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Batman Week Day 2: Adam West in Batman: The Movie (1966)

Batman 1966Director: Leslie H. Martinson

Writer: Lorenzo Semple Jr.

Cast: Adam West, Burt Ward, Lee Meriwether, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith,  Frank Gorshin, Alan Napier, Neil Hamilton, Stafford Repp, Madge Blake, Reginald Denny

Plot: On a peaceful afternoon, Bruce Wayne (Adam West) and his young ward Dick Grayson (Burt Ward) are summoned to save a yacht carrying an important scientific innovation to Gotham City. In their other identities as Batman and Robin, the two board their Batcopter (conveniently held and prepared for them by the employees of the Gotham airport) and fly off to investigate the disturbance. After a tussle with a shark (yep), the yacht vanishes. Batman later denies the yacht’s disappearance in a press conference, during which a young Russian reporter named Kitka asks him to take off his mask for a picture. Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) and Chief O’Hara (Stafford Repp) both rebuke the woman, but Batman is more understanding… while still refusing her request.

As the press leave, Batman and the police review known super-criminals at large who could be behind the current unrest. As it turns out there are four: the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the Joker (Cesar Romero), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether). Through a thought process too ridiculous to even attempt to replicate, our heroes determine the four villains are working together and set off to look for clues.

Kitka goes to the Gotham docks, where we discover she’s really Catwoman in disguise. She joins the other villains in their “United Underworld” organization, where they reveal their plan is the disruption of the United World conference in Gotham using a secret invention developed by a man on the yacht, the daft Commodore Schmidlapp (Reginald Denny). Batman and Robin determine the yacht that vanished was, in fact, an illusion, and the real yacht was stolen some point prior. As they take to sea in the Batboat, they cruise the ocean above the Penguin’s highly-themed submarine. (How in the hell does he afford a penguin-themed submarine? He never successfully commits a crime, Batman always stops him on this show. Did he win a contest?) The Penguin traps the dynamic duo on a buoy and fires a series of torpedoes at them. When the third hits its target the villains celebrate, but we quickly cut to Batman and Robin in their boat, mourning an (unseen) heroic porpoise that swam in front of the torpedo, giving its life for theirs, and I seriously cannot believe I just typed the preceding sentence.

Back in her “Kitka” disguise, Catwoman makes a date with Bruce Wayne, planning to kidnap him as bait for a trap for Batman. Batman orders Robin and Alfred (Alan Napier) to tail him on the date in case the villains make a move. That night, after a dinner at the sort of restaurant that only exists in movies (with wandering violinists and no other customers), she takes Bruce to her apartment, and Robin turns off his monitor after seeing the two of them engage in the most awkward kiss in movie history. Unfortunately, this means he isn’t watching seconds later as the villains and their henchmen burst in and kidnap Bruce, who still thinks Kitka is their real target.

The next day the villains are confused as to why Batman hasn’t followed the clues they left and come stumbling into their trap, now baited with Bruce Wayne. A furious Bruce demands to see Kitka, so they blindfold him and toss him into a room with her after Catwoman switches identities. While trying to “comfort” her, asks Kitka to help him retrieve a hidden radio in his coat, but the villains remove him from the room and untie him to retrieve the radio. With his hands free, Bruce springs into action, battling all four villains and their henchmen at once, escaping into the bay.

Growing desperate, the Penguin hatches a new plan. Selecting five henchmen as guinea pigs, he activates Commodore Schmidlapp’s invention, a “total dehydrator” which reduces the henchmen to powder, extracting all moisture from their bodies. Batman and Robin return to the villains’ hideout which is now deserted, but sports a sparkling bomb. After a series of (frankly legendary) misadventures, Batman concludes that on some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb. They encounter the Penguin disguised as the Commodore and see through the ruse immediately (making you wonder why Batman can’t tell Kitka is Catwoman without her mask). Having been taken to the Batcave, the Penguin rehydrates the five thugs, but uses heavy water from Batman’s nuclear reactor. All five are reduced to anti-matter with the slightest impact. Because science.

