Thursday, July 12, 2012

Batman-a-thon Part 1: Batman (1966)

[These links will become active as the blogs are written: Batman '89, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), Batman Awards Blog]

The Silver Age of Comic Books holds an interesting place in the hearts of comic fans.

Older fans remember it as the days when many of the current heroes - Justice League of America, the Avengers, Spider-Man, the Barry Allen Flash and Hal Jordan Green Lantern, etc. - either were created or really took off. It's the era where science really replaced magic as the dominant theme of plot.

Younger fans, however, look at it also as the era where books stayed well within the Comics Code Authority's restrictions. Storylines were completely insane or implausible (even for the universe they took place in) and campiness was inserted into characters who had once been dark and demented.

As such, there is a divide over how to look back on the Batman TV series of the 1960s, starring Adam West and Burt Ward as the Dynamic Duo.

It's hard to believe a show can be derided for its campy, patently surreal nature while also being so instrumental to the Batman Universe.

Not only did the show provide a much-needed spike to the declining sales at the time, but it led to the creation and recreation of so many parts of the character (Barbara Gordon being Batgirl, Mr. Zero being renamed Mr. Freeze, just to name a few notable examples).

I myself became a Batman fan not through the Animated Series (which aired when I was getting into cartoons), but through reruns of the 60s series. Maybe it's just me (and Grant Morrison), but I consider the goofy side of Batman to be just as much a part of the Batman mythos as the brooding side.

Granted, numerous universe-altering crossover events have stripped much of those storylines away, I still understand its importance enough that I believe I can give a somewhat more objective view on the 1966 film, Batman.

Now, to differentiate this film from the 1989 version of the same name, I will call that one Batman and I'll call this one Batman Prime, as it was the original non-serial, live action Bat-flick.

This film, airing between the first and second season of the show, starts off with the Duo getting a tip that someone needs to be rescued in the ocean. This turns out to be a trap set by the four (yes, four!) villains in this film: the team of the Joker (Cesar Romero), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith) and Catwoman (normally Julie Newmar, but played by Lee Meriweather in this film).

The trap leads to the scene this film is known for: Batman descends into the water and is attacked by a shark, which thrashes unconvincingly on his leg like the rubber shark it clearly is. He then is forced to use his Shark Repelling Bat-spray to get it off. That's right, folks. Batman's contingency plans and prep time have allowed him to invent Bat-Shark Repellent.

THAT is the power or prep-time people! OK, so this was stupid and ridiculous when it was being written, but the fact is, this is what the Silver Age was. (See: Alien mutant corn spraying acid at Batman and Robin).

The thing is, for all of this madness, this feels epic. Four of Batman's greatest enemies teaming up, and honestly, they all put out great performances.

I still say that Penguin and Catwoman have been defined by their actors in this series, and though Meriweather is not as good as Newmar, she is a damn close second.

My only gripe is that of the four, the Joker got the least amount of play. The Riddler teased Batman with his riddles, Penguin was the mastermind, Catwoman was the James Bond-esque romantic interest/double agent. And Joker, well...

He was the Silver Age Joker.

Not that it's necessarily bad, and Cesar Romero stole any scene he was given the chance to laugh. However, he did so little that was of consequence it was clear they didn't have much of a plan for him.

He was very much like Hawkeye in the Avengers film. He was there because the plot only makes sense with him, but he never had a point where he was the focus. Joker was the "funny one" in this film, and he did it well. I just wish he had gotten to really execute something on his own and not just bounce off the others.

Anyway, the plan for the Crime Syndicate is that they want to use a dehydration machine to turn the U.N. stand-in's leaders to dust (It's the Silver Age, just go with it.) and hold them for ransom.

They test the machine on five henchmen, and Penguin poses as a victim to enter the Batcave for testing, where he unleashes the henchmen.

I'll say, that plan is actually brilliant. Sadly, it goes nowhere as the henchmen are revived with hard water instead of soft, turning the men into anti-matter. (If you bought the science that caused this, can you really complain about the side effects?)

Actually, both the Penguin and Catwoman have moments of brilliance here. Catwoman posing as Soviet journalist Miss Kitka and leading Bruce Wayne into a trap was done nearly perfectly, and I actually felt for Batman when Catwoman's mask falls off and he realizes the girl he started to fall for was a lie all along.

(Sidenote: How is it that THIS is the film whose romance felt the least forced? It seems like the less brooding you make Batman, the better chance you have of making the romance scenes not suck.)

So, the Duo makes it into the submarine for the final battle, but not before falling out of the sky into a pile of rubber and solving two of the strangest riddles ever.

They find the dehydrated leaders and Robin suggests that in order to promote peace, they alter them to not be so stubborn; however, Batman tells him that it is not their place to alter free will.

Unfortunately, the piles were not re-separated properly, and the leaders are revived in the bodies of other leaders. (Don't you hate it when you get dehydrated and then are revived in the wrong body?)

Batman does not think that trying to fix the situation would be safe for the leaders, knowing that a small mistake could reduce them to antimatter, and he hopes that the mixing of minds helps the world somehow, leaving before the inevitable angry mobs from these nations come to start a riot.

Overall, I have a lot of fun watching this film. It does what a comic book movie should do: entertain the audience.

Yes, it's insane. Yes, Adam West and Burt Ward's monologues and bizarre tangents are hilariously serious. Yes, even the actors had to make fun of insane situations (such as the 3-4 minutes where Batman is running around the docks with an already detonating bomb). And I LOVE every minute of it.

This film does one thing that no other Batman film can claim. It is an exact replica of the comic. If you ever tried to imagine a Silver Age comic coming to life and being done in Hollywood, this is the film you would see.

No other Bat-flick was as true to its source era as this one was. Whether that era translates to the big screen or should have representation in cinema is another discussion entirely.

So for all of its absolute madness and critique, it deserves credit for doing something epic that no other Batman movie can claim: It used more than two villains, heck, it took the four A-list villains of its era, and made a legitimately entertaining film with a feel of high stakes.

Those who think this feels like a defense may be right. But the fact is, we know what is wrong with the film. I want to show that there was a lot right with it as well.

For being true to the character of the era, having real action and a compelling romance (how it did that, I still have no idea) Batman Prime gets 3 out of 4 stars from me and a 7.6 out of 10.

Stay tuned for the film that got Batman back to non-print prominence, Batman (1989).

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