Christian Bale, most would say, made an incredible Batman. Long-time fans of the character also champion Kevin Conroy, who voiced the Caped Crusader through numerous animated incarnations. Michael Keaton’s turn is deeply underrated, that kid on Gotham is doing yeoman’s work, and though I have my fears about Batman v Superman, I think Ben Affleck is going to rock the doors off the thing. They’re all great performers, they all do justice to the character… and yet whenever I see them, some small part of my brain whispers a simple reminder: none of them are Adam West. Without him, none of them would have had their shot at the cape and cowl, and for all the derision foisted on his campy take on the Dark Knight, his version has endured for almost half a century. We’ve waited decades to see his Batman anywhere outside of a bootleg DVD; this week, our long national nightmare is finally over. Hit the jump for my full Batman: The Complete TV Series Blu-ray review.
The story of why the Batman TV series took so long to reach us could constitute a movie all its own, as could the show’s vital but undervalued place in the character’s history. It’s hard to believe in these days of post-Christopher Nolan bad-assery, but the Caped Crusader was really on the ropes back in the 1960s. A decade earlier, the Comics Code Authority yanked the dark out of the Dark Knight, transforming Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s grim, brooding vigilante into a wacky, gelded father figure. Sales tanked in the face of newer, fresher superheroes like Green Lantern and The Flash, and by the time the mid-60s rolled around, it looked like Bats was going to hang up his utility belt for good. ABC bought the rights to the character for the princely sum of $7,000. That’s how bad things were.
And then a little bit of magic happened. It started with the show’s attitude, taking the excesses of the 50s comics and throwing a knowing wink into the mix. Suddenly, lame storylines involving outlandish crimes and ridiculous crises became a full-bore send up on pop culture. Producer William Dozier and head writer Lorenzo Semple, Jr. had the perfect sense of humor to make the absurdity work. Within their scripts, Gotham City’s hapless residents took it all deathly seriously, no matter how over-the-top it became, which elevated the material to a grand in-joke. At the same time, it stayed true to the origins, with the colorful sets and locations pulled straight out of the comics’ page. There was no dressing the heroes in black leather or muted colors to make them more “realistic.” Everything was bright, everything was larger than life, and the embrace of those sensibilities became a magic bullet to vanquish the turgid morass ensnaring the character.
Casting played an equally important role, and with West in the lead, the tone came almost second nature. He was staggeringly handsome – an ideal Bruce Wayne – and yet he had a knack for comedy that could make the material fly. Yet he could take it all seriously the way the character did; indeed, the Blu-ray extras reveal a remarkably accurate assessment of who Bruce Wayne really was. “He lives every day in pain,” West explained. “He’s overwhelmed by the death of his parents and he’s devoted every day of his life to making a difference.” That’s no different than Bale’s take; it just takes place in a much sillier universe, and there, too, West had what it took. His winks at the camera were almost imperceptibly clever, and the timing of his delivery sometimes hinged on a razor’s edge. He never wavered, not once, and with that, the show’s chemistry became electric.
He got some help from trusty sidekick Burt Ward, hired less for his acting skills than his almost supernatural ability to portray Pollyanna enthusiasm credibly. Add to it a rotating series of “guest villains” in on the fun, and the show arrived with the force of a hurricane. Suddenly, you couldn’t escape it: it didn’t so much move to the forefront of popular culture as devour it whole. Sales of the comics increased, West showed up on Life magazine, and with it, one of comics’ most enduring characters had a second lease on life.
And it took full advantage. The show’s unique cliffhanger format – created thanks to a quirk in ABC’s programming schedule that left two half-hour slots open on two concurrent days – meant that a huge number of episodes could be aired very quickly. Despite running for only three seasons, Batman amassed 120 episodes: more than enough to get it syndicated and introduce new fans to it for decades afterwards. For many of us, it became our first introduction to the character, along with later cartoons such as the Superfriends which took their cues from its friendly confines. (West even repeated the role in several subsequent Batman animated series.)
Watching the show now, its charms remain resolutely intact, as do the shortcomings that led to its eventual cancellation. Each week, a new villain would appear with some dastardly scheme to menace Gotham City. Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) and Chief O’Hara (Stafford Repp) would wring their hands impotently before using the bright red Bat-phone to call the Caped Crusaders into action. The formula was fun and engaging, but it rarely varied. Season Three mixed things up a bit by dropping the cliffhanger format and adding Yvonne Craig as the gorgeous Batgirl, but repetition led to over familiarity, and if you’ve seen one episode, you’ve pretty much seen them all.
