This is a movie about how the Penguin wants to dehydrate people.
The 1966 Batman is remembered for being this goofy, wacky, silly little thing that kids loved and adults “got.” Its primary colored, swinging sixties atmosphere looks to us now, in the context of what came after, like the prime example of what Tim Burton and his descendents hoped to remedy with their darker takes on the characters and the world of Gotham City. The weird thing is that it’s still the only film in the characters’ history that was set in a recognizably contemporary setting. Taken a step further, the film is of its time because it actually reflected the then-current Silver Age stylings of its source material. Later adaptations of Batman would attempt to ground the character in some sort of ridiculous alternate universe we like to call “the real world.” But that’s a problem. Not to overstate the endlessly repeated pejorative that this is a guy who dresses up as a bat and fights a clown, a riddler, a penguin and a catwoman, but… I mean, that’s what it is. Any real gestures towards realism are only doomed to fail.
It’s a strange phenomenon that has followed this film around since its bright and flashy debut. In the years since it faded into memory (and light scorn) amidst the hyper-deconstructivist period that saw the releases of Alan Moore’s seminal runs on Swamp Thing, Miracle Man, and finally Watchmen, Batman has sort of become this forgotten relic of an earlier time. Fans still pull it off the shelf from time to time, but fans of the updated Warner Bros. Batman look at it and see Howdy Doody. Interesting, maybe, and a piece of history you should maybe know about, but nothing to take time out of your day to watch. There is simply nothing like it now, at least that’s being released to megaplexes for mass consumption. It’s now just the first swing of a pendulum that this film didn’t even know it was connected to.
It was inevitable that Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns would become the new standard for how we think about Gotham and its inhabitants. The 1970s Batman comics had their own blend of dark, spooky stories and more outlandish and cartoony issues. But Batman comics had to have their own fully realized revolution, and the introduction of the broken, grumpy, asshole Batman of Miller’s saga ended up being the one we’re now stuck with. And while Burton’s Batman is in no way similar to Miller’s, it’s still a clear reference point if only in the ways both sought to reimagine the material and pull it all down into the mud to find out who these characters really were. Burton’s film might look just as soft and harmless as the ‘66 Martinson-Dozier-Semple production now that we have the Nolan and Snyder versions to compare them to (not to mention some of the better animated films that seamlessly blend all these sensibilities). But they had very different agendas and points of view. The end result of all this is that now we’ve had two very different and distinct versions of Batman on the big screen over the past decade, but both have presented identical shades of enhanced militarism, ugly and relentlessly depressing scripts and costume designs, and just overall vibes of horrifically off-putting directorial visions. They’re cool, slick, and boring as hell. But talking about not liking Nolan and Snyder is also boring as hell, so I’ll leave that and move on.
It’s actually weird to me that no one’s produced something closer to the spirit of the ‘66 version for live action. No pop art throwback weekly series, no attempt at a more comedic take on a feature… nothing. As we used to say in the movie theater business after we’d been up all night coming up with incredible story ideas like remaking the ‘66 Batman, “They should just let us write all the movies!” And as we similarly say here in the Video Vendetta home office, “This is why we don’t have writing jobs anymore.”
But it would all most likely be for nothing. Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s Batman screenplay is so wild and berserk that it’s almost unbelievable that this stuff actually got a green light at some point. It’s almost daring you to make sense of it. Batman and Robin spend the first act doing the weirdest, wildest shit while accomplishing exactly nothing, going through the plot motions of figuring out that the Penguin, Riddler, Joker, and Catwoman have teamed up against them two separate times before they even think about doing anything about it. And each time they reach this revelation, it’s in the standard form of the original series and the film’s completely bonkers and indecipherable wordplay. They instantly solve impossible riddles with complete non-sequiturs that are played off as totally obvious answers, they stumble onto nearly every victory through sheer luck, and operate within a Gotham City filled with what amount to a bunch of mindless mannequins who just take everything they do and say as heroic and meaningful. The non-stop Bat-signage and hyper-stylized production design announce themselves over and over as being firmly in the Ya Know, For Kids mold of storytelling. If I ever thought to be generous to Nolan, I’d venture a guess that his talky, over-explained stories take direct inspiration from this film, since nearly every line of dialogue is either a truly bizarre joke or one character reminding another of where they are in the plot at all times.
But this method of perpetual and absurd exposition is the film’s secret weapon. It trusts that we’re not only in on the joke, but savvy enough to realize that at any moment the film could actually switch course and break off into another, completely new narrative direction, which it does almost constantly. This also ties back into the idea that this film is taking place, in a certain sense, within our world. It presents its characters and setting with zero introduction and just launches into its story. Yes, the film came out after the release of its companion series’ first season, but that has little to do with what appears to be a minor narrative gamble after the incessantly-repeated cinematic depictions of Batman’s origins onscreen we’ve gotten since. Here, we just take it for granted that Batman exists, Robin exists, and their roles within the world of the movie are understood. We know who these characters are because we know them from the comics, from the tv show, just from being halfway attentive to popular culture. This is another angle I wish would be taken up by the new films. I get it. That’s Batman. Just tell your story.
