24 July 2012

HOLY BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY, BATMAN!

Barring a pair of 1940s serials that are largely forgotten today except by the most rabid completists, the theatrical debut of DC Comics' Batman, the second most important and arguably the most popular of all the superheroes in that company's stable was the 1966 film titled simply Batman, written by Lorenz Semple, Jr., directed by Leslie H. Martinson, and - most importantly - produced by William Dozier. It is thus, from a certain point of view, the first step on a road that would lead to a very different Batman in 1989, on the way to the modern day with The Dark Knight Rises and on into the future; but the'66 Batman was not such a simple matter as "let's make a Batman movie", as though it was just a matter of doing something with the character. In fact, its production is a rather odd little snarl of business propositions, nothing so horrid as the decade the '89 film spent in development hell, but certainly a more confusing mess than you'd think to look at the finished result.

Our story begins with Dozier (told you he'd be important), ex-husband of Joan Fontaine and co-founder of her production company, former Paramount writing executive, and man with a plan: still carrying the memory of those self-same Batman serials around, two decades on, he wanted to bring the Caped Crusader to America's television screens. To this end, he conceived a motion picture to serve both as re-introduction to the character, and de facto pilot for the show; but he couldn't get the studio, 20th Century Fox, to commit to that kind of financial risk (in the mid-1960s, after all, unlike the 1980s or 1940s, there had been absolutely no superhero stories told outside of the comic book pages for quite a long time). What Fox would consider was throwing their weight behind the television show Dozier had in mind all along, knowing that the network - ABC, in this case - would pitch some money in themselves. And so, early in 1966, the first of three seasons of Batman premiered, and Dozier's long-term goal was realised before his short-term goal to get that long-term goal done.Thing was, the TV Batman proved to be a huge instant success, meaning Fox was now onboard with making a movie, only with much more ambition behind it: not "here are Batman and Robin", but "here is the Batman and Robin you watch twice a week, every week, bigger and better and more expensive than ever before". So Dozier was now able to make a much bigger project, using the expanded budget to introduce bigger sets and better props which would be worked back into the show for its second season. And the movie itself suddenly had to have bigger and bolder stakes.

That is to say, the first-ever feature film incarnation of the Dark Knight wasn't necessarily a Big Deal, so much as a TV spinoff. Which spoils things a little bit. The weirdness isn't done, though: flash-forward over 40 years, and a nest of stupidly complicated rights issues have kept the TV show from ever having a home video release, or any legal presence on the internet, making the film the only real access the modern viewer has to the Dozier-produced iteration of the character, particularly since the series, once ubiquitous in syndication, isn't so very easy to find on television nowadays. Meaning that a young person in 2012 looking to explore the history of Batman in all media has to make do with a film that, no longer meant as a "here's our concept and characters" introduction, was very much intended to be enjoyed by the fans of the show who already knew exactly what to expect.

With such a convoluted history, you'd expect Batman to be maybe a bit more than what it is: 105 minutes of frivolous campy adventure, tinged with just as much serious crime-fighting drama as its paunchy star could handle. That star being, of course, the legendary Adam West, the only TV star of the 1960s more breathy in his line deliveries and deliberate in... his wildly over-dramatic... pauses than William... Shatner. That alone tells us pretty much everything we need to know about his version of the character, both on TV and film, but for the unintiated, I should clarify: Dozier's Batman was essentially a parody, poking fun at the old serials by increasing all their stupidest elemetns (most notably, Batman's tendency to survive enemy deathtraps largely by blind luck and/or jumping out of cars at the very! last! minute!), while also rather more gently mocking the tone of what we'd now call the Silver Age of comics; indeed, this Batman is not so much a satire of the version then residing on the pages of DC comic books, as a reasonable extension of his absurd adventures to the point that they were more amusing than exciting. Which was not a very far extension.

Really, then, the '66 Batman is a rational feature film for its comic book era just as much as the '89 Batman is a movie for the post-Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen era of super-dark, brooding comic books. It's also one of the only superhero movies ever made, at any period, that captures the manically bright look of four-color comic books (the 1978 Superman gestures weakly in this direction, as do its sequels; the 2002 Spider-Man makes a good show of it), which is probably the most significant cinematic reason to still be interested in it today.

The plot, heightened from the TV show because after all, you need to give the audience a reason to march off to the theater, involves no fewer than four supervillains all planning to work their designs on Gotham City: the Joker (Cesar Romero), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), and the Catwoman (Lee Meriwether, taking over for Julie Newmar, who'd scheduled herself out of the production) are planning to steal an amazing invention and use it to hold the world hostage, though how exactly they plan to do this will only be revealed in time. Batman and Robin (Burt Ward) are always a step behind the four master criminals, but close enough that they decide to throw him off the scent by disguising Catwoman as a Russian journalist named Miss Kitka, and having her seduce and kidnap Gotham's most prominent citizen - none other than Batman's own alter-ego, millionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne.

