It’s easy to forget that there was actually a time when Batman was fun. That time was 50 years ago, when the ripples of Fredric Wertham’s despicable anti-comic diatribe Seduction of the Innocent were still being felt. His book claimed that comics were sinful trash that converted the children—by God, the children!—into homosexual deviants. The television series Batman, which ran from 1966 to ’68 on ABC, knowingly acknowledged and lampooned Wertham’s seething, masturbatory harangue in a way that defied the era’s TV standards. Starring Adam West and Burt Ward, two unknowns cast largely for their affable faces, the series (now available for the first time on DVD and Blu-ray in a snazzy, wallet-purging boxed set from Warner Home Video) remains one of the format’s great cultural touchstones. Replete with double entendres for the parents and giddy inanity for the kids, it’s everything Susan Sontag loved and loathed about camp amalgamated into a half-hour lark.
West’s stagey, straight-faced turn as the caped crusader was, for several generations, the only version of Batman that non-comic-readers knew. People associated his pot-bellied hero with onomatopoeia and Robin’s pasty thighs, and more than 20 years later, when former funnyman Michael Keaton took up the cowl for Tim Burton’s blockbuster, people expected more shenanigans. What they got instead was something out of Bob Kane’s nightmares, more akin to Frank Miller’s Reagan-era neo-anarchist freedom fighter.
Indeed, West’s Batman remains the outlier in the Bat-canon. Keaton is mysterious, his black-velvet voice and vacuous eyes drawing you in as his Bruce Wayne nearly puts you to sleep with his banality. And Christian Bale, in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, so gravel-throated and pious, represents Batman at his most solemn; his Bruce, however, is a billionaire playboy whose Tom Ford suits and voluptuous arm-candy veil his heroic lunar activities, whereas Keaton seemingly spent his free time alone. And, of course, Joel Schumacher’s Batmen are bad jokes, with Val Kilmer obviously zoned out, counting the zeros on his paycheck in every shot, and George Clooney appearing embarrassed.
But West’s Batman is the only one that bears absolutely no resemblance, save for his pointy ears and cape, to his comic source, seemingly spitting in its face. Even Clooney’s Batman has discernible similarities to the Batman of the 1950s, the era of giant bugs and diabolical scientists and zany colors. William Dozier, producer of the TV show, wasn’t a comic fan; he felt that the only way to transcribe Batman for a modern audience was to create a pop-art romp in the vein of Jerry Lewis by way of Andy Warhol. The original choice to play Batman was former linebacker Mike Henry, who would’ve offered a more dramatic, and more muscular, rendition. But Dozier wanted camp, and West won the part after his audition with Ward.
West and Ward are antipodal to every subsequent incarnation of Batman and Robin. The dynamic duo are blithe fuddy duddies turned billionaire scions in spandex. Their square busy-body personas, in turtle necks and tweed sport jackets, make painfully clear their societal standing, as well as their complete quarantine from the advent of the counter-culture. (The contemporaneous comics addressed Robin’s inexplicable ire for hippies in a retelling of Batman’s first tale, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” which ends with a mutual admittance of misunderstanding.) If anything, they more closely resemble Werther’s ill-informed, debased misunderstanding of comics—with a wink and smirk, of course.
Baby genocide aside, the most jarring aspect of Burton’s two Batman flicks is that the title character basically plays second fiddle to the monstrous villains; in that regard, and only that regard, Burton’s films are kindred spirits of the TV series, what with its coterie of colorful villains standing in sharp contrast to West’s milquetoast Batman. Cesar Romero, who played the Joker (he refused to shave his trademark mustache, so they just painted it white), once said that the show’s writers told him the villains were the real stars. And the talent recruited to play these villains was staggering, including Burgess Meredith, Milton Berle, Otto Preminger (who was later replaced by Eli Wallach), Rudy Vallee (!), and Vincent Price. Julie Newmar played Catwoman for the first season, and her sensuous turn was considered racy for network television. But her replacement was even racier: Eartha Kitt, who became the first black woman to have a leading role on a primetime television series in the third and final season.
The show has unfairly endured a legacy of shame. It’s blamed for the dilution of Bob Kane’s crime fighter, for rendering a serious figure comical. Bruce Timm, producer of the astounding and much-beloved Batman the Animated Series, isn’t a fan for this very reason. But this grand entertainment should be understood less as a tried-and-true vision of the Batman universe than as a precursor to the free-for-fall anarchism of Adult Swim, even ’80s-era MTV. It’s not really Batman, and anyone who objects need only marvel at West dancing in a club in his Bat-spandex as Robin watches, creepily and voyeuristically, from the Bat-TV in the Bat-mobile.
The show remains surreal in its relentless absurdity, sincere and never anything less than self-aware, and, at times, acerbically smart. As in the episode in which Batman and Penguin have a political debate on television, with the Penguin portraying a Nixon-like character. This sort of referentiality allowed the show to appeal to more than just kids parked in front of television sets in their footie pajamas. They had to settle for the pow-bam-splatt! comic zaniness of the fight sequences and the easier digestibility of episodes whose moral lessons included saying no to drugs, doing your homework, and brushing your teeth—episodes which have their tongues so deeply embedded into their cheeks that, watching them today, they feel as if they’re on the brink of choking to death, but with a straight face of course.