Retroactive Continuity 3: Batman (1966)

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It’s July 30, 1966. The top movie is this very film, soon to be overtaken by Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The top song is “Wild Thing” by the Troggs; elsewhere in the top ten we have Tommy James and the Shondells, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Rolling Stones.

In the news, the Vietnam War is over a decade old, with heavy and steadily increasing American involvement for the last two. On July 4, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act into law; on July 16 British Prime Minister Harold Wilson flies to Moscow to try to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War. He is not successful. On August 1, sniper Charles Whitman will climb a tower at the University of Texas, Austin, kill 13 people, and wound 31 more. On August 5 comes the groundbreaking for the World Trade Center, and a civil rights march in Chicago where Martin Luther King, Jr is hit with one of a number of rocks thrown by a mob of angry whites.

These are turbulent times. If the 90s of Batman the Animated Series are characterized by a feeling of apocalypse deferred, the mood of the mid- to late-60s is one of imminent apocalypse, whether that takes the form of revolution–Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution starts two weeks after this movie opens, while the very different cultural revolution promoted by the anti-war and counterculture movements is rapidly building–or the more literal apocalypse of nuclear annihilation that hangs as a spectre over the entire Cold War era.

Which apocalypse, of course, is the same as the one deferred by the 1990s: the doldrums of the 70s shattered the hippies and gave rise to Thatcher and Reagan, communism fizzled out and the Soviet Union more-or-less quietly fell to pieces, and nuclear proliferation gradually began to decline without any kind of apocalypse or revolution happening at all.

Not that five- or ten-year-old me was thinking of such things while watching this movie. Because here, really, is where I come in. Long before Batman the Animated Series, before I’d ever read a superhero comic or seen the Tim Burton movies, there was the Saturday matinee on channel 5, WTTG. Although it was one of the first six Fox affiliates in 1986, the network originally only provided late-night programming, and didn’t fill the prime-time slots for the entire week until the early 1990s, let alone such minor slots as early Saturday afternoons. Yet that is where my earliest media memories lie: in the mid-1980s, after a morning of watching cartoons–in a complex pattern that involved switching between channels 4 (NBC), 7 (ABC), and 9 (CBS) on a schedule planned out carefully at the beginning of every new season–I would then switch to channel 5 to watch their weekly movie. I don’t remember the cartoons–some of the bumpers, notably ABC’s employing a catchy song with the lyrics “After these messages, we’ll be right back,” and CBS’ involving Felix the Cat, have stuck, but not the shows themselves–but the movies? Oh yes, I remember the movies: Krull was the absolute standout, cause for celebration whenever it came on, but there was also The Black Hole, Ghostbusters, the four Superman movies, The Neverending Story, Legend–in hindsight, it is clear that whoever had control of this time slot was a big fan of fantasy films, luckily for young me. And also, not infrequently, there was this movie: 1966’s Batman.

The movie is, of course, a tie-in to the television series which ran for three seasons from 1966 to 1969, starring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin. That was on TV when I was a kid, too, and was a staple of my weekday afternoons. I, of course, had no idea that it was 20 years old; I just knew that it was both very silly and rather exciting, plus the cars were oddly shaped, curvier and bigger than the familiar boxy designs I knew. The show mostly aired in two-episode blocks, reflecting its structure as a sequence of two-part serials (a structure we will see again, quite a ways down the line). Quite intelligently, however, this did not mean that a complete two-parter aired each day; instead, the episodes were offset by one, so that the first episode was the second part of the previous day’s second episode, and the second episode was the first part of a new serial, thus preserving the logic and energy of the cliffhanger. Said cliffhangers were always the same: Batman, Batman and Robin, or occasionally just Robin or some other party, caught in a seemingly inescapable deathtrap while an enthusiastic announcer worried about their fate and urged us to tune in again tomorrow, “same Bat Time, same Bat Channel.”

