Before Capes Were Cool #9: Batman (1966) vs. Batman & Robin (1997)

For years and years, superhero fans hated the Adam West Batman TV show. And then one day, all of a sudden, they didn’t anymore. Funnily enough, the show had been extremely faithful to the comics as they had existed at that time: they adapted villains1 and sometimes even actual stories from the comics; they rendered the onomatopoeic sound effects on the screen; the unusual markings on Batman’s mask were, in fact, extremely literal representations of the way Batman’s mask was drawn at the time.

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But, of course, it was satirical. Producer William Dozier did not respect the source material; he didn’t think there was anything much of value to Batman except the potential for parody. So he made the show a gag for hip audiences in on the joke. It was a Warhol-esque reframing of trash into art. It was campy.2 And the crux of the humor was: superheroes are silly.

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It’s quite possible that without Batman the show, Batman the character might not be what he is today, 3 because for decades, the comics largely defined Batman in contrast to Adam West’s portrayal. Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams brought Batman back to his leaner, grittier roots to move him away from Adam West, and the 1970s saw Robin sent away to college and stately Wayne Manor traded for a downtown penthouse to further distinguish the portrayals. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One cemented the portrayal of Batman as a dark, brutal loner as the “correct” one, and fans breathed a sigh of relief when the 1989 Batman film turned out to be haunted roller coaster of a Tim Burton film rather than a post-Reagan-era update of the ‘60s show, as many had feared when Michael Keaton was cast. Batman was cool in the ‘90s, and fans who had read too many ‘POW! SPLAT! COMIC CONVENTION OPENS TODAY” newspaper headlines hoped that Batman might finally be able to escape the shadow of Adam West.

Then came Batman & Robin in 1997. This movie is the way it is because Batman Returns had not made as much as Batman, and Joel Schumacher had already won over audiences with a less intense, colorful direction in 1995’s Batman Forever—which, more importantly, made a fortune in marketing. Warner Bros. made the call to do Batman Forever, But Morseo!, and Schumacher obliged. And in trying to find a lighter tone that would sell toys and lunch boxes, it makes sense that Schumacher would harken back to a model that had sold toys and lunch boxes thirty years earlier. Batman & Robin was, in a very superficial way, the updated Adam West show fans had feared in 1989, and fans savagely criticized the film. How dare they undermine the credibility of the Batman character just as he had finally won over skeptical mainstream audiences! People were going to think Batman was silly again!

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Then, the Christopher Nolan trilogy happened, and I think around this time, the fan resistance to the Adam West Batman started to thaw. 2008’s The Dark Knight was a financial and critical smash, surpassing even Batman ’89 in cultural impact. I suspect that the fans felt they had finally “won.” Warner Bros. had made a Batman movie that some people seriously considered as a Best Picture contender. Combined with the general post-2000 mainstream success and viability of the superhero movie, I think fans who had felt they had to fiercely protect and defend Batman during years of derision began to feel less knee-jerk self-righteousness; drunk off the success of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, they could afford to allow other modes of Batman into their hearts. By 2013, DC was publishing a Batman ’66 comic, and it was okay again in fan circles to proclaim your love for the old show.

The internet, being ever puckish and increasingly hungry for hot takes, began to posit a new notion: what if Batman & Robin was also actually good all along? Now that Batman fans had lightened the hell up already, maybe it was time to admit that the 1997 movie and the ‘60s TV show were two sides of the same coin, just innocent victims of ghastly ’90s nerds who cried foul at anything that smacked of heresy to The Miller Batman.

But here’s the thing: Batman ’66 really is brilliant and wonderful, and Batman & Robin really is garbage. But why? Like any TV show, Batman had its ups and downs, so for the purposes of comparison, we’ll use the 1966 movie released between the show’s first two seasons.

Like many of the show’s best episodes, the movie was written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., who seemed to best grasp the potential of the series. The secret of the show’s success—and it’s the thing that is obvious to fans of the show but totally eludes people who know it only by reputation—is that it is absurd, but at it’s best it’s straightfaced absurdity. To put it another way, the audience understands that what they are watching is funny, but within the world of the movie, it is deadly serious. For example, the conclusions that Batman and Robin arrive at in response to the Riddler’s clues4 are humorously ridiculous. And yet: their conclusions are invariably true within the logic of the movie. “It happened at sea…C for Catwoman!” would be dopey, but dang it all if they’re not absolutely right! Or take the famous shark-repellant spray. It’s absurd that Batman is just carrying this and a series of similar canisters in his Bat-Copter. And yet: Batman does end up needing it, and it does work. This is not a movie about how Batman is a ridiculous freak; it’s about a super-competent individual who operates in a ridiculous world.

