Several decades before Michael Keaton donned the mask, before George Clooney tried his hand at the Batsuit, before Val Kilmer grew rubber nipples — the real Batman was played by Adam West. The modern-era Batmen, including Christian Bale, have tried to portray the Dark Knight with a more serious bend, but Adam West “pulled a Shatner,” choosing to portray Batman more as a melodramatic and cheesy hero that, at the time, people simply couldn’t resist.
Fast-forward to 2008, and Adam West’s vision of Batman is getting the Blu-ray treatment via Batman: The Movie. The movie was produced at the height of Batman TV-show fever, and the fact that it was produced in just three months definitely shows. That compressed turnaround time was obvious years ago as well, but as modern-day heroes like Austin Powers have become all the more frequent, the 1966 production of Batman: The Movie shows signs of age. It’s not the transfer or audio or bonus features; all those are just fine. Instead, it’s the actual movie itself. If you’re into cult classics or silly adventures, this is one Blu-ray you’ll want to pick up. But set your expectations accordingly.
The reference to Austin Powers is intentional and simple: the fictional superspy is crazy as all hell, with ego to spare and outlandish ideas in spades. But Mike Myers didn’t invent those traits on his own; he based them partly on the James Bond films of yore, and partly (even if unconsciously) on Adam West’s Batman. Batman: The Movie (1966) has as crazy a plot as anything Austin Powers could devise: all four supervillains (the Riddler, Penguin, Cat Woman and Joker) have joined forces to dehydrate the “United World” Security Council and, in the process, hold the world captive. Batman, of course, is joined by Robin (Burt Ward) as they try to thwart the evil shenanigans and save the day. In the process, Batman falls in love, Robin is left to watch the awkward moments on closed-circuit TV, and every last gadget in the bat Arsenal is brought out of the bag.
Bat Helicopter? Yep. Batmobile? Well duh. Batarang? You bet. Shark Repellant Bat Spray? Um, check? Bat Ladder with a “Bat Ladder” label? Wow…yeah. Much like the Austin Powers films, Adam West and his Batman crew never took themselves too seriously, and that melodrama extended to their characters as well. “Drop Bat Ladder!” Batman screams at Robin. “Bat Ladder away!” You don’t get that dialogue anymore, and in some respects, we’re worse off because of it. In the years since Batman first released in 1966, we’ve started to take our action heroes a bit too seriously. Why do you think Will Smith’s newest movie just netted a boatload of cash (well, yeah, it’s Will Smith, but…)? Sometimes people want simple, mindless entertainment, and West’s version of Batman is not afraid to provide that.
But where the movie succeeded in 1966 with a host of melodramatic characters, it also falls apart in 2008 because of it. Austin Powers (again, just to use that example) is essentially a one-man show. The modern-day Batmen are one-man shows. When there’s a villain involved, it’s generally just one, rendering the movie a two-character film. But Batman from 1966 pulls out all the stops, again to capitalize on the Batman fever. With dialogue this cheesy, action this outlandish and personalities this strong, Batman: The Movie simply has too much personality for its own good. The villains are plotted to compete with one another (ultimately their undoing), but that’s the unfortunate case with the entire movie as well. After a while, the over-the-top-on-everything aspects of the film just get to be too much to handle.
After 45 minutes, either by viewers’ brains numbing or by shrewd editing, the movie calms down a bit and lets you focus on the multimedia aspects. And that is where Batman: The Movie surprisingly shines. Considering the film was filmed and released in 1966, I expected some serious grain in the 1080p AVC transfer. Oddly enough, while there is some noticeable noise, the transfer is easily on par with some of today’s budget films, and actually looks better in terms of contrast and saturation than some of the 1990s films we’re starting to see release on Blu-ray Disc. It’s not as good as the transfer from Predator on Blu-ray, but then again, even that movie is 20 years Batman’s junior.
The audio in Batman: The Movie is also pleasantly surprising, particularly where the front channels are concerned. The movement of the Batmobile is captured quite well with the front L+R channels, but while the stereo effect is good, it would’ve been nice to see a bit more attention paid to the L+R surround channels. This probably would’ve required some “invention” of sound effects, since the movie was never filmed with 5.1 surround-sound in mind, but in light of the energy that went into the rest of the film’s sweetening, the lack of rear support is somewhat disappointing.
