Just when this election drags me further into the dumps a beacon of hope and fizzly elevation entered my life in the form of all things a campy children’s superhero film from the 60s. I have faint memories of the hokey Batman show back the late 80s/early 90s via reruns of the show back when network television aired such things (ah the glory years of watching TV on an 8 inch b&w television in a bedroom I shared with my older brother) but honestly couldn’t recall much about it. I knew I liked it as a child–such were the simple things that pleased my 4-year-old self–but didn’t have any actual impressions of it to remember. But it wasn’t until this 25 year later rewatch, now filtered thru the eyes of a cynical 30-year-old, that I really grasped how absolutely tongue in cheek and straight up comedic the film was.
Perhaps a decade of watching the general public begin to treat superhero films so seriously had jaded my appreciation for just how silly comics can be to the point where I’ve become kind of a snob towards the genre. Then again, I never read the damn comics in the first place, tho I did become a connoisseur of the glorious 90s comics cards. The truth is when I see nerds argue over fascists dressed in spandex and capes I just want to warp back in time to when these things were considered material suitable for children and not overweight dudes with beards. I miss when adults were busy being sexist pigs with an unhealthy penchant for smoking and eating rare steaks
So to describe giddiness that I felt watching this camp masterpiece would be to describe feeling nostalgia for a time when I wasn’t even alive. The closest films that I can think of to Batman: The Movie are the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, of which I haven’t seen since they were first released, and maybe the first Thor, a film I hated upon release but am now coming around on. There ain’t no other way to appreciate this film other than to laugh at how absurdly aware of itself that it is.
Right at the start of the film Batman gets attacked by an very obvious rubber shark–that explodes!–and is able to thwart it with his handy shark repellent that he just so happens to be carrying on him.
At first I wasn’t sure if the rubber shark was meant as a joke or just a very cheap prop and honestly I felt kinda like a hipster poking fun of outdated aesthetics, and yet the crowd I saw the film with (a healthy mix of overweight dudes with beards and confused children) laughed right along with me. And from there the film kept its foot on the absurdist throttle, never attempting to mask the fact that the material is inherently silly. That it plays with this silliness in a gentle and genuinely kind hand was absolutely revelatory. I kept expecting the film to mock the material in an insulting manner, perhaps a natural anticipation considering all the bad wrap I’ve read thrown at it.
Everyone talks about how comics were a joke until Alan Moore and Frank Millar took some very dark spins at the material, most notably in Watchmen and the baffling and maybe satire The Dark Knight and that this film was the most glaring example of how Superheroes were treated as a punchline. And yet that critique doesn’t seem fair.
Super-heroes are intrinsically silly and worse pretty dangerous when taken with a dose of seriousness. The very thought of a man dressing up as a Bat and exacting justice on men without due process is a frightening prospect, especially when that justice is metered out with a fist. People who take Super-Heroes too seriously (by which I mean people who worship the material for more than just the naive ideals of truth, justice, and the American way) are a snapshot with everything wrong with Judeo-Christian and very archaic models of justice. Which is why I hate so much of the genre.
And yet this film never takes this material too far. Yeah, it pokes fun of the idea of the material but it doesn’t wholeheartedly endorse it. Punches get thrown in a barroom style fights where it’s clear they hurt and yet are clearly not breaking someone’s jaw. And while the film encourages us to laugh at the silliness on display, it genuinely attempts to show these heroes fighting for a very American ideal of behavior.
Robin by far is the beating heart of the film, a stand in for a very specific white American youth who believes in doing good for the sake of doing good and not violating personal boundaries (he has the decency to not spy of Bruce Wayne getting it on with Selina Kyle!). And yet while the filmmakers genuinely lampshade these ideals they also present them with a hefty dose of salt. It’s all in the service of a joke.
The audience never questions the heroes’ motives for stopping the rag tag team of the Joker, Penguin, Riddler, and Catwoman–whose exact masterplan escapes me at the moment–and yet no one expects for us to worship them either. They’re good hearted, well intentioned straight men in costumes playing to a screwball melody against a very aware and subversive 60s swinging mindset–a generation very aware of sex and counterculture and yet still mindful to wear a pressed suit or dress out in public. It’s the perfect balanced tone for the adaption, one that a very super-hero soured dude like me years for more of!
And honestly, this might be my favorite super-hero film of them all.