Batman pretends to think the Commodore was brainwashed and takes him back to the city, allowing him to escape. The villains dehydrate the United World Security Council (who can’t even stop arguing with each other long enough to notice they’re being dehydrated) and place them in vials to hold them for ransom.  The heroes track them to their submarine and force it to surface, boarding and engaging in a battle royale during which nobody actually lands a punch but everybody pretends like they’ve been hit anyway. Catwoman stumbles and loses her mask, revealing to Batman and Robin that she is, in fact, Kitka, and simultaneously taking away any rights either of them would ever have to make fun of Lois Lane. Although the vials containing the security council members have miraculously escaped unscathed, Commodore Schmidlapp stumbles in and smashes them, mixing the powders. Batman and Robin use their super molecular dust separator (of course they have a super molecular dust separator) to extract the representatives from one another and rehydrate them, but the procedure is imperfect. The arguing representatives are now weird, mishmashed amalgams of each other, speaking the wrong languages and having each others’ personalities. Batman tells Robin this may be “the single greatest service ever performed for mankind,” then the heroes sneak the hell out of there.

Thoughts: I must confess to having something of a love/hate relationship with Adam West’s Batman. Although as a child I watched the reruns of this series and found it enjoyable, as I got older I started to grow disenchanted with it. You see, as I got more and more into examining comic books as an art form, I started to get angry about the way the mainstream media so often depicts comic book culture – childish, immature, lacking real artistic merit. The fact that for decades you couldn’t get a single news story about comics without including “Biff! Pow!” in the title eventually led me to realize how much the cultural perception of superheroes and comic books was formed by this goofy Batman TV show, and I grew to resent it. (This was during a period of my life in which I tended to take everything way the hell too seriously, a time many of us identify as “being a teenager”.) Eventually I learned to lighten up, learned to accept that some characters are big enough to allow for multiple interpretations, and learned that Adam West and company essentially saved Batman from extinction during a time when interest in the character was dying away. So I’ve made my peace with it. But it’s still not my favorite version of the Batman.

People who remember the Batman TV show may not always be aware of this movie, filmed and released in theaters between the first and second seasons of the series. As a result, it has the feel and tone of the series after it gained its footing, rather than the awkward feeling you get from early episodes of many classic TV shows after you go back and watch them years later. The performances of the actors and the film as a whole carry a sense of barely-contained insanity, starting right from the beginning where a spotlight features a dedication to “lovers of adventure… pure escapism… unadulterated entertainment… the ridiculous and the bizarre,” then rolls over a couple making out and apologizes for any other groups of lovers they may have missed.

“This,” I say to myself, “is Batman?”

My spine starts to crinkle a bit in the first few minutes, as they approach the yacht in the Batcopter, drop the Bat-ladder (the labeled Bat-Ladder) and I anticipate what’s coming next… the Bat-Shark Repellant. It’s things like this that really made me hate this incarnation of Batman for a few years, and even now, still bug me a little bit. Having seen the 1943 movie serial, it’s clear that a lot of the inspiration for this version came from taking the campier bits of that to the extreme. Then I think about the other extreme, when the dreaded Joel Schumaker 30 years later would take over the Batman film franchise and go to an extreme version of this Batman… the stilted puns, the bizarre non sequiturs, the thrice-damned “Bat Credit Card,” and I’ve got to take a breath or two to calm down.

The heroes here (all the characters, really, but let’s focus on the heroes) are caricatures. West’s Batman speaks in short, stilted passages, frequently lapsing into speeches that have bizarrely inappropriate and ill-timed morality lessons and making leaps of logic that are quite simply ludicrous. The only reason this Batman ever solves any crime is because his foes are as insane as he is, and their respective brands of madness overlap. The entire universe of this series, in fact, is quite crazy. This incarnation of Bruce Wayne pretends to be the straight man, attempts to appear as an oasis of sanity in the midst of it all, but it’s an act in and of itself. The only way to accept Ward and West’s Batman and Robin is by giving in to a world of lunacy.

As ridiculous as Batman and Robin themselves are, I find myself much more entertained by the antics of the villains. Romero, Gorshin, Meriwether and Meredith are at their scene-chewing best here, grinding up film with performances so incredibly over-the-top you can only admire their skill. The first scene with the four of them features snippets of dialogue as quick and rapid-fire as Joss Whedon or Alan Sorkin would turn out decades later. I could watch them go back and forth for hours, either having the time of their lives in their silliest roles or doing a great impression of it. By contrast, West and Ward have the unenviable task of trying to pretend they’re taking things seriously while surrounded by colors that would give Jackson Pollock eyestrain and keeping a straight face when they conclude that the crime took place at sea, which means Catwoman must be the culprit, because her name begins with the letter “C”. (That’s not even a joke, that’s an example of the actual logic used in this film.) The villains aren’t the same kind of crazy we would see in later years, with Heath Ledger’s Joker, but they’re a brand of crazy that can actually be a lot of fun to watch in small doses.

