Test Pilot #45: Batman (1966)
Debut date: January 12, 1966
Series legacy: One of the more famous superhero adaptations on television; a bit of a joke
Welcome friends, to the second Test Pilot Special Theme Week. We had such great success with the week devoted to Joss Whedon-produced series back at the first of the year that I thought it would be fun to take another stab at it.
Every day this week, a guest and I will take on a famous (or in a few cases, infamous) pilot focused on a famous comic book superhero. These characters have become massive properties in the film industry over the last 20 years (especially the last 10-12), driving many of the highest-grossing movies of all-time. This summer season kicked off with Whedon’s Avengers, perhaps the most anticipated film in the genre and one that succeeded all expectations. New Batman and Spider-Man films are soon to come. Superheroes are big business for film.
But on television? Geesh. Networks have attempted televised adaptations of popular superhero characters for decades, but most of them have failed, commercially, creatively or (in most cases) both. This theme will take a look at some of the high-profile attempts to make superheroes fly on the small screen and consider what worked and what did not.*
*Our discussions will focus solely on live-action superhero series. It is important to note that animated series centered on comic book heroes have thrived for years, and continue to do so. Surely there is more to the varying successes than simply visual effects and budgets, right?
Today, we start with one of the earliest and most recognizable superhero projects to make it to television: Batman. The Adam West/Burt Ward vehicle is something of a punchline in 2012, but it ran for 120 episodes almost 50 years ago and was the preeminent superhero project on television for a long time. Thus, Batman feels like the perfect place to begin this exploration.
Joining me to kick off the week is Andy Daglas. Andy writes the TV-centric blog The Vast Wasteland for ChicagoNow, occasionally dabbles in non-TV-centric writing at andrewdaglas.com, is a co-creator of This Was Television and devotes an inordinate amount of energy to Twitter. Mr. Daglas, take it away:
Not too long ago, when the average American thought of comic books, they probably thought of the 1966 version of Batman.
This may be disconcerting if your cultural consciousness has only developed within the last decade or so. Now we live in a world where comic book heroes populate the marquee blockbusters of the last dozen summers. A world of Christopher Nolan’s allegorical Dark Knight, of Sir Ian McKellan’s Shakespearean Magneto. Comic book narratives have more credibility in the broader pop culture universe than ever before.
Yet for many, comic books will only ever mean three things: BIFF!, ZAP!, and KAPOW! And the 1966 Batman is the reason why.
Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin defined the superhero genre for millions of TV viewers, through two years in prime time on ABC and dozens of years in syndication. It is my totally unscientific estimate that Batman was, by a longshot, the most ubiquitous live-action representation of comic book narratives for over 20 years (perhaps matched only by Christopher Reeve’s Superman movies). It’s fair to call this silly, low-budget confection a major landmark for not one but two art forms.
Each installment of Batman followed the same pattern: Villain Of The Week, flanked by thematically-garbed flunkies, initiates Dastardly Scheme Of The Week (usually this involves stealing one of the many priceless artifacts that keep finding their way into Gotham City’s poorly-guarded institutions). Flabbergasted, Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara dial the bright red phone which puts them in touch with the Caped Crusader.
Then we visit Stately Wayne Manor, where dashing playboy Bruce Wayne and his youthful ward Dick Grayson are busy engaging in your average playboy-and-youthful-ward activities. The call from Gordon sends the Dynamic Duo scurrying to the Bat-Poles, which lead to the Bat-Cave, where they hop into the Batmobile and speed off to do some bat-investigating. By the end of the half-hour, one or both of them has been captured by the villain and is facing the Preposterous Death-Trap Of The Week. At this point the announcer exhorts us to tune in tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion—“same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel.”
The pilot episodes—it wouldn’t be fair to address Batman by only looking at the first episode, since every week was a two-part story—follow this format to a T. If you didn’t know that “Hey Diddle Riddle”/”Smack In The Middle” were 1×01 and 1×02, you’d get almost no clue of that fact from watching them. The only nods towards table-setting come in the prologue, which is oddly subdued compared to the tone of the rest of the series. First it lingers a bit while introducing Gotham. Then, when we first meet Bruce, he briefly references the murder of his parents—which is never again mentioned in the entire 120-episode run.
Both are key moments defining this series’ incarnation of Batman. In the very first shot, Gotham City is hosting the World’s Fair. This isn’t the Gotham of nighttime and shadow, the Gotham plagued by crime and corruption and every fear of urban life. This is a shining city upon a hill—Gotham as Metropolis.
