I was just the right age to give my life over to Batman. It was 1989 and Michael Keaton loomed large on cinema screens. It's hard to appreciate what a big deal the Batman film was that year, with big superhero films costing hundreds of millions of dollars in cinemas every few months. But back in 1989, superhero films were far and few between - so when Batman hit, the cultural footprint of the film was huge.
I was nine years-old when my mum took me to see Batman on the big screen and I was immediately hooked. I already knew Batman from cartoons and leafing through some of my uncles comics left behind at his parents place, but this was a real life, live-action Batman. A department store in Adelaide also had a promotional Batmobile on display, which we went and visited straight after seeing the film.
This all left a huge impression on me - I don't think my mum realised just what path she was setting me on. This was laying the foundation for what would become my most important professional work later in life: From 2017-18, I watched and analysed every episode of the live-action 1966 Batman TV show. For work.
I had watched the 60's Batman TV show before - to my recollection, Channel 10 started screening the show every afternoon just after the film came out in 1989. And as a kid, there was no way that I wasn't going to watch it every day.
When SBS VICELAND acquired the show for it's Friday night 7:30pm timeslot, I jumped at the chance to host what became the BATMANLAND podcast. I knew two things:
1) The show still mostly held up pretty well and it would be a blast to host;
2) Some context was going to be needed. This was a show made in 1966 with all the sexual, racial, and cultural politics of the time baked into it. The 50+ year-old show would certainly feel pretty far from the woke politics of today.
Every week we would discuss the episodes that aired on the TV channel, often inviting in guests to talk about their relationship with the Batman character. We would also make an effort to bridge the gap between what was happening in 1966 and today. Together with my regular co-hosts Nick Bhasin and Fiona Williams, we would highlight actors in the show and how they fit into a broader idea of Hollywood TV & Film. These were actors that spanned the golden years of Hollywood, the 60s, and some actors who are still working today. We'd also explain the cultural references of the time - to politics and that eras politicians (there were a lot more Ronald Reagan references than you'd expect - he was Governor of California at the time), to the music of the era, and to the way they framed their sexual and racial politics.
It's a very special BATMAN:AND this week as we mark the conclusion of the Batman TV series. 120 episodes are a lot of BIFFs, BAMs, and POWs. Dan, Nick, and Fiona not only go deep in discussing the final two episodes, but they take some time to consider the series as a whole - the highlights, the many, many lowlights, and much more.
Batman is everyone's racist and sexist uncle
On watching the show, we learned that sometimes Batman said and did things that are now considered poor form. But, he was never malicious about it. He just needed to learn better.
This is a show had a limited number of actors of colour, and every episode usually had a male villain with an almost-always gorgeous woman sidekick (their gangster's moll). As fun as the show could be, the show was also an exemplar of behaviours that we just don't see on television in the modern age.
There was also the issue of redface. 1966 was a time where 'Cowboys and Indians' was accepted child play and the iconography of that was perfectly acceptable on a mainstream TV show. At no time on BATMANLAND did we ever excuse that on the show, but we tried to contextualise it. Yes, it makes some episodes difficult to watch at times, but the show also had some fairly progressive politics, even if they were draped in some extremely conservative values at times.
An interesting moment came with the third season and the recasting of Catwoman. Julie Newmar was unable to film the episodes due to a scheduling issue, so the role was recast by actress Eartha Kitt. We watched as they completely desexualised the relationship between Batman and Catwoman - evidently having that sort of relationship on screen with an African American actress wasn't going to happen on a mid-60s prime time TV series. While we were taken aback at that somewhat, we also acknowledged that the fact the show gave the role to Eartha Kitt was actually wonderfully transgressive.
West is best
I'll be honest, my view of Adam West was coloured heavily by his portrayal in The Simpsons. I thought of West as an actor who found himself typecast in a role that he could never really escape from. In my mind, this was Adam West:
What I learned through the 120 episodes of Batman is that Adam West was an incredibly good, exceptionally funny actor who found himself typecast in the role of Batman.
The guy was a comedic genius. Not once does he ever mug for the camera, but instead he takes his vocal intonation and facial expression to an area very few actors ever have. My colleague Nick Bhasin once remarked that West would have been great in a ZAZ movie (the team behind Flying High and The Naked Gun) and I think he's right. West struggled for the rest of his career to get past Batman, never quite finding the right role and that is legitimately a shame.
I now think of Adam West like this:
Batman works best as a sexual creature (of the night and day)
The joke surrounding Batman 1966 has always been that Batman and Robin are lovers. And when watching the show, there is occasionally that subtext. But what is curious about the show is how rare it is for the show to lean into the idea of Batman as a sexual person. He's almost always portrayed as incredibly uptight and chaste. And this is often to the series detriment.
Batman 1966 comes alive with every Julie Newmar appearance. Newmar is funny and feisty, offering huge chemistry with West. Make no mistake, Newmar and West are the best things about the show and the two on-screen together is electric. Lee Meriwether, who played Catwoman in the Batman 1966 film, also guest-starred in another episode as a potential love interest for Bruce Wayne. This episode is the only time we ever see the Playboy Bruce Wayne is purported to be, ending with the two having what can only politely be referred to as a 'hot and heavy' pash in the hallway before both retire to her apartment for the night.
This is the Bruce Wayne I wish the series had given us more of. He's fresh and vital in a way that the show is repeatedly too afraid to go near.
"Man cannot live by crime-fighting alone."
Batman can be many things - the hard and gritty vigilante focused on cleaning up the streets from crime, the costumed Superhero fighting along super-powered gods like Wonder Woman and Superman, and he can be a goofy, yet focused and determined bright crime fighter.
The bright Batman from the 60s has never been my favourite version of the character, even though I'm a fan of Batman 1966. But, in watching it I came to properly understand that the many types of Batman are really all of us. Nobody is one thing all the time. We go through changes. We mature, evolve, and discover new things about ourselves and our place in the world. Batman can be dark, bright, focused, a friend, a loner... but, so can I.
None of us can be Batman - he is born into tremendous wealth and has honed his brain and body to be the best of all of us. But, as I discovered watching Batman 1966, we can all strive to be Batman. He aims to be the best he can be and does what he can do to help when needed. They're fantastic attributes in a person and we should all try to be a little bit more like our friend Batman.
Celebrate the end of Batman 1966 Friday night - stream it anytime at SBS On Demand. You can also listen to our companion podcast BATMANLAND.