Holy anniversary, Batman! It’s been 50 years since the Batman TV series burst onto our screens, catapulting Batman, Robin and a cavalcade of fearsome foes into viewers’ homes. Its run may have been relatively brief (three series and one movie) and its budget minuscule in comparison to Batman’s later big-screen appearances, but the impact of this show shouldn’t be underestimated.
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Fantastically entertaining on its own merits, the show’s wider legacy is immense. Even now, its theme tune is instantly recognizable, while Adam West and Burt Ward have recently returned to their roles for the animated film, “Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders.” Forget grim and gritty Batmen who talk with throats full of gravel; in celebration of this special anniversary we’ve picked 15 reasons (in no specific order) why “Batman” from 1966 is the show of choice for the discerning Bat-connoisseur.
15. Adam West
It’s probably fair to say that none of the big-screen Batmen since Michael Keaton donned the cowl in 1989’s “Batman” have fully convinced in the role. Some were effective as Bruce Wayne, some convinced as Batman, while others (looking at you, Mr. Clooney) just looked like they’d rather be in another movie. In hindsight, this isn’t so surprising. How could any actor hope to live up to the standard of the indomitable Adam West, a bona-fide pop culture icon?
Most importantly, there’s that oh-so-distinctive voice. It’s no surprise that in recent years, West has been in demand for a variety of voice-over work, including Mayor West in “Family Guy” and Catman in “Fairly Odd Parents.” What’s great about both of these roles is that they mirror the way that West played Batman, where he delivered often ridiculous lines with unshakable conviction. It would have been easy for West to play his Batman for laughs, but whether he was doing the Batusi or giving villains a stern talking-to, he took it equally seriously.
Many TV episodes were partly based on Batman’s comic adventures, but the incredible popularity of the show also had a direct impact on the comics. In one such example, Mr. Zero was renamed and re-developed as Mr Freeze for the show, a change that was then reflected in the comics. The show’s focus on Alfred as Bruce Wayne’s loyal Butler was also instrumental in the decision to bring him back to the comics, reversing his death from two years earlier. Arguably the most significant impact on the comics was in the show’s use of Batgirl.
The Bat titles already had a Bat-girl in the form of Betty Kane, but her character was phased out as part of the line’s revamp in 1964. The introduction of Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl three years later was a direct result of the TV series, with Producers asking Julius Schwartz to develop the hero in order to attract a wider female audience to the show. This new Batgirl first appeared in the comics in 1967, with Yvonne Craig portraying her on TV later that year.
A stronger, more independent character than her predecessor, Batgirl was tremendously successful in both mediums. By 1969, she had a regular feature in “Detective Comics,” while there was talk of her receiving a spin-off show after “Batman” ended in 1969, something that sadly never came to pass.
13. It Made The Bat Titles Relevant Again
With Batman now firmly ensconced in the comics ether as one of DC’s top sellers, it’s strange to think that in the early 1960s, Bat titles, if not in danger of cancellation, were underperforming. A large reason is that, throughout the ‘50s and into the ‘60s, the content of DC’s superhero comics was quirky, fantastical and somewhat childish (although undeniably entertaining). The development of the Marvel Universe in the wake of “Fantastic Four” #1 had the effect of making this approach look old-fashioned, with Marvel’s titles viewed as more challenging and innovative.
In response, Batman editor Julius Schwarz revamped the line in 1964, minimizing the more absurd elements (Batmite and Ace the Bat Hound being two casualties) and introducing a more serious tone. This had the effect of stopping the decline, but it was the success of the “Batman” TV series that led to the greatest sales increase. During its first season, the show was a tremendous success, helping Batman surpass Superman as the most recognizable superhero in North America. More important for the long-term future of the Bat titles was the show’s focus on classic villains such as Riddler and Penguin; their success on-screen allowed them to return to the comics after a long absence.
12. Batman’s Utility Belt
Long before the big guns and numerous pouches that adorned comic heroes of the ‘90s, Batman was accessorizing to fight crime. His famous utility belt, renowned for containing a tool for every crime-fighting scenario, first appeared in “Detective Comics” #29 in 1939.
The “Batman” TV show took this piece of Bat mythology and raised it to the next level. Adam West’s Batman truly had a utility belt that was bigger on the inside, containing equipment, gadgets or potions for every occasion. Whether Batarangs, an electronic hair Bat-analyser or the infamous Bat-Shark repellent, the utility belt contained a seemingly never-ending selection of wonders.
The utility belt in the TV show differed from the comics in one important way. The comics had historically portrayed the belt as being composed of several small, tube-like capsules. In the TV show, this was changed to pouches, to better contain the vast number of gadgets within. The comic version of the pouch utility belt was first drawn by Frank Miller in “The Dark Knight Returns” miniseries, becoming the accepted version in the following years. Does this mean that the Batman in “Dark Knight Returns” is actually an older version of the Adam West Batman? Mind blown.
11. Altered Public Perception Of Comics
Although there’s a growing recognition from the general public that comics are an art form in their own right, it’s still the case that many articles about superheroes are prefaced by “Pow,” “Ka-Boom,” “Bam” or other such sound effects. The reason can be traced to the Batman TV show and the incredible influence it had on the viewing public.
