Batman

(1966) *** Pg
104 min. 20th Century Fox. Directors: Leslie H. Martinson (II), Ray Kellogg. Cast: Adam West, Burt Ward, Lee Meriwether, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith.

The 1966 Batman movie was originally intended to be a calling card for the 1966-1968 ABC TV series, executive produced by William Dozier. When momentum on the series accelerated, the film's production was pushed until after the filming and debut of the first season of the show, which was quickly anointed as a pop culture phenomenon. Writer Lorenzo Semple Jr.'s campy, pop-art vision for Batman was to paint candy-colored absurdity while the stars played it straight. The deadly seriousness of Adam West and Burt Ward as Robin ("Holy nightmare!") only made their adventures funnier to adults, and kids—who couldn't tell the difference—thrilled to the dynamic duo's heroics and the show's lively villains and cliffhangers.

Though the character of Batman was originally designed to "strike fear into the hearts of men," there's nothing remotely scary about West's Batman. To be fair to Semple, the Batman of the Golden Age comics was already essentially neutered, with stories emphasizing crime-solving adventure and the good-natured banter of Batman and his boy sidekick Robin. The hugely popular TV series encouraged DC Comics briefly to follow a somewhat sillier route until the character's "dark knight" conception was reclaimed in the seventies. That said, the deliberate, slow-talking West is hilarious as the super-square crimefighter, and Ward's energetic, dim-bulb Robin makes a perfect compliment.

When West and Ward got their turn on the big screen, it came with an enhanced budget and a surplus of villains. The budget bought the production team a Batcopter and a Batboat (though they rarely appeared again in the series), as well as a redesigned Batcycle; the guest stars were fitness king Jack LaLanne and Reginald Denny; and the villains—identified as the "United Underworld" for this team-up—were The Joker, The Penguin, The Riddler, and Catwoman. Cesar Romero (Joker), Burgess Meredith (Penguin), and Frank Gorshin (Riddler) reprised their roles for the film, but Catwoman Julie Newmar had to bow out due to back trouble, so last-minute replacement Lee Meriwether (Miss America 1955) wiggled into the form-fitting Catsuit.

The plot concerns the United Underworld's complimentary plans to control the world and kill Batman. The super-villains steal a superdehydrator, which they intend to use to reduce the United World Security Council to pastel piles of dust. Batman and Robin face two deathtraps at sea, one involving a shark (once you see Adam West, dressed as Batman, punching a rubber shark—accompanied by the sound of dull thuds—you'll never forget it) and another involving missiles fired from Penguin's war-surplus nuclear submarine, converted to resemble a flippered foul. In this plain-crazy universe, even the most cracked logic proves correct in tracking down the bad guys. West has referred to the series as "theatre of the absurd," and he's not far from the mark.

Batman is good entertainment for kids, but it never fully holds together as a movie. As a super-sized string of TV episodes, it lacks a satisfying structure and rhythm. One of the episodic efforts of the supervillains involves softening up Bruce Wayne (unbeknownst to them, the secret identity of Batman) by sending Catwoman—in the guise of Russian journalist Miss Kitka—to seduce him. Once the felonious foursome kidnap Wayne, they await Batman, who's sure to save him. Batman's eventual reaction to Kitka's identity as Catwoman is truly priceless: a perfect example of how kids and adults can watch West's Batman and see something entirely different.

In the tradition of the series, everything is labeled, including the Bat-Shark-Repellent and the Instant-Costume-Change-Lever between the Batpoles leading from Wayne Manor to the Batcave. This sort of charming stupidity is well-nigh irresistible, particularly since screenwriter Semple (one of the series' best writers) insists on witty dialogue and irreverent, self-mocking sight gags. As on the show, Bruce and Dick trigger the door to the Batpoles by lifting a fake bust of Shakespeare's head and pressing a button in his neck. That's right, folks: this show ain't Shakespeare.

