Why Adam West is the Best Batman
We take our obituaries with drastic reverence, for people we know more commonly as their avatars. But the passing of Adam West presents an opportunity to help him live. This is the power of fandom. I’ve become aware that not everyone is his fan.
The 1966 television series Batman (and its movie) stands defiantly in ill-fitting tights and a super-sane smirk against our conception of the dark knight. The difference, if I could pare it down to one word, is that this version of Bruce Wayne has not yet learned to brood. His parents may have died, but he doesn’t seem consciously obsessed about it. His arch-nemeses aren’t so much lynch pins on his own concealed dichotomies but over-zealous playmates. This Batman is so forebodingly unflappable that he’s practically parental. He doesn’t solve mysteries so much as encourage others to do so. He doesn’t shoot people because his parents died by a bullet, but because it would be terribly discourteous for a crimefighter to break his own rules.
The television series was virulent – every show on network became infected with its incorrigible goofiness. Now we view it as curious and ignorant, childish, even campy. That last is the one I want to tackle.
We think of its campiness as accidental, and the show as bad for it. But on closer inspection, I see a farce on seriousness, a joke Adam West lamented that “people just don’t get anymore.” When Batman says “we’ll have to run for it,” who would expect that tremendous meme-able composite shot of Batman and his chum flailing towards the camera? The first thing I want to get straight is that when you laugh at Batman, you are laughing with it, not at it. They knew they were bad enough to be funny, in the same way we still praise films for being. They embraced and embellished it. They did it so well that it became a parody.
Somehow, 2008’s The Dark Knight remains the butt of almost every joke in Batman: The Movie. Batman’s impossibly comprehensive knowledge (the immediate recollection of the chemical formula of a perfume by its smell, for instance, and all the boutiques in Gotham that sell it) is made more relevant by the Christian Bale Batman’s own impossible but not self-aware knowledge. When Batman has his spine punched back into alignment in The Dark Knight Rises, and travels from the Middle East to Gotham in what seems like minutes, Batman: The Movie is laughing: it would have done those things, but as a hyper-aware joke. When the new films struggle with their logistics, they’re the punchline of the Semple television scripts, which had purposeful leaps in logistical logic for a silent, intuitive little laugh.
But trust me: I don’t take comic books lightly. I’m not someone who thinks the material is best left to an unassuming Saturday morning, with no capacity for a deeper appraisal of its themes. Actually I think comic books are our last real mythology, a view I’m aware I share with Mr. Glass. Knowing that, I still like the Adam West Batman. I still think it’s the best Batman. Here’s why.
Through the sieve of Frank Miller’s deft seriousness in The Dark Knight Returns, Batman has lost his gallantry. The reason that the gruff emo loner played by Will Arnett in The Lego Batman Movie is so funny is that he reflects our Batman so well. The character does not include self-aware humor: it is so self-serious, that it can be laughed at. Even the Henry Cavil Superman cannot be parodied so easily.
The problem is how far Batman has been reduced, particularly in the Nolan movies, to a grim James Bond-like mercenary who has no unique motivation (who wouldn’t hate criminals after seeing their parents murdered?) or any possible progression in how he responds to this motivation. The Nolan movies aren’t solely to blame but they sit at the apex of an interpretation of Batman that asks no questions, takes no risks, and does only what a grim hyper-physical badass would do.
An aspect of the West Batman now totally lost is Batman’s dissociative instincts and sociopathic interactions with those around him. One curious aspect of the old show is that Batman does his crimefighting during the day. At night, he engages in obligatory social calls as playboy philanthropist Bruce Wayne. So here’s a startling discovery: this means that in the old show, Bruce Wayne is Batman’s human disguise. The costume is his real face. Every aspect of this version of the character points to a troubling dissociation from his human half. Thinking the Joker has kidnapped his girlfriend (who he doesn’t realize is Catwoman), Bruce Wayne is uncharacteristically enraged. “I’ll kill you,” he fumes, “I’ll rend you limb from limb.” He fights Joker and his henchmen with bloodlust and wild eyes, with seemingly no awareness that he has a secret identity to protect. Later, arresting the girl as Batman, it’s all in a day’s work. “Slap the Bat-cuffs on her,” he says. And he’s off.
Of course, the old show isn’t thematically serious, but read as part of a larger tapestry of a character’s history, it contains essential elements that the character now lacks. The social aspect of the Batman archetype, the repression of Bruce Wayne, the super-sane confidence of someone who would do these things, all play a central role in the Grant Morrison Batman particularly. His Batman and Robin comics pull straight from the television show for disarmingly gruesome themes beneath the comic relief. And his Arkham Asylum book offers the most inspiration for the Arkham games.
More pointedly, I mean that Adam West added an irreplaceable element to the character. The 1940s had very little room in its heroes for introspection or psychology – those things which we value in darker interpretations of the character began with a show that dared to be deviant, sometimes even psychotic, in rending the superhero tropes limb from limb for a laugh. Now we see them as goofs, but through awareness the camp became elevated. And now the character is so easy to parody because there isn’t much to him. I’d love to see a Platinum studios game based on the old show, or a witty Tell Tale or Tim Schafer adventure. Or even a gruesome take, as Morrison has done, on the psychology underpinning all that sarcasm and Hully Gully.
Adam West will always be Batman to me. I accept it as implicitly as children accept things from the mouth of Batman himself. In death I hope to see him again. Video games could always use more mirth if you ask me.