Reclaiming The Fun Side of Batman

The Animated Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders lets Adam West reclaim Bat-fun.

My first encounter with the 1966 Adam West Batman TV series came at the age of either six or seven. A local low-power station was running twice-nightly reruns and as my family did not have cable, I recall the frustration of having to orient the rabbit ears just so in an effort to reduce the “snow” obscuring the weakly-transmitted picture.

It occurs to me that a good chunk of that paragraph is completely unrelatable to anyone under the age of 25. And this was just two years or so before the Tim Burton Batman came onto the scene.

As a first-grader, the “camp” of the show completely flew over my head. A kid accepts Batman for what he is, so there’s nothing ridiculous about a man running around in tights with an underage boy sidekick. When a villain threatened to turn them into snow cones, or trapped them with a giant man-eating clam, a 7 year-old’s reaction is not “What were the writers smoking when they came up with this?” but rather “Oh man, how are Batman and Robin going to escape this serious peril!”

The genius of the ’66 Batman is that the creators knew they were always aiming for two audiences – the youths who saw it as an adventure series, and the adults, who understood the deliberate humor that turned this semi-faithful adaptation of Batman into a parody. It’s an incredibly difficult needle to thread – the kids shouldn’t be able to perceive any mocking of their cherished characters, while the adults need to be able to tell the show isn’t accidentally “so bad it’s good.”

I wasn’t around for the show’s first run, but it’s well-documented that it became a phenomenon in its first season. It left such an imprint that even after the feature film series, it wasn’t unusual to find articles about Batman or comic books with headlines that began “Biff! Bam! and Pow!” For an entire generation and then some, Adam West WAS Batman. The ’66 show became scarce in syndication around the time the sequels to Burton’s Batman and the excellent Batman: The Animated Series were thriving. This coincided with a darker era of the comics and so if you were a teen or a pre-teen in that era, it likely solidified the idea that a grim-and-gritty tone was the “right” way to do Batman. A result of accepting that is that the sillier, Batusi-dancing Adam West Batman must be rejected. It was an embarrassment of all that Batman represented. That the series was never available on any kind of video release reinforced its reputation as something to be ashamed of.

The rights to the series were split between two studios and from the time that complete sets of TV shows were retail commodities, this series was long considered one of the “never gonna happen” sets. Two years ago, the complete series was finally released to DVD and Blu-ray, fully restored to all it’s brightly-colored garish glory. With the legal hurdles around the show worked out, Warners and DC were now also free to merchandise the series. Action figures and comic books in the likeness of the show were out on the market for the first time. After 25 years of darker, brutal and “realistic” Batmans it felt like this unique version was finally being celebrated.

My wife – who is not a geek and a couple years younger than I – was completely unaware of this version of the series. Her touchstone for Batman was the Nolan trilogy. After watching an episode with me she said, “Wow, this IS the Ambiguously Gay Duo! They totally ripped that off!” She thought the show was very funny, but she couldn’t believe it was Batman because it was so far removed from what she knew of him.

The Dark Knight version of Batman had become so pervasive in pop culture that I’ve run across fans believing it’s the only way he could be done. Earlier this year I lamented that we’d gotten to the point where there was an R-rated cut of a Batman film. Someone responded to me on Twitter, “Have you ever READ a Batman comic? They’re DARK! Batman NEEDS to be R-rated!” This is the kind of thinking that not only got us a version of Batman v. Superman suitable only for people over 17, but also the R-rated animated The Killing Joke.

The new animated Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders is the perfect antidote to all of that. The very clever cartoon completely captures the tone of the original show. Adam West, Burt Ward and Julie Newmar reprise their roles of Batman, Robin and Catwoman, and for all the other returning characters, reasonable vocal facsimiles have been cast. (The Aunt Harriet, in particular, is spot-on.)

Half of the fun of the film comes from some of the surprises along the way. The action is kicked off when the Dynamic Duo spring into action to thwart those dastardly fiends The Joker, The Penguin, The Riddler and Catwoman. After escaping the requisite death trap, Batman’s behavior becomes a little… odd. Something Catwoman exposed him to gives him an attitude adjustment. Before long, he’s fired Alfred, split from Robin and in a scene that’s been coming for 50 years, calls out Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara on being grotesquely incompetent examples of public servants.

And before you can say “Holy Regime Change!” Batman has seized control of the city with a totalitarian attitude. Perhaps to underline the hints that this is taking the piss at the more fascist incarnations of Batman, our Caped Crusader pummels his foes in far more brutal fashion than normal. If you’ve ever wanted to hear Adam West quote Michael Keaton’s Wayne with “You want to get nuts? Let’s get nuts!” you’ll be very pleased. In exaggerated fashion, the true villain of Return of the Caped Crusaders is the Frank Miller-inspired avenger who’s cast a long Bat-Shadow on Bat-history since 1986.

Return of the Caped Crusaders Could Save Batman in 2016

The movie isn’t above poking fun at the series that spawned it either. Batman “shakes a mean cape” in one interlude, and there’s an exchange with Aunt Harriet that I swear is implying that she assumes Bruce and Dick are gay. It’s all done with great affection, and it leaves one wishing that this sort of project didn’t wait until West had reached the age of 88.

Already a sequel has been announced, with Special Guest Villain Two Face, voiced by William Shatner. Tell me the thought of West and Shatner exchanging staccato line readings isn’t a great pop culture guilty pleasure you’re dying to see.

For once, Warners and DC have decided that the campy Batman can exist alongside the serious-as-a-heart-attack incarnation, making both incarnations better for it. These characters began as fun crimefighters in adventures aimed at pre-teens. It’s wonderful that the mythos are so malleable to permit radical departures like The Dark Knight or Gotham, but that doesn’t need to come at the expense of fun. It’s unnecessary to murder or disown the smiling Batman and his laughing daredevil sidekick in order for the “grounded” takes to thrive.

Batman has always been more than the path that Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns set him on in 1986. Bringing back West, Ward and Newmar is a touching way of bringing things full-circle. West-heads, we no longer have to be ashamed. We’re taking back the Batusi and bringing it to a new generation.

Adam West was always in on the joke, and thanks to projects like Return of The Caped Crusaders, those who’ve rolled their eyes at his Batman might discover that too.

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