Superheroes: Batman (1966)

free stats

(For those interested, my earlier thoughts on Batman can be found here.)

WHO IS BRUCE WAYNE? Bruce Wayne is tall, handsome, wealthy and dumb as a post. He lives with his ward, Dick Grayson, who is shorter, not quite as good looking, and also dumb as a post. Wayne refers to himself as a "capitalist" for the benefit of a woman he believes to be a Russian journalist, but as far as the narrative is concerned, Wayne is born rich, a playboy, and does nothing with his life but bear the name of the Wayne Foundation — a wealthy, carefree philanthropist. There is no mention anywhere of the murder of Bruce’s parents when he was eight years old, no mention of any demons or psychological issues that might compel a man to dress up like a bat to go out and fight crime. Like a lot of things in Batman, Bruce Wayne dresses up like a bat to go out and fight crime because the plot demands it.

WHO IS BATMAN? When giggling, costumed criminals show up, or famous booze magnates go missing, Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson put on their own costumes and become Batman and Robin. The strange thing about the Batman of Batman is that he’s just as dumb as Bruce Wayne, except somehow he’s also got a bat-cave full of gadgets that he has, somehow, invented. He has personally invented a device for almost every situation — shark repellent, retinal scanner, missle jammer — he’s clearly a technological genius, and yet he still falls prey to ruses that wouldn’t fool a five-year-old.

Batman, a masked vigilante, not only has the full, open support of the Gotham City Police Department, he’s respected — revered, even — by everyone in town. As he must, I suppose, since he runs around town in broad daylight, in his grey tights with their package-enhancing blue silk shorts over them, his yellow bat-sticker on his chest and his little bat-cowl with the graceful little "angry lines" painted on its brow. He needs a full flight crew out at the airport to prepare his Bat-copter, and doesn’t hesitate to leave his various Bat-vehicles parked on streets, docks, or outside foam-rubber conventions.

WHAT SORT OF PLACE IS GOTHAM CITY? Gotham City is, they say, a bustling metropolis, although you wouldn’t know it from the strange set of indicator presented in Batman. It’s a sunny place, sometimes New York and sometimes Los Angeles. People are polite, respectful and only occasionally obstreperous or rude — and only then in the run-down area of the docks, where fat twin women gorge themselves even when faced with immediate death from a big round bomb, and alcoholics have to contend with Salvation Army bands.

WHO IS JIM GORDON? Commissioner Gordon in Batman is, like Bruce Wayne, dumb as a post, as is his police chief O’Hara. Gullible, vacant and easily manipulated, his main duties as police commissioner involve calling Batman for help, worrying about Batman’s safety, acting as Batman’s press liason (he’s introduced as a "fully deputized member of the Gotham Police Force," which would come as a great surprise to the Commissioner Gordon of The Dark Knight), and acting as a general, genial authority figure — when the president calls to ask about Batman’s work, he calls Gordon, not the mayor.

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? What does Bruce Wayne/Batman want? His stated intent is to rid Gotham City of costumed criminals, but it seems that he’s willing to put this goal on hold in order to pursue a love life. For an entire act of Batman, Bruce Wayne ignores his Bat-manly duties of crime-fighting in order to go on a date with Miss Kitka, the visiting Russian journalist. He falls deeply in love with Miss Kitka during a whirwind, internationally-flavored date that involves gypsy violinists, a French chanteuse, a romantic cruise through Gotham Central Park, and a cup of cocoa, and implied sex, back at Miss Kitka’s place. Alas, things do not go according to plan, and Bruce will soon have to face the bitter, bitter truth about Miss Kitka — she is not only not going to have sex with him, she is, in fact, the evil and ruthless Catwoman.

This Batman is the WASPiest crime-fighter in history. The opposite of an angry, suspicious fascist, this Batman goes through the entire movie on eggshells, terrified that he will disrupt or offend — he does not wish to impose upon the citizens of Gotham City. Although he’s happy to participate in a news conference, he is anxious in the face of adoration and, in spite of his garish design choices and outlanding costume, would rather nobody take notice of him.

Taking its cue from its title character, the movie Batman, similarly, does not wish to impose. It all but apologizes for itself with an opening title card, over-explaining itself as a comedy so as to prepare its audience for its narrative shagginess.

