As modern interpretations of the Batman character grow increasingly dark and grim and morose, I find myself drawn back toward older adaptations of the comic book hero, especially those that didn’t take the idea of a guy who dresses up in a bat costume to fight a clown so damn seriously. The 1966 Batman: The Movie, spun off from the comedic television series that debuted the same year, is entirely light and silly and willfully dumb. It’s also perfectly delightful.
The Batman series premiered on ABC in January of 1966 with an unusual release schedule airing new half-hour episodes twice a week, one each on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The show reveled in broad camp, with stars Adam West and Burt Ward delivering hilariously earnest deadpan performances against a rotating cast of guest stars hamming it up to heart’s content as over-the-top villains. The Pop Art-inspired visual design and goofy slapstick antics struck a chord with young audiences. The show was enormously popular right out of the gate, enough so that 20th Century Fox greenlit a feature film spinoff to rush into production for a quickie theatrical release shortly after the first season finished on TV.
|Title:||Batman: The Movie|
|Year of Release:||1966|
|Director:||Leslie H. Martinson|
|Also Available On:||Various VOD rental and purchase platforms|
Batman: The Movie is, essentially, an extended episode of the TV show. Aside from a slight increase in exterior location footage, the film looks just as (deliberately) cheap and chintzy as the series. It was shot on most of the same sets by the same cast and crew working with not much more money. Almost all of the most famous hallmarks of the series are replicated, from the breathless voiceover narrator to the POW!! WAP! BIFF!!! pop-up exclamations over the big fight at the end. The script is loaded with absurdities and important story points happen off-screen whenever the production didn’t have enough budget to film them.
The plot finds costumed crimefighters Batman and Robin – notably identified as fully deputized agents of the law, not at all vigilantes – facing off against a team-up of Gotham City’s four most diabolical super-criminals: The Joker (Cesar Romero), The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), The Riddler (Frank Gorshin), and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether subbing in for the TV show’s Julie Newmar). The reprehensible reprobates have concocted an elaborate and ludicrous plan to plunge the world into chaos. First, Catwoman will pose as a Russian journalist and seduce millionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne, then use him as bait to lure Batman into a trap. This will somehow facilitate the villains in kidnapping the entire United World Security Council by means of a fantastical dehydrator ray gun that will reduce the members to very colorful piles of ash until re-hydrated with tap water later. A vanishing yacht, a penguin-themed submarine that launches Polaris missiles for the explicit purpose of skywriting riddles that Batman must solve, and a never-seen exploding octopus also factor into the scheme.
No, none of this makes a whit of sense, nor should it. The movie, like the show, amounts to a bunch of loopy nonsense presented with half a straight face. The opening action set-piece has Batman fighting a clearly-rubber shark that he fends off with a can of Shark Repellent Bat Spray he conveniently had on hand. One of my favorite running gags in both the series and film involves Batman’s obsessive compulsion to label every gadget in his arsenal in placards with large letters.
Despite being released at the height of ’60s Batmania, the film was only a moderate box office success in the summer of 1966. It grossed a little under $4 million, just enough to turn a profit from its meager production budget but certainly not the smash hit the producers hoped for. Audiences of the day were not accustomed to paying theater ticket prices for something they felt they could get on TV for free. To be honest, they may have had a point. The movie doesn’t offer much that the television series couldn’t already provide, beyond showcasing all four of Batman’s main antagonists on screen at the same time.
In a way, this presages the way later Batman movies would grow increasingly overstuffed with villains and storylines. Even here, the script often leaves Joker and Riddler flailing about with little to do. Neither of them is essential to Penguin’s plan. As the second of three actresses to play the character opposite Adam West, Lee Meriwether makes only a fair Catwoman. Although she looks slinky enough in the costume, she lacks Julie Newmar’s commitment to the cat puns and her purr isn’t even a fraction as sultry as Eartha Kitt’s.
At three times the length of a typical episode, the film’s pacing also drags a bit. Regardless, these are minor quibbles. Even if I wouldn’t necessarily call Batman: The Movie the best of the 1960s Batman, it will serve fine as a representative sample for someone who wants a taste of the phenomenon but perhaps doesn’t feel the need to dive into the whole show.
While the 1960s Batman TV series is currently distributed on home video by Warner Bros. (as owner of DC Comics, where the character originated), the feature film has remained under the control of 20th Century Fox (now part of the Disney empire), which produced it originally. Fox released Batman: The Movie on Blu-ray in the early days of the format, back in 2008. That disc is still in print and can be bought for a pittance at your retailer of choice. The movie can also be streamed from most of the major online rental and purchase platforms, including Amazon Prime Video, VUDU, iTunes, or Google Play. As far as I’m aware, all of these are sourced from the same high definition master, though I have not confirmed that for myself.
The physical Blu-ray edition is presented in the movie’s theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Image quality is respectable but not stunning. The picture is a little soft and grainy, and colors are drabber than they might be. Any fan’s natural inclination will be to compare this with the TV show, which later received a painstaking restoration in 2014 and looks both sharper and more vibrant on Blu-ray or streaming. The movie was not restored to the same degree and its HD master is at least a half dozen years older.
That said, the video has enough clarity to expose some of the amusing and endearing seams in the production, such as the rear projection process shots, stock footage inserts, obvious stunt doubles, the painted cyclorama backdrop during the film’s climax, and the mustache barely hidden beneath Cesar Romero’s makeup. I consider this transparency to be a good thing.
Originally monaural, the soundtrack has been remixed into surround sound and is encoded in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 format. The remixing is very restrained and remains heavily weighted to the front soundstage. The jaunty score by Nelson Riddle receives the most benefit spread to stereo. I won’t say that the mix has no activity in the surround channels, but none stood out to me. Dynamic range is limited and fidelity is merely adequate, but anyone expecting an auditory powerhouse is watching the wrong movie in the first place. A mono track in lossy Dolby Digital is also available for purists.
Labeled a Special Edition, the Blu-ray contains a fair bounty of bonus content. The disc has two commentaries, one by stars Adam West and Burt Ward, the other by screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. Four featurettes add an hour of content about the show’s legacy, its cast, the movie production, and the famous Batmobile. Also offered are a text trivia track, a couple of gimmicky interactive features related to the Batmobile and a map of filming locations, a few vintage trailers, a still gallery, and an isolated score in DTS-HD MA 5.1.
On the downside, the Blu-ray is annoyingly authored to prompt playback of dated trailers for unrelated Fox properties Jumper, The Day After Tomorrow, and Independence Day before the main menu every time you load the disc. Although you can skip past them individually, there’s no way to avoid them altogether.
For those interested, the 1960s Batman TV series was released on Blu-ray by Warner Bros. in 2014 and is currently streaming in high definition (free with ads) on Tubi and Amazon Freevee.