The movie deals heavily in parody, which is fair enough, but at times it gets so ridiculous it’s hard to swallow, such as when we meet a Naval Admiral stupid enough to sell a preatomic submarine (complete with missiles, apparently) to a fellow named “P.N. Guinn” who had no credentials other than a post office box. The film actually taps into the anti-establishment vibe of the 60s, making the military and police into buffoons, with only Batman there to save their hides. It’s easy to see how it became so popular at the time, but the leaps in logic required for it to make any sense go too far for me at times. At most times, actually.

In truth, while I certainly understand the people who are big fans of the Adam West-era Batman, I still can’t really count myself among them anymore. I prefer a Batman who is shrewd, villains who are actually threatening, a Commissioner Gordon who is a hero in his own right rather than the head of the clown college that is the GCPD. For people who appreciate this Batman, it’s here, and it’s a cult classic. For me, though, I really can only enjoy it when I’m sitting around with my friends, cracking jokes about how ridiculous it is.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

If I was making the Justice League movie…

Justice League V2 1Fans of DC Comics’s Justice League franchise saw what seems to be another setback this week, when word leaked the script that has been in development is being scrapped entirely. For those who just want to see the damn movie made already, this is obviously distressing news. But my approach is slightly different. I absolutely want to see a Justice League movie, but I want to see a great movie. So if Warner Bros recognized that the script they’re working with is crap, by all means, start over and do it right.

Earlier this week over at CXPulp, I wrote about how Disney seems to be planning to apply the lessons of Marvel Studios to their recently-acquired Star Wars franchise. (For those of you who may not follow this stuff the way I do, let me briefly explain that Disney bought Marvel in 2009 and that Marvel and DC have been the two biggest publishers – and therefore the two biggest rivals – in American comic books for decades). Marvel created films for several of their characters, brought them together in their mega-hit The Avengers, and are now breaking them off into smaller films again before the next combined go-around. Comic book fans, delighted with what Marvel is doing, are asking why the hell the movies based on DC Comics – the Justice League, Superman, Batman, and many more — can’t do the same thing. Although DC Comics, for a long time, had properties with more mainstream recognition than Marvel, in the past decade Marvel has dominated superhero movies. The only hit from the DC Universe in recent years has been Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, while Marvel’s X-Men, Spider-Man, and Avengers-related films have become legitimate powerhouses.

The reason for this, I believe, goes back to the late 90s. Marvel, at the time, was still an independent company, although one reorganizing after a bankruptcy. DC, however, has been wholly owned by Warner Bros for a very long time. That means Warner Bros is the only game in town to make a DC movie. If Warner Bros isn’t interested, it won’t happen, and if Warner Bros doesn’t understand what makes the property work, we get crap like Steel and Catwoman. Marvel, on the other hand, had the freedom to shop their properties around. Universal doesn’t have the right feel for Spider-Man? Take it to Sony. Paramount can’t give us a decent X-Men film? Bring them to Fox. Granted, this system turned out its share of clunkers too (let’s not forget that some genocidal maniac gave approval to not one, but TWO Ghost Rider movies starring Nicolas Cage), but their batting average over this period, beginning with Blade in 1998, is pretty damn good.

Things are different now, of course, since Marvel is owned by Disney. But by the time of that purchase in 2009, Marvel had already launched their own film unit to make movies with the characters other studios didn’t have – Iron Man and Incredible Hulk had both already come out and production was underway on Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. By the time Marvel was a Disney property, they’d proven that they could make great films on their own, and Disney has wisely stayed the hell back and let them do it, the way they did when they bought Pixar in 2006. (Disney seems to have a three-year cycle for buying other companies, they got Lucasfilm in 2012. That means I have until 2015 to create a franchise with lucrative enough IPs that I can sell them to Disney and retire in luxury.)

This, more than anything else, is what Warner Bros needs to learn in regards to any DC Cinematic Universe. It’s not about copying Marvel’s storytelling or casting tricks or format. It’s about letting the people who know the characters do what they do best and getting out of their way while they do it.