There are, of course, no cliffhangers in the movie. It maintains the same structure of captures and escapes that characterizes the serials on which it’s based (not just the television show from which it spun off, but the film serials of the 1940s which serve as one of that show’s primary inspirations), but without long gaps or anxious narrators, they do lose a bit of their punch. It also lacks the glorious opening theme song of the television series, which shows up in instrumental form a few times but is never sung.

This is made up for by upping the ridiculousness significantly: exploding sea creatures, elaborate ruses, and truly absurd riddles fill the film courtesy of its quartet of villains, Catwoman, Joker, the Penguin, and the Riddler. The Bat-Copter happens to carry a variety of repellant sprays, including Shark-Repellant Bat Spray, the Bat-Boat comes with a bazooka-like Bat Charge tube for dealing with submarines, and Alfred adds a domino mask to his usual suit, bowler hat, and glasses when driving the Batmobile.

This movie is silly, and it knows it. It is a high example of deliberate camp, an aesthetic of excess which subverts by exaggeration. Take, for instance, West’s performance as Batman. It is excessively precise, every word over-enunciated, constantly calling attention to Batman’s characteristic stoicism, resolve, and barely restrained trauma in a way that makes it impossible to take seriously. This is not bad acting by any means; it is a series of deliberate, conscious choices designed to make the audience laugh at how seriously he takes the silliness on display, to heighten the contrast between Batman’s dramatic, hypermasculine presentation and the nonsensical chaos around him (including his absurdly flimsy-looking purple costume).

The skill of West’s performance is important to acknowledge, because ultimately Adam West’s Batman lives in a world no sillier than Kevin Conroy’s. Oh, the 1966 version is much more brightly colored and lit than in 1992, to be sure, but they’re still both a place where a woman dresses as a cat to steal jewels, while a major leader of organized crime dresses and squawks like a penguin and has an obsession with birds. Admittedly, Mark Hamill’s Joker is a terrifying murderer deformed body and soul by an unknown accident, while Cesar Romero’s paints over his mustache with clown makeup, but they both are still thieves and killers prone to lethal pranks. One of the key differences between the two worlds is the degree of performativity; West’s arch, knowing performance winks at the audience, making it okay to laugh at the absurdity on display, while Conroy’s less self-consciously over-serious take instead highlights the horror of that same absurdity.

The result is that West’s performance is far more subversive than Conroy’s or, indeed, any other person to play Batman in television or film, up to and including the Brave and the Bold cartoon. The key here is camp’s power to subvert through performance, and the best example of that is what West does to Batman’s masculinity. Batman, you see, stands at the pinnacle of two different constructions of masculinity. As a paragon of aristocratic masculinity, he is intelligent, well-educated, athletic, wealthy, a philanthropist, a skilled fighter and strategist, versed in analysis, logic, and the sciences. At the same time, as a paragon of lower-class masculinity, he is stoic, strong, quiet, tough, capable of tremendous violence if provoked, driven by passion and anger. Of course, since modern U.S. culture tries to pretend it doesn’t have classes, these same constructions take slightly different forms–rather than saying Batman is both the ultimate aristocratic and lower-class male in one, we can equally say, regarding the exact same traits, that he is both the ultimate nerd and the ultimate jock.

By playing these traits to such ridiculous extremes, however, West makes them ridiculous. The film does something similar in its opening dedication, when it announces itself dedicated to “crimefighters everywhere” and “lovers of freedom,” “lovers of adventure,” and so on, following which it apologizes for any sizable groups of lovers it may have inadvertently missed–while showing two young lovers making out, making it quite obvious which group of lovers it deliberately skipped mentioning. Recall that this is the 1960s; the show is clearly positioning itself as being overtly on the side of authority, but in spirit preferring the sexy young rebels of the counterculture.

