With Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy
receding into our collective rearview mirrors, having redefined just how "grounded" a cinematic superhero can be, and Ben Affleck's at Bat
still more than a year out, today's long-anticipated release of the 1966 Batman TV series
on home vid after spending the the last few decades mired in a legal deathtrap that would make the Riddler blush couldn't have come at a more opportune time. With the stage all to itself, we can fully appreciate Batman '66
's crucial role in the character's seventy-five year history. And so, let us now cast our minds back to a time when Batman's pop culture ubiquity came not from how dark
of a knight he was, but rather the exact opposite.
For many people of my vintage and older, our first conception of who Batman was and how he operated came about almost exclusively from daily exposure to syndicated reruns of Batman
, the 1966-1968 series that aired on ABC and near-singlehandedly made the term "camp"
a part of our collective vernacular. Thanks to the distinctive theme song by Neal Hefti, as well as its day-glo color scheme and regular deployment of "Biff!" "Pow" "Bam!" sound effects cards, the '60s Batman
was then and probably remains today the most literal translation of the comic book medium ever committed to the screen.
Starring a deliciously deadpan Adam West as Bruce Wayne/Batman and an excitable Burt Ward as Dick Grayson/Robin (and Yvonne Craig as Batgirl in year three), the show boasted regular appearances by a variety of famous faces to serve villain duty. Cesar Romero as the Joker, Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, etc. (The less said about Roddy McDowall's Bookworm and Vincent Prize's Egghead, the better.) Every week, the surprisingly celibate millionaire playboy and his *ahem* "youthful ward" would answer the Batphone, then suit up in their tights as they slid down the Batpole into the Batcave on their way to the Batmobile. Ah yes, the show that launched a thousand double entendres.
I never really gave much thought to why a grim vigilante motivated by the tragic death of his parents would lead such a fun, carefree existence, because for me it was just fun
. Give this a watch
and tell me you don't feel yourself getting pulled back in time. For a brief moment, Batman
was a bona fide phenomenon, even spawning a theatrical feature film
between seasons. And while the white hot Batman fad had burnt out by season three, thanks to the conceit during its first two seasons (inspired by old-timey serials) of airing cliffhangers over consecutive nights, they ended up with four years worth of episodes in two. Thus, by the time the show was cancelled due to stagnating ratings, it racked up 120 episodes -- more than enough to keep in syndication for...well, forever!
There's no doubt, though, that West, who had until recently held the record for most times playing Batman (both onscreen and via voiceover in a variety of animated series that followed), made an indelible mark in the role. That distance record has since been broken, I believe, by voice actor Kevin Conroy of Batman: The Animated Series, but West's canny take on the character, with his absolutely earnest delivery of outrageous dialogue, was inarguably the crucial ingredient in pulling off the delicate balancing act by producer William Dozier (also the narrator) between high camp for the adults and high adventure for the kiddies.
And then, of course, there was Robin. Ah, Robin. I loved Robin. And so did my dad. Each time Burt Ward would let fly another "Holy ______, Batman!" my dad would bust out laughing. I never understood what precisely he thought was so funny. This was serious business! There was one episode, and I don't remember which one, where the mid-week cliffhanger involved Batman and Robin being threatened by a giant Venus Flytrap, which devours Robin as he pleads for Batman's help. I was horrified*. What was going to happen to Robin?? Meanwhile, I don't think I'd ever heard my dad laugh so hard in all my life.
Sadly, due to a legal impasse between show owners Twentieth Century Fox, producer William Dozier's estate, and rights-holders Warner Bros., Batman has frustratingly eluded an official, authorized release for far, far too long -- a state of affairs which has persisted until today (click here to read how the legal issues were finally resolved). After all the years of hope, false starts, and frustration, it feels like some kind of wonderful mirage, but it's actually here. All 120 eps, beautifully restored for hi-def, and available in a multitude of iterations, including a complete series box set on blu-ray that's packed to the gills with special features taking us behind-the-scenes, as well as other assorted goodies (Batmobile toy!).
Now that I'm able to watch Batman reruns with my own kids, I finally get the series the way my dad got it. I sometimes have to stifle my giggles lest I shatter the kiddies' carefully-constructed reality, but if their reactions are anything to go by, the show works just as well today as it did back then, proving the unbreakable elasticity of this seventy-five year old (and counting!) myth, with room for a vast array of differing interpretations that can comfortably stand shoulder-to-shoulder with one another. While the current Bat-zeitgeist may have (temporarily?) moved away from it, I'm glad there's still room for a version of Batman where two grown men in leotards and capes can drive around in broad daylight and be treated as deputized law enforcement.
*A trip through the special features revealed to me that I wasn't the only one who was terrified by this exact cliffhanger, so I take some comfort from that.
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