In an episode of the 1960’s Batman TV show entitled “A Piece of the Action / Batman’s Satisfaction,” Batman and Robin meet the Green Hornet and Kato. During this two-part cross-over, Britt Reid (Van Williams) mentions that he and Bruce Wayne (Adam West) have been acquaintances and rivals since childhood. Both were privileged kids of rich families, grew up to be heroic crime fighters, and ended up on TV shows with rabid fan bases.
Both shows were produced and narrated by William Dozier. Both had similar transitions between scenes: The zooming Batman logo atop a swirling background on one, and a zooming Green Hornet symbol atop a similar background on the other. Both featured crime fighting duos, incredible cars, impressive gadgets, and secret hideouts.
The similarities end after that. Batman came first, and its pop art look, bright colors, groovy sets, tilted camera angles, and camp dialogue made it an instant hit. Every Hollywood star wanted to be on the show. Being a guest villain was an instant boost to an actor’s career. The late Eli Wallach, who played Mr. Freeze in a two-part episode, often mentioned that he received more fan mail and autograph requests from Batman than anything else in his career. Adam West, in his iconic costume, made the cover of Life magazine. The “Batusi” became a popular dance that was even performed by John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. Yvonne Craig, who showed up in season three of Batman as Batgirl, became an instant sex symbol, and the show embraced late 1960’s counter-culture and even surrealist art.
In the meantime, The Green Hornet played it all straight. The bright colors were there, but the pop art didn’t extend much further than that. The villains weren’t in lavish costumes (except for some dressed as aliens in the final two episodes). They were usually in nice suits or clothes picked up at a thrift store. The fights weren’t sprinkled with comic book sound effects splashing onto the screen. The fights in The Green Hornet were quick and brutal. The Green Hornet was a brawler. Kato was played by the legendary Bruce Lee. They would enter a room and trash everyone in it in short order.
People who loved the campy, fun, and sometimes trippy Batman episodes weren’t sure what to make of The Green Hornet. Where were the costumed villains? Where was the funny dialogue? TV viewers in the mid-60’s liked tough heroes, but they liked tough heroes like Mannix and the guys from I Spy. They didn’t want their tough heroes to wear masks.
There were things that watchers of The Green Hornet preferred over Batman. Some people liked the lack of goofy cliffhanger endings (although who wouldn’t enjoy seeing Batman and Robin escape from a giant cake with quicksand icing?), the “gritty” feel of the scripts, and the Black Beauty. The Green Hornet’s ride was a tougher car than the Batmobile. I’m not sure which is faster, but no one can deny that the Black Beauty had superior firepower and the toughest driver in the world.
That was Kato, of course, and everyone preferred Bruce Lee’s Kato to Burt Ward’s Robin. Ward was a brown belt in karate at the time of his audition and broke a board during it. Lee, of course, is famous for saying, “Boards don’t hit back.” and could knock a man several feet starting with his fist only an inch from him. Everyone recognized Lee’s panther-like presence right away. His influence on the fight scenes in The Green Hornet made them more thrilling to watch than Batman and Robin fighting the Penguin’s members of the Grand Order of Occidental Nighthawks. Lee’s popularity was so strong that The Green Hornet became known as The Kato Show in Asian markets. Batman, in the meantime, had inspired British kids to jump out windows because they thought they could fly like Adam West.
Batman won the battle in the end. The show lasted three seasons, whereas The Green Hornet only lasted one. Batman is shown in syndication far more than The Green Hornet.
The mid-1960’s were tough times for America. We needed laughter and camp back then to escape the horrors we saw on television from overseas. We didn’t want tough guys cracking the faces of drug dealers, arsonists, and insurance scammers. We wanted to see absolute good triumph over bumbling evil. Batman gave it to us. The Green Hornet was too good too soon.
Which show do you prefer, or think was better in the long run? Sound off in the comments or send us your thoughts on Twitter!