1966: Batman the Movie at 50

1966 Batman at 50

“Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb”

It was the television series that leapt to the big screen after its first season, providing the first slice of feature length Caped Crusader. And five decades on, somehow that white eyebrowed facet of Batman persists. Not only was its multi-colour legacy recently felt in the comic spin off Batman ’66 which ended earlier this year, but this October sees the release of animated sequel Return of the Caped Crusaders.

Shunning countless efforts to derail the camper side of Batman, a look at a crucial part of the Caped Crusader franchise: Batman: The Movie, released 50 years ago today.

Batman’s never been more about life…

THE SHADOW OF THOSE LEGGINGS, THAT DELIVERY, THAT BAT-PHONE, THOSE PUNS, THOSE CLIFF-HANGERS, THOSE WALL CRAWLS, THOSE FIGHT SCENES… It persists, despite the combined big screen, big budget efforts of Burton, Schumacher, Nolan and Snyder to set a different Batman over the last 30 years. Yes, even Schumacher, who aped much but somehow failed to recapture the show’s subtle breadth and laugh out loud comedy. In fact, the television series started a domino effect of reaction and negation. Nominally, Joel Schumacher’s duo of Batman films nodded furiously to the series that was then three decades removed as a response to the darkening gothic stylings Tim Burton brought to the character with 1991’s sublime Batman Returns.  But for every line of parody (“Holy rusted metal!), sharp strings or happy broadening of the Bat-family Schumacher attempted, just showed how sophisticated the source material was in comparison. That in turn triggered a realistic reboot in the mid-200s, starting a trilogy rooted in comic plotlines and characters that emerged in the 1970s as a direct response to the campness of Batman’s 1960s television incarnation (Ra’s and Talia al Ghul, Bane), just as the current cinematic Batman is strongly rooted in the Dark Knight of the mid-1980s. But through it all, the flame of the 1960s Batman has kept burning. In its way a response to the darker, more realistic Nolan films of the 21st century and the difficult legacy of the ground-breaking Burton-inspired Batman: The Animated Series, Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008-2011) was a confident, brash cartoon tribute to comics’ silver age which paid huge tribute to the ‘60s show.

Perhaps there’s no better indication that the not-so dark facet of Gotham’s masked guardian simply won’t disappear than Batman ’66. A web and printed comic set in the 1960’s universe that ran for 73 issues, concluding just in time for the show’s 50th anniversary. More of that later… Because 1960s’ Batman is so much more than a persistent ambassador of a lighter age.

Batman: The Television Series (1966 – 1968)

“Tune in tomorrow—same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!”

Batman arrived on ABC in January 1966. A phenomenon in waiting, it carried an inevitability the show’s endless death traps could never match. Originally developed as a kids’ TV adventure romp heading to mornings on CBS, it took a brief turn towards serious drama when it turned to ABC before some arbitrary decisions set the tone it became famous for. When it fell on William Dozier’s desk, his few casual glances at a few Batman comic books convinced the producer that the series should aim for camp comedy. It may have been a broad reading of the source material, but what emerged was bottled lightning. One of that period’s highest rated series it managed to run twice a week during its first two seasons and tot up and astonishing run of 120 episodes over three series and two years. On the way, it cast an eye on mid-60s culture and counter-culture and sent its own brand of perceived campery back into the pop art zeitgeist. When it ended, the distinctive version of the Dynamic Duo portrayed by Adam West and Burt Ward broke into the short-lived animated series the New Adventures of Batman at the end of the 1970s, and aside from semi-spin-off show The Green Hornet, the camp it brought to comic book was felt for decades to come in the likes of Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey and Lois and Clark.

But Batman wasn’t just thrown together. The influence of old adventure serials was clear felt in its multi-part episodes and cliff-hangers, while its broad mix of comedy, caricature and moralising sat perfectly, and iconically, in the flowering mid-1960s. While the dodged certain harrowing parts of the Batman mythos, many well established in popular consciousness three decades after the comics arrival, the show settled on the jolly, well-heeled lives of bachelor Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson. Thanks to rapid change switches and some fireman poles, the majority of their appearances were as their alter-egos, not the vigilante night terrors well known today, but sanctioned Gotham City crime-fighters. Despite what appear to be radical changes by current standards, the show managed to incorporate swathes of well-known elements from the comic books, including villains (although sadly, neither side Two-Face never made the transition, denting his popular awareness for quite some time) but also introduced a roster of original, and not-so original, rogues who worked their way back onto the page.

And after one series Batman achieved the unthinkable. It became the first feature-length incarnation of the Caped Crusader. The franchise that’s so far captured over $4.5 billion at the worldwide box office started here.

Batman the Movie (1966)

“Bruce Wayne and Girl Companion Kidnapped!”

Yes, the movie has it all. But inevitably, Batman’s rapid ascension to the big screen wasn’t clear cut. Having set the tone of the piece, Dozier intended a theatrical release to drive up publicity for the fast developing television series. The sticking point proved to be the budget, the risk of which fell squarely on Twentieth Century Fox, who duly balked. Things changed with the phenomenal response of audiences when the show was bumped forward in ABC’s schedule to January 1966. The movie was hurriedly produced at the close of that first series, quickly flipping from promotional tool to cash-in. It opened at cinemas just two months after the final episode of the first series, just in time to beat the second series into the Bat Cave.

The rushed production cost the involvement of Lorenzo Semple Jr, and perhaps shortened the phenomenon’s life. As head writer, Semple’s immediate deft pop-stylings had been evident from the series premiere, and a defining feature of its success. But the ambitious shooting schedule pushed him and other key players back, something cast members including Adam West, suggested left the second year flagging and heaped fuel on the show’s rapid burnout. Still, while the film didn’t perform spectacularly at the box office, its influence alongside the television series that spawned it, not least in putting an Underground United of Batman’s big four villains on the screen, was immense.

The budget boost for the big screen adaptation allowed the production to buy vehicles and props that fed into the second and third years of the television series, while its higher production values brought out the best of the show’s mid-60’s pop. Take that glorious opening, following a three part tongue-in-cheek yet all too appropriate dedication…

“ACKNOWLEDGMENT We wish to express our gratitude to the enemies of crime and crusaders against crime throughout the world for their inspirational example. To them, and to lovers of adventure, lovers of pure escapism, lovers of unadulterated entertainment, lovers of the ridiculous and the bizarre. To fun lovers everywhere- This picture is respectfully dedicated. If we have overlooked any sizable groups of lovers, we apologize.  – THE PRODUCERS”

Bat-opening

“Waugh waugh!”

Four colour spotlights then catch the film’s upcoming criminals straight-off; the audience knows exactly what’s in store within seconds of the opening. Although those titles end in rather pointlessly way with an unknown criminal escaping down an ally, there’s still time for the rather bedazzled Batman and Robin to comically bump into each other in the dark. All in all, the tone is set, and there’s no intention to hang about.  The plot that unravels is pure, nonsense Bond parody, and the script wastes no time propelling the Dynamic Duo into new vehicle, the Batcopter, and high seas a mystery via the instant costume change lever and sped up Batmobile … Read more…

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