Ridiculous on Purpose: Longing for the Comic Book Camp of Batman (1966)

| Chris Polley |

Batman plays at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, November 25 through Sunday, November 27. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.

As I recall, my first exposure to superheroes was not via some personal, transformative comic book shop experience, nor with an obscure film contemporaneous to my early-mid 90s childhood like The Meteor Man (though that was one of the first, nudge nudge Trylon programmers). Instead, it was on television: the Saturday morning animated juggernaut X-Men (pun intended), the live-action primetime family-friendly affair Lois & Clark, and yes, copious daytime reruns of the mid-late 60s comedy caper Batman. These three programs were all ripe with battles with supervillains and characters in colorful costumes, but they each also were their own brand and level of ridiculous camp. Ironically, the cartoon was the most self-serious of the bunch.

Speaking of camp, I had caught glimpses of the Tim Burton caped crusader films at probably too young of an age at this point too, but it wasn’t until much later in the 90s that I was able to really appreciate them, especially after standing in line on opening night for 1995’s Batman Forever, which yet again took the camp knob and calibrated it to alter the mainstream’s expectations of a comic book character’s on-screen adventures, bat nipples and all.

But now I’m straying from the topic at hand (which I could argue is just in the spirit of the haphazard yet vibrantly self-aware feature I will finally begin discussing)—1966’s Batman, which immediately followed the conclusion of the series’ inaugural season. Of course, though both had hordes of kooky geniuses in front of and behind the camera, the number one name synonymous with Gotham’s crimefighter in this particular decade is none other than Adam West. He still ranks, just edging out Will Arnett, as the funniest man to ever play Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, and this is because unlike Keaton, Clooney, Bale, and Affleck (a case can be made for Kilmer — I promise no more Batman Forever references), he has that singular quality of not caring about what others think of him.

“I was a maverick,” Adam West said to the Los Angeles Times in 1966. “I went to five different colleges looking for I don’t know quite what. Teens are mavericks today. I like that. It keeps them from that terrible thing—the herd. I dig their individualness.”[i]

The youth of America yearned for this kind of humble respect from their idols, especially in the first half of 1966. This was the year President Lyndon B. Johnson continued increasing the number of troops sent to Vietnam despite mass protests, Time magazine’s cover story asked “Is God Dead?,” and an alleged Klansman shot activist James Meredith in the midst of his March Against Fear in the South after becoming the first Black student at the otherwise segregated University of Mississippi. It feels dangerous to compare the turbulence of the present to that of the past, but there’s likely a corollary here as we watch another entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe dominate the box office. Yet, for all the homogeneity going on in that unending franchise, Batman (1966) was special because of its own rebellion against the expected. Beyond West’s own maverick persona, this was true also of the film’s entire cast, nearly all of whom are notable in some shape or form, including the first cinematic incarnation of a character that would eventually beget two Oscar wins: Cesar Romero as the Joker.

The Batman villains are assembled around a pole in a colorfully-painted building. The Joker, Catwoman, the Riddler, and Two-Face have worried looks on their faces, or appear to have passed out.

“You can do everything you’ve always been told not to do as an actor,” Romero said in a CBS interview upon the film’s release. “In other words, you can get as hammy as you like.”[ii]

Romero and his stacked ensemble of enemies (which included Lee Meriweather as Catwoman, Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, and Meredith Burgess as Penguin) proved that the bumbling bad guy didn’t have to be one-note (or, if you’re less forgiving of pop art as a genre, at least a wild and bubbly concoction of single notes), and that the ridiculous was just as viable as the earnest. The key to this kind of breezy, hard-to-resist rambunctiousness? Economic efficiency—which is what television was all about, at least in that decade.

