Essays · Features and Columns

Fade Out: Adam West, The Batman

Atomic batteries to power, turbines to speed, the true crime fighter has left us.
By  · Published on June 11th, 2017

Atomic batteries to power, turbines to speed, the true crime fighter has left us.

Adam West’s Batman fought crime on the back of a surfboard, dangling from a helicopter, and on the dance floor. He went wherever his ridiculous rogue’s gallery dared to taunt, but he preferred a stern life lesson to a knuckle sandwich. Although, he served plenty of those too. West had no interest in repressed pathos or Bat-nipples. He was there to entertain by any means necessary, and by any deathtrap most worthy of a cliffhanger climax.

He was an actor willing to work where needed. He cashed paychecks for Voodoo Island, Lawman, Sugarfoot, Cheyenne, 77 Sunset Strip, Maverick, Hawaiian Eye, and whatever any other TV show or movie would have him. Once he picked up the cowl in 1966, he found it nearly impossible to rip from his being. For the rest of his life, he would consistently find other roles to inhabit, but The Batman would be a persona that forever marked his career. He would be the first actor to intrinsically consent to that privilege.

Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.  Twice a week Adam West and Burt Ward would square off against various reoccurring actors willing to dress in form-fitting tights to commit heinous acts of villainy. With the aid of their manservant Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, Chief O’Hara, and Aunt Harriet, the dynamic duo saved Gotham City from Man-eating lilacs, novelty snow cones, Egghead, and an endless stream of horrifying puns.

As a kid, there was nothing campy about his primetime adventures. The diabolical hotdog plots of The Joker were of the utmost importance. You didn’t laugh at the BIFs, the BAMs, or the POWs. Instead, you mimicked the combat like young Diana in Wonder Woman; each episode was your own preparation for a career in crime fighting. Irony would come later with age, and “camp” was still just a place you went during the summer.

Here was a hero that had all the answers. Not only a gadget for every situation but a word of wisdom for every dip in Robin’s education. “All music is important, Dick. It’s the universal language. One of our best hopes for the eventual realization of the brotherhood of man.” Guess, I better bone up on my Chopin. West’s Batman was the straight and narrow, a civic-minded crusader with an intense loyalty to community, and disgust for those that challenged the law.

The charm of Adam West’s Batman stemmed from that deadpan sincerity. The characters, the plots, and the gadgets were certainly ridiculous, but the winks and nudges were left for the audience to distribute. West never allowed the façade to show, and in doing so, allowed those who had yet to reach adulthood or those that simply refused it, to totally engage in Batman’s perilous crime fighting heroics.

In 1989, Tim Burton was going to rescue the character from the supposedly laughable depths in which he had sunk. Today, that notion seems as ludicrous as Bat-shark repellant. The sixties may have been over, but Burton’s interpretation was little more than a goth makeover, and the television’s roots were firmly showing in the film’s grand theatricality. Jack Nicholson was as every bit the over-the-top ham as Cesar Romero. However, from those large Hollywood dollars came a level of mainstream respect that reached beyond the monkey bars and playground jungle gyms. That Nickelodeon reruns Batman was kid’s stuff, and here was a Blockbuster ass kicker theoretically worthy of our fandom.

On the comic book stands, Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” and Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” were pumping an unprecedented level of hyper-masculinity, and downright misogyny into the character. The pop art cheer of Adam West no longer had a place in a geek culture desperate for acceptance. The ’89 movie poster that plastered our bedroom walls meant business. That black on gold Bat symbol was iconic, man. It was a statement. It was a declaration. It was every bit our flag as the stars and stripes.

But how long do we have to adhere to Frank Miller’s Holy Terror? The Cold War/Death Wish vengeance of The Dark Knight may have gotten us into bookstores and on the movie screen, but it has also stunted the growth of the character for nearly two decades. “Do you bleed?” Yeah, but can’t Batman and Superman just hug it out. Aren’t you ready to trade in that Vs. for a Superfriends team-up?

A character doesn’t survive nearly 80 years on just one note. Sure, from pulp avenger to boob tube idol, and all the way to CrossFit crushing Batfleck, all Batmen are valid. In his book “Supergods,” one-time Batman scribe Grant Morrison wrote, “Given the basic parameters of Batman, different creations could play very different music.” Yes. That’s it. Give me Rock & Roll Batman, Dixie Batman, HipHop Batman, Disco Batman, and K-Pop Batman. I want all those dynamic duo flavors all at once!

In the last several years, I’ve relished the resurgence of Adam West’s bright knight detective. After decades of legal battles over licensing rights, the ’66 series is starting to see some lucrative love from manufacturers and fans alike. We’ve got top mold action figures, HotWheels Batmobiles, Legos, Sideshow Collectible statues, and Blu-rays. Even better yet, the influence of Adam West is starting to once again inspire the direction of the character.

Just as Christopher Nolan had Batman taking on a Michael Mann-like crime syndicate in The Dark Knight, a new animated series embraced the BIF BAM POW color of the Adam West era. Batman: The Brave and The Bold was a deep dive into the bizarre back catalog of the DC Universe. Yet again, weird was wonderful. Maniacs like Crazy Quilt and Kite Man held as much danger over Gotham City as Catwoman and The Penguin. Diedrich Bader’s square-jawed crusader carried that same happy-in-his-work confidence that surrounded West’s depiction of staunch bravery. Here was proof that The Dark Knight and The Caped Crusader could occupy the same space.

Adam West is Batman in the same way that Sean Connery will always be James Bond. Men have come before, and men will come after, but they were the first to strike a chord in the culture. His impact is undeniable, and essential to understanding the longevity of the legend. If he’s not your thing, I get it, and you’ve got another half dozen variations to choose from. However, don’t be merely deterred by the batusi gifs that invade your Twitter stream. Just take a peek into the wild world of bachelor millionaire, Bruce Wayne. You won’t find the growls of Christian Bale, but you will find a realm packed with insane comic book continuity. At the very least, it’s a rabbit hole TV show that will send you tumbling through the encyclopedia of the DC Universe.  It might also put a smile on your face.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)