WHAT DO THE BAD GUYS WANT? The bad guys of Batman, The Penguin, Catwoman, The Riddler and The Joker, want money. To get money, they have developed a plan to hold hostage the UN ambassadors to nine countries. Their plan is, of course, brilliant and foolproof. It goes like this:

Step 1: Kidnap Commodore Schmidlapp, a British distiller and inventor. This is trickier than it sounds — Batman is always around, and you must be careful to get him out of the way first. Luckily, getting Batman out of the way can be easily done — simply travel to a spot in the Atlantic, set up a buoy with a secret hologram projector inside, rig the hologram projector to project an image of Commodore Schmidlapp’s yacht, then call the Gotham City Police Department with a fake announcement regarding Commodore Schmidlapp’s abuction, and give the coordinates of the holographic yacht. This will lure Batman out to this spot in the Atlantic, where he will attempt to board the holographic yacht, and then you can easily kill him with the trained attack-shark you have patrolling the waters, which you have rigged with explosives beforehand. While Batman is off getting killed by your trained exploding shark, you can easily dash off and kidnap the real Commodore Schmidlapp.

Step 2: Assuming Step 1 has gone off without a hitch (and there’s no reason to suspect that it won’t), the next part is a piece of cake. First, set up Commodore Schmidlapp in a room inside your secret headquarters on the docks in Gotham Harbor. It’s very important to make sure that Commodore Schmidlapp not realize he’s been kidnapped, so you must take great care to set up an elaborate pretense — it must appear to him that he is still on his yacht, waiting to come into harbor. This illusion must be maintained througout. Then, it’s simply a matter of obtaining from Commodore Schmidlapp’s yacht his Total Dehydrator, which is his newest invention.

Step 3: Commodore Schmidlapp’s Total Dehydrator was created for use in the distilling process, but you’re going to use it for a much darker purpose — you are going to break into the United World Headquarters while the United World Security Coucil is having a meeting, and you and your team are going to tiptoe into that meeting and de-hydrate the ambassadors from nine prominent nations. Once they are dehydrated,you’re going to carefully sweep up their dehydrated particles into nine separate test-tubes and then demand a billion dollars from each one of the nations the ambassadors hail from. Piece of cake!

NOW THEN: If, for some reason, Batman does not get killed by your exploding shark, you will have to postpone your dehydrating plan and institute a backup plan. Here’s a good one: have the female member of your team pretend to be a sexy Russian journalist, and have her pretend to fall in love with millionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne. Once Wayne is in your clutches, kidnap him and take him back to your secret headquarters. This will lure Batman out of hiding to rescue Wayne, and you can then easily kill Batman with a carefully-rigged spring platform that will propel him out the window of your secret headquarters onto a trained exploding octopus you have waiting for him in the harbor. It’s very unlikely that this plan will fail, but if it does, you’ll just have to try to continue with your dehydrating/ransom plan and hope for the best.

THE WORLD’S GREATEST DETECTIVE: Aside from his cave full of gadgets that can do anything, Batman executes one piece of brilliant detective work in Batman. When he is attacked by a decommissioned submarine, he calls up the Navy and asks them if they’ve recently sold any decommissioned submarines to anyone. The officer who answers the phone, who sees nothing unusual about taking a call from Batman, has the information at his fingertips and is happy to help out. He then goes back to his game of tiddly-winks.

Like The Dark Knight, the 1966 Batman is divided into four acts. I’m afraid the similarities end there. A goofy, colorful comedy, the polar opposite of The Dark Knight‘s gritty, grounded realism, Batman is nevertheless worth analysis as a kind of pantomime of a superhero movie. You could complain that it doesn’t take its subject matter seriously, but then by the mid-60s Batman comics didn’t take themselves very seriously. They may have stopped short of camp, but they were miles from the character’s dark origins.

Act I involves the villains’ kidnapping of Commodore Schmidlapp and their inability to kill Batman, Act II sets into motion the Bruce Wayne kidnapping plot, Act III pretends that Act II didn’t happen and gets on with developing the dehydrating plot (including The Penguin disguising himself as Commodore Schmidlapp in order to gain access to the Batcave), and Act IV is the plot itself. Anyone who notices that each act is about the length of a half-hour TV episode is a greater detective than Batman.


What does everyone remember from Batman? The exploding shark, which happens in the first ten minutes. People tend to get sketchy about the rest of the movie after the first act break, since the plot puts itself on hold in order to piddle about with the Miss Kitka subplot, and a lot of people never even watch the rest of the movie. I sympathize, and yet the idea of a Batman story revolving around the kidnapping of Bruce Wayne is actually pretty brilliant and it’s too bad that it doesn’t fit into this narrative better. The last act, involving the actual plot to dehydrate the UN (sorry, UW) Security Council is actually pretty funny, and involves some incredible visuals, including Batman making a solemn speech about the importance of international relations while holding a limp garden hose.

