Junkfood Cinema: Batman (1966)

By  · Published on May 28th, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema: blah blah blah fat. This is the weekly internet movie column that makes every other internet movie column look far better by comparison. Some people have film tastes that cater to the more obscure, auteur, artistically meritorious titles while others have tastes that lean toward the more mainstream award fodder. There are still others who have…taste at all. And then there’s me! The movies I love seriously call into question my qualifications as a film critic and I make no apologies for it. Each week I dig into my personal stash of crap and unearth a film that we may malign in the presence of our upscale friends, but wouldn’t change the channel should it crop up on late night cable. To make matters worse, I will also pair each film with an appropriate snack food item to drive home the already overstated concept of so-bad-it’s-good. Today’s delicious dish: Batman (1966).

In the 1960’s, the celebrated DC Comics crime fighter was given his own prime time television series. That series stared one Adam West as millionaire Bruce Wayne whose playboy facade obscured the public from his alter ego: the caped crusader of Gotham City. While we have come to recognize Batman as a brooding, dark hero shrouded in personal turmoil and conflict. The television series…also featured Batman. It was much lighter and redefined the word campy. But it was popular enough to spawn a 1966 big screen adaptation that centered on the collusion of all the major criminal elements in Gotham (The Joker, The Riddler, The Penguin, and Catwoman) in an effort to subvert world peace.

What Makes It Bad?

There is very little wrong with the film that wasn’t also wrong with the series. However I feel there was a certain amplification of the show’s absurdity that may have been wholly intentional and tongue-in-cheek. I feel I need only pick out a few choice moments to give you a sense of this movie’s problems. First, there is the scene wherein Batman gets a shark attached to his leg while dangling over the ocean from a ladder attached to the Bat Copter. He demands of Robin, “hand me down the shark repellent Bat Spray!” Not only do they keep this extremely specialized tool in their helicopter, but as Robin scans the cans in the cockpit, there are also Bat Sprays designed to repel manta rays, whales, and octopi. Handy! This is a testament to the show and its propensity for putting Batman in a tight spot and then, as some bizarre form of dues ex machina, he has exactly the right tool for the job.

If there is one thing you can expect from the 60’s Batman, it’s a truck load of moral fiber. There are morality lessons and cheesy maxims built into each episode and the movie truly takes that to the next level. In one scene, Batman calls a naval base to inquire as to the sale of any surplus submarines. When he learns that the sub was sold to a P.N. Gwen who only left a PO Box address, he is disappointed. The naval officer defers to Batman as to whether the American government was foolish in making that sale. As obnoxiously high-horsed as this scene is, I kind of wish more governmental decisions were deferred to superheroes.

In a sweet combo of the convenient escapes and moral fiber, there is also a scene wherein Batman and Robin are apparently killed by a torpedo. The camera cuts away, we hear the explosion, and the villains all celebrate. But in the very next scene, the dynamic duo is speeding away in their boat while Robin waxes idiotic about the “nobility of the common porpoise.” In the realm of convenient plot devices, this one is king. If you are ever writing a screenplay and find that you have written yourself into a corner, why not try having a dolphin inexplicably hurl itself at the problem. Oh, and please don’t explain it so that we are left expected to believe that dolphins instinctively know when superheroes are in danger.

There is an argument to be made that the show was intended for children and the silliness inherent in a film adaptation is par for the course to target the same demographic. But the central crux of the story is espionage and undermining the United Nations (dubbed the United World for…copyright reasons?). Yeah, because if there is one thing kids love, it’s to see the inner workings of various pseudo governmental agencies. There is also a major story element involving the science of dehydrating and rehydrating human specimens. This argument is tantamount to Lucas hiding behind the “kids’ movie” defense in Episode I, You know, the movie about trade embargoes…for kids!

Why I Love It!

I have to admit that much of my fondness for this film is bred of nostalgia. Many was the Saturday morning that I found myself in front of the TV with a bowl of Cap’n Crunch watching the escapades of Batman and Robin nuke my brain by way of the VCR. I have always been a big Batman nerd and, at the time, I was too young to understand how terrible the show, and by extension the film, truly was. As I got older, I got more into the comics which, by that time, were much darker and devoid of silliness. But the appreciation has come full circle and I now love the film because of all the campiness. For my money, Adam West is as indelible to the character as Michael Keaton or Christian Bale (for vastly different reasons, but still).

There are so many strange little touches in the movie that I really love. First of all, and this is something I also love about the show, Caesar Romero is such a fantastic Joker. Whenever we think of that character anymore the archetype will forever be Heath Ledger, and rightfully so, but for that time and in the world of the Batman series, Romero is the perfect Joker. I also love the story element of all the Batman baddies joining together for a scheme. Villains partnering is something that happened often in the comics but the show was typically limited to a one monster-of-the-week format. And if you don’t think Lee Meriwether is a sexy Catwoman, you can pretty much go jump in a lake…and get blown up by an exploding octopus.

Adam West’s Batman may be as much a watchdog for petty notions of morality as he is a crime fighter, but I’ll be damned if I don’t love him. He’s another of those guys that found a niche and stuck with it to the point of losing their minds in the role. People who only know his as the crazy mayor from Family Guy will be delighted to see the seeds of that madness alive and well in his portrayal of the Dark Knight. My favorite scene ever is him running around the dock trying to dispose of a bomb but finding nothing but innocent civilians, nuns, and baby ducks in his path. It is horrendously over-the-top but by the time you get to the line, “some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb,” you will understand the charm of Adam West’s Batman.

The opening to this film is hilariously incongruent. It uses a series of spotlights and smoky, colorful filters to cast various shades of light on the characters. They are lurking in dark, wet streets straight out of a film noir but then there is a guy in a trench coat running around gathering papers and being chased by police. The opening sells us on a spy thriller that happens to contain people in masks and capes. That guy in the trench coat, never seen again and the film itself is hardly a spy thriller. The opening is lost in its own decade and aims for a more adult audience, but the rest of the film barely strays from a typical episode of the show so it is completely baffling.

If you are going to revisit this film, I highly recommend purchasing the Blu-ray. Why bother to own a film such as this on so hoity toity a format? The show, and the movie of course, employs a good deal of Technicolor as a product of the era in which it was made. The colorful suits of the villains, the Bat Cave, and the familiar cape and cowl all get a major face lift in high definition.

Junkfood Pairing: Kit Kat Bar

Every time the Russian woman was introduced as Ms. Kitka, I craved a Kit Kat bar. It may have been a simple name association or perhaps some kind of Pavlovian response but it didn’t help that Bruce says her name somewhere in the neighborhood of 86 times before the movie’s end. Each time he says her name, it has a mega seductive timbre that adds a whole new troubling dimension to my snacking.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.