Marvel needed to raise the profiles of their lesser-known characters or Avengers never would have been the hit that it was. DC has a different problem. Ten years ago, nobody who wasn’t a comic book fan knew who Iron Man or Thor were. DC’s problem is that everybody knows many of their characters – Wonder Woman, Aquaman – but they fundamentally misunderstand them. Aquaman is a punchline, he’s “the guy that talks to fish.” But as writers like Geoff Johns and Peter David have shown us, he can be so much more than that – a tragic monarch, a man who struggles with the responsibility of protecting two-thirds of the surface of the Earth… not to mention the fact that the physical changes necessary to allow a person to survive on the ocean’s floor would make them pretty strong and otherwise badass on land. Putting Aquaman in a movie doesn’t necessitate that you explain who he is, it necessitates you explain what makes him awesome.

So if I was in charge of the Justice League movie, this is what I would do.

First, start with this summer’s Man of Steel. The film is generating some positive buzz and I’m excited about it. I’d work in a small reference to a larger DC Universe – have some news report about Green Lantern in the background, or a page of the Daily Planet referencing the chaos in Gotham City that happened during The Dark Knight Rises. Nothing that would really influence Superman’s story, but enough to nod at the fact that he’s not – as Nick Fury said in the first Iron Man – the only superhero in the world.

Then, I’d work on putting together a phenomenal Justice League story. I wouldn’t start with the big bad that was in the previous script, Darkseid, for two reasons. First, Marvel is already using Thanos in their movies, and although Thanos was largely a Darkseid rip-off when he was created in the comics, movie fans won’t get that and will think it’s the Justice League that’s being derivative. Second, he’s too big for the first movie. Where do you build from there? You need a threat big enough to justify bringing all of these characters together, of course, but they shouldn’t go up against the biggest threat in the universe their first time out.

Next, get the recognizable aspects from the current DC films and put them together: Henry Cavill as Superman, build off the end of The Dark Knight Rises (as a spoiler consideration I won’t be more specific than that), and yes, I’d get Ryan Reynolds back as Green Lantern. That movie had problems, but his casting really wasn’t one of them. Then I’d add the characters that the public has heard of but doesn’t understand – Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash. Use this movie to showcase them the way Avengers suddenly turned everyone in America into fans of the Hulk for the first time in decades.

Don’t bother with everybody’s origin. It’s a convention of the superhero genre, true, but it’s often the least exciting part of it. You don’t need to know why John McClane became a cop to enjoy Die Hard, so why do I need to see Barry Allen get struck by lightning when I’ve already accepted a world with a man from Krypton and another guy with a magic ring? After Justice League, we’ll start spinning the other characters off into their individual movies – if necessary, work in the origins there. There’s no rule that says they have to take place after the Justice League movie just because they’re made in that order, although even then, I think a quick flashback would probably be more than sufficient in most cases.

Finally, make it clear that the Justice League isn’t the be-all and end-all of the DCU. Marvel can’t reference Spider-Man, the X-Men, or the Fantastic Four, because the rights to those characters are still tied up with other studios thanks to deals they made before they were purchased by Disney. DC doesn’t have that problem. Guillermo Del Toro is working on a movie featuring some of DC’s supernatural characters like Swamp Thing and Deadman – a Justice League movie could drop in a reference to them. Give us veiled hints or rumors about other Leaguers from the comics like Zatanna, Plastic Man, Firestorm… characters that have potential for their own films in the future, assuming of course that they’re done right. Even better – if you have some sort of huge battle for the end piece, the sort of thing that the public can’t help but notice (like the battle of New York in The Avengers, and it just shows how great that movie was structured that it keeps being the best analogy), give us glimpses of some of these other heroes fighting their own battles while the League takes on the Big Bad, whoever it happens to be.

And most importantly, make sure that the story is one that satisfies the fans but is broad enough to grab people who don’t know all of the characters. This is what Marvel has done brilliantly and what Warner Bros has prevented DC from doing for years. If you can pull off that trick, we’d have a movie that could launch not just one franchise, but an entire universe.

Of course, that’s what I would do. But what do I know? I’m just a guy who reads comics and watches movies. It’s not like I’ve got the pedigree of the man who gave the green light to Jonah Hex.

(If that line isn’t enough to convince people I should be running the show, nothing will be.)