Like many of its fans, I seem to have gone through three distinct phases with the 1966 Batman TV series. As a kid, I loved it unironically, since I had no idea what “camp” meant and had precious little basis for live-action superhero comparison. As a teenager, discovering Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and living through the rise of the grim-and-gritty superhero comics phenomenon led to non-trivial resentment of the 1966 Batman show, especially since it was the source for the endless “Biff! Pow! Comics Aren’t Just for Kids Anymore!” headlines in the mainstream media. Thankfully, I seem to have grown out of that phase and can appreciate Batman again, although in a totally different way than I did as a kid. This renewed appreciation of the show is thanks to the show’s return to home video after a too-long wait, finally ended thanks to dedicated fans doing legal legwork rather than just signing online petitions.
There is certainly nothing to complain about from an audio-video presentation standpoint. The series is available on DVD and Blu-ray, and it looks absolutely spectacular in high-definition. The digital remastering masterfully revives the show’s bright colors and keeps video razor-sharp without obliterating the film grain. The image loses sharpness very rarely, mostly limited to the stock footage used for establishing shots. Sound is in mono, but the soundtrack is clear and precise. The video and audio quality alone would make this Blu-ray a must-see release. I don’t think Batman ’66 has ever looked better than it does on this release.
In broad strokes, Batman ’66 follows the same pattern as the grimmer, modern-day version: Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder sidekick battle crime, with everyone dressed in outlandishly colorful outfits and where everyone’s got a gimmick. However, it wasn’t until now that I realized how much Batman owes its lineage to TV sitcoms as much as traditional superhero action/adventure as it had been presented up to then in most comic books, cartoons, and live-action TV serials like the George Reeves The Adventures of Superman. It’s not a pure comedy or a pure action/adventure series, and its ability to sit comfortably between the two may be the show’s best trick. It’s not a parody of superheroics like The Tick, but it’s more earnest than something as overtly silly as The Aquabats Super Show. I think you’ll have to fast-forward twenty-odd years to the under-appreciated Warren Beatty Dick Tracy to find something with the same blend of melodrama and comedy wrapped up in such a visually distinctive primary-colored shell, and then zip ahead another 20 years to Batman: The Brave and the Bold or the aforementioned Aquabats Super Show to find something comparable again. Even then, Batman ’66 stands alone in balancing those two schizophrenic sides of its personality so well.
I can still find joy in the elements that excited me as a kid: Batman and Robin’s strait-laced earnestness pitted against colorful examples of super-villainy; the obligatory punch-ups punctuated by giant comic-book sound effects exploding on the screen; the punchy theme song and the accompanying animated opening credits sequence; the Batmobile and its ritualistic start-up sequence; and the panoply of stunningly beautiful women in guest roles. Watching it as an adult, what strikes me the most is how well the show has aged, despite being such an iconic piece of 1960’s pop culture. It’s powerful sense of style also means it never looks like anything but itself, which also keeps the show from aging. The show’s extraordinarily self-aware atmosphere fits in perfectly with our more ironic age, and other than fashion and technology, the only giveaway that we’re watching a period piece are the casually chauvinistic comments about women (which will be dealt with more in a minute). Grasping the sitcom heritage of Batman’ 66 makes all those crazy leaps of logic or non-sensical plot twists fit better, since those have always been the stock and trade of TV sitcoms (and even most superhero comic book stories, despite the protests of many of the genre’s modern fans).
It certainly helps that the show has an enviable roster of talent. As a kid, I took Adam West and Burt Ward seriously in their roles as Batman and Robin, but I don’t think I ever fully appreciated the skills that Adam West and Burt Ward brought to their roles. The show only works because they’re both willing to play their roles almost completely straight. Adam West is funny precisely because he can deadpan his most bizarre or outlandish lines, and I was impressed at the shift in Burt Ward’s body language and the sickly smile on his face in the pilot episode when he’s supposed to be Jill St. John in disguise. And, as a side note, that last element is a perfect example of a plot twist so audaciously implausible that it becomes funny, which is one of the roots of the show’s comedic style.
