You really don’t know how funny Batman: The Movie is until you watch it after watching the earlier Batman serials.
Batman, the TV series, debuted in January 1966, when I was about to turn 3, and this movie came out the following summer. I became a fan, I believe, during the show’s re-run phase in the late ’60s or early ’70s. At that age I merely thought the show was cool. Batman was cool, the Batcave was cool, the Batmobile was way cool, they could do cool stuff like climb walls. Obviously the humor went over my head. Even as a teenager, I didn’t understand how much it lampooned the cliffhanger serials and the cultural pomposity from 20 years earlier.
Batman, who started out as a vigilante, is here not only an establishment figure but the establishment figure. Cops put their hats over their hearts when the batcopter flies by. During a press conference Batman feeds the press misinformation as easily as any politician. The disappearing yacht? “Nonsense. How can a yacht simply disappear?” The exploding shark? “Doubtless an unfortunate animal who chanced to swallow a floating mine.” He and Robin are, according to Commissioner Gordon during that same press conference, “fully deputized agents of the law,” to which Robin responds, fist pounding palm, “Support your police! That’s our message!” Batman has access to federal agencies as well, not only phoning the Pentagon but chastising an Admiral (seen playing tiddly-winks with his secretary) for “disposing of a pre-atomic submarine to people who don’t leave their addresses.”
Let’s face it. Looked at the right way, this Batman is almost terrifying. Enamored of a Miss Kitka (Catwoman in disguise), who is “threatened” by the Riddler, Robin asks what he’ll do if the Riddler makes a move, and he responds, lingering over each word, “I’ll bash him brutally.” He tells the movies’ four supervillains, “I swear if you’ve harmed that girl, I will kill you all. I will rend you limb from limb!” He’s so filled with his own self-importance he’s virtually a law unto himself.
The film doesn’t have cliffhangers in the traditional “same bat time, same bat channel” sense, but it does have near-misses with laughably improbable solutions in the serial mode. In the film’s most famous scene, Batman runs around the Gotham docks holding a fizzing bomb above his head while continually encountering the more innocent elements of society (nuns, baby ducks), until, exasperated, he delivers the punchline: “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!” Eventually the bomb explodes, off-screen, and Robin arrives to lament Batman’s death...only to have Batman appear beside him. “It’s all right, Robin,” Batman says. “Fortunately I was able to dispose of that bomb in the nick of time and shield myself behind these heavy iron pipes.”
In another scene the batcopter goes down...only to land at the “Foam Rubber Wholesalers Convention.” Here’s my favorite cliffhanger: Batman and Robin are magnetized to a buoy while the supervillains shoot torpedoes at them. Twice Batman is able to reverse the torpedo’s polarity (reversing polarity was big back then) but the third time the torpedo explodes and the supervillains whoop it up. Cut to: Batman and Robin in their batboat:
Robin: Gosh, Batman. The nobility of the almost-human porpoise!
Batman: True. It was noble of that animal to hurl himself into the path of that final torpedo. He gave his life for ours.
The plot revolves around the usual improbable scientific device (see “atom-smasher gun” and “remote control machine”) that, in the wrong hands, could take over the world. Here it’s a “total dehydrator” that sucks all the water out of a person’s body, leaving only a pile of fine “molecular dust.” The four supervillains, Penguin, Joker, Catwoman and Riddler, and their various stooges, steal the gun at the beginning (from that disappearing yacht) but then, initially, don’t do much with it. They dehydrate some of Penguin’s henchmen, or “pirates,” to rehydrate in the Batcave, where they can do battle with Batman and Robin (leading to another classic line: “It’s five dehydrated pirates! Rehydrated!”); but Penguin blows it by rehydrating them with heavy water, leaving them unstable, and they pop like soap bubbles.
The villains’ main scheme is to dehydrate the nine members of the United World Organization Security Council. Thanks to the Riddler’s skywritten riddles, Batman and Robin figure out their plot but arrive too late to stop it. After the supervillains ransom each country for $1 billion, Batman and Robin arrive in the batboat, blast the Penguin’s sub, force it to surface and we get the classic fistfight, replete with pop-cultural sound effects (Pow! Bamp! Zwapp! Urkk!), on the sub’s surface. Catwoman is chased below but trips and her mask falls off, revealing... Miss Kitka. “Holy heartbreak!” Robin says, while the music Kitka and Bruce Wayne heard on their date, “Chagrin d’amour...,” wells up in the background. Previous incarnations of Batman kept girls at bay, but this is the swingin’ sixties Batman and he’s bound to get romantically involved but also bound to get hurt. Subsequent Batman movies took their hero more seriously but followed Adam West’s lead in presenting a Batman capable of having his heart broken.
The film satirizes everything: From the labels around the batcave (ACCESS TO BATCAVE VIA BATPOLE; SUPER MOLECULAR DUST SEPERATOR) to the facile way Batman and Robin solve the Riddler’s riddles. What has yellow skin and writes? “A ball-point banana!” Robin says. What people are always in a hurry? “Rushing? Russians!” Robin says, before figuring it out:
Robin: I’ve got it! Someone Russian is going to slip on a banana peel and break their neck!
Batman: Right, Robin! The only possible meaning.
But it’s our own cultural pomposity and self-importance that is skewered the most. At the end, after rehydrating the nine members of the security council, all of them are suddenly speaking a different language and Batman says, “Who knows, Robin. This strange mixing of the minds may be...” and here he lifts his eyes up toward the sky, “... the greatest single service ever performed for humanity.”
Could you do a film like this today or do we take our superheroes, and ourselves, too seriously?
—May 18, 2008
© 2008 by Erik Lundegaard