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There just isn’t the same care there in the script for Batman & Robin. Take, for example, the infamous scene where Batman produces a sort of Bat-Credit Card. This credit card doesn’t really work in the logic of the movie the way Shark-Repellant Bat-Spray does in its movie. You see the spray do what it’s supposed to do; it’s very clear cut. The credit card…like, does the Schumacher Batman actually charge things while operating as Batman? But beyond that, while Batman ’66 does not announce its jokes, Batman & Robin adds a non-diegetic cha-ching sound effect, zooms in on a card that lists its expiration as “GOOD THRU: FOREVER” to make a joke about the previous movie’s title, and has Batman crack, “Don’t leave the cave without it.” This is a movie that is constantly elbowing you to make sure you get its jokes; this is more in the wheelhouse of what we would expect from the (Genre) Movie parody series.

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But what really sells Batman ’66 is the performances, and again it’s for the same reason as the writing: complete deadpan. Adam West invests Batman with such gravity in his ridiculousness that fans used to claim that he didn’t understand that the show was supposed to be funny. But on the contrary: West played the role so well, he fooled you, jackass! He understood that anything less than total commitment to the moment would wreck the illusion. The thing wouldn’t work if he winked to the camera, if it was clear he was just goofing around. Batman gives you all the fun of watching an earnestly made dumb movie, except the movie is actually cleverly crafted.

But to give you a real sense of why the actors in this movie work, take a look at the scene where Batman talks to an admiral on the phone about having sold a surplus submarine to “P.N. Guin.” 5 The admiral is played by the one guy in the movie who didn’t get the memo about the tone. He’s a big, bouncy cartoon that seems to be played with a wink. The way he says, “HELLO, BATMAN,” in that loud, broad voice. He is not taking it seriously. He wants you to know that he knows it’s a joke, and it makes the whole scene not work.

Now in Batman & Robineverybody is that admiral. Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy is particularly difficult to take, especially compared to the Lee Merriwether Catwoman. Merriwether is a solid badass in this movie, vampy and over-the-top but committed. When a henchman calls her Catwoman, she slaps him; “Imbiciles! How often have I told you never to use my real name!” That’s a joke to us, of course, but she is deadly intensity when she says it; it’s true in the world of the movie. Merriwether is acting. There is, for all its absurdity, a character there. Thurman, by contrast…Thurman is a good actress who gives the distinct impression of slumming it. There’s no character, it’s just her saying her lines loudly the way she remembers actresses in bad old movies saying their lines. She is playing a supervillain the way you would play a supervillain on Saturday Night Live, where there’s a wink to let the audience know we’re just goofin’ around here.

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What I am getting to is the ultimate open secret about Batman ’66, and the reason why its outright mockery of superhero tropes gets a pass where other comic book adaptations that are about as contemptuous of their source material don’t: it is possible to watch the movie and show as serious. As a very young child, I loved both this movie and the 1989 Batman and watched them both on VHS. I had to be told that Batman ’66 was a comedy. I mean, I knew there were jokes (“Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”) but even (what we perceived at the time as) the very serious Tim Burton Batman had some levity. Every comedic choice in Batman ’66 relies on you the audience to realize that a joke is being made; there is no cash register sound effect to signal “We made a joke!” It trusts the sophisticated adult audience to recognize absurdity, and as a result, a less sophisticated kid like me who took everything at face value still got an engaging narrative from it.

HERO/VILLAIN/SIDEKICK/ANTIHERO: Hero

POSTSCRIPT: Anyway, as long as I’ve got you here, let’s talk about the villains of Batman ’66.

Lee Merriwether, as I’ve said, is doing legitimate great supervillain work here. And it’s worth noticing that while the Penguin seems to be the nominal mastermind of the evil scheme, Catwoman really seems to be the leader. She takes control when they fight; she demeans them when they get off-track. It’s a shame Merriwether is often forgotten because of Julie Newmar’s and Eartha Kitt’s better-known performances.

Burgess Meredith is exactly the Penguin of the comics. To this day, when I see the Penguin in a comic, I default to hearing his voice.

Caesar Romero is great, although ironically, the Joker is possibly the least menacing villain in the film.

Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, I maintain, is doing almost as much capital-A acting as Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. There are legitimate choices he is making in this movie. Unusual pauses, sudden swings from intensity to levity, idiosyncratic body language. In particular, watch him sometime when he’s not actually saying any lines. You can see his character thinking.

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NEXT WEEK: Lorenzo Semple, Jr.’s other camp comic book masterpiece, Flash Gordon.