The UN, of course, looms large over the plot of Batman. The UN’s dream of an effective security council and a world made peaceful through open communication is parodied by its device of uniting four bickering villains to undo said communication. The Penguin, Catwoman, The Riddler and The Joker are shown to be at each others’ throats throughout the movie, and even acting against each others’ interest in the pursuit of their plot. To make the UN parallel more obvious, the script actually gives the villains’ organization a name, the United Underworld or something, with a very cold-war octopus as their logo. The Miss Kitka ruse, and her internationally-flavored date with Bruce Wayne, underline the why-can’t-we-all-get-along aspect of the message.

The plot of Batman is strange to say the least, and one of the strangest aspects of it is its stance on alcoholism. Batman openly disdains alcohol (he reluctantly admits that alcoholics are people, in spite of their degenerate habits) and Bruce Wayne drinks cocoa when trying to get Russian journalists into bed. The plot is set into motion by the kidnapping of a distiller, and Commodore Schmidlapp takes up gigantic chunks of the narrative, which the writer obviously feels is a hilarious joke in and of itself, and is presented as a bumbling idiot who happily wanders around the plot not having the slightest idea what’s going on. The fact that all of this is presented in a sunny, goofball comedy says something about somebody involved in this production, although I’m not sure what.

The villains of Batman, like Batman himself, are the least threatening, least evil villains on record. They want to make off with nine billion dollars, but god forbid they should inconvenience anyone in the meantime. They go to great trouble to obtain Commodore Schmidlapp’s Total Dehydrator, then go to even greater trouble to make sure that Commodore Schmidlapp himself never cotton to the fact that he’s been kidnapped. If one’s goal is to obtain a man’s Total Dehydrator, which is being stored on said man’s yacht, the obvious course would be to board the yacht, kill everyone on board and take the Dehydrator. The Joker’s biggest scene in the movie is the one where he serves tea to Commodore Schmidlapp — think of that! The Joker, Batman’s greatest villain, the darkest, most storied, most comprehensively evil character in all comics lore, here is reduced to serving tea to a kidnap victim. Worse still, he must take orders from The Penguin, rail ineffectively against giggling idiot The Riddler, and stand around fighting for screentime during the Catwoman sub-plot. If one is looking for a poor deployment of a multiple-villain plot, Batman sets the all-time record early.

On the other hand, while I’m perfectly okay with The Penguin, Catwoman, The Riddler and The Joker getting together to dehydrate the UN, I get confused when it comes to them being in league with a trio of pirates. Pirates? Why are their henchmen pirates? The Penguin buying a decommissioned submarine and re-fitting it so that it looks like a giant penguin, fine, all well and good — but why staff the submarine with pirates? And where does one find pirates — 16th-century pirates, at that — in 1966? What’s wrong with hiring a staff of, I don’t know, ex-Navy submarine crewmembers? Because there’s no indication that the Penguin’s submarine crew is made up of normal guys dressed as pirates — no, they are pirates. One would think that the Pirate Submarine Crew would justify a movie of their own, but Batman glides right over this tantalizing possibility.


26 Responses to “Superheroes: Batman (1966)”
  1. ndgmtlcd says:

    At the time my only knowledge of the adventures of Batman (and Robin) came from the TV series, and not the comic, so the 1966 film was quite predictable, and even logical, up to a point. It’s all about politeness.

  2. laminator_x says:

    Fun Fact: The “Clear Lucite Map of Gotham City” in the Bat-Cave is in fact a clear lucite map of St. Louis turned upside down.

  3. iron_pyrite says:

    ‘Batman’ writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. reviews ‘The Dark Knight’:

    • Todd says:

      It’s worth noting that, in its day, Mr. Semple’s vision of Batman was every bit as popular, and influential, as the Nolans’ is now — if not more so.

      • laminator_x says:

        I doubt that TDK will have as much of a legacy four decades from now as the 60’s Bat-Man has today. For all its absurdity, that show had a distinctive and fun personality.

        While some of Semple’s criticisms are of the “get off my lawn” variety, others are spot-on, particularly WRT the action editing.

        Marcia’s point about the non-security of Bruce’s penthouse is valid as well.