Similarly, Adam West’s Batman is not a brooding soul, prowling the murkiest recesses of the city. He is not vengeance; he is not the night. He operates in broad daylight, interacts with police and average citizens with the upright grace of a town father. He isn’t even a vigilante: when he arrests The Riddler in the pilot, he explicitly identifies himself as “a duly deputized agent of the law.”
When Bruce Wayne, in the midst of forming an anti-crime initiative with some other local rich dudes, off-handedly mentions his parents’ murder, it is Batman’s lone nod towards the darkness and complexity at the core of its title character. And based on my research and recollections, the deaths of Dick Grayson’s parents are never brought up at all. It’s of a piece with the show’s somewhat infamous aesthetic: A kid’s program*, a candy-coated romp, a campfest sprinkled with occasional (maybe unintentional) doses of psychedelia.
*The clearest way the series speaks to a young audience is how Robin is the one to solve all of Riddler’s riddles—proof that he can live up to having the World’s Greatest Detective as a mentor.
These are the signifiers that come immediately to mind when you think of Batman. The “walking-up-walls” scenes. The climactic melees featuring colorful onomatopoeias splashed on the screen. “Holy ____, Batman!” Every conceivable object prefixed with “Bat-“ (including, in the pilot, a frigging HIDDEN BAT-LASERBEAM). At the center, Adam West’s stilted, impossibly earnest performance as a Dark Knight who’s neither—a role that came to define the actor more than vice versa.
Your affection for Batman relies almost entirely on how much you enjoy its most over-the-top elements. And the most over-the-top of these is the roster of guest villains: from comic book mainstays like The Joker and Catwoman to newly-invented goofballs like King Tut. Of course, they never posed any real threat. They existed primarily to give Old Hollywood journeymen like Cesar Romero and Burgess Meredith a chance to cut loose and chew some scenery. The entertainment level of any episode of Batman is usually in direct proportion to the outré hamminess of its guest baddie.
On that measure, “Hey Diddle Riddle” and “Stuck In The Middle” deliver grade-A results. As The Riddler, Frank Gorshin was the cream of the crop in Batman’s rogues gallery. Lithe, lecherous, a bundle of spring-loaded megalomania on a hair trigger—Gorshin’s portrayal of “that infernal Prince of Puzzles” remains a gold standard of comic book supervillany. He slips between manic and menacing with creepy aplomb. You remember Jim Carrey in Batman Forever? Yeah, he’s doing a demented and pale imitation of Gorshin.
Those recurring signposts aren’t the only bits of wackiness in these two episodes, though. You’ve got a whole set-piece in a groovy mod nightclub wherein Batman dances the Batusi. (I’m going to say that again: Batman. DANCES. The Batusi.)
You’ve got Riddler’s sexy assistant straight-up cosplaying as Robin, shortly before falling into the nuclear-powered volcano that happens to be smack in the middle of the Batcave. You’ve got gay undertones abound, like when Alfred refers to “what you and Master Dick have been doing on these supposed ‘fishing trips’ of yours.” There’s a lot going on in this hour, is what I’m saying.
Batman’s influence permeated comic book storytelling for decades after its initial run. Future kid-targeted series like Super Friends and Batman: The Brave and the Bold would pay it homage. And attempts to move the genre into more “adult” directions—the “grim and gritty” tendencies of comics in the 90s; the more high-minded film adaptations in the 2000s, including Nolan’s franchise; the “real world” melodrama of Smallville and Heroes—consciously pushed back against the zaniness of Batman and its Silver Age contemporaries.
Maybe the most important takeaway from Batman, though, is how it embodies the durability of superheroes in the American cultural canon. Very few characters can not only retain a hold on our collective imaginations for over seven decades, but also thrive within a wide variety of representations. A world that has room for the Adam West Batman, the Frank Miller Batman, the Bruce Timm/Paul Dini/Kevin Conroy Batman, and the Christopher Nolan Batman—all of whom can remain true to something within the character’s central conceit—is a huge and fascinating world indeed.
Thanks Andy. My thoughts on the Batman pilot episode(s):
There are a number of memorable-in-a-wacky-way moments in the opening episodes of the 1966 Batman series. But the one that randomly sticks out in my mind occurs early in the first half-hour installment, while the opening credits are still unspooling. After the initial attack by the Riddler, Batman and Robin are called upon by O’Hara and Gordon. Instead of slinking in a cracked window or orchestrating a clandestine meeting upon a rooftop, Batman and Robin drive right up to the steps of Gotham’s police headquarters and park there, in the middle of the daylight. Then they jauntily run up the steps.
