Batman is a faithful movie adaptation of the hugely successful live-action TV series, which for most of 1966 had been a genuine pop culture phenomenon comparable to the James Bond craze and Beatlemania, and almost unique for a TV show before or since. The Batman movie, filmed in the late Spring of '66 and released that August, between the end of the first season and premiere of the second, is cheaply made and overlong but also colorful and very funny at times. It's also representative of the TV series in just about every way - a good thing for fans since the much-desired TV show has long been unavailable on home video due to seemingly unresolvable rights issues.
Fox's Blu-ray accurately captures the look of the film's theatrical appearance: lots of bright, primary colors and comic book panel-style oblique angles, but the high-def image also accentuates its low budget: it looks very much like a TV show inexpensively brought to the big screen. The disc is packed with extras, many carried over from the August 2001 Special Edition DVD, but there's some new high-def material as well as a DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio mix. All told, it's worth the upgrade.
The story is relatively simple, far too simple to justify its 105-minute running time: Commodore Schmidlapp (Reginald Denny) is kidnapped - along with his fantastic new invention, a "Total Dehydrator" - by the United Underworld, an uneasy alliance of Gotham City's most notorious villains: The Joker (Cesar Romero), The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), The Riddler (Frank Gorshin), and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether, replacing an unavailable Julie Newmar from the TV series).
As Bruce Wayne/Batman (Adam West) and his ward Dick Grayson/Robin (Bruce Ward) inch toward finding the villains' lair and uncovering their dastardly plot, Bruce and his alter-ego fall for a Russian journalist from the Moscow Bugle (love that name!), Miss Kitka, actually Catwoman in disguise. Meanwhile, the villains come up with a plan to lure Batman into a trap, using a kidnapped millionaire as bait - Bruce Wayne! Oh bitter irony.
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Like the TV show, the movie reaches two very different audiences at once: kids were attracted to the comic book elements while adults appreciated its deliberately campy humor. This sort of thing is rarely attempted in television (Captain Nice, When Things Were Rotten, etc.) and Batman may be the only series to have successfully pulled it off.
Many people were responsible for Batman's success, but the biggest share must go to star Adam West, without whom the show probably wouldn't have worked. Other actors could have played Robin, and some of the villains were played by different actors over the show's three seasons. But West was the perfect match for this Batman: there is an earnestness in his consistently hilarious performance that only Neil Hamilton's Commissioner Gordon comes close to matching. (Hamilton was an excellent "straight man" on this series and a fine actor late in life; by 1966, he had been making films for nearly half a century. See his appearance in the The Outer Limits episode "The Invisibles" as an example of his diversity.)
Handicapped by a cowl that severely restricted his facial expressions, West relied on a funny clipped speech, constantly adjusting its speed. Like Fred Astaire's dancing, West makes something extremely complex seem easy and natural, but that precise type of delivery had to have required hours upon hours of thought and preparation: it's a masterwork of comic timing.
In the movie, one also has a new appreciation for his talent as a physical comedian. The scene everyone remembers succeeds largely due to West's funny, frantic movements: Batman darts around a pier with a lit bomb the size of a basketball, vainly trying to dispose of the thing before it explodes. In every direction is an obstacle, however: a group of nuns, lovers in a rowboat, a Salvation Army brass band, a family of ducks. Again, though hindered by a head-to-toe costume that would seem to limit most expression, West somehow conveys Batman's sense of urgency, panic, and controlled frustration. For that gem of a scene alone, Batman is worth watching. (Interestingly, West doesn't simply play Bruce Wayne as Batman unmasked, but in a much less stylized manner. I wonder if this was deliberate, or if wearing the costume somehow inspired him.)
The rest of the film is hit-and-miss. Some ideas are quite funny: when the Batcopter is struck by one of The Riddler's Polaris missiles, sending it crashing to earth, Batman and Robin are saved by an enormous pile of foam rubber - an outdoor display at the Foam Rubber Wholesalers Convention. ("I'd say the odds against it would make even the most reckless gambler cringe," Batman says.) However, the picture makes the mistake of shooting its wad in the first half-hour. During that time everything there is to see is shown: the Bat Cave, the Batmobile, the four villains and their submarine, as well as several new gadgets, the aforementioned Batcopter and Batboat. After that the film becomes rather serial-like in its extreme repetitiveness. Almost every scene drags on way too long; had it been fine-tuned to 70-75 minutes instead of 105, it might have become a classic '60s comedy instead of the kind of footnote it's become.
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The picture probably erred in teaming its four most popular (rogues gallery of) villains, and this might even have contributed to the TV show's decline soon thereafter. It smells of desperation, the same kind of thing that prompted Frankenstein to meet the Wolfman and Dracula and so on back in the 1940s. A better script might have concentrated on one villain with others making cameo appearances. Romero and Meredith are a delight as The Joker and The Penguin (and, for my money, far more enjoyable than Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito were later on), and Meriwether is pretty sexy as Catwomen, though no one ever fit that cat-suit quite as curvaceously as Julie Newmar. The real delight though is watching Frank Gorshin's totally insane performance as the wild-eyed, manic Riddler, like Kirk Douglas (who Gorshin often impersonated) after downing a cocktail of crack and amphetamines.
