Batman: The Movie

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Seeking some undemanding entertainment the other night, I put on my DVD of 1966’s Batman.

As bad as it is, it seems silly to attack this movie too strongly.  It is, after all, a comedy.  More than that, it’s not even a movie.  It was not meant to compete with, say, Torn Curtain.  It’s merely product, a brand extension, designed to increase the value of a television show.

The plot, such as it is, makes no sense and wanders all over the place.  This shouldn’t be a problem for a comedy (Horsefeathers has no plot whatsoever but is still pretty damn funny) but still it tests the patience of an intelligent viewer.  The characterizations are loud, silly, grating, contradictory and unfaithful to the source material.

For those unaware of this unique cultural artifact, the plot goes like this: Catwoman, The Joker, The Penguin and The Riddler have conspired to kidnap Commodore Schmidlapp, who, in addition to running a distillery, is the the inventor of a gizmo that can instantly dehydrate people.  The bad guys use the device to turn the UN United World Security Council into piles of colored dust.  Before they do that, they spend an entire act screwing around with an attempt to kill Batman by kidnapping Bruce Wayne.  Catwoman, who is normally a cat-burglar (hence her name), is here turned into a master of disguise, pretending to be a Russian journalist.  The Penguin, normally concerned with bird-related crimes, here pilots a penguin-painted submarine and also briefly becomes a master of disguise.  The Riddler, being The Riddler, is compelled to give away all their plans with his clues.  The Joker is given nothing to do; in retaliation, Cesar Romero has refused to shave his mustache, clearly visible under his clown-white makeup.

The tone veers from genial camp to bizarre, psychedelic comedy.  Adam West, looking like the young Harrison Ford (or maybe Dennis Quaid) plays Batman with a keen edge of ironic seriousness.  The villains suffer from the same problem as the heroes in Superfriends; they have no characters to play, only a clutch of symptoms.  The Batman of Batman: The Movie is not one to brood in a cave between illegal bursts of vigilante activities; this Batman takes place entirely in broad daylight.  Batman holds press conferences at police headquarters, trots down the street in crowded lunch-hour traffic and punches a shark while dangling from a ladder.  Far from being the world’s greatest detective, this Batman is an easily-fooled dolt who blunders from clue to clue, solving crimes almost by accident.

The climax of the movie, which involves Batman intoning a solemn prayer for peace and the future while holding a garden hose, is almost worth sitting through the rest of the movie.

This evening, my son Sam (5) found the DVD sitting out and asked to watch it.  I warned him that it was not the Batman he’s used to, that there would be no swell animation, that this Batman would not be grumpy and sullen, that he walks around in public in broad daylight, that  the whole movie was kind of silly, but he was still game.


I remember when I was a kid taking Batman seriously, but that was a long time ago (I was exactly the same age as Sam is when it first came on TV).  Sam has never shown interest in live-action versions of his favorite cartoon stars; the George Reeves Superman got a thumbs-down, and while he’s curious about Superman Returns, he hasn’t pushed to see it.

Tonight he was so caught up in Batman: The Movie that he needed company while watching it.  Not to make sense of the plot (which is impossible anyway) but to verify the fact that it was actually happening.  He was transported, stunned, horrified, confused (unsurprisingly), intrigued, and held in the grip of suffocating suspense.

While the tone of blithe camp escaped him (the dehydrated pirates were a source of genuine anxiety), he got the broader jokes, such as when Batman can’t get rid of a large, round bomb on a crowded pier and pines "Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!" or the Bat-copter crashing, fortuitously, atop a mountain of foam rubber.  He asked if there were more Batman movies like this one.  I said "Sam, there are, literally, dozens of Batman movies like this one," which delivered to his cerebral cortex a vision of heaven.  (Why are those episodes not available on DVD?  I assume a rights issue, as the characters are owned by WB and the series was produced by Fox.)

Sam disagrees with my assertion that the Joker does nothing ("No!  He zaps those guys with the dehydrating gun!") but he does not approve of Cesar Romero at all.  He totally bought the obviously-rubber exploding shark, and its cousin the non-exploding exploding octopus.  He liked the penguin submarine and all the bat-machines.  When asked what his favorite things in the movie were, he correctly answered "Catwoman and the Batmobile."

