Batman and Superman are currently clobbering each other through cinemas around the globe, but where did it all begin? One Room With A View casts the Bat Signal back through time, past the Nolan-noughties, past Burton’s reign in the late-eighties/early-nineties, to the Swingin’ Sixties – a place where cinematic Batman Began.
‘He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster,’ Nietzsche warned in Beyond Good and Evil. ‘And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.’ A troubling sentiment, and one that is eerily echoed, almost verbatim, by Alfred Pennyworth as the light of 1993’s Mask of the Phantasm begins to dwindle.
Crumpled at his feet, caped but sans cowl, muscular but fragile, sits Bruce Wayne: half man, half bat, static between his two states of transformation. He is closing up his most recent case, one that has devastated him to his already fractured core, and is contemplating the notion of retribution. Pennyworth – butler, accomplice, confidant, and father-by-proxy – attempts to comfort Wayne, thanking heaven that vengeance hasn’t poisoned his surrogate son in the same way it has devoured his gallery of nemeses.
But even that balm of this seemingly familiar sermon catches itself on that Nietzschean caution, the same one that eats as the very heart of the Batman mythos: how long before this abyss-weary man finally breaks?
In 1939, as planet Earth readied itself for a second world war, people were in desperate need of heroes. Superman, a character originally devised from another Nietzschean concept (the Übermensch), had proven to be a major triumph for DC Comics, and audiences were salivating for more. In answer to these demands, Bob Kane and Bill Finger began to develop a shadowy persona, known only at that point as “The Bat-Man”. Clad in a red suit and sporting a domino mask, he bore little resemblance to the eventual character that would rise from his ashes, but it was a start: the Bat had been born.
Kane and Finger became consumed with evolving their elementary sketches into a fully formed champion. Together, they concocted a thick soup of pulp fiction, adventure comic strips, and other herbs and spices from 1930s popular culture to pour through a pointy-eared mask. In doing so, the world’s soon-to-be most famous vigilante began to take shape as a Scarlet Pimpernelian Sherlock Holmes; an enigmatic alter-ego who stalked and sleuthed in the shadows, shrouding his acts of heroism in a plume of tenebrosity. The domino mask was replaced by a cowl (no doubt put into storage until Robin would come along) and the wings (inspired by Da Vinci’s ornithopter sketches) became a cape. Gloves were added and anything red became black.
Designed as a Zorro for modern, urban America, the Bat-Man borrowed further from the Californio nobleman’s background, by forming Bruce Wayne, the Man behind the Bat, as a wealthy playboy, thought to be an unlikely suspect to be a masked nocturnal vigilante. Kane and Finger clipped his name together from the jigsaw piece monickers of Robert Bruce, the Chief of the Knights Templar, and Major General ‘Mad’ Anthony Wayne, a brigadier general who fought in the American Revolutionary; homages to valour, philanthropy, but also colonialism. Before the smoke could clear, they provided their character with his raison d’être by promptly orphaning him, reasoning there to be ‘nothing more traumatic than having your parents murdered before your eyes.’
The Bat-Man, soon to be referred to as just “Batman”, was immediately embraced by the public and his comics continued to sell very well, even through the genre’s slump of the 1950s. Two serialised adventures were produced by Columbia Pictures in the ‘40s, and their moderate success led to the eventual development of the now iconic Batman television series, originally aired on America’s ABC channel.
Batman’s first full-length theatrical outing was originally envisioned to be a commercial-of-sorts for this upcoming TV show, the brainchild of producer William Dozier, but financial reluctances from 20th Century Fox resulted in its release being pushed back to between the series’ first and second season. Batman: The Movie, which pits the Dynamic Duo of Batman and Robin against not one, not two, but four of the show’s most loathsome villains, debuted in late July 1966 to a mixed box office reception.