But then, could Shakespeare have imagined the sequence in which the paunchy man dressed up as a bat hoisted a lit, cannonball-shaped bomb above his head and ran around a pier trying in vain to dispose of it? Running into a mother and infant, lovers, nuns, and even ducks, Batman laments, "Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb." Each cliffhanger ends in an incredibly lucky salvation, a knowing parody of the '40s serials. Like the serials, the 1966 movie doesn't skimp on fight-scene fun, "distinguished" here by the series' screen-filling comic-book interjections ("Pow!!...Whap!...Thwack!!"); the climactic fight atop the submarine is particularly ripe, with Meredith's cigarette holder drooping when his team is on the decline.

Semple takes a couple of kid-friendly shots at world-peace satire and superheroic moralism ("They may be drinkers, Robin, but they're still human beings"). In most respects, Batman resembles nothing so much as a Rocky and Bullwinkle serial, with its obvious disguises and poker-faced wordplay. Kitka claims to be from the "Moscow Bugle," and later dresses down a pirate-themed henchman for calling her Catwoman: "Imbecile! How many times have I told you, never use my real name in public!"

The alliterative villains are prone to comments like Penguin's "Mr. Riddler, sir, I ignore your insipid insinuation, sir." Meredith was also known to relish tossing out ad-libs, and the movie has one: when dehydrated goons are being swept up for later use, Penguin cautions, "Every one of 'em has a mother." Meredith's waddling, with gas-spewing umbrella and well-chomped cigarette holder, makes Penguin an indelible villain. He could have played the character in a straight version of Batman and made him fly. Gorshin and Romero prance in their well-known Batman fashion, but their characters don't have anything memorable to do; Meriwether admirably attacks her sultry character and nearly matches Newmar.

The delirious idiosyncracies of the '60s Batman are all on display in the 1966 movie, a pleasant-enough romp that's just a little too-distracted with its overload of villains and its admittedly super-cool new toys (the plot bends to wrap around the new vehicles). Until Fox can overcome its legal hurdles and release the whole series, it'll have to do for fans of the campy show.

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Bluray

Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio

Street date: 6/8/2008

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment


Pardon me for geeking out, but Fox's Bat-astic special edition shows that somebody in Fox's home video division doesn't only see the money in this re-release, but actually cares. This Blu-Ray premiere (mirrored by an updated reissue on DVD) gives loving attention to the '60s Batman franchise with an outstanding package of bonus features. For starters, we get a high-def upgrade to the already fine DVD transfer. Compared to most modern films, this transfer gives a somewhat soft impression, and yet the picture has never offered so much detail (so much that one can clearly see the seams in the sky backdrop during the sea scenes). The crucial color is spot-on (though the washes of color in the title sequence make the faces nearly disappear), there's not a digital artifact in sight, and the audio of this 42-year-old film shines anew in DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio.

Speaking of audio, Fox offers a very welcome Isolated Score Track that renders Neal Hefti's jazzy score in DTS 5.1. The disc includes two commentary tracks. First check out the replay of the essential Adam West-Burt Ward commentary from 2001. The dynamic duo keeps up a reasonably steady pace in talking about a movie they filmed 35 years before, and it's a hoot to watch the movie with them. West says, "Oh lookee" when the Batman logo shows up, and Ward is given to "Holy" interjections like "Holy formaldehyde! We're both well preserved!". The track preserves shtick the two have developed on the public-appearance circuit, with Ward acting the little stinker by purposefully stepping on West's favorite Batman bon mots (like the one about "curious stirrings" in his utility belt). At their best, the two have a quick patter, as when they watch themselves slide down the Bat-Poles:

Burt Ward: Remember that?
Adam West: I have a bigger pole.
Burt Ward: Talk about rubbing you the wrong way.

In no doubt hyperbolic fashion, the two recall the stunts (while crediting their doubles), fight scenes, and the perils of colored gas. Other topics include working with nervous Madge Blake, how Lee Meriwether won the role of Catwoman and Cesar Romero's gentlemanly support of her, why we see a bit more of Bruce Wayne in the film, fan response to the series, their compensation, and the various Bat-props, vehicles, and sets.