This is a short, fairly nondescript moment in the pilot, but also a very telling one. As Andy suggested, this is not Batman in the way we have learned to see him. This Batman parallel parks the Batmobile in a downtown spot as if he is running in to grab a gallon of milk (and frankly, this Batman would probably do that). That moment sets the tone for characters and a story that is admittedly and knowingly unsophisticated if your Batman has been crafted by Christopher Nolan, Bruce Timm or even Tim Burton.
However, the thing about Batman 1966 is that it absolutely works as a sly pop art spectacle. It might be slightly insulting to the particulars of the Cape Crusader’s canonical characteristics, but the series is still a load of fun. I remember enjoying Batman through syndication as a youngster and honestly expected to watch this pilot now and scoff at how tepid and dumb it was. Instead, I laughed and smiled my way through these opening 50 minutes with ease. Adam West could never really escape his association to his Batman, but it is not as if his work here is disastrous or anything. Perhaps I just choose to believe the amount of serious earnestness he brings to Bruce Wayne was purposeful and that West was in on the joke.
Really, these opening episodes make it seem like everyone was in on the joke. West, Burt Ward and Frank Gorshin appear to be having a hell of a time in their respective roles (especially Gorshin, whose Riddler is unhinged in the campiest of ways). Lorenzo Simple Jr.’s script takes Batman to a dance party (one that Robin is disallowed from attending because of his young age, to which Batman, in deadpan fashion, notes “it’s the law”), alludes to homosexual relations and uses a lawsuit as an initial primary thrust. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight must deal with impostors and an increasingly skeptical populace, but this Batman has to face The People’s Court. Come on!
Amid all the goofiness, this opening episode flows quite well. Riddler is admittedly one of my favorite Batman villains, but his scheme here is (somewhat) surprisingly well-thought out. The choreography and action sequences are choppy, but not dramatically so, consider this is 1966. If you go into Batman with the knowledge that it is not like more current iterations of the character, I cannot image you not enjoying it.
Although the series is generally laughed at, especially in today’s era of “darker” and “deeper” superhero stories, the keys to Batman’s success are lacking in so many of the series that followed it, and I would suggest that is why those series failed so miserably. Clearly, reconstructing something like Batman, a project that was certainly of its time, in today’s television landscape would not really fly. I think NBC and the producers of The Cape unknowingly tried something to this effect and it failed miserably. We laughed at The Cape, not with it.
Nevertheless, Batman works because it approaches the material with a specific vision and even though that vision is not necessarily what we are used to from our superhero stories in 2012, it works. So many of the superhero series (and even many of the films) to come down the pike in recent years take the exact same approach: same tone, same character types, same fairly lame, Joseph Campbell-aping origin story about the call to action. The long-form tapestry of television allows writers and producers to take things slow and tell that origin story, but unfortunately most origin stories are painfully boring – especially for characters we already know.
Batman ignores all the origin story nonsense, barely mentions canonical details like the death of Bruce’s parents and throws the audience the bone they want: Batman and Robin facing off with recognizable villains. This pilot trusts the audience to either know exactly who Batman, Robin and everyone else are (because of a familiarity with comics or serials) or hopes that they will pick up on important details as the story moves onward (which is quite easy).
This is a simple approach, but one that is tremendously effective and one that almost every superhero-related television series these days eschews so that they can over-explain each detail or the mythology like they are crossing off a fanboy-approved list. Smallville was more or less an 8-10 year origin story* and Heroes loved origin stories so much that it rebooted itself a half-dozen times just so it could tell them – for the same characters, I might add – over and over again.
*By the middle of season eight, Clark was basically doing “Superman stuff” as The Blur, but the restrictions placed upon the series kept it from being exactly officially until the finale.
It is not that writers, producers and networks have yet to try new things within the superhero constructs in recent years. No Ordinary Family attempted to mix in more comedic and family-oriented elements, and mostly failed. Misfits thrives by mishmashing all sorts of generic conventions together into a twistedly entertaining package. But generally speaking, live-action attempts at superhero stories have been more similar than dissimilar.
I do not know if it could be pulled off or who could do it, but I would actually love to see something like Batman hit the small screen today. The amount of camp probably could not work in an era of grit and seriousness, but the Avengers shows us that viewers do not mind superhero stories that embrace the genre’s lighter, brighter origins. There’s a space to be found outside of seriousness and unintended earnestness, and I wish someone would go looking for it.
Conclusions on legacy: Somewhat surprisingly holds up, especially amid today’s era of “dark and serious” superheroes