If Batman or Robin tossed more than the occasional wink at the audience, the entire illusion would come crashing down, and their deadly serious performance is also what gives the “special guest villains” license to truly go over-the-top. I’m genuinely captivated now by Frank Gorshin’s performance as the Riddler, who is more deeply unhinged and potentially murderous than Cesar Romero’s Joker (who is also wildly entertaining, but definitely playing up the clownish aspects of the character). The heart-stoppingly gorgeous Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt both manage to place their indelible stamps on Catwoman while ensuring she’s stays the same character. I’m also amazed at how much Victor Buono’s King Tut reminds me of Maxie Zeus in the “Fire From Olympus” episode of Batman the Animated Series, presenting a villain who is both a homicidal psychotic and a genuinely pitiable figure.
While the show is extremely formulaic for its duration (which is not intended as criticism but simply a statement of fact), season three shook things up by adding Yvonne Craig to the cast as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl and shifting from two-part tales (with their infamous cliffhangers) to single-episode stories. The show also suffered from a major budget cut, forcing a change to more to minimalist sets. Many fans don’t view the third season as favorably as the first two, but I find these may be some of my favorite episodes now. These third-season episodes are fast and efficient because they can’t afford to waste time on ridiculously elaborate rationales to keep characters from doing the obvious, which all but the very best two-part episodes suffer from. The impressionistic sets also make the design work feel even more distinctive, especially when those sets are painted in the unrealistic day-glo Technicolor hues of pulp comic book fiction. At their best, they provide near-perfect slices of pop-art insanity like “Surf’s Up! Joker’s Under!”, a hilarious episode that pits Batman against the Joker in a surfing contest, where the dastardly plan is barely even an afterthought.
The show’s general attitude towards women is comically retrograde to modern sensibilities, but I’m fascinated how well Yvonne Craig’s Batgirl has kept up with the times. At the time, calling her a “girl” was a subtle way to belittle her, explicitly making her less than an adult; today it fits with modern-day women appropriating the word to define their femininity on their own terms. She’s also playing Batman’s game by his rules, except she doesn’t have the benefit of official police sanction or a family fortune to fund her activities, making her a woman who’s twice as good as a man doing the same work but getting only half the credit. Batgirl is never a damsel in distress, saving herself or the Caped Crusaders as often as she needs to be saved herself. Add it all up and I find myself crushing on Batgirl all over again, but not just because Yvonne Craig looks way, way better in her outfit than Adam West or Burt Ward do in theirs (but I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t still part of it).
The massive Limited Edition Blu-ray boxed set splits the entire series across 13 discs kept in three cardboard-and-plastic wallets, one per season. None of the discs have any forced trailers and they all have the minimalist Warner Home Video menu system, which I appreciate for being so fast to navigate. However, none of the 12 episode discs have any bonus features at all. I’d have loved to hear the surviving cast members or big fans delivering commentary tracks on select episodes, but there isn’t a single one to be found on the main discs. All the video bonuses are left on the 13th disc, and they’re a bit of a mixed bag. “Hanging with Batman” spends about a half-hour with Adam West as he chronicles his career, his time on Batman ’66, and his career after playing the iconic superhero. It’s a good, solid conversation with West, but I think the second featurette spotlighting him, “Bats of the Round Table,” is more fun due to the company he keeps. Joining West are a slate of longtime fans: writer/director/supergeek Kevin Smith, actor Phil Morris, actor/comedian/radio personality Ralph Garman, and DC Co-Publisher Jim Lee. While the genially garrulous Smith dominates the conversation, everyone gets a chance to express their affection for Batman ’66 and its gracious lead actor, asking interesting questions and extracting amusing anecdotes and observations.
