Director: Leslie H. Martinson
We're all familiar with the Batman movies directed by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. You might even be familiar with the various animated television shows (and occasional animated movie) starring Batman. But before Batman donned a black rubber costume and Gotham City became a dark, gritty metropolis, the Caped Crusader was the star of his own live-action TV show. Since it premiered on the ABC network on January 12, 1966, the show has become an indelible part of pop culture in the forty years since its cancellation in 1968. In fact, the show's campy, often comical depiction of Batman and Robin is how many people continue to view the Dynamic Duo. Its stars are still recognized as their characters from the show, no matter where their paths in life took them. While the majority of comic fans prefer the Batman depicted in Frank Miller's epic comic miniseries "The Dark Knight Returns," there is no getting around the sheer popularity of the old television show. The show was so popular, in fact, that it had its own theatrical spinoff following the conclusion of its first season. But is Batman '66 worth mentioning in the same breath as Burton's beloved Batman '89, or does it make Schumacher's Batman & Robin look like Oscar-caliber filmmaking?
Our film opens in the Gotham City countryside, where millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Adam West) and his young ward Dick Grayson (Burt Ward) are taking a leisurely afternoon drive. The pair receive an anonymous tip that someone has hijacked a yacht carrying a powerful dehydrator that can reduce people to a pile of dust, and they swing into action as Batman and Robin. After a tangle with a very fake-looking exploding shark, the yacht simply vanishes into thin air. The confused Dynamic Duo head back to the office of police commissioner Jim Gordon (Neil Hamilton), where they figure out that the tip was a setup all along. Turns out the boat was just a holographic decoy to distract Batman and Robin while the real hijackers stole the dehydrator and kidnapped its inventor, stereotypical sea captain Commodore Schmidlapp (Reginald Denny).
And through an incredibly insane stretch in deductive logic, they realize that the scheme is being executed by the United Underworld: the combined criminal forces of The Joker (Cesar Romero), The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), The Riddler (Frank Gorshin), and Catwoman (Lee Meriweither). Armed with the stolen dehydrator, the United Underworld strikes and kidnaps the United World security council (serving as a reasonable facsimile of the United Nations). Batman and Robin must board Penguin's Navy surplus pre-atomic submarine and rescue Commodore Schmidlapp and the powdered security council before the United Underworld can use them as a bargaining tool to conquer the world.
Similar to Jackass: The Movie, Batman '66 is basically an extended episode of the television show it was based on, only with a higher budget. From the cinematography and stunts, to the absurd dialogue and Nelson Riddle's music, the movie echoes the show to a T. In fact, the movie was actually intended to be made as a pilot for the show, but it ended up getting released after the first season had concluded. The higher budget not only allows for four special guest villains instead of one, but it also gives the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder new toys like the Batboat and the Batcopter. Said Batboat and Batcopter only showed up in later episodes of the show when the producers recycled footage of the movie, but if you already have good footage, why spend the money to film new stuff? Makes sense to me. But seriously, the movie is one giant train wreck of campiness, and could lay claim to the title of the superhero genre's This Is Spinal Tap. Every gadget and weapon features a bizarre "Bat-" prefix, there's the usual silly puns and fight scenes (with the "Pow! Biff! Wham!" title cards), and then there's outrageous, almost insulting jumps in logic. "It was fishy like a penguin! It happened at sea... C for Catwoman! That exploding shark was pulling my leg... it has to be The Joker! And it all adds up to a sinister riddle... of course, The Riddler!" I know that it was a different time back then, but that sort of thing is just absurd nowadays. Both the jokes and Robin's "holy [insert something here]" exclamations are groan-inducing, as is most of the dialogue in general. Unfortunately, the nature of the show works a lot better within the confines of a half-hour time frame, as the silliness grows thin over the movie's 100 minutes. And there's quite a few parts that make exactly zero sense anyway. For example, there's one scene near the beginning where Catwoman disguises herself as a Russian journalist named Kitka at a press conference and asks Batman and Robin to remove their masks in order to "get a better picture of them." As the movie progresses, Bruce Wayne falls for Kitka and never once suspects her of being a supervillain. If there's one thing I've learned, it's this: If you're a superhero, you don't mess around with a suspicious lady that asks you to reveal your secret identity in front of God and everybody, no matter how attractive she is. That's just not kosher, folks.
The acting, as with the show, is absolutely hammy. Adam West's overacting as Batman is the stuff of legend, and he's almost a parody of the current-day William Shatner before the world knew who Shatner was. West plays the silly dialogue as if it were a life-or-death situation, but what makes him so memorable is his comedic timing. His timing is spot-on, especially in the now-famous bomb disposal scene. As Batman attempts to remove a bomb from a pirate bar, he charges around a pier while trying to avoid ducks, boating lovers, nuns, and a Salvation Army marching band that somehow ends up being around every corner he turns. The scene is a priceless adventure in slapstick, which not only presents us with a chance to see how funny West can be, but also gives us what is arguably the film's most memorable line ("some days, you just can't get rid of a bomb!"). Even his understated "aw, crap" reaction at the end of the movie is hilarious. Meanwhile, Burt Ward's portrayal of Robin is acceptable and fun, but actually makes me pine for Chris O'Donnell. The true gold in the cast is with both West and the cast of villains. While I'm usually a Joker fan, Frank Gorshin's Riddler was always my favorite villain from the show, and his manic delivery in the movie makes me love him more. Burgess Meredith and Cesar Romero are both fun as Penguin and Joker, and Lee Meriwether (pinch-hitting for TV Catwoman Julie Newmar) is quite intriguing to watch. While I definitely prefer Eartha Kitt and Michelle Pfeiffer when it comes to Catwomen, Meriwether does a respectable job.
There's no denying the energy of the movie. As with Burton's Batman '89, the TV show turned a whole generation into fans. While I'm willing to bet that people who fell in love with the version of Batman we know as the Dark Knight will approach Batman '66 with some trepidation, those who grew up with the '60s TV show will cherish this piece of nostalgia. The movie has its problems, and it begins to wear out its welcome by the finale, but it's good clean fun. It's the kind of Batman movie that parents can watch with their kids, with no serious violence or villains that are killed at the end. Though the show is often despised by comic fans, one could argue that Batman wouldn't even be around today if it weren't for the success of the show (and by extent, the movie). DC Comics was actually considering canceling Batman before the comics experienced a boom in sales, all thanks to Adam West and Burt Ward as the Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder. And frankly, no matter what anyone says of it, I love the show and I love the movie. I'll give Batman '66 three and a half stars. That sounds about right to me.
Final Rating: ***½