One sign of a movie’s popularity is the amount and quality of the fan videos made in its honor. Look no further than The Batman (now on HBO Max), which is the subject of a brand new viral spoof.
The folks at Corridor have taken old footage from the 1960s Batman television show — specifically, Adam West’s campy Caped Crusader — and digitally added it to The Batman, replacing Robert Pattinson’s gripping sadboy. The clip is cleverly done, making a funny but familiar point: Boy, these recent Batman movies sure are serious. But what’s even funnier (albeit perhaps unintentionally so) is how this mock trailer underlines the cultural shift that’s happened around West’s 1960s portrayal. For a long time, it was dismissed as a joke. Now, nearly five years after his death, West may be having the last laugh.
Debuting in comics in 1939, Batman appeared in serials in the 1940s before ABC cast West, who’d been on Westerns and Perry Mason, as the Dark Knight for its 1960s show. Running three seasons, the hugely popular series was meant to be lighthearted, taking an irreverent approach to the Caped Crusader and his eager sidekick Robin (Burt Ward). Executive producer William Dozier wanted West to do the whole thing with a straight face, never letting on that it was all meant to be hilarious. “If they see us winking, it’s dead,” Dozier supposedly said.
West complied, giving audiences a deeply goofy crime-fighter who battled over-the-top villains and endless canted angles, each of his fight scenes punctuated with variations on “BANG!” and “WHAP!” and “SPLATT!” Shortly before Batman premiered in January of 1966, West observed, “This whole thing is an insane, mad fantasy world. And my goal is to become America’s biggest put-on.” Mission accomplished.
But when Warner Bros. was trying to bring the character to the big screen — not counting the Batman movie West made, of course — the studio wanted the property to hew closer to the tenor of the original comics. With its German Expressionism production design, malevolent Joker (Jack Nicholson, replacing Cesar Romero’s jokey villain) and psychological underpinnings, Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was funny, but in a hipper way than West’s pseudo-square show. West supposedly cried when he wasn’t approached to reprise the role, and in interviews he’d insist that he’d always seen Bruce Wayne as a troubled soul. (“I tried to do Batman as a very likable nut,” he explained.)
But by that point, the culture had already largely dismissed West’s Batman as dopey, and when Burton’s Batman came along, starring Michael Keaton as an edgier, more somber Bruce Wayne, its huge commercial and critical success felt like a repudiation of West’s tongue-in-cheek turn. Soon, West was doing his best to lean into the joke, voicing an exaggerated version of himself in an early-1990s episode of The Simpsons in which he hasn’t let go of the fact that he’s not the people’s Batman anymore.
For the rest of his career, West would spoof his faux-solemn Batman voice, happily playing the punching bag. That acceptance took a while, though, because his association with the Dark Knight had made it hard for him to land a significant film career after the Batman series ended. “I was almost to the finish line for a lot of big, leading-man type roles that I really wanted,” West once said, “but I’d always come in second or third. Somebody in charge would always say, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing? You can’t put Batman in bed with Faye Dunaway.’”
After the Keaton movies, Warner Bros. kept the franchise going, with new director Joel Schumacher casting Val Kilmer and then George Clooney, inserting a little more of the silliness that had been West’s speciality. But by the time of 1997’s disastrous Batman & Robin, the studio pulled the plug on the franchise, eventually turning to Memento filmmaker Christopher Nolan to once again drop the campiness and deliver an ultra-serious Batman, which he did with Christian Bale.
However, despite Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises capturing the zeitgeist and fundamentally changing how Hollywood thinks about superhero movies, the noxious aftereffect of that trilogy’s success also led to a lot of the overly ponderous, insufferably self-important, boringly “dark” blockbusters we now have to endure. Nolan and Bale showed how comic-book movies could be art, but they also convinced myriad wannabe auteurs that making their films as serious as possible was the only way to go.
After suffering through the Zack Snyder DC films, you’d be forgiven for having your fill of grayscale superhero flicks, especially with Ben Affleck making Batman all sad and middle-aged. But this year’s The Batman proved to be an exciting reminder of why people can’t get enough of the Caped Crusader. And yet … I confess that Corridor video made me chuckle a little. For years, West was held out for ridicule by hardcore comics fans, even though there was also plenty of affection for the man. When West died in the summer of 2017, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, who’d cast him to play the town’s peculiar mayor, called him “a joy to work with, and the kind of guy you always wanted to be around. His positivity, good nature and sense of fun were undeniable, and it was always a big jolt of the best kind of energy when he walked in to record the show. He knew comedy, and he knew humanity.” And everyone from Christian Bale to Watchmen creator Alan Moore have called West their favorite Batman. For Moore, West most understood Batman’s appeal, praising the actor because he “didn’t take it at all seriously.”
This week’s trailer mashup is built around an obvious joke, but its resonance suggests there’s a sizable contingent of viewers (comic-back fans or otherwise) who find it refreshing to see Adam West’s Batman mix it up with Burgess Meredith’s Riddler. As much as I like The Batman, the 1960s actors’ joyful spirit in that spoof trailer is a reminder of the light touch that superhero entertainment once had. West may not have been a terrific actor, but his cheeky portrayal of the Dark Knight has endured. For years, Warner Bros. tried to run away from it, but now West serves as a necessary corrective to the abiding sobriety of modern event movies.
West once explained how he conceived his most famous role, saying, “You can’t play Batman in a serious, square-jawed, straight-ahead way without giving the audience the sense that there’s something behind that mask waiting to get out, that he’s a little crazed, he’s strange.” Batman actors since West have assumed that in order to convey the character’s depth, you have to drain him of his humor. But like the crime-fighter’s most infamous foes, West’s performance will forever bedevil future Batman thespians. Theirs will be more praised and taken more seriously. None of them, though, are having nearly as much fun as West did.