If audio’s your thing, though, you’ll definitely want to head to the Isolated Score Track bonus feature, which includes the entire score from the film, complete with environmental musical interludes, in DTS-HD Master Audio. This is a fantastic bonus feature, both because it isolates classic Batman music but also because it cranks the volume pretty high by default. The feature-length track spans the entire length of the film, and all audio other than the score is omitted. No dialogue, no special effects, no anything but the music. The rear channels are still pretty discreet, but the quality of the overall audio is fantastic.
Batman: The Movie also includes two commentary tracks, one with Adam West and Burt Ward, and one with screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. West and Ward’s commentary track feels like watching an old home movie with your grandfather: there’s occasional insight and a handful of jokes, but you don’t go into it expecting much. Semple’s track, meanwhile, is full of information about the logic behind certain scenes, production snafus and what it was like to be the inspiration for future spoofs. He freely admits that Batman: The Movie didn’t have “Oscar worthy” writing, but he frankly didn’t care, and he remains proud of the film. By and large, he should be proud, too; it just suffers from a bit too much personality for today’s movie-going crowds.
Batman: A Dynamic Legacy (28:29, 1080p) is an expose about the 1960s pop-culture phenomenon of the Batman movie and TV series, which was essentially the Star Wars of its time. This feature explores the history of both the show and the movie, and how they evolved together. Several modern-day comic book artists, writers and fans are also interviewed to discuss how the original Batman played a role in their fascination with the Dark Knight.
Caped Crusaders: A heroes Tribute (12:29, 1080p) explores how West, Ward and the actors who portrayed the villains really made the characters their own. West is clearly the focus here, as he really was the melodramatic Shatner of his time, but it’s interesting to hear more about each actor’s history, acting decisions and how they influenced the characters we know all know in the Batman canon. Gotham City’s Most Wanted (15:51, 1080p) continues this exploration, as it zeroes-in on the villains and their motivation, not the actors’. In essence, this BD bonus feature interviews several people involved with the production about how the villains and their plans were always outlandish but never doubted, how they managed to be unique and entertaining for the TV and movie medium while still echoing the principles of the comic book. This feature is required watching for anyone who considers themselves a Batman fan, as it’s a great breakdown of how these characters have evolved through time.
A smattering of old-school bonus features is also included on the Blu-ray Disc, highlighted by a 2001 Featurette (16:47, 480p) comprised of interviews with Adam West and Burt Ward, and a Batmobile Revealed (5:47, 480p) featurette with George Barris in which he describes how he conceived and created the original Batmobile in the 1960s. There’s also a Holy Trivia Track, Batman, which is the now-requisite popup video-like trivia track; the Original Trailers (teaser, theatrical and Spanish theatrical); and Galleries, a compilation of photos from the vaults of Adam West, an interactive press book, movie posters, production stills, behind-the-scenes photos and photographs from the movie’s premiere.
But two of the neatest features are also the ones viewers are likely to ignore: The Batmobile Interactive Tour and Batman: On Location: Mapping the Movie. The interactive tour lets viewers take a look at the original Batmobile almost like a Flash animation, swinging it around at various angles and (by scripted button presses) zooming-in to various details and features. The animation and timing of it all isn’t exactly smooth, but the concept is sound and the content good. The On-Location bit, however, is truly “next gen,” at least where film-history buffs are concerned. Viewed as a freeway overlay over the entire film, this map shows every area where the movie was filmed, complete with driving directions that correspond to the scene and factoids about each location. Certain scenes also come equipped with real-world photographs (like the Bat Cave in Griffith Park, for instance).
Batman in the 1960s was a cult hit, and as these bonus features will attest, the franchise had a huge impact not just on Batman fans, but on superheroes’ portrayal in general. While it’s definitely worth a watch on Blu-ray, Batman: The Movie isn’t going to win Oscars for special effects or writing, but nobody expected it to 40 years ago, and nobody does now, either. The biggest downfall is actually the fact that movies are written and plotted differently than they were in the 1960s, and viewers’ expectations have adjusted accordingly. Batman is not a bad film, just an early one. Its appearance on Blu-ray is welcome, but more as a rental than a must-own title.
- Score: 7.9
— Jonas Allen