie Newmar had prior commitments.
The plot’s typically ludicrous, but also on an amusingly larger scale, befitting the extra running time and the padded guest-list. The four fiends—calling themselves the United Underworld—come up with a plan to destabilize the world by eliminating all of the major diplomats at the Gotham City HQ of “the United World Organization.” Rather than assassinating the politicians, Penguin and company use stolen technology to dehydrate them, reducing them to a powder that can then be reconstituted in water. Aside from The Joker (who curiously doesn’t do much), each bad guy plays a part: Penguin provides his pirate henchmen, The Riddler teases Batman and Robin with puzzles, and Catwoman seduces Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne under the guise of a Soviet reporter, conspicuously named “Miss Kitka.”
The Batman movie was not a hit; in fact, it marked the beginning of a decline for a series that had been an unexpected smash during its first season (which aired between January and May of 1966). But the film is better-remembered than almost any individual episode of the show, for a couple of big reasons. For one, during the many years that the TV Batman’s original owners at 20th Century Fox were squabbling with the character’s owners at Warner Bros., the movie often fell through the contractual cracks, and thus was more widely available to be seen than the series. But an even better explanation for why the big-screen version of the 1960s Batman has endured is that it contains so much of what made the small-screen take so lovably goofy.
Among the film’s highlights: Batman asking Robin to reach into the Batcopter’s supply of “Oceanic Repellant Bat Sprays” to find something to fend off a shark who’s chomped onto The Caped Crusader’s leg; the heroes cheating death when they crash their vehicle into a foam-rubber wholesalers convention; Batman trying to dispose of a bomb and being thwarted at every turn by nuns, babies, and cute duckies he’d rather not explode; Batman telling Robin that nobody in Gotham’s rougher neighborhoods ever notices anything suspicious because they’re “rumpots… used to alcoholic delusions”; and too much wonderfully, intentionally corny dialogue to keep track of it all. (Personal favorites: Robin saying of Penguin, “This brassy bird has us buffaloed!” and Batman referring to the wear and tear of the ocean’s salt and corrosion as “the infamous old enemies of the crimefighter.”)
Was the 1966 version of Batman “bad”? That’s a tough question to answer. Like a lot of 1960s camp, Batman was fully aware of its own corniness, and treated it as a deadpan joke. Whether that joke was actually funny, though, is a matter of taste. More to the point, how a person reacts to Dozier’s approach depends largely on whether he or she thinks it’s fair what Dozier and his writing staff (and in particular Lorenzo Semple, Jr.) did to Batman, of all superheroes. After all, when it comes to the lighthearted, oft-bizarre comics of DC’s “Silver Age,” Superman was always far nuttier than his World’s Finest co-star. To make Batman the prime example of superherodom at its silliest is in many ways incredibly short-sighted.
Still, to rebuke the 1966 Batman completely is to miss out on the game performances of veteran character actors like Meredith and Gorshin, whom a whole generation would come to know more from the handful of the times they wore a dopey costume on TV than for their much more accomplished stage and screen work. There’s so much to dig about the Batman movie, such as Gorshin’s habit of saying his lines one monotone word at a time, and the not-so-faint hint of Romero’s mustache beneath his white Joker makeup, and the way the low camera-angles tend to pick up every lurid bulge in stars Adam West and Burt Ward’s tights.
Those who didn’t grow up in the era when Batman reruns were on in syndication every day may not realized that back then superheroes on TV and in movies were so rare that for some comics geeks any representation was worthy. The TV show was just a starting point, allowing a young Batman fanatic to see the hero in action and imagine his or her own adventures—frequently while playing with the toys spawned by the series. A lot of genre TV favorites from the 1960s and 1970s are beloved as much for their model kits, board games, and Colorforms sets as for the programs themselves. (Whatever a Batman devotee thinks of the 1960s era, it’s hard not to love the look of that old Batmobile.)
Then there’s what’s missing from the old Batman: namely, the endless rehashing of the hero’s tragic origin story that has become a staple of nearly every Batman movie, TV show, and comic since the 1970s. Adam West’s Batman doesn’t spend seemingly every waking minute thinking back to Crime Alley where his parents were shot to death in front of him, and he doesn’t hide in Gotham’s shadows and cultivate an air of mystery, either. In the movie, he actually gives a press conference at one point. He’s out in the open, trying to reassure the citizenry that justice will be done.
Granted, the show and the movie treat this earnestness as something to mock. But even in the more serious 1970s Batman comics, the hero had a public profile, strong partners, and a mission that made sense. Now seemingly every adventure has to double as a treatise on how vigilantism is a necessary evil that poisons the air around its practitioners.
Understand: The world doesn’t need another tongue-in-cheek Batman, necessarily. (Although the upcoming Lego Batman Movie does look funny.) But neither does it need the umpteenth iteration of what Alan Moore and Frank Miller already did in the 1980s. A Batman who takes time in the middle of a punch-out to make sure that one of Catwoman’s kitties is safe is a perfectly valid interpretation of the character.
At the very least, it’s something that children can enjoy. And however much fans want to nitpick what Batman was always meant to be, it’s hard to argue against the idea that the character was originally created to entertain the young. Fifty years ago, that was taken as a given. Back then, they may have been a lot savvier than we.