The picture reportedly cost $1,377,000 million to make. That's cheap by 1966 standards but I suspect the film may have cost even less, and that a lot of the budget went to studio overhead.* 20th Century-Fox was in dire shape at the time and a Batman movie was a low-cost, sure-fire way to generate some revenue. The cast was inexpensive, the major sets were already standing, the costumes already fitted, etc., and even a lot of the "new" stuff looks borrowed from other Fox properties. The Penguin's submarine, for instance, looks pilfered from spare parts off the Voyage to the Bottom of Sea set, another Fox series.
Director Leslie H. Martinson was one of these traffic cop directors along the lines of Gordon Douglas or Norman Taurog. He doesn't bring much in the way of a personal style to the film but that's okay; that the film is no better or worse than the TV show is neither his fault nor is it a bad thing. About the only thing completely new to the film are its colorful opening titles, which had 1966 youngsters knocking their knees with excitement. Designed by Richard Kuhn, they may have been influenced by Rialto Film's Edgar Wallace movies coming out of West Germany at the same time. It may be coincidental, but they do look quite alike.
Video & Audio
Filmed for 1.85:1 projection with Color by Deluxe and released monophonic, Fox's 1080p Blu-ray of Batman (like 1978's Superman, "the Movie" is only in the advertising/packaging, not onscreen) is 1.78:1 widescreen and supplements the mono track with one remixed for DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio. The new mix enhances the audio without artificially overpowering it. There are some nice directional sound effects now and Nelson Riddle's score sounds better than ever.
Visually, the movie looks about as good as it can. You'd think Fox would DNR it to death to make it look even more like a comic book but, thankfully, they left this one alone. A pleasing level of grain is present, and happily it looks like film throughout. (I saw this in 35mm about 10-12 years ago and this presentation seems comparable.) Watching it in high-def, one can appreciate the subtleties in the paint and design of Batman's cowl (not discernable on the TV show), and the clever design of the some of the familiar sets (especially the Batcave) and costumes (especially the four villains).
Included are four new featurettes, all in 1080p high-def: Batman: A Dynamic Legacy (28 minutes), Gotham City's Most Wanted (16 minutes), and Caped Crusaders: A Heroes Tribute (12 minutes), The Batmobile Revealed (with George Barris). Unlike the older features which incorporate Adam West and Burt Ward, the first three are more fan appreciations, from comic book artists, pop culture historians, and other industry types who became fascinated with the show and movie when they were kids. It's a valid approach that works most of the time, but it incongruously slips in new interview material with actress Meriwether, screenwriter Semple, and (93-year-old!) director Martinson that really doesn't fit, entertaining though it is. Also with these types of things, I'd rather see 10 minutes of really strong, interesting and entertaining material than four longish shows stretched to an hour. A lot like the movie, come to think of it.
Also new to this high-def version is a really wonderful Batman on Location: Mapping the Movie which incorporates Blu-ray Java technology to bring the viewers bits of trivia via an interactive map, including a function that identifies locations complete with directions to places like Wayne Manor (in Pasadena) and Bronson Caverns (take note, visitors to Southern California) and even stage numbers of the various sets. It's a fun feature worth toodling around with for a while, though perhaps not the entire length of the movie. Also in high-def is a 360-degree Interactive Tour with the Batmobile, and three highly amusing trailers (one is an older SD trailer that's full frame) which feature original material not in the movie. A high-def Still Gallery is both welcome and impressively extensive, pulling all manner of publicity material from Fox's archives, as well as Adam West's own personal collection. An isolated score track in DTS-HD MA (lossless) is also included, another welcome addition.
Older features (all in standard-def, where applicable) include a very entertaining and informative 2001 featurette with West and Ward; equally entertaining audio commentaries, the first with West and Ward, the other with Semple. Of less interest is a repetitive Holy Trivia Track, Batman! the kind of thing one impatiently wades through for a while before giving up on it.
The movie Batman isn't as good as you'd want it to be, but in its way far superior to the ludicrously over-hyped Batman movies of the 1980s and '90s. The Blu-ray disc offers a fine if not quite eye-popping presentation and the extras are plentiful and rewarding. Highly Recommended.
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* Cheap movie adaptations of popular TV shows were quite common in the mid-1960s. Also in theaters around that time: McHale's Navy and McHale's Navy Joins the Air Force, Munster Go Home!, and the two Doctor Who movies made in England. In some markets, Batman was paired with another TV spin-off, A Man Called Flintstone.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, The Toho Studios Story, is on sale now.