The commentary by screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. is a surprising and valuable addition—all the more important given that the talent may not be around to participate when Fox is able to clear the legal hurdles and release the TV series. Semple is refreshingly unpretentious, praising West but noting Ward's difficultness as stardom got to his head.  The scribe explains his memories of scoring the assignment and writing the film, the principles behind the series' writing, and the challenge of sustaining the series. Unfortunately, Semple runs out of steam around the halfway point and becomes repetitive.

Fox also provides two subtitle tracks with a wealth of additional information. Holy Trivia Track Batman! provides factoids about the series and various elements of the plot (sharks, for example)—most of the info about the film seems culled from Joel Eisner's The Official Batman Batbook. Ever wonder where Wayne Manor is located in reality? Batman on Location: Mapping the Movie displays on the lower left of the screen a map of the greater Los Angeles area. As each location appears in the film, the track shows the location on the map. The viewer can select a Directions tab that provides directions from LAX. A Photos tab and Factoids tab sometimes offer a deeper look at the location.

This edition includes three brand-new featurettes. Surprisingly, a number of talents associated with Warner-owned DC Comics turn up to pay tribute to the '60s series, a staple of their childhoods. "Batman: A Dynamic Legacy" (28:29) is an overview of the impact of the series and the unique appeal of the film. Participants include Batman historian Mark Cotta Vaz, comic writer Mark Waid, Batman historian/film producer Michael Uslan, cartoon historian Jerry Beck, writer/producer of Batman: The Animated series Paul Dini, Semple, comic book artist Alex Ross, comic book writer Geoff Johns, Eisner, Meriwether, director Leslie Martinson, film critic Richard Holliss, and film historian Kim Newman. My only complaint is that we don't hear more from Meriwether and, in particular, the film's director about the making of the film: apparently Martinson's failing memory (understandable at 92) precluded more behind-the-scenes depth.

"Caped Crusaders: A Heroes Tribute" (12:29) and "Gotham City's Most Wanted" (15:51) feature most of the same talking heads speaking specifically about the characters. The former covers Batman, Robin, Alfred, Comissioner Gordon, and Chief O'Hara; the latter covers Joker, Penguin, Riddler, and Catwoman. Though West and Ward don't participate in the new extras, there's no need. Apart from the commentary, we get the "Batman Featurette" (16:47) from 2001. It's largely redundant to the commentary, but the pair explain how they were cast and, even more interestingly, why they were cast. Also from 2001: "The Batmobile Revealed with George Barris" (5:47), a short but sweet overview of how Barris turned an experimental Lincoln Futura into one of the most famous cars in film history. Barris explains the gadgets and reasoning behind the design, what each of five cars was meant to do on film, and how he got himself arrested and the car impounded by an overzealous highway patrolman.

One of the coolest features I've seen on Blu-Ray is The Batmobile Interactive Tour, a high-def look—with automatic 360° rotation—at the super-sleek car (with the remote, the user can control the speed and angle of rotation). Clicking around, Batfans can check out five peel-away views of the original Lincoln Futura concept car "under" the Barris rebuild. A zoom-in feature gives a close-up view and specs for te tires, engine, plexiglass wind shields, paint job, Bat Beam, chain slicer, Bat Ray/headlights, front design element, Bat Fins, bucket seats & ejector, seat, steering wheel and turn indicators, Bat Phone, Detect-a-Scope, Bat Photoscope, beacon light, rocket launcher, trunk, Bat Chute, and turbine exhaust. One can also "activate" the chain slicer, Bat Ray, Bat Phone, Detect-a-Scope, and beacon light to see how they appear in operation. Wow!

As on the 2001 DVD, the Blu-Ray includes the "Teaser Trailer" (1:38), with Batman and Robin speaking to the audience and introducing the villains, the expanded "Theatrical Trailer" (3:06), and the "Spanish Theatrical Trailer" (3:08). The expansive Galleries section offers a number of still images accompanied by Hefti's score: "From the Vaults of Adam West" (68 photos), "Interactive Pressbook" (8 pages), "Posters" (13 images), "Production Stills" (42 photos), "Behind the Scenes" (155 photos), and "Premiere" (45 photos). Any die-hard Batman fan who has room in his or her heart for the Adam West incarnation will absolutely love this new edition of Batman: The Movie.


 

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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