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45 Responses to “Batman: The Movie”
  1. stainedecho says:

    The best part is the shark repellant spray Batman and Robin use amidst punching sharks. It repels the sharks by making them explode.

    • pjamesharvey says:

      Wasn’t that part of the bad guys’ plot, in that they set the shark on Batman with a bomb planted in it just to make sure? The repellent itself didn’t cause it.

      I really enjoy the film, for its goofiness and exuberance. My criticism of the film comes when right at the end Batman, and Robin, sneak out of the HQ building after seeing the ambassadors all mixed up. It kind of ruins the character of that Batman, as he is the kind who would take responsibility for his actions and not try to turn a blind eye to anything, and all for the sake of the climatic joke. Bleh.

      • stainedecho says:

        Maybe the repellant made the bomb explode the shark? I forget it’s been a few years since I indulged in that campy crazyness.

        • Todd says:

          The “inciting incident” that sets the plot of Batman: The Movie into motion is that a yacht, belonging to Commodore Schmidlapp, is hijacked. Batman and Robin fly to the scene in the Bat-copter to rescue the commodore. Robin pilots the Bat-copter while Batman attempts to lower himself down to the deck of the ship; Robin misjudges the drop and Batman gets dunked in the water instead. When he is pulled out of the water, a shark has attached itself to his leg. Batman succeeds in repelling the shark with the can of shark repellant, whereupon the shark explodes and the yacht vanishes into thin air. Later, Batman investigates and finds that the yacht was never there at all; rather, it was a holographic projection (that old trick) planted there to lure Batman away from the real yacht-hijacking, which was taking place miles away.

          So: to sum up, the bad guys, wishing to hijack a yacht, first developed a technology that would project an illusion of the yacht upon the ocean, then planted a shark with a bomb inside it, with the certainty that someone would inform Batman of the yacht hijacking (did they phone in the fake tip themselves? The fiends!), Batman would investigate, Robin would misjudge the drop from the Bat-copter, Batman would fall into the ocean and the shark would have no choice but to attack Batman. And then the bomb inside the shark would explode at some point.

          Honestly, it’s so simple, I don’t know why people have trouble with this.

      • pjamesharvey says:

        Ahem. ‘Climactic’ joke.

        ‘Climatic’ is part of my job.

    • laminator_x says:

      The most beutiful thing about the “Bat Shark-Repellant” is that when Robin reaches for it, the clearly labelled can is sitting at the ready in a rack next to equally well labelled cans of “Bat Baracuda-Repellant” and “Bat Stingray-Repellant.”

      Essential acessories for any hero’s helicopter.

  2. greyaenigma says:

    I’m watching Justice League right now. I bought the DVDs. J’accuse.

    I saw this movie just a couple of years ago and it was hilarious. It was nice watching it knowing it was funny. And who can disapprove of Cesar Romero?

    • Todd says:

      I bought the DVDs. J’accuse.

      Excellent. I shall invoice Warner Bros.

      • robolizard says:

        Hmm… I was watching Timm’s Batman show yesterday. Its odd just how much more cinematic it was than Timm’s other offerings. Batman does lend himself to melodrama perfectly, still its interesting. Timm’s JLU is more or less a comic book brought to life in comparison. [pffft, your analysis made me go out and get the JLU dvd too. i have no idea if you get anything for it, but i’ll just throw it out there…]

        The Batman show is more or less, to me, a glorious form of the character. It more or less literary is a comic book brought to life, oversized bombs and all. Impure modernist art. The fact that Adam West grows chubby during the progress of the show just improves it.

        • Todd says:

          Its odd just how much more cinematic it was than Timm’s other offerings.

          I don’t think the other shows were less cinematic. They were less moody, but not less cinematic. If anything, the action in Superman and Justice League, not to mention one-offs like Mystery of the Batwoman and Sub-Zero is as fluid, grand and imaginative as anything in the live-action Batman movies.

          I agree that the 1966 TV show is often unfairly characterized as camp, when it’s not that far from the tone of the 60s Batman comics, which were as wacky, high-flown and superficial as the TV show. It wasn’t until Frank Miller came along that the idea of a brooding, sullen Batman occurred to anyone in Hollywood.

