While the second biggest snowfall New York City has ever seen accumulated outside my apartment this past Saturday, I decided to watch something that felt appropriate: the Mister Freeze episodes of “Batman ’66.” The show is delightfully bonkers and it marries many things I love (superheroes, the sixties, mod fashion, deadpan humor) together. If I had a time machine, I’d gladly abuse it to get the chance to write for the ’60s “Batman” series — but just for a few weeks. I don’t think I could deal with the decade’s secondhand smoke and homophobia.
So while I watched Mister Freeze kidnap Ms. Iceland (yep) and turn public opinion against the Dynamic Duo (“Nothing has ever cut me so deeply to the quick, no blow ever struck by any arch villain has ever hurt me so acutely — as that little boy’s boo”), I kept wondering if the “Batman ’66” vibe could work nowadays on television. Could a show be as fun as this one? Could it be as joyfully weird? Could it amass as great a rogue’s gallery? But my desire to bring the “Batman ’66” ethos to modern television kept hitting a dead-end, because there already is a show that embraces its comic roots, jumps right into the weird-end of the superhero pool, features over-the-top villains on a weekly villain and is just overall fun.
That show is “The Flash.”
To reiterate, this is in no way a diss. I think I’ve made it abundantly clear the respect I have for “Batman ’66.” I even wrote about my affection for that series in this very column almost three years ago. “Batman ’66” was my first exposure to superheroes in any form. And while I do get annoyed when the general public persists on pigeonholing the genre as totally “Wham! Pow!” and ignores the progress superheroes have made over the past 50 years, that doesn’t mean I love “Batman” any less. I actually think it’s a stupendously well-done show, one that knew exactly what it wanted to do and executed it exquisitely. I think it’s a show that was made by smart people — and that’s made more apparent when you see knock-offs that replicate a pale version of show’s campiness with none of it’s self-aware bite. So when I compare “The Flash” to “Batman ’66,” know that this is where I’m coming from.
When looking at the current crop of superhero TV shows, “The Flash” is the only one that comes close to matching the giddiness of “Batman ’66.” That’s not a knock on any other super show; they all operate at maximum efficiency in their own subgenres. “The Flash” isn’t dark like “Daredevil” or “Jessica Jones,” nor is it as serious as its own counterpart “Arrow.” “Flash” doesn’t have “Agent Carter’s” progressive noir tinge, and “Flash” embraces its comic heritage much more than “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” There’s definitely a case to be made that “Gotham” is actually an updated “Batman ’66,” what with its crazy plot twists and theatrical villains, but that Bat-show just isn’t as much fun as the ’60s Bat-show. And “The Flash” is fun.
“The Flash” is a fun superhero show because, like “Batman ’66,” it confidently rushes past all real world logic in order to present the source material in a totally unfiltered manner. Okay, “Flash” at least tosses in quick explanations from their numerous science-brain characters to explain when time travel and/or alternate Earths and/or telepathic gorillas become relevant to the plot — but “The Flash” still goes there. “Batman” went there too; the very first episode features Frank Gorshin’s Riddler on the scene in Gotham, fully formed and going up against Batman and Robin, who are also well past their origin stories. “Flash’s” eagerness to just go for it, regardless of whether or not it’s “grounded,” is the DNA that can be traced back to “Batman.” Again, “Flash” is a show that promised viewers a telepathic gorilla in the pilot episode and then delivered on that promise. Is there any other modern super-show that could pull that off?
Additionally, “The Flash” isn’t afraid to use super villains. Like, super villains with super powers and costumes. Oh — who are also unapologetic about their bad deeds. And they use crazy gadgets. And set traps. And make elaborate vows to, you know, destroy the Flash and his pals. This is what makes “Flash” so refreshing to me. Other superhero shows either create new villains (usually with more budget-conscious powers) or have the heroes fight nameless crime lords and gang leaders and terrorists. “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” each fought basically one comic book villain each in their respective first seasons. “S.H.I.E.L.D.” consistently comes up with original bad guys, most of them shadowy government and/or Hydra figures. “Batman ’66” pulled heavily from the comic, pitting the show’s heroes against Riddler, Penguin, Joker, Mister Freeze, Mad Hatter and Catwoman regularly. Okay, it also made up its own villains (Egghead!), but I can’t accuse “Batman” of shying away from heavy-hitters. And still, “’66” created characters that were somehow even more outlandish than the comic villains! They didn’t play it safe!
“Flash” doesn’t play it safe either, and it never has. Maybe this is because the Scarlet Speedster has one of the deepest benches when it comes to bad guys; “Flash” can bust out legit comic book villains every single week because, well, there are enough of them. The way these bad guys are handled on the show is also pretty darn “’66”-y. They all get actual super villain names — like Weather Wizard, Trickster, Golden Glider, Turtle, Captain Cold, Gorilla Grodd, Zoom, Reverse-Flash! — and most of them wear modernized costumes.
