Even if you know what to expect, watching 1966’s Batman: The Movie today is shocking. After years of being pummelled with serious, gritty, big-budget superhero spectacles, it’s hard to fathom a film as innocent and self-aware as the one based on the popular TV show. Everyone involved is so game for silliness, so excited by the wild ideas, so absolutely aware this is complete nonsense, that the result is not just a time-capsule of another era in comic book movie history, but a reminder of why comic book movies are great in the first place.
Released July 30, 1966, Batman: The Movie — directed by Leslie H. Martinson and written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. — came out between the first and second seasons of the hit TV show, which itself ran three seasons, from 1966 to 1968. I wasn’t born until 1980 so, obviously, it wasn’t something I was aware of until decades later. But growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, especially with the Tim Burton Batman films rejuvenating interest in the character, the original show was on TV a lot. And I watched it a lot. And, eventually, I saw the movie.
But that was probably the last time I saw it before this week to celebrate its 55th anniversary. Of course, I carried not just a nostalgia for the show, but many more decades of superhero baggage, into the viewing. Which is important to mention here because, holy crap. I knew Batman: The Movie was going to be campy — the show is campy, the memes and pop culture references from the movie (the bomb, the shark, etc.) are campy, I had prepared myself for campy — but it went way beyond even that.
In Batman: The Movie, Adam West and Burt Ward star as Batman and Robin, as well as their alter-egos Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. But instead of fighting just one supervillain — like they would on TV each week — their four biggest adversaries team up against them: Penguin (Burgess Meredith), Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), Joker (Cesar Romero), and Riddler (Frank Gorshin).
That alone is movie-worthy and a nice level up from what you’d get on TV. From there the plot is, well, almost too elaborate to explain. Basically, the villains — who call themselves United Underworld — have an overly complex plan to take over the world, which Batman and Robin continue to foil. The whole thing plays out a bit disjointed, with the movie almost mirroring a TV show as the villains set up elaborate schemes only to be foiled again and again, with the bigger picture lingering in the background.
Anyone watching a regular movie with a plot that was this convoluted and filled with this many tangents, would probably just dismiss it. The beauty of Batman: The Movie is that it’s made with such joy, it’s entertaining anyway. You can’t help but DC marvel at the absurdity of everything happening driven by the elevated performances of all the villains. Because make no mistake, while West and Ward are great as Batman and Robin, it’s the villains who make the movie so fantastic, much as they do on the show.
Whether it’s the distinct, gleeful laughs of Riddler or Joker, the way Catwoman always rolls her R’s in a “purr,” or Penguin’s…everything, all of it is an absolutely delight. Then there’s the fact that they’re all so, so bad at being supervillains. Seriously, every hair-brained scheme is too elaborate, every chance at killing Batman and Robin takes way too long, every riddle way too obtuse to actually be linked to anything. But the actors are all so engrossed in these characters, all of it works.
If everyone in the film wasn’t buying into how ludicrous everything was, there’s no way it would work; like the opening sequence where Batman is hanging from a ladder on the Batcopter and a shark bites him, so he asks Robin to bring him the Bat-Shark Repellent spray they just so happen to have. Or how that spray, along with everything, everywhere, is labelled perfectly, even inside their own home.
Or how Robin and Alfred follow Bruce out on a date and have a perfectly framed camera on him at all times and get uncomfortable when he starts nuzzling. Or when the four deadliest villains in the world are standing in a room with a huge gun and no one notices. Seriously, you could go on and on describing all of the unfathomably ridiculous scenarios that happen in the movie and you’d never get bored.
Which, of course, is the point. This isn’t a movie to be taken seriously. Batman running around with a lit bomb and continually finding people or things in his way that won’t let him get rid of it isn’t meant to be dramatic. It’s meant to be funny. The whole movie puts the “comic” in “comic book.” All the over-the-top absurdity, ineptitude, completely impossible things that happen, are there on purpose to make you revel in their hilarity. When Batman and Robin just so happen to crash into a foam rubber convention, it’s so beyond the scope of reality that you have to love it.
Basically, every scene is like that on some level. Batman fighting on a submarine holding a cat. He and Robin just happening to own a Super Molecular Dust Separator to put the world leaders back together again. The multiple shots of Bruce Wayne clicking the Instant Costume Change Lever. That Bruce and Dick wear their costumes even when they’re alone. The out-of-place stock footage of different countries waiting for Batman and Robin to revive their world leaders. Truly, watching Batman: The Movie after a long time away was akin to standing on a beach and wave after wave of wild, funny things crashing over me again and again.
It’s not like anything a modern audience would be able to stand in terms of characters of this stature. Christoper Nolan’s Batman movies or Todd Phillips’ Joker are so far removed that to put them in the same category is almost a disservice to them all. But I’m glad they all exist and I’m glad this incredible palate cleanser of stupidity is something that, after over half a century, still works its boy wonders.
- Though the movie is only 100 minutes long, I feel like a good 10-15 minutes could’ve been cut from some of the bigger budget scenes — mainly those involving the Batcopter and Batboat. Each is undeniably cool but we don’t need two minutes of flying or zipping across the water every time we see them.
- Oh, also cut out the torpedoes being shot from Penguins’s submarine. There are so many scenes of torpedoes being shot from Penguin’s submarine and five people need to approve it each time. It’s excruciating.
- Also, cut the entire subplot where Penguin dresses as a human and goes back to the Batcave. It’s like a 10 minutes scene that’s there only to set up how the de-hydrator gun works, but we’ve already seen how it works, and it goes on forever with zero payoff.
- You could also shave a few minutes off if the villains didn’t celebrate every time they think they killed Batman and Robin. It happens a lot.
- If these villains wanted to do some damage, maybe they should use those rockets they’re very, very good at shooting to kill people instead of exploding into clouds that spell out riddles.
- The scenes of Adam West as Bruce Wayne are interesting in that they show him struggling with the secret identity, which adds some depth to the film, but also just how much more comfortable West seems as Batman instead of Bruce. The Bruce scenes are all very, very awkward.
- Everything in the film is obviously dated but few things are as bad as the headlines when Bruce Wayne is kidnapped. They read “ Bruce Wayne and Girl Companion Kidnapped” followed by “Attractive Girl Friend Seized in Brazen Snatch.” Glad she was just his companion and her looks were more important to mention than anything else. But hey, it was the 1960s, which is basically what you can say about the entire movie.