VOD film review: Batman: The Movie (1966)
Matthew Turner | On 03, Mar 2022
Director: Leslie H Martinson
Cast: Adam West, Burt Ward, Lee Meriwether, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, Frank Gorshin, Reginald Denny, Neil Hamilton, Alan Napier
Released two months after the first season of the 1960s TV show had aired in the US, this enjoyably silly big screen spin-off has the distinction of being the first full-length theatrical Batman movie. Accordingly, the film shares creative DNA with the TV show – it was written by series writer Lorenzo Semple Jr and directed by Leslie H Martinso, who’d previously helmed a pair of Season 1 episodes.
The plot sees Bruce Wayne / Batman (Adam West) and Dick Grayson / Robin (Burt Ward) facing four of their most fiendish foes: The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), The Joker (Cesar Romero), The Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), who’ve banded together to form the United Underworld. Their dastardly scheme involves holding the world to ransom with the help of a secret weapon that dehydrates people and reduces them to piles of dust.
The film captures all the elements that made the TV show such a hit, from the wild array of meticulously labelled Bat-gadgets (the Shark Repellent Bat Spray makes an early appearance) and the onomatopoeic fight sounds appearing as captions (“POW!” “THWACK!”) to the potpourri of preposterous plots, crazy camera angles and colourful costumes. The film also retains the show’s obvious love of language, whether it’s the oft-repeated catchphrases (“To the Batmobile!”), the abundance of alliteration or florid throwaway lines, such as: “Penguin, Joker, Riddler and Catwoman too! The sum of the angles of that rectangle is too monstrous to contemplate”.
The performances are a joy. The most inspired touch is that West and Ward play it completely straight, delivering their lines with utmost seriousness. This allows for the villains to camp it up to high heaven, which they do with evident gusto. The standouts here are Burgess Meredith’s wonderful Penguin (surely the definitive iteration of the character) and Meriwether’s Catwoman, who makes yowling noises like she’s in heat at odd moments.
Action-wise, the film has a number of great set-pieces, including an early highlight where Batman punches a rubber shark and the classic sequence where the Caped Crusader runs about on a wharf with a giant explosive, while lamenting: “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.” The film also adds some extra vehicular elements for the show’s big-screen outing – the Bat-copter, the Bat-boat and the Bat-bike were all created for the movie, although budget constraints meant only the Bat-bike would actually be used again (subsequent shots of the helicopter and the boat were repurposed from the movie footage).
The production design of the film really stands out, not least in the vast array of tiny little details, such as the fact that the ladder from the Bat-copter has a sign on it saying “Bat Ladder”. Also, whoever came up with the design for The Penguin’s submarine – which has both a cute penguin face and working flippers – deserves some sort of award for comic book brilliance.
Finally, it’s interesting to note that Batman and Robin are explicitly positioned as “fully deputised agents of the law”, rather than just working with the police as costumed vigilantes. Indeed, the central conservatism of the Dynamic Duo is rather amusing, considering the characters were such a hit with the counter-culture in the 1960s. “Holy contradiction, Batman!” as Robin might say.