          • popebuck1 says:

            I agree that the 1966 TV show is often unfairly characterized as camp

            Actually, I’m pretty sure the 1966 Batman TV show was the first instance of deliberate “camp,” introducing the concept to mainstream American culture. I can picture middle-class America saying, puzzled, “You mean we’re supposed to find it poorly done and over-the-top? Huh?”

            I also just have to put in a word for Lee Meriweather, who is my absolute favorite of the series’ three Catwomen. Yes, Eartha Kitt was more of an outrageously evil bitch (because with a black woman, they couldn’t play the sexuality angle) and Julie Newmar was more overtly “sexy,” but for my money, Lee Meriweather nails the character most precisely. I just love how she writhes with happy sexuality (not unlike Nigella Lawson today), practically inviting you to rub her tummy or stroke her fur. She’s just a hoot.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Ah, Adam West: The one time the Batman uniform had no chance against the actor inhabiting it. It works because he is essentially a cartoon/comic. Without looking, listen to him, there is no difference between West in or out of costume, or in anything later. West managed a characterisation of himself that carries over decades until today, standing for “the guy who played Batman”. That’s remarkable in a way, as I can’t recall at this second who played in the first “Batman” movie (I just get “Beetlejuice”…)

    In terms of being recognizable by voice alone, he’s right up there with Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, or Paul Lynde, but still so characterless to not warrant imitation by the standards of that day, Rich Little or Frank Gorshin. The “Adam West” is a soundtrack, voice-actor first, which given the uniform’s unforgiving mask made some sense. In that form of American TV-culture homage, West lives on quite “hip”, voicing endless amounts of cartoons. (Tellingly, his original name is “Billy West”…)

    Such a no-balls type to launch the franchise, makes sense as it was always about neutered men and their fantastic devices/powers, the overly complicated ritual machinations of the apparatus, and on TV, those perfect, hard 1960s shiny, uniform surfaces that connect between modified curves – the Batmobile to Catwoman. It’s all rituals, visuals and voice characterisations, masks on masks, therefore the traditional “hero” isn’t the focal point but just required to bring together the ensemble of visual effects necessary to keep the ritual going. Of course, the movie failed because the TV budget didn’t spread out enough to cover, say, sharks…. but also, the ritual makes no sense without a new translation. Who would imagine TV series working as cinema-ready franchises…

    I managed to come across “Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt”, on TV. This 2003 ‘vanity’ production is the Batman TV series equivalent of the Monkee’s “Head”. Burt Ward, playing himself, declares that the whole…dra..matic..phra….sing of Adam West was maliciously done so that West holds onto more face time on TV, thus cutting out Boy Wonder’s lines and chance to REALLY ACT. Such insights abound throughout.

    Surely that other 60s TV series franchise, Shatner / “Star Trek” was just a few degrees off of Adam West / “Batman”.

    Maybe it was the distrust building in the Vietnam era, it just seemed then on TV that uniforms of authority bordered on costumes, and coupled with double-edged meanings embedded in faux-dramatic deliveries.


  4. crime_o_dile says:

    I firmly believe Batman the movie is one of the great cinematic achievements in camp. Dehydrated pirates, who are compelled to yell “yo-ho” just about every two seconds? “P. N. Guin? Disposing of pre-atomic submarines to persons who don’t even leave their full addresses?! Good day, Admiral!?” I maintain the movie is actually brilliant.

    • Todd says:

      It is brilliant, albeit while supposing a great deal of prior knowledge on the part of the audience. With that knowledge, it is (at times) hysterical. Without it, it is garish, opaque and bizarre.

      And apparently, to five-year-olds, it is a cracking good yarn.

  5. eronanke says:

    I watch that movie at least once a year. I remember when my father bought it on VHS, and I was really excited because I thought it was the Burton/Keaton 1990(?) version, and when Adam West and Burt Ward arrived, I was disheartened. Until I watched it.
    ZOMG, it is easily the MOST campy thing on earth. I love the whole thing… It’s even a little sad when Catwoman falls and her square-inch-of-mask falls off and Batman recognizes her as Kitka and the soft music plays as he remembers… SO SAD.
    At any rate, the movie feels SO MUCH LONGER than it is, which is why I can only watch it once a year. With friends. While drunk.

