Batman has come a long way in these 75+ years. Millennials know him as this dark, tormented figure, a man in eternal angst over his life and the misery of his Gotham City. Gotham, the Batman prequel television series, expands on that dire world where the future Dark Knight will emerge.
It might therefore come as a genuine shock to remember that there was a time when Batman was anything but dark and gloomy. In fact, Batman was the height of camp humor, a merry figure who was very tongue-in-cheek, whose villains were outlandish and unapologetically so. The Batman television show ran for a mere three seasons, but during that time we had the first full-length Batman film. Batman was very much in keeping with the pop/camp nature of the television series, a chance for the guest villains to have a major union of lunacy and humor that winks at the audience.
Something Michael Keaton, Christian Bale, or even David Mazouz's Bruce Wayne would not be aware of.
Four villains from the Rogue's Row of Gotham's master criminals have joined forced: The Joker (Cesar Romero), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin), and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether). Working together as "United Underworld", their goal is, to quote Riddler, "first Gotham City, and then THE WORLD!" To do this, they have to get rid of the Dynamic Duo: Batman and Robin.
The Caped Crusaders' alter egos, millionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne (Adam West) and his youthful ward Dick Grayson (Burt Ward) are at first unaware of this nefarious plot, but soon things come together. It comes from the first step on the United Underworld's master plan: the abduction of Commodore Schmidlapp (Reginald Denny, in his final role) to use his newest invention, a Dehydrating Machine, which they will use for their own nefarious purposes.
Those involve kidnapping the members of the United World's Security Council, and they will also use it against Batman to try and kill him. As can be expected, things don't go the super-criminals way, especially when they attempt to use the luscious Soviet journalist Miss Kitka to seduce Bruce Wayne as part of a plot to lure the Caped Crusader to rescue the millionaire philanthropist.
Well, after a battle the villains are captured, and a delicate operation takes place to attempt and restore the UW's members to their state. The end results weren't exactly what everyone had in mind, but no matter...the Dynamic Duo sneaks off, ready for more adventures.
If anything, Batman is fully aware of its own lunacy and makes no apologies for it. Right from the get-go Batman is going to be exactly like the television show: bonkers, self-aware, and tongue firmly in cheek as it spoofs itself.
We see this straight from the beginning, when Batman & Robin go in the Bat-copter to attempt to rescue the Commodore's ship. To descend down to the ship, the ladder reads "Bat Ladder", then when an obviously fake shark starts pulling on Batman's leg, he calls to get the get Bat-Repellant, easily grouped by various aquatic animals.
One boggles at the idea that Batman and Robin prepare for any eventuality, no matter how random or insane, yet this is the world of Batman, gleefully silly and not afraid to embrace it. Throughout the film, everyone camps it up, hams it up, and since everyone is in on the joke, no one has any cause to be offended or to take any of this seriously.
In many ways, Batman is a bit like an extended episode, but unlike the series, it has a few things that television would not let it get away it. As the plot begins to unravel, Riddler yells at Catwoman, "Shut up, you feline floozy!", as harsh a comment as any I've heard from anyone from the television show. The flirtation between Bruce Wayne and Miss Kitka (as obvious a name on something that transcends self-awareness) is surprisingly daring and risqué. Their efforts at détente would probably not go over well with television censors, with her invitation to come up to her penthouse for a little climax.
Of course, the fact that she offers to slip into something more comfortable while he finishes his cocoa shows just how overtly silly everything in Batman is (as if passing the Benedict Arnold Monument in Gotham Central Park wasn't a big-enough clue that here, everyone isn't just IN on the joke, they ARE the joke).
Speaking of jokes, Lorenzo Semple's screenplay manages to keep a pretty solid balance between our four supervillains, though I'd argue that if I had to choose, I'd say Meredith's Penguin was the ringleader. If push came to shove I would say that Gorshin is the best version of the Riddler ever brought to screen (sorry, Carrey and Cory Michael Smith). Each of our villains knew their characters, and if you've seen the show, they are pretty much the same.
We even got a bit of heart from Penguin, who tells his henchmen to be careful as they pour the sands of other henchmen as part of their bat-crazy scheme to take down the Caped Crusader. "Be careful," we quacks. "Every one of them has a mother".
The only new cast-member is Meriwether as Catwoman, and she does a wonderful job balancing the alluring Miss Kitka and the villainous Catwoman. Let's face it: the term 'villains' doesn't quite fit our quartet of crooks, but they did a great job.
Same goes for West and Ward. It's just a terrible disservice to West to have been typecast for doing a great job as the campy, way-out Caped Crusader. Same goes for Ward's turn as the 'voice of the youth' (his line of saying "One thing I don't dig", lends things a delightfully retro fun).
Yes, one can argue about the logic of even something as overtly silly as Batman (the perpetually befuddled Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara reaching correct conclusions by the rather elaborate leaps of logic is a bit hard to swallow), but again, since we all had a good time with this, we need not worry about such matters.
One real highlight was the opening, where Nelson Riddle's jazz score balanced the various themes for our villains with a really jaunty and even thrilling musical sequence.
Ultimately, Batman succeeds because it knows what it is and doesn't pretend to be anything else. Everyone is having a lark sending up the excessive seriousness of it all, and while it will take perhaps a generation or two to make the Dark Knight less morose, maybe in the future people can take a page from Batman and lighten things up just a touch.
Next Batman Film: Batman (1989)
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