Well, not literally. I used to be, when I was 13. That’s when I made my own costume and ran around with my friend (as Robin) and filmed us in Super 8.
Even though this is supposed to be an “anonymous” blog, this is going to be one of the more autobiographical blog posts. There’s really no choice about it because Adam West was one of the top formative figures of my childhood. There’s just no way for me to mark his passing without explaining my deep connection to the Batman character and comics in general.
Like most GenXers, I grew up on a steady diet of reruns of 60s fare. Batman was one of them. When I was young enough, I didn’t really interpret what I was seeing as “camp”. As I got older, the laughs started, and this caused me to be, well, a little frustrated with the show. You see, I wanted to take Batman seriously. I didn’t want the show to poke fun at itself. As a typical nerd, I didn’t want to classify comics as “kiddie” fare. Around that time comics were getting progressively mature. My friend was into Teen Titans which was DCs answer to X-Men. I was sticking to Batman and his own short-lived group, the Outsiders.
The biggest thing that happened around this time was Dick Grayson giving up being Robin and becoming Nightwing.
Big soap-opera publicity-stunt events in comics were rare before the 80s. This was the one that impacted me the most, maybe because of the father-son aspect of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson being strained by Dick’s symbolism of abandoning the Robin persona and adopting the Nightwing one. To my adolescent brain this was concrete proof that comics as a medium itself was growing up. Mind you, this was still before Miller’s Dark Knight, Year One, Killing Joke, etc… But it was a stepping-stone.
During this period I started writing a screenplay revolving around Dick increasingly arguing with Bruce over tactics and not necessarily quitting being Robin but just being disgruntled. This storyline is what I wanted to film in Super-8 but never could because I was just a kid with big dreams and only one friend and a garage with plywood paneling for a soundstage.
After that whole episode played out, at the end of High School I was still collecting Starlog magazines and I remember reading a blurb about Adam West and Burt Ward. They had found out that Warner Brothers was going to make a big-budget Batman film. This film was in development hell for a long time. West and Ward immediately hit the gym in an attempt to be cast back in their classic roles. As silly as it may have seemed in retrospect, you have to understand that those two were as associated with their roles as Shatner and Nimoy with Kirk and Spock. Not only that, they continued to voice the character on and off in animated form. Here they are on the New Adventures of Batman and Robin from 1977.
Yes, it’s a far cry from Batman:TAS.
Second only to the Star Wars Holiday Special as far as surreal Generation-X fever dreams was Legends of Superheroes from 1979. Still before the era of VCRs, this came and went with only fading neurons to prove it ever existed, but thanks to Youtube (or WB Archive Collection if you want to be legal) we all now know it did in fact happen, and wish it hadn’t. Nevertheless, it does feature West and Ward still looking much the same as they did 10 years prior.
The point being that through the 70s and 80s, other than the Superfriends incarnation, the idea of Batman and Robin remained intimately associated with West and Ward.
When I found out the two of them were hitting the gym I was rooting for them to be cast. I was too young and naive to understand why this was an impossibility, and in retrospect, it’s kind of cringe-inducing that the two of them were desperate enough for work to pull a publicity stunt like that, similar to what Sean Young did years later.
(Despite the help of Google I’ve been unable to unearth digital evidence of West and Ward hitting the gym and gunning to be cast in Tim Burton’s Batman, but take my word for it, they did. If anyone reading this finds a link, please log a comment.)
When I found out Michael Keaton had been cast, I was pretty disappointed, mostly because of his short stature and his reputation for being a comedic actor. I was ultimately pretty happy with the Tim Burton Batman, but I felt Burton was more interested in giving Jack Nicholson screen-time than Keaton, so the Wayne/Batman role was really short-changed. I also didn’t like that they felt necessary to give Batman a forced gravelly voice, but that has unfortunately stuck in all future live-action incarnations.
As an origin-story, the 1989 Batman has some huge gaps in it that annoy me. Ironically, the dialogue itself accentuates it.
The film never answers that question. The Batcave and all of Batman’s gadgets just appear. Bruce Wayne doesn’t build or maintain anything or get it from Lucius Fox. I always saw Wayne as the ultimate nerd, sort of like how Tony Stark is portrayed in Iron Man. Same archetype, although Wayne is also physically adept whereas Stark relies on the suit. Wayne’s intellect and ability to engineer (or at least help engineer) his gadgets was a big part of my identification with him. So not showing him do any sort of engineering work really bugged me. The Nolan films largely addressed this by outsourcing most of the heavy-lifting to Lucius Fox and Fox in turn drawing from military contracts like the tumbler for the Batmobile.
The less I say about the latter-era Burton-verse Batmans the better. The only good thing about Batman Forever was “the song”. It’s a personal favorite of mine.
I was young enough when Batman Forever and Batman & Robin were out to wish they were darker, and old enough that when the Nolan Batman came out that I started to wish it were lighter.
Also in the 90s was Batman:TAS. This was sort of a back-port of the Burton-verse into more of the classic comic-book portrayal, done in a Max Fleischer style. The main holdovers from the Burton film was the music and a common art-deco noir-like attitude. By this point I was starting to feel too old to be watching “cartoons” so I can’t say I was a regular viewer, but I did catch a few and was always impressed with the quality of the art and the maturity of the stories. It was dark, but not grimdark. And Batman was just a guy in a leotard, not armor. So I liked the purity of it.
