(Pictured: Adam West with Burt Ward and Julie Newmar at the launch of the Batman DVD series, 2014.)
I think I’ve written before how Batman, which premiered in the middle of my kindergarten year, was the first TV program I ever loved. At my tender age, I took it at face value, spending many a Thursday worrying about the predicament into which Batman and Robin were stuck at the end of Wednesday night’s episode. It wasn’t until I watched it again in adulthood that I saw past the storylines to the sendups—the way the camera tilted when showing each villain’s lair, the hilariously detailed labels on every piece of equipment in the Batcave, and the famous onomatopoetic fight scenes. I noticed how as Commissioner Gordon, Neil Hamilton would occasionally break the fourth wall, but also how Adam West never did.
West, who died over the weekend at the age of 88, played Batman absolutely straight, and it turned out to be one of the great performances in all of television. West’s Batman bridged the many different ways one could watch the show: straight, as we kindergartners did; campy, as our older brothers and sisters could; or as a satire on pop-culture crimefighters, as many adults could. In the middle of the roiling late 60s, his hopeless squareness (and that of his alter ego, Millionaire Bruce Wayne) would have run against every conception of what was cool—but it fit so perfectly into the world that the show was creating that it came out cool, too.
The single clip that best sums up the appeal of both West’s performance and Batman itself comes not from the TV show, but from the movie made between the first and second seasons, in which Batman is continually thwarted while trying to dispose of a bomb. Even if you’ve never seen the show, you get a great deal of insight into the character West played from the way he reacts to the various obstacles put in his way. And it’s not just the way he reacts, but also the way he acts. He never breaks character, never allows himself to appear exasperated or fearful, but keeps trying to find a way out of his predicament in a scene that lasts over a minute-and-a-half. And, most important to his character’s integrity, he never breaks the fourth wall.
Since the Batman movie franchise was launched in 1989, Batman has always been the Dark Knight, a tormented figure doing a job he’d rather not be doing in a city where nobody would choose to live. Fans of the comic books tend to prefer the Dark Knight (and many of them who had read the series before 1966 hated the TV Batman). Warner Brothers, which owns DC Comics, naturally preferred him too. (It’s been reported that Warner Brothers kept 20th Century Fox, which produced the TV show, from releasing it on DVD for a long time.) Although I’d never seen him described as such before the weekend, Adam West’s Batman was the Bright Knight. Active philanthropist and pillar of the community Bruce Wayne loved and served his day-glo, go-go metropolis, and so did his Batman.
When I bought the first season of Batman on DVD, I was surprised to find that I simply didn’t enjoy it—that the plots were repetitive and some of the performances were painful to watch. But that doesn’t change how I felt about it 50 years ago. Neither does it affect the brilliance of the character Adam West created. For those of us who were the right age in 1966 (and during the 1970s, when Batman was frequently seen on after-school TV), Adam West will always be our Batman, and that day-glo, go-go metropolis will always be our Gotham City.
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