Shows like “Gotham” and “Arrow” may be popular, but at its peak, “Batman” was a phenomenon. During its first season, it was one of only two prime-time TV series to be broadcast twice in one week, and inspired a merchandising boom. Reaching more people and, more importantly, a broader age range than the comics themselves, it’s little wonder that the series had such an impact on the popular mindset. The irony is, of course, that if the show had been presented in the more serious style favored by some Bat fans, it’s highly unlikely that it would have achieved the same level of popularity.
10. The Bat Aesthetic
Love it or loathe it, the “Batman” TV series had an instantly recognizable aesthetic all its own. The theme tune is a thing of beauty, instantly recognizable from the first bars. The frequent fight scenes are enlivened by giant sound effects filling the screen, while the tone is relentlessly bright and optimistic. It didn’t matter what danger he faced or what death-trap he was placed in, Adam West’s Batman never lost hope, or his belief in the sanctity of justice. Unlike many of DC’s current movies and television shows, “Batman” wasn’t afraid to be family-friendly and wacky, and it was all the better for it.
The melodramatic voiceover is a key part of the show’s appeal, while Robin’s endless variations on “Holy… Batman” are always entertaining. One of the most enjoyable series tropes was that of Batman and Robin scaling buildings by means of a rope, often encountering celebrities — including Jerry Lee Lewis and Sammy Davis Jr. — along the way. The effect was achieved by rotating the camera 90 degrees and pulling their capes back with invisible string, creating an effect that was slightly ludicrous but tremendously fun; a description that could almost be the show’s mission statement.
9. Bruce Wayne AND Batman
Unlike characters such as Peter Parker, the civilian side of Batman has rarely been developed enough to allow for soap-opera shenanigans. The “Batman” TV show was a welcome exception, with a real focus on Bruce Wayne’s personal life. Part of this was undoubtedly for practical reasons — it’s highly unlikely that Adam West would have been happy with a role where he was constantly in costume, his true face never seen. But from a wider storytelling perspective, the increased focus on Bruce Wayne opened up a number of possibilities, particularly in how he interacted with the other characters in Batman’s world.
With their playful banter and sharp dressing, Adam West and Burt Ward as Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson make a great team. Their relationship with Alfred was well portrayed, while the addition of Dick’s Aunt Harriet gave the relationships in Wayne Manor an additional twist. The show has often been mocked for the seeming improbability of Bruce maintaining his secret identity, with Bruce and Batman sounding and acting almost exactly the same. This actually works really well in the context of the show, however, highlighting that neither personality is an “act,” and that both were equally valid (and delightfully campy).
8. The Best Bat Family
One aspect that modern Batman movies have struggled with is how to tie in the wider Bat-family. Robin was introduced in “Batman Forever” and Batgirl in “Batman and Robin,” with neither character being particularly well received. Indeed, it’s fair to say that the film careers of Chris O’Donnell and Alicia Silverstone never recovered. The dynamic between the three crime fighters was portrayed much more successfully on the small screen, where all three characters were shown in the best possible light.
When grouped together on the TV series, Batman, Robin and Batgirl have a very effective family dynamic. Batman is the father and teacher, always looking out for his students and imparting advice and valuable life lessons. Robin is the keen student, eager to impress and soaking up all Batman’s advice. Batgirl is initially the wild card — the outsider — but quickly becomes a key part of the team, turning the “Dynamic Duo” into the “Terrific Trio.”
7. Vehicle Design
Over the years, there have been numerous Batmobiles in comics and film, from barely-modified cars to armored tanks. Although there’s much discussion about which vehicle is the greatest, it’s really no contest: the Batmobile from the TV series is the clear winner. For starters, it looks beautiful, having an instantly recognizable design. Then there are all the gadgets contained within, including the Emergency Bat-turn lever, the Bat-tering Ram and the Bat-scope. Add in rocket boosters and some funky Bat symbols and it’s easy to see why it’s become such an iconic design.
The Batmobile wasn’t the only iconic vehicle in the series, though. Almost as recognizable is Batgirl’s purple motorcycle, a sweet looking machine that zoomed her through the mean streets of Gotham. Thanks to the larger budget of the 1966 “Batman” movie, Adam West’s Batman gained further vehicles, including the Bat-Copter and the Bat-Boat. While neither made many appearances beyond the film, they still look fantastic to this day, even though West later voiced frustration that producers wouldn’t let him drive either vehicle.
Over the eight modern-day Batman films, how many truly memorable villains have there been? Nicholson’s and Ledger’s Jokers, alongside Danny Devito’s Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman are probably the pick of the bunch. The rest, to put it kindly, were perhaps memorable for all the wrong reasons. The “Batman” TV series, by contrast, had a seemingly endless supply of perfect villains, with the most successful returning to menace Batman over and over again.