Adam West, the television series’ Caped Crusader, continued with his role as it was spun-off onto the silver screen, despite his request for a more bumper pay cheque being met with a threat to replace him. The actor had been found by the producers after playing Captain Q, a 007-styled spy, in a TV commercial for Nestlé Quik, and apparently only won the cape and cowl by being the only auditonee to not dissolve into a cloud of laughter after reading the given lines. West remains the only man in history known to have been offered the parts of both Batman and James Bond (the latter of which he turned down due to ‘not being British’).
His Batman is not a vigilante; he is more of a “fixer” for Commissioner Gordon’s police force, an inverted Winston Wolfe type, always waiting at the end of of his pulsating red telephone, and Gotham City’s theatrical mascot of justice. West plays the Dark Knight as a stoic straight-man; an intensely moral figure who has a passionate and genuine hatred for law-breaking, but is never fazed by the fantastical hyperbole constantly erupting just ahead of him. ‘Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb,’ he mutters to himself in the latter stages of this movie, wielding a ridiculous explosive device that might look more at home in a Looney Tunes skit above his head, and we see this is truly just another day at the office for this Batman.
However, this Caped Crusader does not work alone, and West and Burt Ward (the series and movie’s Robin) make for an exuberant, incredibly watchable double act, easily the best Batman and Robin pairing in the cinematic canon (although this is hardly an incredible feat, all things considered). Bill Finger had wanted to introduce Robin into the Batman comics as a Doctor Watson-styled sidekick, someone plucky and loyal, a counterpart who Batman could confide in. Director Leslie H. Martinson captures this intention, successfully carrying over the natural, warm, paternal chemistry also shared by the duo on the television run.
Robin is always Batman’s apprentice in this universe, but Bats is never shown to be patronising in his thoughtful duty of care, and Ward’s Boy Wonder is neither callow nor a burden. He’s pragmatic, gets involved, and is constantly an asset to his guardian. ‘An old chum,’ as Batman constantly puts it, and we believe it. Their relationship is touchingly co-dependent.
Martinson also does a wonderful job in continuing the series’ wacky spirit while ensuring to turn the gas mark up to feature length: the plot sees the Dynamic Duo effectively enter Cold War politics via a dangerous, world-threatening device that dehydrates people to mere dust. His balancing of Batman and Robin, Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara, along with four rogues (and Catwoman’s assumed identity Kitanya Irenya Tatanya Karenska Alisoff, or ‘Ms Kitka’ for short) is Whedonesque: everyone gets their curtain call. Even now (especially now), the superhero genre tends to get hamstrung by a giddy need to stuff as many villains as possible into its films, nearly always to the point of choking, and the Batman cinematic canon is no different, but Batman: The Movie is one of the few exceptions that gets it right: the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin, and especially Catwoman each have a legitimacy in their inclusion to this most fiendish of plots.
Despite a recent resurgence (the television series finally made it to home video in 2014 after being stuck in a messy rights-battle purgatory for 46 years), many still consider West’s Batman to be something close to blasphemy. However, such dismissals of the incarnation are almost always revisionist and perhaps do not take into consideration just how rooted this version was in the comics of its time. Many of Batman’s most famous hallmarks are omitted here, it’s true: no parents are butchered in dank alleyways; no young boys tumble into cavernous, bat-infested depths; and William Dozier’s Gotham City is not the Dantean Ring we would plummet into in future adventures, despite being, as always, a magnet for the criminally insane.
But the main reason the eldest child in Batman’s feature length canon is so obviously anomalous standing next to its younger brothers is simple: it’s pure, kaleidoscopic fun. Batman: The Movie tackles crime with an optimistic cheerfulness and a knowing, surreal sense of humour; it’s always looking at you out of the corner of wrinkled, twinkling eyes, tongue perpetually rammed in cheek, and it dares to laugh at the inherent ridiculousness of the genre. What other superhero films have had their stars duking it out with a shark while dangling from a helicopter, or pondering the ethical ramifications of blowing up a raft of ducklings, or having to sort the granular remains of the world’s most powerful leaders?
For better or worse, we’ll never quite see its like again.