Tuesday, July 8, 2008
With the new Batman film, The Dark Knight, just around the corner, I wanted to highlight the new Fox Home Entertainment Blu-Ray release of the 1966 Batman: The Movie with Adam West and Burt Ward as the Dynamic Duo and a quartet of villains played by Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, Frank Gorshin and Lee Meriwether.
Adam West is the Batman I grew up with and I remember having a Batman TV show pillow that I would snuggle up with to watch every episode. Same Bat time, same Bat channel, without fail. The movie, I later discovered, was actually conceived as the pilot for the TV series but ABC had trouble in their primetime lineup and debuted the TV series early. So the film came out between seasons one and two of the TV show. The vibrant new film transfer of Batman: The Movie boasts an explosion of eye-popping colors that scream 1960s pop art. The film, like the TV series, has a definite cheese factor but both are still wildly entertaining today. Watching the movie the other night made me feel like a kid again and reminded me how much fun Batman was.
For those who grew up with Tim Burton's Batman (1989) or the more recent Christopher Nolan-directed Batman Begins (2005), the old Adam West Batman may strike you as silly. But if you don't realize where Batman came from, you can't fully appreciate how far he's come. What was intriguing about the movie and TV show was the way it packaged conservative values - law and order - in a hip, pop package that made it seem cool. You also had Hollywood veterans like Cesar Romero and Burgess Meredith chewing up the scenery with absolute glee. Their audacious performances worked because Adam West gave them such a straight hero to play off of. In some of the bonus feature interviews, people compare West to William Shatner in the way both used low vocal tones and over enunciation to create an oddly stiff but earnest character. West is also compared to the dry Jack Webb of Dragnet.
In revisiting Batman: The Movie, you can take delight in the way everything from the Bat Ladder to Classified Trash to the Total Dehydrator are clearly labeled for our benefit. And if we do miss something, Robin is usually on hand with a Holy this or Holy that to punctuate a scene. Like "Holy Polaris" when a missile is fired. One of the best set pieces in the film involves Batman trying to dispose of a bomb. When he runs out onto the pier he keeps running into nuns, baby strollers and a marching band. After frantically running about for minutes, the Caped Crusader dryly concludes, "Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb."
There are both old and new bonus features on the disc. George Barris describes how he created the 3-ton Batmobile from a Lincoln Futura, and then there's a new Batmobile interactive tour that takes you in and around the famous vehicle. In new interviews, Lee Meriwether (Cat Woman) explains that she studied with Lee Strasbourg and did animal exercises but recalls never trying to be a cat, only a turtle. All in all, the new Blu-Ray release serves up a dynamic package. The new hi-def disc is gorgeous but at times maybe too good. You can see the seams in some of the backdrops and Romero's moustache (that he refused to shave off) is even more noticeable under the Joker's white make up. Plus you can readily see color variations in Batman's costume that I don't ever remember noticing before. But all this just adds to the film's charm.
In the new interviews, a number of writers, comic book folks, and assorted Batman aficionados weigh in with their memories of growing up with the movie and TV show. Although the movie looks outlandishly silly - especially an attacking rubber shark with a bomb planted inside - the onscreen commentators remind us that to a kid it all seemed real. As kids we totally bought into it with an innocence that kids today may no longer have after being spoiled with 3D animation and realistic CGI. One person even points out how he went through a negative reaction to the cheesiness of the show when he got older, and desperately wanted to see a grittier more realistic Batman, one that would come with a vengeance in Frank Miller's brilliant graphic novels Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Year One
But seeing where Batman began on the big screen just makes the upcoming The Dark Knight more interesting. Batman has changed with the times, beginning as a square-jawed superhero fighting for law and order and evolving into the dark-hued character we find in Christopher Nolan's two films. You can enjoy and appreciate both as products of their times. But one thing that hasn't changed is that Batman is a superhero without super powers (just super gadgets). He's human and that has always made him fascinating because he risks so much more than Superman or Spider-Man every time he goes out to fight crime and save the world.
So here's to both the old and the new Batman. It's a new Bat time and a new Bat channel but Batman is still a superhero that can entertain us.