The Joker, The Riddler, The Penguin, Catwoman, Mr Freeze, Egghead and King Tut all returned to menace Batman on numerous occasions. The heavy focus on these characters reinforced the perception that they were Batman’s “A-list” foes, leading to an increase in their comic appearances. Each villain was so well captured, from the sensuality of Catwoman to the distinctive laugh of the Penguin. Frank Gorshin’s Riddler was a world away from Jim Carrey’s overexcited portrayal, while Cesar Romero was instantly recognizable as the Joker (even if he did refuse to shave his trademark mustache for the role). If a hero can be measured by the quality of his enemies, then Adam West’s Batman is very special indeed.
5. The Henchmen
Largely due to the tendency of modern-day villains to be rather bloodthirsty, the noble calling of a henchman doesn’t attract as many applicants as it once did. After all, why take the job as one of the Joker’s henchmen when there’s a high probability that you’ll end up dead on the ground with a rictus grin on your face? Thankfully, the Batman TV show makes full use of henchmen, and they play a vital role in the structure of the series.
Without henchmen, the fight sequences for which the show is renowned — with dramatic music and sound effects filling the screen — wouldn’t exist. The typical format was for Batman and Robin to locate the villain’s lair and engage the henchmen in battle while the villain got away, to return later in the episode for the final confrontation.
Possibly the greatest thing about the Henchmen in the show is that they’re so accepting of their lot in life. If they have to tackle Batman and Robin, well, that’s just part of the job. If they have to dress up in ridiculous attire to tie in with a villain’s motif, then that just comes with the territory. Give these henchmen a raise!
4. The Bat Cave
When people mock the TV series for being campy or tongue-in-cheek, what they often overlook is how inventive and imaginative the set design was. Wayne Manor and the Batcave are great examples, with the show making the Batcave look like a crimefighter’s paradise.
As every viewer knows, the Shakespeare bust in Wayne Manor covered a button that slid open a bookcase to reveal the Bat poles. Brilliantly, the wall behind the poles bore the helpful inscription “Access to Batcave via Batpoles,” perhaps in case Aunt Harriet got confused and tried to relive her youth.
The Batcave itself was a sensory feast, filled with all the Bat gadgets that a well-equipped crimefighter could hope for. Banks of computers contrasted with the cave rock walls, while the Batmobile took a place of pride in the center of the room. When the concealed entrance comes down and the Batmobile bursts through, speeding our heroes towards their next adventure, it never fails to excite.
Adam West’s Batman could handle himself in a fight, but would likely be the first to tell others that violence should always be a last resort and that a man’s greatest weapon is his own mind. This Bat-morality was a recurring feature of Batman’s character, making him perhaps the most responsible crimefighter of all time.
No trip in the Batmobile could commence until Batman had ensured that the seat belts were safely fastened, while Batman was always passing valuable advice on to Robin. The recent animated movie, “Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders,” has a nice call-back to this trope, when Batman lectures Robin on why he shouldn’t jaywalk. The public service announcements even extended to real life. The success of the show reportedly led to several children hurting themselves while trying to fly. As Batman, Adam West filmed an announcement to discourage children from this practice, assuring them that Batman couldn’t fly.
The final thing that makes West’s Batman such an appealing character is that he doesn’t kill his villains. This Batman is more likely to give them a lecture on the error of their ways before accompanying them to a support group, displaying the qualities that make him so lovable.
2. The Cliffhangers
If there’s one thing that modern-day villains have neglected, it’s the subtle art of the death-trap. Trying to kill your enemies may be effective, but where’s the fun in that? Where’s the flair? More importantly, if a hero isn’t rendered helpless by being strapped to a death-trap, how can a villain reveal the details of their nefarious plan? Thankfully the “Batman” TV series made full use of death-traps, a plot device that was necessary by the format of the show.
“Batman” was rather unusual for its time in that it was shown twice a week, meaning that most stories were two-part tales separated by one cliff-hanger. This invariably involved the dynamic duo being strapped to a convoluted death-trap, while the breathless narration invited viewers to tune in “Same Bat-time! Same Bat-channel!” Every week, Batman and Robin somehow escaped from the most dangerous situations. Some of the most famous examples included being trapped inside a giant hourglass by King Tut, attached to a retracting plank over a crocodile pit and of course, being tied to a giant rocket. Villains today have such a lack of imagination.
1. Bat Gadgets
Adam West’s Batman certainly loved his gadgets. As well as the gazillion gadgets secreted inside his utility belt, the Batmobile was chock-full-to-bursting with all manner of devices. One of the most entertaining things about scenes set inside the Batcave is that they offered a chance to see some of the gadgets stored within, made possible by Batman’s helpful tendency to label even the most innocuous of items. This Batman never met a gadget that couldn’t be improved by adding the prefix of “Bat.” Thus, viewers were introduced to the Bat-tering Ram, the Batscilloscope viewer and a host of other devices with increasingly ridiculous names. Even the villains got in on the act, helpfully labeling all their dastardly contraptions. The Penguin took this motif one step further, making all of his henchmen wear shirts reading “Henchmen.”
The question remains though: exactly who was in charge of labeling all of these items? There’s a strong chance that all the chores in Wayne Manor were being neglected while Alfred cranked up the label-maker for the 50th time that day.
Will readers agree with CBR’s choices? Will CBR’s site and Facebook page be swamped by a cavalcade of comments? To find out, tune in same CBR time! Same CBR channel!
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