The Most Unusual Superhero Movie Ever


Superhero movies earn more money than almost any genre of films. From The Dark Knight to Spiderman to Iron Man, these comic book adaptations rake in box office. Chris Neumer investigates the strangest superhero movie of all time, Batman: The Movie. Prepare yourself for one hell of a… trip.

by Chris Neumer

There are movies that are made to be remembered.  When Steven Spielberg was shooting Schindler’s List, Martin Scorsese was in production on Goodfellas and Paul Thomas Anderson was making There Will Be Blood, all three men knew they were working on truly important films.  On the other side of things, there are a significantly higher number movies that seem to be made to be forgotten.  (Cough, cough, Get Smart, cough, cough).  These films are often looked at as jobs for the people involved and the end result belies that fact.  No one expected Mr. Brooks, Made of Honor or License to Wed to be amazing tent poles of cinematic quality and they weren’t.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve fallen asleep while watching one of this latter set of movies that I can’t remember upon waking up in the morning.  I have to look at the box on top of my television to jar something in my head.  “Oh that’s right, I was watching Gothika.”*  It doesn’t make me look particularly good, but there have been times where I’ve forgotten what movie I just saw while on the way home from the theater.  And this doesn’t even bring up the eons of bad movies out there that should be forgotten but aren’t thanks to numerous cable runnings and POP displays at Best Buy  (Cough, cough, Troy, cough, cough, Air Force One, cough, cough).

* I cannot explain exactly why I was watching Gothika in the first place, but this doesn’t take away from my point at hand.

There is an extremely rare group of films on a third end of this triangular spectrum: movies that absolutely shouldn’t be forgotten that are.  America’s collective conscience is generally pretty good at not letting deserving titles fall through the cracks.  Vertigo was panned when it first came out and now is a mainstay on the list of the ten best films ever made.  However, as with everything, occasionally some titles manage to squeak by.  The poster child for this movement is Batman: The Movie.

Made in 1966, America has had more than 45 years to get it right on this title and recognize the supremely, psychologically disturbed genius behind what is unquestionably the most bizarre superhero movie of all time, but they have repeatedly failed to do so.  Today this changes.  No longer will people consider titles like Blankman, Hulk and Supergirl when talking about mind-bogglingly absurd superhero movies; the list will begin and end with Batman: The Movie, as it rightfully should.

In the mid to late sixties, America was going through a very turbulent time in its history.  Fighting in Vietnam was in full swing and increasing with each passing year.  The Cold War and the threat of nuclear war was on the forefront of most everyone’s minds.  Women and minorities were burning their underwear and marching on Washington respectively to gain more rights.  College students were getting shot during protests and hippies entered society.  It seemed as though everyone was rebelling against something or someone.  One of the results of this social chaos was that the American entertainment world lost its mind.  Enter Batman: The Movie.

The history of the Batman movie was as interesting as the content contained within.  Most intriguingly, it was produced by the ABC television network.  ABC had given the green-light to a Batman television series that they were going to premiere in the fall.  As such, ABC planned to release the Batman movie to theaters as a promotional tool for the TV show.  To the best of my knowledge, something like this has never been done before or since.  Frankly, it wasn’t done in 1966 either.  Fate intervened and ABC was forced to use Batman the TV show as a mid-season replacement.  This completely reduced Batman: The Movie’s ability to promote the show.  This is what happens when the product is released well before its promotional material.**

** The irony of this situation is that Batman the television series was so popular it did wonders in promoting Batman: The Movie.  Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men…

Much has been written about the campy, over-the-top nature of the Batman TV series—to deem the show patently ridiculous doesn’t seem to quite capture the true spirit of it—but all too often, the movie is just considered an extension of the show.  While, technically, this is true, the standard assumption that the Batman TV series and movie are the same is the very mistake that has allowed the film to be consistently overlooked and forgotten.  And, as I mentioned earlier, the very unique nature of the film version of Batman is not something that should ever be overlooked or forgotten.  This is a distinct shame too because, though Batman the TV series and Batman: The Movie share the same leads (Adam West and Burt Ward), writers and sensibilities, Batman: The Movie lays claim to two elements that effectively separate it from its small screen self: 1) It has a much larger budget than the TV series and, 2) it has roughly double the running time as one of the show’s two part episodes.