Captain Cold is the villainous embodiment of “Flash” and “Batman’s” overlap; he has a Silver Age comic name, uses a scientifically dubious gadget, and chews the hell out of every scene he’s in. I really can’t praise Wentworth Miller’s performance enough. He plots and schemes and sneers and cackles in exactly the same way that Burgess Meredith and Cesar Romero did in the ’60s. Miller relishes every dramatic pause and punctuates every one of his withering remarks with an appropriately ice cold glare. Miller gives Leonard Snart shades of humanity, for sure, and Captain Cold is definitely darker than his ’60s counterparts, but the similarities are still boldly apparent.
Just like Batman and Robin, Team Flash has a knack for creating the exact right gadget for every problem that comes their way. Granted, a sizable chunk of the cast is an expert in some scientific field, so the show gets away with it — but Harrison Wells did quickly whip up a pair of goggles for Cisco to enhance his vibe powers right when the show needed it to happen. And beyond that, the show has introduced gadgets and serums that open and close portals, manipulate energy, manipulate speed and enhance or dampen powers as needed. The show takes every opportunity to have its super scientists do some super science, making “Flash” possibly more gadget-y than all of Marvel’s super-spy shows. Fingers crossed Cisco starts insisting they use the prefix “Flash” in all their invention names. Also, just like the ’60s Wayne Manor, S.T.A.R. Labs sits atop a secret structure that’s filled with catacombs and hidden rooms.
To keep the similarities going, “The Flash” also looks the most like a modern “Batman ’66.” Okay — I can see where that could really be taken the wrong way, because of “Batman’s” high school production values and warehouses full of empty cardboard boxes. What I mean is that of all the superhero shows, “The Flash” looks the most traditionally comic-book-y (with “Supergirl” coming in a possible second). The looks of “S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “Gotham,” “Arrow” and the Netflix shows can be summed up with the word “dark,” with a side of “realism” and “gritty.” “The Flash” doesn’t play like that! The Flash is red and Reverse-Flash is yellow and the sun shines and Cisco wears loud t-shirts. In the most recent episode, the straightforwardly titled “The Reverse-Flash Returns,” Team Flash had a very serious discussion about the titular villain’s fate while standing in front of his prison cell — a cell that was outlined with neon blue and surrounded by daring reddish-purple lights. Even when the show goes for the drama, it still has eye-catching colors.
Of course the shows are different, too; I’m not making the case for “The Flash” being a reincarnated “Batman.” Heck, I’ve already compared “The Flash” and the rest of the current comic shows to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” How can “Flash” be both?! I actually think that the “Flash’s” “Buffy” elements, its drama and serialization, make it modern. Those elements pull that surprisingly “Batman ’66” aesthetic forward in time. “Batman ’66” never got legitimately dramatic, unlike “The Flash,” although both shows play their incredibly implausible realities totally straight. Neither show sells out the reality they’ve created, even if those realities involve Bat Sprays and massive humanoid sharks. But “Flash” goes further than “Batman” — it has to, that’s what modern TV is like. “Flash” goes for heartbreaking drama just as much as it goes for upbeat applause-inducing heroics. “Batman” didn’t do that, and I mean, I don’t think “Batman” should have done that. Can you imagine Adam West channeling Jesse L. Martin in order to give Robin a Joe West-style inspirational dad talk? Okay, that actually would be interesting…
But you know what “Batman” did do? Serialization. Okay, it didn’t do brain-bending season-long mystery arcs like “Flash” is pulling off right now, but it did do more than was expected of shows at the time. Each half-hour episode in “Batman’s” first two seasons were two-parters, meaning that stories carried over into at least (and usually at most) two episodes. Will Batman and Robin get out of the glue/razor/spike/bee trap they’ve been caught in? You had to tune in the next night to find out! This is obviously serialization training wheels, but it’s not nothing and actually seems a bit revolutionary considering the shows it aired alongside. Nowadays all dramas are expected to have a hook at the end, and “Flash” is no exception.
So no, “Flash” isn’t a direct one-to-one copy of “Batman ’66.” Modern TV standards dictate that the show have a bit of drama to it as well as actual stakes (Batman and Robin always survived those glue traps!), but when you look at what “The Flash” does that no other super-shows do? All that color, all those gadgets, all those bombastic villains, and the unapologetic comic-book-iness of it all? That feels a lot like “Batman ’66,” and that’s high praise coming from me.
Brett White is a writer and comedian living in New York City. He made videos for the Upright Citizens Brigade as a member of UCB1 and writes for the podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).