The Nolan-verse Batman was the final manifestation of what I had wanted to see when I wrote my screenplay at age 13, but I was living in a depressing post-911 world of grown up problems. I no longer craved Batman as a vehicle for my teen-angst. So while I admired the craft of Nolan’s Batman films, I found the experience of watching them ultimately rather depressing.
Most people think The Dark Knight was the best of the three, but the moral ambiguity is so strong that it almost completely deconstructs Batman as a viable hero. While The Dark Knight Rises continues along those lines, it ultimately restores more of his dignity. The closest thing to “uplift” that I crave so much these days is this memorable scene:
I have yet to watch Batman v. Superman so I can’t comment with authority on that portrayal although I’ve heard enough to be highly reluctant to spend my time on it. I can at least hope that Batfleck’s second outing in Justice League is worth watching, but I have my doubts.
As I explained in West’s obit, the last Batman movie I saw was West in Return of the Caped Crusaders. I found it surprisingly good, faithful to the source-material of the 1960s show, and the voices of West, Ward, and Newmar to not be too “aged” to suspend disbelief. However, I found it played out mostly as a victory-lap homage/reunion rather than a story that really needed to be told. It’s maybe the animated equivalent of your Matlock/Murder She Wrote/Diagnosis Murder shows that were aimed at an older audience who wanted to keep seeing familiar faces.
And you also have…Lego Batman. I saw him in the Lego movie but not the standalone. I will have to put that one on my watch list.
Note that I’m splitting off the movie/animated Batman from the comics. Comics from the late 80s onward began to devolve into constant reboots and soap-opera stunts. There was a revolving door of Robins including a girl version. Then they broke Bruce Wayne’s back and put him in a wheelchair. More recently they had him shack up with Barbara Gordon and this was alluded to in more recent animated editions like this reimagining of Dick Grayson quitting. The venerable Kevin Conroy from Batman: TAS still voicing the character here.
This whole Batman SLASH Batgirl thing hit a fever pitch in the Killing Joke movie. Here’s where the controvery came from. The times…they’ve changed.
I think there’s a larger point to be made about superhero portrayals and arcs here.
The comic books themselves, what’s left of the industry at least, feeds on novelty. At its worst, this comes in the form of shock-tactics like killing off characters, having them quit, act out of character, date other superheroes, get pregnant, get raped, whatever. If that sounds a little familiar to you, these are the tactics employed by soap operas.
Yes, comic books are closest in form to soap operas. They just have action adventure bolted on to appeal to guys but underneath it all it’s not so different from, let’s say, Dynasty or General Hospital.
The problem in trying to treat the medium as a serious artform is to try to find ways in which it goes beyond merely pushing one trope or another. This doesn’t happen very often, not in the comic realm, and not in films either.
This is why I’m at a stage of life in which it’s harder and harder for me to really get anything out of watching superhero stuff. I’d like to avoid saying I’ve outgrown the genre, but it would really be nice to be exposed to something new, and by new I don’t necessarily mean Deadpool parody or Logan nihilism. It’s at a point that Westerns eventually reached as a genre. It just started to feel “played out” via every conceivable angle.
When the newish Supergirl TV show it seemed like something I might like in the sense that it’s lighter in tone than the DCEU movies, but I just never dedicated the time for it, just like I rarely dedicate any time for modern TV shows other than Big Bang Theory.
The stories keep getting reinterpreted again and again. Each time some new wrinkle is added it causes ripples and controversy in fandom. For example, Harley Quinn was invented for Batman: TAS, for instance, but she actually wore a Harlequin outfit. When it came time for Suicide Squad, they made her look like a cheap hooker instead. Why? Because the studios empower certain people who have a certain sensibility that they impose on the preexisting material, and that sensibility tends to reflect current culture and fashion-trends. We’re living in a trashy end-of-Rome sort of era, hence movie Harley Quinn who then becomes the new updated comic book Harley Quinn.
I would expect anyone who gets into comic book characters latches onto them as an icon and wants them to stay the way they remember it. For me, no matter how campy the TV show was, I wanted to hold onto Adam West’s Batman. I just wanted the stories to play “straight”, but how he looked, the Batmobile, the Batcave, all that stuff felt right to me. So I’ve never been able to warm up to any of the movie Batmans in quite the same way.
The other aspect of doubling-down is that the total number of Batman incarnations, especially when you factor in animated form, has become so dizzying that it’s impossible to really weigh them anymore. For better or worse, West was the guy from roughly 1966 to 1989 when the Tim Burton film came out. He was the only guy to play him in live-action and he also played him some in animated form when Olan Soule wasn’t playing him in Superfriends. In that respect it’s similar to Roger Moore who played Bond longer than any other (so far at least). As the revolving door keeps spinning, one inexorably gravitates back to the earlier days when things were simpler. This was why West was typecast in the first place, whereas none of the other film Batmans have or will likely be.
- A more prurient tribute demonstrates how West exhibited far less hedonic self-control than his alter-ego. Apparently Led Zeppelin had nothing on West and Ward.