Batman (1966)

2009 #47
Leslie H. Martinson | 100 mins | TV (HD) | U / PG

Batman (1966)Having only recently subjected myself to the full horror of Batman & Robin (though, based on the lack of review, it was before this blog began — that “recently” to me means “within the past four years” probably indicates why seeing ‘just’ 100 films in a year is a challenge), this spin-off from the ’60s Batman TV series remains the only significant cinematic outing for the Dark Knight to have escaped my scrutiny (well, unless you count Mask of the Phantasm, which we probably should). Except that’s (still) not entirely true: I once tried to watch it and gave up because it was dreadful. But the desire to be a completist — and an HD showing from Channel 4 — have led me to try again. Thank God I did, because it’s actually brilliant.

Some Bat-fans are immediately wondering what I’m on now, but I can assure you I watched it entirely sober. Batman has more than his fair share of over-serious fans and this film is anathema to them — it’s mad, camp, illogical, hilarious, vibrant, comic, comical… but all deliberately so. It perhaps goes on too long, perhaps pushes it too far at times… but then, if you’re on board with the concept and style, it’s pretty hard to criticise — it’s so ridiculous, and so aware that it’s ridiculous, that it goes beyond criticism.

In every respect, it has a real feel for what comics were like at the time — the vibrant colours, silliness, larger-than-life characters, nonsensical plots, plus there’s a nice line in risque humour, keeping the adults happy in what’s really a kid-focused film. The effect is akin to what Joel Schumacher wanted to do, only done with more rule-breaking conviction and, therefore, more success. It saves the series’ most famous element — the visual sound effects — for the climax, a submarine-set free-for-all to rival any other climactic mess/fight as Batman, Robin, the major villains and a bunch of sailors all end up floundering in the sea.

Talking of the series, was it this barmy? I don’t remember it being so ridiculous, but then I was young when I last watched it. There’s every chance kids young enough would take this completely seriously, and unquestionably enjoy it in that frame of mind, whereas those of us old enough to realise what’s going on — and, more importantly, old enough to get past the fact that it’s taken the moodiest, broodiest, angsty-teenager-friendly of superheroes and turned him into perhaps the campest ever — can enjoy it on all the levels the makers had in mind.

Batman is so many different things. These days it’s generally accepted that he’s The Dark Knight, a moody crimefighter lurking in the night to battle gangsters and unhinged supercriminals. But in the past he’s been so many other things, and this is just one facet. Those who dismiss it as missing the point of Batman, or any other such criticism of it not being Dark and Serious, are too caught up in our present perception of the character to see that it’s just another of his many sides. Is it a better film than The Dark Knight? No, of course it isn’t; and nor is it better than either of Burton’s Batman outings, nor Batman Begins… but then again, that’s personal preference.

Perhaps this demonstrates better than anything why Batman is one of the most enduringly popular superheroes, has one of the widest fanbases, has more graphic novels available than any other character ever: because, across all his forms, he has been treated in so many different ways by so many different people and for so many different people. You can’t really reconcile this as the same Batman and Joker who fought their way to the top end of the all-time box office pile 18 months ago, but nor were those the same characters who battled it out in 1989, or in thousands of pages of comics. In an age where we’re more obsessed with ‘canon’ and ‘continuity’ than ever (indeed, such concepts probably didn’t exist back when this Batman was being conceived), it’s oddly beautiful and so very freeing to imagine a character so unrestrained. It’s a glorious thing.

If you disagree — if you think Batman must always be dark, moody and deadly serious — well, fine; and you’ll be well catered for, because I doubt the film franchise is giving up that way any time soon (if ever). But as far as I’m concerned, to ignore the mad, frivolous and zany sides of the character — not to mention all the various other ones that could be described with equally unusual adjectives — is your loss.

4 out of 5

(Originally posted on 26th February 2010.)

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