If you doubt the impact of those two traits, consider what would happen if you gave the crazy guy on the corner who rants about government conspiracies a generous financial backer and a much louder megaphone.  He goes from crazy to Rupert Murdoch.  And this is precisely the insane genius of Batman: The Movie.  It took crazy and amplified it by a factor of ten.  How this isn’t written of more often is anybody’s guess.  I sure have a hard time conceiving of it.

To the younger generations—anyone under the age of 25—Batman is a gothic superhero.  He is a brooding, almost broken man who fights crime and most definitely lives up to his billing as the dark knight.  While there are in fact scenes that take place during the day in Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s imagining of the Batman films, they are so few and far between that it’s hard to place them.  This is a complete and total 180 from the world of producer William Dozier’s vision of the character in Batman: The Movie.  If there were any night sequences in Batman: The Movie, they have escaped my memory.

The sixties era Batman was an unabated farce.***  The character not only wore tights, but he housed the Batcopter at the local airport, manufactured “anti-Penguin gas pills” and Bat Repellent Manta Ray spray… spray that is rather naturally labeled as such and kept in the helicopter right next to the Whale Repellent Bat Spray and the Barracuda Repellent Bat Spray.  The actor who played Batman, West, lovingly refers to the show and film as being “theater of the absurd”, but this doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.  Batman: The Movie is like theater of the absurd as done by a Ed Wood/Terry Gilliam hybrid who has a fascination with acid trips, corny jokes and square pegs in round holes.

*** The forties era Batman—the Batman who actually drove to crime scenes in Bruce Wayne’s sedan—was a much different beast entirely.

It’s not just that the Penguin’s weapon of choice is a trained, exploding shark, it’s that he has a trained exploding octopus as well.  After surviving an early attack by the aforementioned trained, exploding shark, Batman, Robin and Commisioner Gordon begin brainstorming to see if they can deduce who is behind the malicious attempt at murder.  Granted, there are only four criminals in Gotham City, but part of the joy of this Batman is that he never seems to put two and two together.  After some thought, Robin suggests that it was Catwoman.  His logic is as follows: the attack happened at sea and ‘C’ is also the first letter of Catwoman.  Worse yet is that, upon hearing this, both Batman and Commissioner Gordon begin nodding appreciatively.

Not only that, but it turns out that Batman and Robin also hold press conferences after failed attempts at their lives.  Everyone present gets a good laugh out of the fact that the mysterious reporter from The Moscow Bugle, Miss Kitka (read: Catwoman), asks the dynamic duo to remove their masks.  Given everything else we know about the series, the odds of this actually revealing the secret identities of the two is higher than it should be.

Part of what makes Batman: The Movie so out-of-left-field is chasm that separates its material from that contained in the far more well known story installments of the crimefighter.  Batman is human, yes, but he can still take down seven guys at the same time, crack safes with nothing more than a hearing aid and hang glide down off the roof of a skyscraper using nothing more than his cape.  He is not a complete doofus.  In Batman: The Movie, not only do Batman and Robin NOT save the day, but they actually end up making things worse!

In Batman: The Movie, the Penguin, Catwoman, Joker and The Riddler team up to steal a high-tech new machine that can, in one zap, remove all the water from people.  If you’re wondering what the end result of a completely dehydrated person is, wonder no further: it’s a small pile of sand in one of several garishly pastel colors.  The supervillains’ plan is to, uh, make Batman and Robin look bad or something.  This is never made quite clear.

As the movie progresses though, the four criminals change their plans albeit slightly and decide to go to the United Nations in order to dehydrate the Security Council.  Batman and Robin arrive too late to stop the villains, but manage to rehydrate the members of the Council.  Unfortunately, the rehydration process is fraught with many variables and they don’t do it correctly.  Now all the members are speaking different languages than what they should be.  Batman and Robin see this and, in one of the all time classic superhero movie endings, slink out of the room and climb out the nearest window they can find.

There are a lot of really, truly bizarre movies that are produced in Hollywood, but these projects are generally weird for the sake of being weird.  Batman: The Movie is worthy of more study precisely because no one associated with the film ever thought that they were making something that was leaps and bounds outside the periphery of mainstream American culture.  Batman: The Movie may have been theater of the absurd, but it was studio produced theater of the absurd with an emphasis on giving audiences what they wanted.  During the sixties, what Americans wanted was one hell of a weird, tripped out movies featuring the only superhero in existence to not only be able to laugh off his mistakes, but make them frequently as well.   How this movie has slipped through the cracks of entertainment history is mystery of epic proportions.  Thankfully, that ends here.

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