In the late 80s and early 90s, it was hard to avoid Batman. With the blockbuster success of Tim Burton’s two Batman movies, and the debut of the excellent animated series, Batman was firmly entrenched in the cultural zeitgeist. At that time, as a child of 8 years old, I was eager to consume any morsel of Batman related content I could find. Much like Eric, I got hooked on our local station’s reruns of Batman as the conclusion of their weekday afternoon lineup. Having every episode end with a cliffhanger had me hooked in to watch every episode I could.
It was at that point that I found out there was a movie version of the show released. And not only did it contain the main characters from the TV show, but it included most of the main villains of the show. On any given episode, you could get a Penguin story, a Joker story, a Riddler story, a Catwoman story, etc. What makes this movie more than a glorified expanded episode of the TV series is that it contains all of them at the same time. In every other film incarnation of Batman, one of these villains would be the main villain, or 2 of them would team up, but in this movie, all of these villains team together to take over the world.
This movie, and incarnation as a whole, plays differently depending on how old you are when you watch it. As a kid, I took everything in this movie and the show at face value. Well, as seriously as any comic book property could be taken. Batman and Robin try to stop a group of villains that have come into possession of an experimental device that dehydrates people, reducing them to dust. For a child, this isn’t a comedy, it is an action movie about Batman. When you grow up and watch it again, you see just how funny the movie actually is. It is funny precisely because it is so deadpan about such ridiculous things.
When you write out a timeline of events in this movie, it is completely ridiculous and nonsensical. The movie opens with Batman and Robin trying to save a Commodore from a boat, only to have it disappear when Batman goes down to land on it because the boat was a holographic projection, and Batman is attacked by an exploding shark, and it was a plan by a group of super-villains lead by The Penguin! But the movie not only doesn’t gloss over how little sense it makes, it doubles down on it. When Batman and Robin talk it over after the fact, they both act like it makes complete sense. They jump to some ridiculous conclusions throughout the movie that always turn out to be correct. Pretty much every scene with Batman and Robin deciphering The Riddler’s riddles are comic gold.
This movie would not work without Adam West. I cannot think of another actor that could have pulled off this performance. He plays it both straight and humorously at the same time. His sincerity is felt through the performance. That is why I took it seriously when I was a kid, Adam West made me believe. Watching it as an adult, I am blown away how he can make ridiculous dialogue work on multiple levels. Who else could have pulled off, “Some days you can’t get rid of a bomb”? I would say that without Adam West, the show wouldn’t have worked, and the whole show would have sunk.
The villains are a tremendous group. If it were made today, The Joker would have the most screen time, but in this, he and The Riddler take back seat to The Penguin and Catwoman. I have to say Burgess Meredith nearly steals the show as The Penguin, and it is a testament to his performance, since I have never been a big fan of The Penguin in his other iterations. The Catwoman here is played by a different actress than the series, but she is still fun playing duel roles as Catwoman and the fake Russian reporter persona she uses to capture Bruce Wayne.
I think some people talk down both this movie and the series by labeling it as “so bad it’s good” as if it was unintentionally funny. That is completely false, especially if you pay attention to the witty dialogue throughout the movie. Everyone making this knew exactly what they were making. They were making something that was unlike anything else on the air at the time. Something that people of all ages could watch together and enjoy equally. If you want an example of a comedic Batman that doesn’t work, watch, or don’t, if you value your free time, Batman and Robin. That is something that is clearly inspired by this version, but made by people who didn’t get what actually made it work, making something very dull instead of funny.