The next most-interesting featurette is “Batmania Born! Building the World of Batman,” which pulls in many cast and crew members (some through older archive footage), while adding a number of people whose experience with the show led to creating the modern-day Batman, including Warner Bros. Animation’s Bruce Timm, James Tucker, and Mike Carlin; DC Comics’ Dan Didio, Jim Lee, and Paul Levitz; and longtime Batman movie producer Michael Uslan. “Holy Memorabilia Batman!” is a bit lightweight, focusing on the Batman-themed collections of Ralph Garman and Kevin Silva, with Adam West paying a visit to see Garman’s personal “Batcave” of Batman ’66-themed collectibles. The featurette also visits the garage of Fiberglass Freaks, which builds life-size working reproductions of the classic 1966 Batmobile. It’s one way to look at the merchandising phenomenon that the show spawned, but it still seems a bit shallow. Honestly, despite the warm moments shared between Adam West and Ralph Garman, I’d have swapped this for a half-hour featurette solely about the car.
“Inventing Batman in the Words of Adam West” is the closest the set comes to commentary tracks, with Adam West narrating the series premiere with anecdotes and occasionally stopping the action to highlight his script notes. There is an awful lot of dead air, though, and those hoping for an integration of his (in)famous Adam West Naked DVD will be disappointed. The “Bat Rarities!” feature combines four short features from the show’s production. The “Batgirl Pilot” seems to be a 10-minute trial run before season 3; other than an update to her costume and small amendments to her background, Yvonne Craig’s Batgirl is ready-to-go. An audition and a screen test of Adam West and Burt Ward using a scene from “Hey Diddle Riddle” is interesting, but the screen test with Lyle Waggoner and Peter Deyell as Batman and Robin is even more illuminating. With all due respect to the latter two men, they just don’t have the same chemistry as West and Ward, and Waggoner simply doesn’t have Adam West’s sly sense of humor. The last of the “Bat Rarities!” is a “James Blakeley tribute” which is about 10-minutes of archival footage of the late production manager for the show, documenting how he did the “Biff! Pow!” effects among other things. “Na Na Na Batman!” is little more than several contemporary celebrities talking about Batman ’66 and its influence on them. While it’s nice to see DC Animation’s Jay Oliva included alongside live-action talent, there is far too little of substance to be gleaned from this featurette.
In addition to that 13th disc of bonus material, the Limited Edition set also comes with several collectibles. A Hot Wheels Batmobile is slightly larger than the version on toy pegs now, but it’s beautifully realized and even comes in a clear plastic box with a printed backdrop of the Batcave. There is also a small hardcover “Adam West Scrapbook,” containing photos from the show and from West’s personal collection of memorabilia. A softcover episode guide is nicely comprehensive, and also includes a letter of thanks from Adam West. The 44 vintage trading cards are a nice touch, but I have to admit I find the art on them to be a bit weird and off-putting. Even the box comes with bonus features, as a little button on the side plays a brief clip of the Batman theme song. The set includes a UltraViolet code to stream or download the series (and even if I had any use for UltraViolet, I wouldn’t want to think about the amount of hard drive space the entire series would take up). The only complaint I might have about the set is that the deeply recessed pocket that holds the discs and the books is a little too deep. As a result, the little ribbon that helps lift things out often gets lost, and digging around to extract something a bit too often has led to my box splitting at the upper-left corner.
Re-visiting something you adored as a kid can be a dangerous game. More often than not, watching a childhood favorite as an adult can make you seriously question the taste of your younger self. Occasionally, something is as charming as you remembered it, but still isn’t something you’d want to spend much time with, except to share with the children in your adult life. Very rarely, you’ll find something that you can enjoy one way as a child and a totally different way as an adult. I’ve experienced this with the 1980’s G.I. Joe and the Hanna-Barbera Super Friends, and can now say the same about the 1966 Batman. It’s also telling that with all three shows, I’d continue to watch as a kid even as I’d point at the screen periodically to say, “But that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen!” As an adult, I find I can watch all three shows again and still point at the screen periodically to say, “But that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen!” and mean something totally different by it. It’s a revelation that’s many years overdue, but better late than never.