The film is deeply skeptical of establishment authority. Consider the scene in the Admiral’s office, where he cheerily admits to selling military surplus to a “P. N. Guin” (who provided no identification or address!), before returning to playing games with a uniformed woman, presumably his aide or secretary given the times. Equally damning are the scenes at the “United World,” a U.N. stand-in where a roomful of national stereotypes shout over each other in their native languages about the importance of peace, while showing no sign of listening to or attempting to understand one another. In other words, neither our leaders in war nor those supposed to guide us to peace are remotely competent; the large-scaled structures of our society stand exposed as being just as self-importantly silly as West’s Batman or Meredith Burgess’ Penguin. Thus, when Commissioner Gordon floats the absurd notion that Batman–who, like “P. N. Guin,” provides neither a real name nor an address–is a “duly deputized” and legal agent of the police, followed by Robin emphatically declaiming “Support [the] police!” we know this is not to be taken any more seriously. And indeed, Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara are no more effective than the other authorities we see, managing to avoid the self-defeating absurdity of the U.S. Navy or the United World only because they have the sense to call Batman every time there’s a problem.

So we turn to Batman as the defender and savior of the normal world that the authorities can no longer protect. Yet that in itself is absurd; he is a man in tights munching on the scenery, confidently and gleefully lampooning his character’s supposed dual hypermasculinity by playing him with exaggerated performativity that emphasizes his artificiality and renders him as absurd as the world around him. It is useful, here, to contrast another example of an equally skillful actor who utilized the same approach at around the same time, and who likewise then built a career out of playing a parody of himself: William Shatner as Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk. The primary difference is that Batman (both show and film) is deliberately campy and the character is written as a parody; Kirk, at least at first, was written as a straightforward example of the square-jawed manly-man commander who recurred in countless military and science fiction films of the 1950s and 60s, and the campy, parodic elements were introduced by Shatner as a way to inject life into an already cliche character.

The result in both cases is to undermine the alliance between the character and the authoritarian power structures to whom he supposedly holds allegiance–the military for Kirk, the police for Batman. The more the film protests that Batman is allied to and an agent of that authority, the more we recognize that he is in fact undermining it. Right up until the end, when he and Robin leave “inconspicuously–through the window” (one of the film’s best lines, incidentally) to escape a roomful of bickering peace representatives who are now shouting over each other in each other’s languages, demonstrating that even with the power to understand one another, they’re still incompetent.

See again young me watching this at the tail of the Cold War which inspired it. I haven’t yet watched the Sean Connery Bond movies it parodies with the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Kitka, I don’t know what mod is, and if I’ve heard of the Vietnam War, it’s only vaguely. But even so, I can tell that this is both an adventure and very silly, a combination which I didn’t encounter much at the time. Young me may not be able to elucidate it, but there is a duality here, a working across multiple levels, that will recur in other favorite works over the next few years, particularly in the Warner Bros. television cartoons that will, ultimately, give rise to the DCAU.


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3 thoughts on “Retroactive Continuity 3: Batman (1966)

  1. Excellent post, although as a subject of a country which does have a class system, I’m confused by “aristocratic masculinity” = “nerd”. When I think of aristocratic masculinity, I think of jocks; the rugger buggers who don’t need the ability to think because they’re top of the heap anyway. It’s possible for an upper class person to be a nerd, certainly, but the stereotypes don’t overlap in any meaningful way. (Of course, when I think of lower class masculinity, I also think of jocks. Nerds don’t seem to be the pinnacle of any kind of masculinity. Speaking as a lower-class nerd.)

    (I kind of disagree about Shatner, who I think played it pretty much straight when it was written straight, but was aware of the potential for camp and would play into it when appropriate, but that’s just personal interpretation of basically the same point. And since I know I don’t always pick up on things, I could be wrong.)

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  2. I should have been clearer, that I was speaking of class norms circa the industrial revolution or so, when “lower class” meant physical labor and “upper class” meant education and leisure. Nowadays increasingly physical fitness is a symbol of leisure time, and thus part of the domain of the upper class.

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