    • Todd says:

      It’s even a little sad when Catwoman falls and her square-inch-of-mask falls off and Batman recognizes her as Kitka and the soft music plays as he remembers… SO SAD.

      That moment saddened Sam as well. Such a heartbreak for the World’s Greatest Detective.

      the movie feels SO MUCH LONGER than it is

      That’s because the plot is put on hold for over 40 minutes, the entire middle act, for the absurd kidnapping plot. There’s nothing wrong with the act in and of itself, and it gives the star some time out of his cowl, but because it puts the plot on hold it makes the movie feel longer than it is. Or as Sam put it, “It was a little too complicated.”

      • eronanke says:

        Oh Lord, and he looks at her sadly, and she doesn’t know why he’s so sad, since she’s unaware of *his* secret… Looking at him with hateful eyes… LORD.
        SO SAD. It’s like a Greek tragedy… with less death.

  6. serizawa3000 says:

    Looking at my copy of the Official Batman Batbook, says here that the rubber shark that attacks Batman appeared in the film Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea five years earlier…

  7. craigjclark says:

    This is going to sound crazy, but watch the movie again, this time with the commentary by Adam West and Burt Ward. Easily one of the funniest commentary tracks ever recorded.

    • Todd says:

      Only the lack of time in my high-pressure, go-go lifestyle has prevented me from doing this.

    • eronanke says:

      Try the commentary from Jackie Chan on “Gorgeous”. He talks about everything BUT the movie, and then goes on to say something to the effect of:
      “I usually don’t play a romantic hero. I don’t think the audience likes it. Do you like it? Tell me if you do, I’ll do more!”

      He sounds so delightfully sad….!

      • Todd says:

        I wish Jackie Chan had done a commentary for Batman: The Movie.

        • eronanke says:

          Me too.
          But I’m dead serious about “Gorgeous”. The movie is silly, but I swear to God, the commentary is brilliant. At one point he talks about how he (presumably) fired a director who was making his film too sexy, but he leaves it ambiguous. He says, and I quote,
          “And then he went away.”
          Leaving me to question whether he was fired, or axed in a more literal way….

  8. mikeyed says:

    All I need to know is was this intentional?

  9. ghostgecko says:

    >>>He was transported, stunned, horrified, confused (unsurprisingly), intrigued, and held in the grip of suffocating suspense.

    Gotta hand it to that movie – may not be timeless art, but it knows its audience. Sometimes that’s all you need.

    When I read entries like this, it always makes me kind of sad I’ll never have a little kid I can warp by watching weird movies with him, the way my dad warped me by letting me watch stuff like Dark Star and Holy Grail when I was 7.

  10. Anonymous says:

    So am I going insane, or was there an entry with a slew of more or less symmetrical faces from the Timm cartoons that was deleted…

    • Todd says:

      You will be pleased to learn you are not going insane.

      I did create such a post, but a reader complained that it was “stretching the screen” (whatever that means) and that I should “hide them behind a cut” (whatever that means). I tried it once, screwed up the whole thing and have not had the time since to recreate it.

      • ghostgecko says:

        Stretching the screen means you put so many images side by side the width of the window was such that I had to scroll back and forth to read my entire friends page. it gets frustrating.

        To put images or text behind a cut:
        When you’re posting an entry make sure the text entry area is on the “rich text” tab and not “html” (on the upper right).
        Select everything you’re going to put behind the cut.
        Click on the LJ cut icon on the top. (it looks like three lines over a jagged line, it’s the one directly to the right of the one that looks like a square divided into quarters).

    • Anonymous says:

      Batman: The Movie

      I was 5 when the TV series first aired on TV and I still remember the moment I caught a look at it, my life changed from B & W to color in an instant. No surprise your son was enthralled with the movie. I can laugh at the movie now, but somewhere in the back of my head it still owns me.

      – Bob

  11. greyaenigma says:

    You should review this every January. Then I can forget and leave the same comment.