Superhero Movie Month: "Batman: The Movie" (1966) Review

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The Dynamic Duo faces four super-villains who plan to hold the world for ransom with the help of a secret invention that instantly dehydrates people.
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Rating: PG
Length: 105 minutes
Release Date: October 26, 1966
Directed by: Leslie H. Martinson
Genre: Action / Comedy

"Batman: The Movie" (1966) was conceived as a tie-in with the popular "Batman" TV series then airing on the ABC network. The look and tone of the movie are taken directly from the series with brightly-colored sets, campy overacting and absurdly narrow escapes. This version of the Batman story and character, though based on darkly-themed comic book, was never meant to be taken seriously.

The film unites four of the most popular villains from the TV series:  the Joker (Cesar Romero), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether). All the villains are played by the same actors who portrayed them on TV, with the exception of Catwoman. Julie Newmar, who played Catwoman on the series, was unavailable due to other commitments.

Tired of Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) constantly thwarting their evil plans, these super-villains have joined together to form United Underworld, whose slogan is "Today Gotham City – Tomorrow the world!" With the help of their secret weapon, an instant human-dehydrator beam, the fiendish foursome kidnaps the members of the United World Organization's Security Council and reduces them to colored dust.

The gleeful villains make their escape on board the Penguin's penguin-shaped submarine, with Batman and Robin giving chase in the Batboat. After forcing the submarine to the surface with a sonic charge weapon, an inevitable fist fight ensues on deck. Though Batman and Robin emerge victorious, the vials containing the powdered council members are broken and all the dust is mixed together. Ever the innovator, Batman constructs a Super Molecular Dust Separator to sort the powdered diplomats back into their proper vials. But when they are reconstituted, it is apparent that the sorting was incomplete. Each council member now speaks the language and displays the mannerisms of some country other than his own. While the council squabbles, apparently oblivious to the change, Batman quietly expresses his hope to Robin that this "mixing of minds" may do more good than it does harm, whereupon the two of them make their exit by climbing out the window.

There are, of course, many subplots in the movie. Catwoman, posing as the Soviet Journalist Miss Kitka, romances the ever-chivalrous Batman. The Penguin infiltrates the Batcave along with five dehydrated henchmen, only to have his plans foiled when he mistakenly tries to rehydrate the henchmen using heavy water from the Batcave's atomic generator. There are fight scenes (complete with comic-book style sound-effect title cards:  Whap! Blorp!), an exploding shark and a never-ending array of ingenious Bat-gadgets ranging from a Micro TV Bat-scanner to an Anti-Penguin Gas Pill. No matter how dire the situation may appear, the whole movie is played tongue-in-cheek for maximum comic effect. For example, in one scene, as Batman desperately attempts to get rid of a live bomb, everywhere he runs, he finds babies, nuns or ducklings in his way.

While "Batman: The Movie" isn't going to win any awards for acting or writing, it perfectly captures the campy spirit and high energy of the TV series. Adam West's mannered portrayal of the Caped Crusader is an ideal blend of cool spoof and mock moralizing gravitas, and Burt Ward's endless assortment of over-the-top catchphrases ("Holy Long John Silver, Batman!") and naïve observations ("Gosh, drink is sure a filthy thing, isn't it? I'd rather be dead than unable to trust my own eyes.") make his Boy Wonder a kitsch classic. The movie pokes fun in all directions, at the United Nations, at the Soviets, even at the Pentagon. By doing so, it parodies not only the entire genre of superhero and spy movies, but the culture of the 1960s in general. There are no profound moments (Batman's solemn, bombastic moralizing not withstanding), only high camp and lively entertainment. The absurd plot and predictable sequence of inevitable near-escapes only add to the fun.

The original "Batman" TV series only ran for three years from 1966 to 1968, but it has played repeatedly in syndication since then and is as much a part of American pop culture as shows such as "Star Trek" or "Scooby Doo." Robin's catchphrases ("Holy fill-in-the-blank, Batman!") and the ubiquitous theme song are still instantly identifiable, and the blockbuster "Austin Powers" films derived much of their look and style from shows like "Batman." While fans of the later "Batman" movies looking for gritty action scenes and dark plots may not find much to appreciate about this movie, fans who remember the original series with fondness will find a lot of enjoyable entertainment, as will devotees of 1960s kitsch and classic camp.