The '60s 'Batman' Movie Just Turned 50 And Attention Must Be Paid

Aug 1, 2016
Originally published on August 1, 2016 1:38 pm

The 1966 film Batman: The Movie was shot between the first and second seasons of the television show. It used the same sets as the TV show, the same characters, costumes, the same story formula, and — most importantly — adopted the same tonal jiu-jitsu: high silliness executed with grave seriousness.

The film differed from the TV show in small ways, however: Julie Newmar had a scheduling conflict, so Lee Meriweather stepped into the sparkly catsuit. The bigger budget allowed Batman to trick himself out with a Batcyle, Batcopter and Batboat.

The film premiered at Austin's Paramount Theatre on July 30, 1966. (Why Austin? The Batboat was reportedly built by an Austin-based company who got the studio to agree to hold its red-carpet premiere there.)

The film was a moderate success, making a little over over $2 million, not quite twice its budget. But the studio had expected more, because the country had spent the spring of 1966 in the grip of a fervid Batmania.

The launch of the show back in January had arrived at exactly the right cultural moment. The Pop-Art movement prized anything that was slick, colorful, and mass-produced; Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp" essay, published two years before, had had enough time to filter down from academia into the mainstream. The nation was also in the habit of looking to television for frothy, high-concept diversions like My Favorite Martian, Bewitched, and The Munsters.

The result was a full-on Batman fad: Batman dresses, hairstyles, and a "Batusi" dance craze. Nightclubs threw Batman-related events, and toy companies pumped out Bat-merch by the metric ton.

But by the time the film premiered, America had been getting two episodes of the TV series every week for months. And although the ratings were still strong and would remain so well into the show's second season, the nation's Batmania was beginning to cool. And the notion of schlepping out to a movie theater to watch an hour-and-a-half version of something that came into your home for free every week wasn't quite the motivation executives thought it was.

Even so: to watch Batman: The Movie today is to savor the essence of the TV show. To modern eyes, its plot seems overstuffed, its structure rigidly episodic, its pacing more languorous than strictly necessary, and yet the whole thing is so blithely and sublimely goofy any quibbles fall by the wayside.

For many years it was the only taste of the TV show widely available, as the episodes themselves remained tied up in endless rights negotiations with various guest stars — or their estates. Maybe that's why the movie contains so many elements that have come to define the show in the public consciousness.

Viz:

  • Shark-repellent Bat-spray!
  • "Penguin, Joker, Riddler ... and Catwoman too? The sum of the angles of that rectangle is MONSTROUS to contemplate!"
  • "Gosh, Batman. The nobility of the almost-human porpoise!"
  • "Comrade Kitayna Ireyna Tatanya Kerenska Alisoff. I am from the Moscow Bugle."
  • "Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!"

Today, all the episodes are available on Blu-Ray and streaming video, as is the movie. But back when the movie the only way to see Adam West in his blue satin cape, it felt like Batman methadone to me - a pale substitute for the episodes I'd loved as a kid. And yet it still works, because the central, defining archness of its tone is so artificial that it effectively untethers the film from its time. Batman: The Movie should seem a lot more dated than it does, but on its fiftieth birthday it reminds us of an abiding truth:

Tastes change, drama grows dated, humor palls.

But silly is eternal.

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