There are many misconceptions regarding the ‘60s era Batman television show starring Adam West and Burt Ward. Those who maintain that Batman was always dark and brooding, per his initial gun-toting appearances early on in the Golden Age, claim that the cast and crew didn’t understand the character of Batman, that the show was in no way reflective of the comics. Those more familiar with the Silver Age might have levied the opposite charge, that the show’s failing was in being too faithful a translation, unaware that an overly literal adaptation from the comics to live action would fail to ground and elevate the characters beyond fodder for children. But both groups agree, the ’60s series can only be enjoyed ironically; it’s so bad it’s good.
They’re wrong. Adam West’s old Batman show is so good it’s good. None of the camp is unintentional; everyone involved in production was perfectly aware of the fact that they were doing a somewhat absurdist, entirely lighthearted take on the “dark” knight. Nor did they fail to understand Batman; rather, the writers had such a grasp on the core of the character that they were able to transpose him to an entirely different genre while perfectly preserving everything essential. So much so that 50 years later, “Batmania” for the Adam West version is sweeping popular culture once again, surprisingly more relevant than ever.
The release of the entire series on Blu-ray about a year ago brought the long syndicated show to new audiences yet again; I’ve been using my box set to evangelize Batman to all my uncultured companions. Likewise, the digital-first comic series by Jeff Parker serving as a continuation of the television show has been running strong for several years now. Were it not for Snyder’s superlative run, Parker’s would be the best Batman in recent memory. Just days ago at New York Comic Con it was announced that the latest crossover would be titled Batman ’66 meets Wonder Woman ’77. And later that day at the same convention was the world premiere of the new animated film, Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders, which I was able to watch with the real Batman himself, Adam West.
I had high hopes for this film, as might be surmised from my Tinder profile, where I suggest “Sixties Batman and Chill” as an ideal date. Not only did it not disappoint, it somehow surpassed – nay, shattered – my exceeding expectations. If this were an episode of the series, it’d be the best by far (yes, even more so than “An Egg Grows in Gotham”). Director Rick Morales and writers Michael Jelenic and James Tucker demonstrate an acute understanding of the series, taking each trope and exaggerating it to absurd new heights.
Case in point: the ridiculous leaps of logic which the allegedly “world’s greatest detective” often employed. In deducing the cause for a sudden shortage of crime, Batman quotes to Robin lex parsimoniae, stating that “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” In this case, since there’s “no reason on Earth” for the Joker and his cohorts not to be engaged in lawlessness and larceny, then the “simple and obvious answer” must be that “they’re not on Earth.”
This in turn leads to Batman and Robin boarding the Bat-Intergalactic Spaceship, one of many examples throughout in which the film fully utilizes the animated medium to expand the scope of the story in a way not possible for live-action television, even today. Buckled in and bracing for takeoff, Batman stays true to his role as the straight-man, reminding Robin, “An intergalactic spaceship is just another tool in the arsenal of a well-equipped crime fighter.” The extent of that arsenal is also on full display, surpassing even the infamous “Shark Repellant Bat-spray,” with the film seeing the debut of such gadgets as the Bat Anti-Antidote and, naturally, the Bat Anti-Anti-Antidote.
The filmmakers have fun with all these concoctions, confirming that, yes, Bat Knockout Gas and Bat Wake-Up Gas neutralize each other, as Batman and Robin go mano a mano in a wild west style duel with their utility belts. Better yet is when earlier Robin uses the aforementioned sleep spray on Catwoman, his gaze lewdly lingering too long on her unconscious body, the implication entirely intentional. It’s one of the few examples of the film lampooning a trope of the old series which was genuinely innocuous at the time; post-Rohypnol and Cosby, such scenes seem salacious, but seen in context the show clearly treated such frequent druggings as a plot device and never a joke in-itself. Till now.
Such sexual humor is evidence of the film’s decidedly more “mature” tone. It’s far from grim and gritty, but is perfectly aware that its primary audience is adults who grew up watching Adam West and Burt Ward through re-runs rather than today’s children (though it follows the Pixar model by making the movie accessible to the whole family). It will surely go over kids’ heads when Aunt Harriet worries that her presence in the Wayne Manor is “only for appearances,” to my knowledge the closest DC has ever come to acknowledging (and quickly repudiating) Wertham’s charges against the Dynamic Duo.
Other jokes aimed at adults are less illicit in nature and more so merely require a familiarity which how the character has progressed in the intervening five decades since the show, with its central storyline satirizing the tone taken since Frank Miller ushered in the Dark Age of Comics in The Dark Knight Returns. As such, the title “Return of the Caped Crusaders” can almost be read as a deliberate play on such.
What impressed me most about the film was that, even in responding to fifty years of self-serious superheroics, it never forgets what made the show so special, with not one of the series’ staples omitted. Batman is still supremely square, refusing to jaywalk in pursuit of an escaping villain. Everything is meticulously (and ridiculously) labeled, as if Batman spent more time making signs than catching crooks. Chief O’Hara and Commissioner Gordon still squirm at the thought of ever having to do any actual police work without the aid of Batman. Aunt Harriet again compares Bruce and Dick to Batman and Robin, painfully oblivious to the obvious. And best of all are the abundant alliterations and voluminous verbosity and other such sesquipedality!
But for true proof of the loving care and attention put into the production of this firm, look no further than the fight scenes. Any fan even mildly familiar with the source material will see that the fighting style remains perfectly accurate, with wide-haymakers telegraphed from across the room and Robin swinging from the ceiling as often as he punches, even resembling the old man that served as Burt Ward’s stunt double during these action scenes. But it’s the onomatopoeia accompanying such fisticuffs that shows the real attention to detail. Early on in the film, when Batman pummels a villain, the written word (never once matching the actual audio) is splashed-over the image; later on, the entire screen cuts away briefly to the onomatopoeia over a solid-colored background, recapitulating the evolution of the show’s visual design between seasons one and two. It’s a small point certain to go unnoticed by nearly everyone that watches Return of the Caped Crusaders, but for the biggest fan of the ’60s series, it’s proof positive that the passion on the part of director Rick Morales equals my own.
As the internet’s most vocal defender of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I’m not quite willing to concede Return of the Caped Crusaders the honorific of “Best Batman Movie this Year.” But that should in no way be taken as anything but glowing praise and the highest of endorsements for this animated outing. I’m not even being hyperbolic when I heap on this film the superlative “Funniest Comedy of All-Time.” It’s that good. All too often when a piece of our past is repackaged in the present, such as the Star Wars prequels or the recent Ghostbuster reboot, the internet is quick to cry that “it ruined my childhood.” Return of the Caped Crusaders is sure to have audiences exclaiming exactly the opposite; this is a truly magical movie, one which transports us back to afternoons after school and sunny summer mornings spent watching West and Ward, the only difference being that the film is funnier, campier, more absurd than ever before. This is the Bright Knight at his brightest.