    • mimitabu says:

      wow, that’s a great review.

      i know this is crazy, but their message about people’s reception of TDK kind of reminds me of people’s reception of barack obama (flamebait coming!). they’re dancing around the idea that TDK takes a palatable movie type (explosions, fights, “gritty psychological struggles”), infuses it with vaguely waved at sociological themes, and thereby satisfies both those hungry for spectacle as well as those intellectuals looking for an excuse to like explosions and fights.

      analogously, barack obama takes the same “leave everything to me, everything is fine, america is the best, don’t worry about it,” attitude as all politicians of recent memory, but sprinkles in messages that advert to the need for change in america. he waves at the failure of unbridled capitalism, the disempowerment of the voter, and the repeated criminality of american foreign policy. but, in the end, he supports bailouts and votes for retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies involved in wiretapping (and gathers advisers from the free-trade clinton era that helped get us so far into this mess), organizes a vast support base but assigns them work rather than trying to energize and empower voters to have a say in their own governance, and calls the iraq war “a strategic mistake” instead of “government sanctioned murder,” further exhorting us to step up more war elsewhere (afghanistan).

      myself, i think both critiques of TDK and obama are a bit simplistic (getting back to some relevance here:D). i understand why the reviewer throws around the word “sophomoric” regarding TDK’s themes, but i think the supreme virtue of TDK is that it doesn’t bother writing an essay about sociology. i think it’s perfectly valid to show drama that will provoke you to think about justice and the state of our world, rather than spelling out for you how things should be. sure, there’s a lot of people explaining what’s going on or pontificating in TDK, but that’s all part of the drama. the screenwriter isn’t engaging you and grappling with notions of justice, bruce wayne is grappling with them (and identifying the thoughts of the characters with the thematic content or impact of the movie is illicit). a movie doesn’t have to be crimes and misdemeanors to explore justice thematically. it can just tell a story and advert to heady themes; that’s ok. we can enjoy the struggles and explosions, then think about justice the next day over coffee.

      as for obama, i actually hold most of the criticisms i listed above, but i think when they’re stated so baldly they overly simplify the state of the world, as well as fail to acknowledge the numerous revolutionary aspects of his election. i also think that a moderate like him could be a step in the right direction insofar as the whole electoral process is going to get us out of trouble; the whole point of empowering people is not requiring the permission of captain president to be involved with the world. if social justice is to be attained, it can’t be attained by 1 great powerful man, so criticizing a president b/c he’s not an activist is a bit odd. also, historically, democrats usually do provide real gains to the middle class (at least), which is, again, a start.

      still, i wish he weren’t so hawkish and told a bit more truth about foreign policy. i also wish he would acknowledge the collapse of our form of capitalism, b/c sooner or later we’ll all be starving if the government doesn’t start regulating business and implementing large-scale socialist programs to bail out the common person and small businesses rather than GM and banks. (: oh yeah, and he better fix health care too, b/c we’re headed for crisis on that front to boot.

  4. stormwyvern says:

    A gre with pretty much everything you say and I think that the 60s Batman generally works best in TV episode sized doses, but I still do find its sheer ridiculousness enjoyable. My husband and I have been recording episodes off of a retro-TV centric cable channel. The most recent one involves a plot by the Joker to rig “innocent vending machines” in the Gotham City schools to dispense lucrative gifts like silver dollars instead of the normal, coffee, and milk. (Of course the school gym has a milk vending machine. Didn’t yours?) This, obviously, will cause the youth of Gotham to become complacent, expecting that the finer things in life will come to them without any effort. They will naturally start to neglect their studies, leaving them woefully unprepared for the real world, leaving them no other option but to turn to crime (or perhaps alcoholism). Batman implored the kids to stick to their studies, warning them that “nothing in life is free,” a sentiment that, as I pointed out to my husband, sounds a little odd coming from a man whose entire lifestyle is only made possible by the huge amounts of wealth he has inherited.

    There is at least one other similarity between the 60s Batman and The Dark Knight: both make the case that Bruce Wayne can’t afford to have a love life. The Nolan films make the case that the objects of Bruce’s affection will be put in danger and may end up compromising his judgment as Batman, while the 60s movie seems to argue that Bruce’s status as a prominent man of wealth in Gotham means he’ll always have to wonder if his current date has an ulterior motive that might end up compromising his ability to protect the city.

    I guess the reason I still find the 60s Batman fun – if not a shining example of TV or film writing – is that it sometimes serves as a nice antidote to certain modern portrayals of superheroes. Not so much in film; I think many of the recent crop of superhero films have been quite good. It’s more some recent comics, where writers don’t so much give their characters realistic problems as make their lives a constant crisis, or the heroes themselves are not merely flawed but so plagued by their personal demons that the main drama is seeing whether they can overcome their own issues enough to get out of bed and save the day. I’m not saying that no entertaining or good comics have been written using these concepts, but sometimes it feels like comics have swung from one extreme of silly innocence to another of unrelenting darkness.

