These days, film audiences are expected to take the cinematic Batman very seriously. He’s no longer an object of fantastical escapism, but a manifestation of society’s greatest fears. Tim Burton arguably first popularised this trend with 1989’s Batman, while Christopher Nolan’s masterful Dark Knight trilogy used the Caped Crusader as a heavy-handed metaphor for the war on terror. Zack Snyder took this murkiness to new heights with last year’s Batman V Superman, in which Ben Affleck’s ageing Batman wantonly beat criminals to death and blew them to pieces without remorse.
In this context, the original Batman movie from 1966 might seem like an archaic oddity – a simple adventure for a more innocent time, when the Dark Knight was no more than an out-of-shape Adam West in lyrca. Look closer, however, and this camp extravaganza may be a more intelligent film than you remember. At its core, I would venture, it functions as an ironic deconstruction of the comic-book genre, pioneering a style that has been much imitated and parodied, but never bettered. Yes, Batman is postmodern cinema at its most effortlessly enjoyable.
The brilliance of the film stems from that fact that it may be enjoyed on two levels. For children, it’s a straightforward adventure story, in which our heroes risk life and limb in order to overcome evil and save the world. From a synopsis, the storyline appears as such. Four criminal masterminds – Joker, Riddler, Penguin, and Catwoman – have joined forces to commit the ultimate kidnapping; the entirety of the United Nations Security Council. To defeat them, Batman and Robin must avoid a series of equally dastardly attempts on their lives.
Upon revisiting, however, a clear vein of satire begins to emerge throughout the film, as comic-book conventions are mercilessly picked apart. To this end, the villains’ plots are hilariously convoluted, as are their attempts to kill the elusive Batman. In one sequence, the Joker rigs a trap Jack-in-the-box to throw the crime-fighter through a window and “into the waiting arms of Penguin’s exploding octopus”. Naturally, Batman always has the necessary tools on hand to ensure his escape, most infamously his ‘shark repellent bat-spray’.
Within this parody are some genuinely brilliant moments of visual comedy. A memorable highlight is Batman’s extended attempt to dispose of a bomb, only to find a succession of innocent bystanders in his way, including a marching band, a mother and child, a pair of nuns, a raft of ducklings, and a canoodling couple. Of course, there are also the iconic fight sequences, in which onomatopoeic words flash on screen with every strike, mimicking the style of comic book panels.
Meanwhile, the script delivers some infinitely quotable dialogue. The best line is undoubtedly Batman’s stern statement that “they may be drinkers, Robin, but they’re also human beings”, words from which I take a lot of comfort. But the Riddler’s ludicrously obscure riddles always raise a chuckle – “What weighs six ounces, sits in a tree and is very dangerous? A sparrow with a machine gun.”
Beyond mocking the conventions of its source material, Batman even dips its toes into political satire. It’s not quite Dr Strangelove, but the screenplay manages to gently lampoon the political atmosphere of the Cold War. Accordingly, the UN Security Council is portrayed as a combative and impotent body, while the Penguin is able to buy a pre-atomic submarine from a gormless US Navy official without even leaving a full address.
Of course, the iconic status of Batman owes a great deal to the central performance of Adam West. In a world of insanity, he plays the straight man. His deadpan delivery and dulcet tones are perfectly contrasted with the absurdity that’s unfolding around him, a comic style later cultivated by Leslie Nielsen in Airplane! and the Naked Gun movies. Even lines as innocuous as “salt and corrosion, the infamous old enemies of the crime fighter” take on a new hilarity coming from West. So perfect was the casting that the actor, now aged 88, continues to reprise the role in voice performances, including last year’s direct-to-DVD Batman: Return Of The Caped Crusaders.
For modern audiences, the incredulous atmosphere of Batman may, regrettably, bring to mind Joel Schumacher’s 1997 train-wreck, Batman & Robin. Where Batman succeeds, however, is in a level of self-awareness that’s entirely missing from Schumacher’s film. While both movies are coated in camp, the 60s effort adds a thick layer of irony; it acknowledges how ridiculous it is, and embraces that absurdity as a critique of its own source material. Batman & Robin adopts the exaggerated comic-book aesthetic of the original, but carries with it none of the satire. Both movies rely on a cast of thin caricatures, but where Batman plays it for laughs, Schumacher expects his audiences to invest themselves emotionally. In 1966, the world of Batman was one big joke, and the audience was along for the ride. With Batman & Robin, I get the impression that the joke is on us.
In fact, a more interesting comparison with Batman would be last year’s anarchic X-Men spin-off, Deadpool. Both films provide a similarly self-aware perspective on a well-worn formula, drawing attention to contrivances and clichés for all their comedic potential. But where the surface level of Batman had a naïve, childlike quality, Deadpool emphasises cynicism and gore. The expectations of audiences may have changed, but postmodern subversion of the comic-book genre is nothing new.
The imagery of Batman, and the TV series from which it originated, has become an essential part of popular culture, referenced in everything from Only Fools And Horses to The Simpsons. In comic-book cinema, this comedic and campy approach has fallen out of favour in recent years, as we strive to place the character of Batman within modern-day concerns. And perhaps that’s for the best. As Joel Schumacher ably demonstrated, it’s not easy to replicate that feeling of sixties excess without losing all sense of perspective. Batman was produced in a time of counter-culture and social dislocation – the same year that The Beatles released Rubber Soul and the United States intensified its involvement in the Vietnam war. Perhaps the disorienting madness of Batman stands as the perfect record of that era.