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11th Jun 2017

Why Adam West was the best Batman of them all

Wil Jones

Paying tribute to the late actor’s Caped Crusader.

There’s narrative about the history of Batman, that people like to recite when they want to sound like they know about comic books. It goes like this: When Batman was first created in 1939, he was dark and violent and serious. Then, the 1966 TV show made fun of the character, and in the eyes of public made Bats a laughable, campy joke. And it wasn’t until Frank Miller’s ground-breaking, ultraviolent 1986 comic series The Dark Knight Returns, and Tim Burton’s gothic 1989 movie, that Batman was ‘fixed’ – setting the stage for the ‘proper’ Batman we see now in Christian Bale’s gravel-voiced performance and whenever Ben Affleck is meant to be doing.

That take isn’t strictly true, though, for several reasons. The introduction of Robin in 1940 sort of destroys the idea that the pre-1966 Batman issues were these deadly serious noir comics. Even by the 1950s and early 60s, years before the show even started, the Batman comics were already full of goofy sci-fi and wacky hi-jinks. Plus that 1989 movie is pretty damn silly itself when viewed from 2017 (Jack Nicolson defacing an art gallery while dancing Prince, anyone?).

But the biggest problem with that narrative is implies that the 60s show was not good – or even worst, that it was an insult to the character. Which could not be further from the truth.

The show, and the 1966 movie that spun off from it, are utterly, utterly delightful. It does not make fun of superheroes. It embraces the wonderful madness and surrealism, bringing the boundless world of crude early comic books to life, with all their glorious colour and energy. And at the heart of this, making it work, was Adam West, and his brilliantly straight faced performance.

The ‘jokes’ in the 60s Batman are not jokes, per se. They are lines that amp up the absurdity of superheroes, yet still are totally serious in serving the plot and drama. As a kid, I loved reruns of the show. And it never occurred to me that it was meant to be a parody, or a piss-take or a comedy. When the show’s famous cliff-hangers happened, I genuinely thought Batman could be killed – or at least suspended my disbelief enough to be truly invested in it. And this was because at the centre was a hero, played by Adam West, who took it all seriously. He never mugged to camera, never winked, or smirked. I hate those godawful Sharknado movies, which don’t take themselves serious, and constantly wink and shrug at you, as to say “LOL, isn’t this shit!?!”. Mate, if you can’t even take your own drama seriously, why should I care? Adam West’s Batman took it seriously even when he was dancing the Batusi, using Bat Shark Repellent, or trying to get rid of a bomb.

My favourite Batman episode is ‘Surf’s Up, Joker’s Under’. The plot is that The Joker kidnaps Gotham’s top surfer, and uses his “Surfing Experience & Ability Transferometer” machine to steal his skills. And the only way Batman can stop him is to defeat him in a surfing competition. Yeah, really. The centrepiece of the episode is Batman and The Joker pretending to surf in front very unconvincing stock footage of waves. And it is wonderful. Batman even wears Hawiian shorts over his costume.

There’s a very teenage mentally we get in pop culture a lot, where we have to take character seriously. “No, shut up mum! Batman – and James Bond and Wolverine and the Transformers – are serious. Look and dark and brooding they are.” But the older I get, I really start to see how wrong that is. What other genre can you have an evil clown steal a surfer’s brain then have him be defeated by a man wearing board shorts over a bat costume? Comic book superheroes were always about wild, unrestrained energy over logic. There’s enough serious, depressing stuff happening in the world – you don’t need to drag that into superheroes. It destroys a lot of what makes them great. Let’s have less in-jokes. Less forced-edginess, less maze-like continuity. Just mad shit happening to a hero we can believe in – a hero like Adam West.