The Daily Stream: Batman (1966) Is Comic Book Movie Camp At Its Finest

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Batman"

Where You Can Stream It: Prime Video, YouTube, Vudu, iTunes

The Pitch: In light of Matt Reeves' "The Batman" opening in theaters, let's take a look back at that other live-action movie featuring the Caped Crusader, Riddler, Penguin, Catwoman, and other denizens of Gotham City.

"Batman," also commonly known as "Batman: The Movie," begins with a series of written odes to "crusaders against crime" and "lovers of the ridiculous and the bizarre" (among others) before multi-colored spotlights highlight the film's cast and a suspicious figure in a trench coat, all while the opening credits roll to Nelson Riddle's exuberant score. It's a shocking contrast to the Batman movies so many people have been raised on, indulging in the same unfiltered kitsch as the TV show of the same name (which had only wrapped its first season two months prior to the film's debut in theaters in July 1966).

Adam West's Bruce Wayne, like the movie around him, is no Michael Keaton or Christian Bale, either, and he's certainly no George Clooney. (Funnily enough, out of all the other Batman actors, it's Val Kilmer who comes the closest to matching his energy.) Far from a traumatized loner more comfortable lurking in the shadows and pummeling crooks with his bare fists, West's crime-fighter is a romantic soul who quotes Edgar Allan Poe's "To One in Paradise" off the top of his head and enjoys the finer things in life, like romantic dinners for two, when he's not carrying out his Bat-duties.

Alas, there's no time for such indulgences when four of the most dangerous law-breakers in Gotham — The Joker (Cesar Romero), Penguin (Burgess Meredith), Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), and Riddler (Frank Gorshin) — are on the loose and have joined forces with a crew of hench-pirates and a diabolical plan to destabilize the world using a stolen dehydrator that can turn people into dust and a pre-atomic submarine made over to look like a penguin. To the Batcave!

Why it's essential viewing

C.S. Lewis is quoted (accurately, one hopes) as saying he read fairy tales in secret as a child, only to grow up and read them openly, having "put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up." I could say the same thing about watching Joel Schumacher's "Batman Forever" and "Batman & Robin" and enjoying them at a young age, then going through a phase where I pretended otherwise, only to put away my own "fear of childishness" (that and, most likely, some internalized queer-phobia) and openly appreciate them once more.

I bring this up because I don't recall going through a similar period of denial when it comes to my love for "Batman" (1966), and I think I know why: Unlike that film, Schumacher's Bat-flicks are undeniably compromised. They're what you get when a studio hires a gay director who specialized in adult, flamboyant, and erotic fare, and tells them to take a movie series based on a comic book about a man who wears a tight-fit costume to battle outlandish crooks and make it more "kid-friendly."

In the end, Schumacher's approach to the Batman films (camp it up to 11) worked as often as it didn't, and for one simple reason: Camp requires everyone to be operating on the same wavelength. If they're not, you end up with "Batman & Robin," a movie loaded with brazenly queer imagery and vibrant neon-lit sets, yet also one where its star (Clooney) and many of the other people involved in making it were clearly too self-aware to go the whole nine yards and commit to the silliness without a hint of embarrassment. 

You need an Adam West to lead the way. That's what I'm getting at.

Holy movie magic!

Where Clooney was constantly winking when he portrayed the Caped Crusader, there's nary a scene in "Batman" (1966) that West doesn't play with the utmost earnestness. It takes real skill to deliver lines like "Salt and corrosion! The infamous old enemies of the crime-fighter" with an utterly straight face, yet West does so with flying colors. He's so sincere, you can't even help but feel his heartbreak a little when he learns Catwoman's true identity, in spite of the gloriously over-the-top musical callback that follows.

West's co-stars are equally on board with the movie's absurdity, whether they're hamming it up as members of the United Underworld or, in the case of Burt Ward's Robin, saddled with lines as ludicrous as anything West has to say. (I, for one, will never not adore Ward for the pure intensity with which he presents the answer to one of Riddler's riddles: "A sparrow with a machine gun.") The puckish wit of Lorenzo Semple Jr.'s script is similarly matched by Leslie H. Martinson's direction — from the sound effect graphics in the film's climactic battle to the Dutch angle camera shots used to film the villains' seaport lair, and the sheer number of visual gags in the famous scene where Batman desperately searches for a spot to safely dispose of a bomb.

The best Bat-movies also tap into our collective anxieties, and "Batman" (1966) is no exception. Images of Polaris missiles firing into the sky and war surplus submarines that have fallen into the hands of literal super-villains reflect Cold War-era fears as much as Chris Nolan's "The Dark Knight" echoes the War on Terror. The film's portrayal of the United World Organization's Security Council as a bunch of squabbling caricatures (many of which readily cross the line into being crass stereotypes, even by the deliberate bad-taste standards of camp) similarly acts as satire, be that the original intent or not.

Save for a few caveats (West and Ward's crime-fighters are, sadly, naively pro-cop), "Batman" (1966) is comic book movie camp at its finest, even 56 years later. Matt Reeves' "The Batman" speaks directly to so many of the things we're scared of in 2022 ... but if I'm being honest, it's West's Caped Crusader and his upstanding morals, respect for science, and love of poetry that still has my heart.