“No different,” director Leslie H. Martinson said in response to interviewer Bill Freiburger’s question of the difference between shooting the TV series and the feature. “Twenty-seven days of shooting…and maybe a day of editing. I think I had two cuts I wanted to change.”[iii] Compare this to the campiest MCU flick (and this might be a generous read of “camp”), Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, which took a whopping 17 weeks (119 days!) of filming, three of which were non-consecutive reshoots,[iv] not to mention the nearly 19 additional months spent solely on visual effects post-production.[v] Don’t get me wrong—while I officially quit watching Marvel Studios’ releases on both the big and small screen a while ago, I still have a fondness for Ragnarok in the behemoth interconnected series in particular. But after watching the freewheeling, relatively simple joys of Martinson’s 1966 TV tie-in, I’m not sure all that hullabaloo is needed to tell an effective superhero story. And that’s really the most essential piece of the puzzle—the script.

Batman and Robin are meeting with two representatives of the police force in a primarily brown-shaded office room.

“Just calling Bruce Wayne…the Millionaire Philanthropist,” Batman (1966) screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. said to Jon Dambacher for his yet-to-be-released biography in 2008, “just the fact that you’d refer to anybody like that—if you’re sophisticated it shows immediately—it’s ironic at best.”[vi] Sure, it’s monumentally important that the cast is game, and as implied earlier, everyone truly brings that willingness to break the rules and let loose on set. But even before the camera rolled, it was clear that the absurdist magic all started with Semple, Jr.’s intentionally awkward yet somehow still biting dialogue and unpredictably hilarious narrative beats.

At once as barebones and utilitarian as a generic chocolate bar but also as rich as a decadent layer cake, there’s nothing quite like the first big-screen representation of one of pop culture’s most indelible heroes. And where the plot takes the dynamic duo (Burt Ward’s Robin gets unfairly outshone by so much of the cast, and yet he admirably holds up his end of the moniker) by the end of the film is perhaps the zenith of this absurdity.

“Instead of Batman duking it out with his enemies, he is forced to conduct a scientific experiment which he is clearly ill-equipped for,” Greg Evans of Little White Lies writes. “In the modern context of formulaic superhero films, these inventive quirks are as satisfying as anything that Marvel or DC have provided in recent years.”[vii]

Batman is left-field, yes, but it’s also guaranteed fun. And that’s what the comic book began as—undiluted, if disposable, in terms of artistic value and entertainment. Sometimes, this is exactly what we need rather than a dark, disturbing origin story or a half-emo, half-noir recycled narrative and aesthetic.

I remember the way my eyes lit up when I opened my first issue of Spider-Man at the comic shop in the run-down strip mall. That’s how I feel every time I watch Batman (1966), waiting, with feverish, childlike joy, for Adam West to deadpan, “some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb.” How perfectly ridiculous.


[i] Sylvie Reice, “From the Archives: Adam West interview from 1966: ‘Playing Batman is an actor’s challenge’,” Los Angeles Times, February 13, 1966, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-st-adam-west-batman-20170610-story.html

[ii] Jean Boone, “Interview with Cast of Batman, The Movie (1966),” Texas Archive of the Moving Image, 1966, https://texasarchive.org/2008_00062

[iii] Bill Freiburger, Interview with Leslie H. Martinson, Television Academy Foundation, March 6, 2003, https://interviews.televisionacademy.com/interviews/leslie-h-martinson

[iv] Interview with Noah Vice, “Hammering Out Visual Effects for Marvel Studios’ Thor: Ragnarok,” CGSociety, 2017, https://cgsociety.org/news/article/3670/hammering-out-visual-effects-for-marvel-studios-thor-ragnarok

[v] Alex Leadbeater, “Thor: Ragnarok Has Finished Its Three Weeks Of Reshoots,” ScreenRant, July 22, 2017, https://screenrant.com/thor-3-ragnarok-reshoots-finished/

[vi] Jon Dambacher, “Serious Squareness: an exclusive interview with Lorenzo Semple, Jr. on the creation of TV’s Batman (2008),” Bat-Labels, 2017, https://batlabels.tumblr.com/post/159123906102/serious-squareness-an-exclusive-interview-with

[vii] Greg Evans, “The camp comic genius of Batman: The Movie,” Little White Lies, February 6, 2017, https://lwlies.com/articles/batman-the-movie-adam-west-comic-genius/

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

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