I do not know if the movie was ever chopped into four parts and aired as part of the TV show, but it is spectacularly obvious that the intention was that it could be; or maybe Semple, who'd written several episodes of the show, just as Martinson had directed two, could only think of the characters in 26-minute chunks. What is the case, though, is that exactly at the quarter-marks, there is a "cliffhanger" moment, and the focus of the plot shifts considerably. It is, basically, four episodes of a show that already told its stories in two-episode chunks, and doubling that length was at least one episode too many: the last quarter of the film loses a lot of steam and includes very few top-notch gags. But this is of no real matter.

The greater problem, perhaps, is that the film is just not as good as the show had been; about as good as the weaker second season (and I understand that the third season is weaker still, though if I've seen any third-season episodes, it was so long ago that I have no conscious memory of them - certainly, I cannot call to mind Yvonne Craig's Batgirl. Though I do remember an Earth Kitt Catwoman episode, so basically, I have no idea), but a lot of the inspiration was gone. There are at least two jokes in the film that are as good as anything the franchise produced: a manifestly rubber shark tied to West's leg, fended off through the application of some "shark-repellent Bat-spray"; and a sequence of Batman, carrying a large cartoon bomb around, finding increasingly silly obstacles that keep him from disposing of it (I will not give away the punchline in service to those who have not seen it).

But for all that there are a great many funny grace notes - indeed, the film is never less than awfully funny for a 1960s pop culture parody, and its rampant absurdity transcends era - the spark isn't there; for example, the ridiculously convoluted solutions to the Riddler's puzzles aren't so warped, the villains' quipping falls flat, and the Joker has virtually nothing of use to do (he is very much the odd man out in the overstuffed plot, included less because he is as vitally important to the narrative as the Penguin or Catwoman, than because he is the most popular Bat-villain). The fight scenes, with their famous "Pow! Whiff! Thwack!" titles, suffer from what I assume was a bold choice at the time, to include the titles as graphics over the action, rather than as cards interrupting the action; it takes away some of the pop-art energy.

It's also with this film that the last lingering respect paid to Batman as a resourceful crime fighter, never exactly the focus of the show, but present throughout the first season, has been wiped clean: he is now more of a straight-man to wacky situations, over-the-top bad guys, and easily-wowed allies, than a superhero of any sort. Of course, the point of this version of Batman was never that he's terribly compelling as Batman; but the series' campiness was always best when it was treated seriously - when that was, in fact, part of the joke - and the transition from comic adventure to comedy was not a flawless one.

So many problems with a movie that I consistently enjoy watching! The fact is, for better or for worse, Batman, the movie, is the best and most available way we have to enjoy Adam West's take on the character and all that went with it, and even if it is a compromised version of the TV show, it's far, far better than nothing. The surprisingly smart parody, the bright colors, the deliciously self-amused performances of the villains (it's still Meredith's voice I hear when I read any story with the Penguin in it) - all that has carried over, in a diluted form, sure, but when the biggest problem with the movie is that it's not as good as a show that has largely been kept vaulted... at that point, you're not really criticising, but complaining. And I do not want to complain about a Batman that presents a vision of the character just as complete as Tim Burton's or Christopher Nolan's, and perversely, the Batman movie that spends the largest portion of its running time devoted to Batman - not to the villains, not to popcorn-level psychological insight, not to production design, not to anything but the sight of a hugely competent crime fighter getting in there and saving the day. That right there has to be worth something, silliness or not.

4 comments:

Vilsal said...

I don't really remember the series very well, but I love the film. I'm surprised you didn't mention the fan favorite self-sacrificing porpoise.

Are you thinking of doing The Mask of the Phantasm, the theatrically-released animated feature from 1993?

Samuel Wilson said...

It's a charming picture once you outgrow, or if you skip entirely, that fannish animus toward the Dozier series. The only major fault is Newmar's absence. Meriwether lacks that special something that Newmar herself didn't bring to the part until the second season. All Meriwether can do once unmasked is give Batman a stare of cold rage. I can't help think Newmar and the show's main Catwoman writer Stanley Ralph Ross could have come up with something better.

Benjamin said...

So happy you covered this. I remember seeing some of the episodes when I was a wee lad, but only rediscovered this movie a few years ago and was pleasantly surprised at how stupidly smart the writing was.

Classic Simpsons parody here.

Tim said...

Vilsal- Aye, well, if I gave away all the good jokes...

Also, keep your eyes peeled this evening.

Samuel- I think Meriwether holds her own, but Newmar IS Catwoman, more than even the great Michelle Pfeiffer could ever hope to be, and I agree that it's a huge failing. It doesn't help that she's, by far, the most prominent villain.

Benjamin- Stupidly smart is the very definition of it; I am tempted to call it the best deliberate camp of the 1960s, at least. It takes a hell of a lot of discipline to write that much idiocy without sacrificing the humanity of the characters.