That’s not necessarily a knock. It provides enough variation if you’re in the mood for it brand of goofiness, and taken in small amounts it will never tire out. It suffers only in relation to the binge-watching habits we’ve grown accustomed to in our media-saturated age. You can dip into it at any time, sample its treats, and then walk away without having to worry about lengthy character arcs or Byzantine plot threads.
Indeed, it works rather brilliantly in that context, especially with modern-day superheroes turning darker by the day. Warners’ infamous “no jokes” edict bears grim tidings for future movies, while their TV shows embrace the Nolan formula of ultra-serious superheroics. Marvel’s staying lighter, but they tend to highlight the bombast too, and while there’s nothing wrong with that principle, it’s becoming resolutely one-note. West’s Batman provides the perfect tonic for such po-faced self-seriousness. It gleefully sends up all the pomposity, deflating the sturm und drang without any derision or mean-spiritedness. It earned its share of scorn from fans over its perceived frivolity – the same attitude that ultimate sunk the similarly campy (and quite wonderful) Brave and the Bold animated series – but these days, its joyfulness makes for a much-needed tonic against prevailing “gritty realism” devouring the medium whole.
And you can actually find a few threads of real darkness poking out here and there. The show’s villains were uniformly great, and got into the spirit of the proceedings marvelously. But of all of them, Frank Gorshin walked a singular line between camp excess and genuine insanity. He made such an indelible comedic mark as the Riddler, that it’s easy to overlook the psychosis. This guy is scary, and in the midst of all the mincing and camp excess, if the man had suddenly produced a hatchet and buried it in Burt Ward’s skull it wouldn’t have been the least bit surprising. Every time he appeared, the show cranked up a few notches, and it was actually he, not Romero, who served as the blueprint for all those terrifying Jokers to come.
So with all that, why did it take so long to get to us? That takes some explaining, though it basically boiled down to how to divide the pie. William Dozier owned at least some of the rights, which passed on to multiple heirs when he died. No one could have imagined anything like video rights at the time, which left their status muzzy in the extreme. Fox owned the rest of the rights to the TV show, while Warners eventually purchased the rights to the character. The path through that all proved such a morass that no one was willing to do the legwork for many years. It took the persistence of a few die-hard fans – and the vocal support of a lot more – before it all finally came together.
The good news is that they weren’t going to skimp on this project after letting it sit for so long on the shelf. The huge box set contains all 120 episodes, restored to pristine perfection and letting every one of those pop-art colors shine. Considering that the only previous copies were old television airings and low-quality bootlegs, the difference in the experience is extreme.
The extra features take up a single disc and run about three hours. You won’t find anything completely unexpected, but Warners is to be commended on its quality. “Hanging with Batman” is a lengthy and surprisingly candid interview with West, looking it back on both the show itself, and the ups and downs of his career afterwards. A second feature, “Inventing Batman in the Words of Adam West,” basically recounts the first two episodes of the show With Adam West discussing his script notes along the way. It’s perhaps the most interesting of the bunch, since it reveals West’s keen understanding of the character from the get-go.
“Holy Memorabilia Batman!” covers some of the rare and interesting merchandizing that accompanied the show’s success. “Batmania Born!” goes into the show’s reflection of pop culture at the time, while “Na-Na-Na Batman!” is a quick dip into nostalgia with a number of famous Batman fans. “Bats of the Round Table” is similarly fluffy, as West sits down with Kevin Smith and other fans to talk about the show. The coolest stuff is actually the smallest: the original six-minute “pilot” that pitched Batgirl to the network execs, the original screen test with West and Ward, an alternate screen test featuring Lyle Waggoner and Peter Deyall ,and a memorial to the show’s post-production supervisor James Blakeley (the guy behind all those Biffs! and Pows!). The only thing missing from the set is a brilliant little ad for equal pay back in the 70s, featuring Craig and Ward. (West wanted to stay away from the part at the time, so a fill-in was used.) It would have been nice to see, but there’s always YouTube.
Finally, there are a few fun extras thrown into the box as well: a “scrapbook” collection from Adam West, a pack of 44 trading cards, and a very cool Hot Wheels version of the old Batmobile. The box itself has a fun little gimmick. if you push a button on the side, it plays the end of the famous theme. Not bad for a show that’s deserved a release – any release – for far too long. Enjoy the feast, fellow Bat-fans. They made it worth the wait.