DC Comics’ Batman is a cultural icon. At this point, anyone who thinks otherwise is just in denial.
After 75 years in continuous publication, multiple adaptations in film, television, radio, and video games, and the sheer amount of merchandise that’s sold every year with his name, supporting cast, or logo, Batman is a character that has managed to become linked to many very differing eras of popular culture: all of which whose members have the capacity with which to see and conceive of him very differently. As a kid who was born in the late 1980s with a childhood in the nineties, the predominant Batman that I’ve always known has been the “Dark Knight.”
Haunted by witnessing the deaths of his parents as a child, Bruce Wayne uses his vast resources and his keen mind to travel the world and acquire the necessary skills to wage a war on crime. He becomes the dark creature of the night, Batman, in an ongoing effort to keep the people of Gotham City safe by making every criminal in that domain afraid of the dark…because he’s in it.
From Dark to Light
Let me backtrack a bit: that iteration of Batman is pretty close to how he was initially imagined by writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane when his first appearance, Detective Comics #27, first appeared on stands in May of 1939. Where Superman was leaping tall buildings in a bright circus strongman’s costume and taking bullets bouncing off of his chest with a smile on his face, Batman lurked in the shadows, often violently reacting to criminality in a very stark contrast to the ways in which even the Golden Age version of Superman, beating up a domestic abuser with his bare hands, would likely cringe at.
When DC Comics editor Whitney Ellsworth handed down a mandate to the other writers and editors for their characters to avoid killing their foes, Batman changed a bit. In the 1950s, Superman had made a successful transition to television in the form of “The Adventures of Superman,” starring George Reeves in the title role. That show was cut short by the untimely death of Reeves in 1959, who is believed to have committed suicide. In the early 1960s, a production company optioned the rights to the Batman character, eventually hiring showbusiness veteran William Dozier to produce.
Dozier’s idea for a show featuring such a heroic character would be shaped by the comic books he read from the late 1950s and early 60s, when the character was far more lighthearted and participating in outlandish, sci-fi centric plots. His partner, Robin, the Boy Wonder, launched the popular trend of the “kid sidekick” and further contrasted the dark, monotone Batman with a bright colored outfit featuring a kid that smiled and danced around his foes. From there, Dozier’s brainchild for this television iteration of the “Caped Crusader” was as a farce: a campy, lighthearted tale with over-the-top lessons and paragon-like morality for the heroes.
Adam West’s casting as Batman was pivotal in pulling this vision off, since West was hooked by the concept immediately. Even today, West has been an advocate of the show’s legitimate consideration as a new form of pop art, playing the role of Batman with a straight seriousness that you can’t help but be charmed by. The cast of characters and iconic villains, like Burt Ward as Robin, Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, Cesar Romero as the Joker, Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, and Julie Newmar as Catwoman, all helped to cement something that would became a nationwide phenomenon, taken very seriously by the children who watched it, while also being engagingly amusing for the adults that watched it beside their kids.
Now, as a kid that grew up after the release of Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman, the world I lived in was obsessed with the dark, nearly mean-spirited iteration of the character popularized by the film, and by comics like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. The Batman I knew was largely the harsh vigilante, fighting crime on the streets of a rugged, unforgiving city.
Not the deputized “number one citizen” walking the streets of the wonderful Gotham City in the middle of the day. When you’re a small kid, though, it doesn’t matter: if you love Batman, then all of what you see with him is just as valid as another iteration. I often went from a Burton film, to the 90s animated series, to the 60s show all the time, never really being bothered by the varying tones between them. It was all Batman.
As I got older, though, with limited access to the TV series since it had never been released on home media, I found myself beginning to resent it. It’s true that the massive popularity of that show made it very difficult for Batman producers Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker to get a more serious iteration of Batman made from the seventies through the eighties, and as a teenager I often found myself wincing with embarrassment if I managed to catch a rerun.
“This isn’t my Batman,” I would think. “This is just…kids’ stuff.”
The eventual release of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films — which, out of all the others, are most closely influenced by the founding and modern source material — further cemented a disdain for the Adam West show. It was so unlike what Batman looked and sounded like in my head, so unlike the source material that I gravitated toward, and so contradictory to the basic logic that comes with living in the real world.
It didn’t follow any recognizable rules of the Batman storytelling I’d mostly exposed myself to whatsoever, and I was content with letting it fade into obscurity. Not in the consciousness of the public, mind you: I felt then and still do that if someone else likes something, then that’s the only validity they need in enjoying it as much as they possibly can. It just wasn’t for me, so I was fine with letting it fade away in my own head. A home release was just as unlikely now as it was since the dawn of DVD.
Then, it was announced: the show was coming home on DVD and the high definition Blu-ray format.
Fun Wins Out
Now, here’s where my Batman compulsion kicks in. Was I a big fan of the show? No, definitely not. Still, did I need to have it? Yes, absolutely. Even if I called myself a detractor, I couldn’t deny the importance and impact that this series had on the development and history of the Batman character. As someone who has called Batman his favorite fictional character, period, I knew I wanted to own this.
You might have noticed that we just got past the Christmas holiday, and it was then that I received this show on Blu-ray in a handsome limited edition set. It was at the top of my list. So, I began watching it, fully expecting to perform the wince that my teenage self would often experience at the mere presentation of a couple of minutes. What would it be like if I tried to take in all 120 episodes? Could it even be done for a Bat-snob like me?
Then, it happened. No wincing, no strange feelings of embarrassment. Instead, the feeling that rushed over me was simple and joyful: fun. As a huge Batman super-fan, I was finally able to take this show in for what it was as an adult. The circle came around fully: as a kid, this was serious and enthralling just for the mere fact that it was Batman. As a teen, it was an abomination to the character and his creators, an experience that, as far as I was concerned, he was lucky to survive. Now, as a man, I see it with a new eye of appreciation.
Is it the painstaking restoration up to high definition? That certainly helps, but that’s definitely not it. Although a farce, this is, by my estimation, the greatest farce ever produced. Cast and crew, writing and directing, and from top to bottom, it seemed as though everyone just believed in what they were doing.
It’s a Batman that can be enjoyed by anyone of any age, something that’s perhaps lost with the current, hard-hitting, and darker conception of the character. Sometimes, you just want to have fun. You don’t need to find yourself neck-deep in melodrama just for the sake of it. This is a series that continues to surprise me as I take each episode in again. Oddly and ironically enough, I needed more maturity in order to enjoy this effort for what it is: some of the simplest fun I could ever have as a Batman fan.
If you consider yourself a “Dark Knight only” fan, I’d really like to encourage you: take this in, now that it’s readily available. If you don’t find yourself smiling throughout the beats of just a single episode, then you don’t have to — and probably shouldn’t — look at it ever again. Adam West coined the term “Bright Knight” to describe his iteration of Batman, and it’s hard to ignore just how apt and representative that term is.
“Batman” as a TV series is bright, campy, ludicrous, illogical, and fun. Set your atomic batteries to power, and go see what I mean.
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