    To be fair to Batman’s disdain for the drink, I think it is consider a fact in the DC universe that Bruce Wayne never drinks alcohol, secretly imbibing sparkling water or ginger ale in its place when the occasion calls for him to drink. This raises the question of what Bruce does when he’s socially required to drink and he’s somewhere other than stately Wayne Manor, but I imagine a man with Batman’s skill set would know how to discreetly dispose of a liquid he didn’t want to drink. Either that of Bruce is known among Gotham high society as that jerk who won’t drink anything but a bit of his own private stash in a flask brought from home, which he never offers to share.

  5. curt_holman says:

    The one saving grace for Batman, for me, is the whole “Sometimes you just can’t get rid of a bomb!” sequence, which is a reasonably funny and well-executed bit of physical comedy that I can imagine being used in a Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton film. If the rest of the film (or the series) operated more on that level of slapstick inventiveness, I’d probably have more use for it.

  6. black13 says:

    I not only remember the shark, but also how Lee Meriwether moved in that catsuit. Meow.

  7. chadu says:

    What does everyone remember from Batman? The exploding shark, which happens in the first ten minutes.

    I’d also add to that “Somedays you just can’t rid of a bomb!” a wonderful comedic set-piece.

  8. Anonymous says:

    When I was in high school, everyone was thrilled to hear that the movie that we would be watching in the auditorium at the end of the year would be none other than Batman. After years of Disney family films like Swiss Family Robinson and Pollyanna shown over and over again, everybody thought that it was “totally awesome” that the school finally had the balls to show a decent, recent, action movie with a cast of actors still alive and working regularly. Maybe the school’s staff had decided to get a movie that the students would actually watch, rather than talk and throw wads of paper and make out and showing jack Nicholson fall into a vat of chemicals was the good idea that had come out of the last staff meeting. Alas, this was not the case, as the movie deconstructed above was the crap that our school decided to show. There was no mention whatsoever beforehand that the Batman we were about to see was worse than any given episode of the show starring the same people, or that it was just as rediculously dated as any other movie they ever got. I half expected one of my fellow students to jump and scream “Attica!”

  9. woodandiron says:

    I’ve only seen bits and pieces of this movie and the thing I remember most is my confusion over how a person dehydrated down to a powder comes in such electric and vibrant colors.

    I’ve been meaning to ask this but keep forgetting: what purpose does it serve the story in The Dark Knight to have Bruce Wayne be using an underground lair in downtown Gotham instead of the Batcave? I know we get a throwaway line about the mansion being rebuilt but what purpose does it serve the story?

    The only thing I can come up with is that it makes Bruce Wayne even more integral to the machinations of the city of Gotham. Instead of having him as some aristocratic guy living 5 miles outside of the action, he’s there in the heart of it all.

  10. adam_0oo says:

    It should be noted that this version of Batman (though more from the tv show than from this movie) still has one of the largest impacts on the general populaces ideas of any kind of superheroes. Almost any and every news article published about superheroes, to this day 40 years later will include a “Holy Bean Sprout Batman!” or a “Biff, Pow, Wham!” line in them.

  11. amara_anon says:

    LOL. We’ve come a long way.

    Yesterday I was thrilled to see The Dark Knight got a PGA nomination. Even just a few years ago, who would have ever thought that would be possible for a Batman movie? Especially when only 11 years ago, Batman and Robin was on screens.

  12. creepingcrud says:

    There’s a lovely homage to the “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb” sequence (which I can’t believe you didn’t bring up) in the latest Wallace and Gromit special, “A Matter of Loaf and Death.”

  13. sheherazahde says:

    Thank you.

    I laughed all through your description.

  14. moroccomole says:

    This is one of those posts that falls into the “you spent more time thinking about the script than the writer did” category. And I say that as someone who sincerely hopes that one of the outcomes of the Fox vs. WB battle over Watchmen is that Warner finally lets Fox release the TV show on DVD.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Bruce Post’s Kindly Old Parents

    In the very early episodes of the Adam West ‘Batman’, Batman himself refers to the death of his parents at the hands of criminals. It happens in about four or five of these early episodes, and then the subject is dropped. Big A’s no slouch delivering these line readings, mind you, but they don’t fit in at all with the regular silly tone of the show.

    Rockie Bee

  16. Anonymous says:

    The Penguin buying a decommissioned submarine and re-fitting it so that it looks like a giant penguin, fine, all well and good — but why staff the submarine with pirates? And where does one find pirates — 16th-century pirates, at that — in 1966?

    This is about the origins of Adult Swim, right?