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BAM! POW! The Cultural Relevance of Batman: The Movie

Long before Christian Bale’s throat-cancer growling Dark Knight or Michael Keaton’s quiet intensity in the cape and cowl, we had Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin. Fifty years ago, Batman: The Movie was released subsequent to the end of the first season of the counterpart TV show. While not the first iteration of Batman in the media, this was the launch of the character into the mainstream conscious. The recent versions of Batman in film depict him as dark and brooding and…dark and brooding. West’s rendition was the antithesis of that: a colorful, zany costumed figure who brought pop art aesthetic to a character who was intended to be an avenger of the night.

Most Batman fans cringe at the thought of this Batman and would rather pretend it didn’t happen. While the internet has spent months debating the fact that Batman kills in Batman v. Superman and how that is character assassination, Batman in the 1966 version pretty much broke every rule: Batman goes out during the day, he doesn’t even attempt to intimidate anyone, and the mythos surrounding the character is nonexistent. Batman is hardly the world’s greatest detective as Robin and him get outsmarted at every turn. It’s a superhero film planted firmly in camp, embracing the tongue-in-cheek quality to the fullest extent.

Today we are spoiled with superheroes existing in the biggest tent-pole blockbusters, but we even have an array of superhero TV shows. DC has created their own universe with shows like The FlashArrow, and now Supergirl, while Marvel has a home at Netflix with top notch quality like DaredevilJessica Jones, and Luke Cage, coinciding with the MCU movies. It might be worth noting that some of the other shows of the time of the Batman series were BewitchedI Dream of Jeannie, and Gilligan’s Island. Going for a bright, humor-filled take was a way of competing with the other popular shows and the movie was simply capitalizing on the success of the show. This was an era when superheroes and comic books appealed to a niche audience, therefore removing most of the comic book lore seemed the right approach for adapting Batman to the small screen. Since there was no internet for fanboys to complain about comic accuracy, this approach to Batman was welcomed. Many had never heard the name “Batman” before so there was no point of comparison.

Looking at the movie retrospectively, it seems much more a spoof of James Bond than Batman. The film came out in the midst of Sean Connery’s 007 success, just one year after Thunderball. When Batman isn’t scaling the sides of buildings with Robin, he’s traveling in his Batcopter, his Batboat, his Batcycle and, of course, his convertible Batmobile. As Batman climbs a rope ladder of a helicopter, a shark hangs onto his leg becoming more of a problem than the actual criminals. A subplot in the movie involves Bruce Wayne falling in love with Miss Kitka (who is actually Catwoman). Wayne in a tuxedo with a mysterious beauty is an immediate call to Connery’s Bond, just minus the sensuality.

Perhaps the most iconic scene is Batman faced with the conundrum of trying to get rid of a bomb in public. He races along a boardwalk, faced with a marching band, a couple sitting in a boat, and a family of ducks all nearby. It’s topped with the ultimate line of dialogue, “Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb!” It’s clear this film feels no obligation in representing the creation of Bob Kane and Bill Finger. From Robin’s “Holy (insert reference) Batman!” to the “BAM! ZAP!” title cards that highlight the fights, the film is more than aware of its own goofiness. But the film is not without its pros: Cesar Romero is fun as the Joker, Lee Meriwether is a feisty Catwoman, and, in fact, this is possibly the only live-action superhero film to pull off a group of supervillains without it feeling bloated.

Assessing all of the comic book films we now have, Batman: The Movie fits right alongside Joel Schumacher’s attempts at the character. The irreverence to the source material is inoffensive as the movie is really not trying to say anything. The overall playful tone is more enjoyable as soon as you accept the joke. You could say this one-joke idea works better as a singular film than an ongoing series. It’s an entertaining jab at a character that has become a pop culture icon. And perhaps we should be thankful this incarnation of Batman exists. It brought Batman into the commercial scene and allowed us to get the 18 we’ve seen when filmmakers like Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan are given their chance.

What do you think of Batman: The Movie? Is it a fun spoof or a complete disgrace? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!

About the author

James Leggett