Dutch Angles And Deathtraps: Celebrating The 50th Anniversary Of ‘Batman’ ’66
The camera, tilted diagonally, pans across the crowded dance floor of a nightclub called What A Way To Go-Go as Batman casually walks in through the front door. The music continues, but the dancing stops, as Gotham citizens take notice of the world’s most famous crime-fighter in their midst. One of them shouts and points, almost fainting, a cigarette girl offers to check his cape, and the club’s owner comes over to personally welcome him, asking if he’d like a table. “I’ll stand at the bar,” replies Batman, standing in the middle of the crowd in a cape, mask and tights, a bright yellow utility belt full of batarangs and explosives around his waist, “I shouldn’t wish to attract attention.”
That, according to interviews, was the scene where Adam West understood exactly how to play the role that would make him famous: Reserved and stilted and almost painfully square despite the inherent ridiculousness of everything around him. And fifty years ago today, on January 12, 1966, that scene was broadcast as part of the debut of Batman, the television series that would define not just its title character, but — for better or worse — the place of superheroes in American pop culture for at least a generation.
Then again, to say that Batman defined the character is a little misleading. One of the things that was often lost on the revisionist history that came from the backlash against the show in the ’70s and ’80s — a time when the superhero genre was desperate to “grow up” and divorce itself from its seemingly childish past — was that Batman might have actually a pretty faithful adaptation. William Dozier — who pulled double-duty as the show’s producer/creator and, as the uncredited “Desmond Doomsday,” the narrator who encouraged viewers to “tune in tomorrow” every time Batman and Robin were dropped into a deathtrap by some Arch-Criminal — legendarily grabbed a handful of back issues at his local newsstand when he was working on the show.
As a result, most of the first season, including that very first episode, is based directly on stories lifted from the comics — they even got Bill Finger, Batman’s unsung co-creator, to write a pair of episodes in the second season. And when it aired twice a week on ABC, it was one of the biggest hits of the ’70s.
It’s easy to see why, too. Even if you divorce it from its source material, and even if you don’t talk about the impact that it had on pop culture, the show itself is brilliant. The simple idea of doing a superhero story as a comedy where the main characters played it completely straight was incredibly effective, and while a lot of that has to do with the beautifully weird scripts from writers like Lorenzo Semple, it can never be overstated how good that cast actually was.
Adam West, Burt Ward, Yvonne Craig, and even more minor regulars like Stafford Repp and Neil Hamilton as Chief O’Hara and Commissioner Gordon, all played their parts with stern seriousness without so much as a wink to the audience, and let that be the joke.
And then there were the villains.
Even from the very beginning, when Frank Gorshin took to the screen with a manic, murderous glee as the Riddler, the Special Guest Villains proved to be the show’s major attraction. And with good reason. While the plots could sometimes feel interchangeable, almost every arch-criminal that Batman faced over his 120-episode television career was both memorable and fantastic, from the sinister slinkiness of Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt’s Catwomen, to Victor Buono’s bellowing, bewildered King Tut, to the writers’ favorite, Burgess Meredith’s conniving, squawking Penguin. They made the show what it was; a spectacle under a thin layer of satire, a comedy pretending to be an adventure that somehow managed to succeed as both.
But then, that’s the thing about Batman ’66. You can’t really divorce it from its impact on pop culture at all, especially where superheroes are concerned. If nothing else, we’ve had fifty years of headlines about comics that lead off with “Biff! Pow!”, no matter what the context is, and Batman as a character was defined either directly by the show or in opposition to it decades.
Without Batman ’66, The Dark Knight Returns wouldn’t exist, and while the Tim Burton movies of the ’80s and ’90s were billed as moving away from it, they’ve got more in common with the show than they ever did with the comics. Batman Returns is pretty much just Season 2’s “Hizzoner the Penguin” dragged through a Hot Topic.
But while the reaction to the show spent a few years as embarrassment and distance, recent years have seen it coming back into favor, as a new generation of viewers have realized how great it really was. We finally got the series released on home video, a new series of comics from DC, and more — Batman: The Brave and the Bold is a low-key animated sequel to the live-action show in more ways than just being a spiritual successor.
Which, in the end, is exactly what the show deserves. It’s a cornerstone of superheroes in pop culture, and even after half a century, it holds up as being every bit as clever, weird, and even thrilling as it ever was.
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