I won’t go so far as to say it’s insulting – cause, ya know, who cares? – that every single new superhero story based on existing characters feels the irrepressible need to always be telling origin stories, but it’s still strange. The effect here is so much more interesting. It also helps that the film is a comedy. Not a parody or a “comedic take on Batman.” It’s just a comedy. We’re supposed to just agree and understand that Batman is inherently funny. Not only that, we’re in on the larger joke that the mere idea of making a movie about Batman is also funny. Again, these are just about the most alien concepts you could apply to the current incarnation of the character. But using that humor and taking it to such extremes also goes a long way towards giving the movie its own personality and heart. Batman stands now as a total outlier in the character’s big screen history. Its breakneck pace and barrage of nonsensical script choices would be demolished today by those worms in the audience who love nothing more than to pick films apart and drive logic trucks through plot holes in some inane attempt at second-guessing everything. Listen to me: Who gives a shit? I understand this is often easy to do, since so often these days it becomes clear very quickly that big shot superhero movies are written (or at least planned) by committee. So logical or mechanical inconsistencies of plotting or story seem glaring in the face of knowing how many steps and departments a given film must go through before being put in front of an audience. But it’s about the big battles, and the one-liners, and the blockbuster elements more than anything else. Batman has almost none of that going on, relying entirely on its tone to carry it. The repeated first act all by itself is enough to make you think, Wait, Didn’t we already have this information? But doing it again meant packing in more jokes! So that’s the movie! I love this movie!
While all this rubberband looney tunes madness is happening, though, the film becomes a time capsule for its moment in time not only in its kiddie comics perspective, but in its relation to the political realities of 1966. The Penguin’s plan to dehydrate the members of the United World Organization comes with some pithy “those clowns in Washington”-style jokes but also reveals a fairly progressive – if, again, somewhat childlike – view of the political landscape as a whole. The plot point of all the world leaders having their minds swapped and suddenly speaking different languages is seen by Batman and Robin as a pretty clean solution to the Cold War. To point out that they still can’t really understand each other is almost beside the point. This along with the constant panic and paranoia about bombs and missiles and secret submarines makes it hard to shake the feeling that the filmmakers could have worked in an even more direct political statement with this material if they’d really wanted to. It was obviously on someone’s mind. Instead, it’s all just fodder for more jokes. The film has more in common with Dr. Strangelove than it does to any other Batman movie that would come after it.
The pure consistency of its own internal logic is what finally keeps the engine running, transforming itself into whatever it needs to be moment by moment while never once losing track of its core desire to be the ultimate peak of diversion. It’s a film that defies analysis so fervently that it feels like wasted effort to even think about it too hard. I can go through the motions of comparing it to Kubrick and talk it to death, but the reality is that it’s a film so eager to please with every fiber of its being that any further intellectualization feels inadequate and wrong-headed. It’s just a locomotive of bullshit, but so tightly constructed in its way that the whole thing feels like something that sprang fully-formed with no point of reference other than itself. We can break it down and say this or that, compare it to the serials and comics that preceded it, but in the end it exists as its own weird little creature. There really is nothing else like it.
Its status as the anomaly it really is among its cinematic siblings is both gratifying and sad in equal measure. I doubt we’ll ever see another Batman film again so committed to the true absurdity of the character. We don’t really allow our superheroes to just be silly anymore. In Batman, we see him be a detective, spy, master of weird gadgets, a crime-fighter totally above the law and operating by his own code. All things we want from any Batman story, but rarely get in any real sense. It’s also perhaps the best onscreen Bruce Wayne we’ve yet seen. He’s the handsome millionaire playboy, which is as corny and bizarre as it is deeply baked into the Batman mythos. This aspect of the character has become more or less an afterthought in other Bat-films, but here is integral to how Batman goes about his life and business. Matt Reeves, a director I admire, promises his own new take on the character late next year but, judging only by the trailer, it seems nonetheless beholden to the same brooding violent sociopath Batman character that has completely replaced any other traces of what this character could be. The people, I guess, have spoken (just ask Joel Schumacher). Reeves’ film looks promising, like lots of things do when packaged in cool trailers with the right music and editing. But just the same, I’m waiting for the day someone decides to have some fun with the character again. There’s room for all kinds of Batman stories, whether brutal and pummelling or light and cartoonish. It’s when we decided that Batman can’t be fun anymore that we lost our way.