When it comes to franchises in pop culture, I believe your entry point indelibly affects your aesthetic appreciation.
The Star Wars universe is different for someone who experienced it as a singular film before the attachment of A New Hope to its title, than it is for a person who experienced it concurrently with the prequel trilogy. Your thoughts on Doc Frankenstein and his creation are heavily influenced by whether you first heard his tale via Mary Shelley, James Whale or the folks at Hammer Studios. The order in which you see Airport and Airplane! changes your feelings toward both.
Such is the case with Batman, a franchise character with a wide range of entry points, each of which is likely to leave a different indelible anchoring mark on whoever enters through that particular door.
My first encounter with Batman was via the 1966-68 TV series and the movie released between seasons one and two. In reruns and via my local Saturday matinee movie (for $1!), they laid the foundation for all of my future encounters with the Caped Crusader.
I loved that show.
But here’s the thing: I didn’t see it as a comedy.
Oh, sure, now it’s obvious. But at 5 or 6 or whatever I was when the dynamic duo first popped from the TV set in my living room, I thrilled to their adventures fighting crime in Gotham City, fantasized about the Batcave, dug the Batmobile, and really, really wanted to slide down the Batpole. I didn’t have words for it then, but Yvonne Craig’s Batgirl was my first Hollywood crush. And the cliffhangers that ended half the episodes kept me anxiously awaiting the next (which was promised to air at the same Bat-time, same Bat-channel). Some of the earliest debates in my memory banks had to do with which were the coolest villains. (I was primarily a Riddler fan.)
Yes, the villains and situations in the series were over the top. But at an innocent age, I didn’t really know where the top was. So I took the whole thing as seriously as Adam West’s Batman and Burt Ward’s Robin seemed to take it. I didn’t yet understand that keeping a straight face didn’t automatically mean you were serious.
But as much as I can recall my love for the TV show, I also remember being disappointed by the movie. And I’m still processing why, even after subsequent disappointing rewatches over the years.
I can’t blame a change in writing staff since Lorenzo Semple Jr. penned both the episodes of the TV series I loved and the flick that I didn’t (he also penned the original Papillon, Three Days of the Condor and the cult favorite Pretty Poison). But I think my problems with the film begin nearly from the beginning, with the much-mocked shark-attack sequence.
Early on, Batman is lowered on a rope ladder from the Batcopter to perform a rescue. The move is complicated by a shark attacking him and hanging from his leg. He tries punching it, but it isn’t dislodged. All is not lost, though. He requests some Bat-shark repellant spray from Robin up in the Batcopter, who finds some conveniently located next to the Bat-whale repellant and Bat-manta ray repellant. Robin climbs down the rope — apparently the copter is automatic-pilot-equipped — and hands the repellant off to Batman, who sprays the beast. It falls to the water and, for some reason, explodes.
Yes, it’s silly. It knows it’s silly. Nobody making the film could think the shark looked remotely real or even vaguely menacing. However, what was exciting on the small screen in quick, short doses just seemed dumb on a big one, even for a kid. And it got worse as the movie went on. Dragging the adventure out to feature length made it oddly dull. And packing the room with four core villains (Penguin, Joker, Riddler and Catwoman) just cluttered things. The scenes between Bruce Wayne and “Miss Kitka” seemed to go on forever.
Plus, where was the cliffhanger?
And what’s a Batman fistfight without “Pow!,” “Aieee!” title cards?
Okay, so the Batcopter and the Batboat were cool. But that wasn’t enough. I wanted fun and excitement and got little of either.
I was not a comic-book kid, so after I had exhausted their TV adventures, my interest in these characters waned (Wayned?) until I read Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. And while I was not a fan of the Keaton-through-Clooney years, Christopher Nolan brought me back into the fold, at least for his first two outings.
Still, none has brought me the pleasure that I had watching West and Ward on my living-room TV scale the side of a building to combat the Bookworm, Egghead or Lola Lasagne.
Even a misguided biggie-sized movie version couldn’t diminish those pleasures.