It started with a TV ad, soaked in colours I’d never seen and filled with a vibrant energy I’d not been exposed to at such a young age. I knew this was something I wanted to see and thanks to my Mum (who’d also watched the series as a child), for better or worse Batman became a very important part of my life. Watching the first episode at three years of age (if I was even that old), I distinctly remember Adam West’s Batman facing down Frank Gorshin’s The Riddler, casting an ominous, predatory shadow on his colourful foe as he held his cape up at either end, like a bat. I loved Batman as a child – to me, it was just as valid, just as important and just as heroic as the animated series and the sleeker, newer (and scarier) Michael Keaton films. As a teenager, I lost interest in the series. It felt too silly, too cheesy and too darned smiley compared to the dark and stormy Dark Knight of the other versions. It also irritated me that whenever I professed to being a Batman fan, I would immediately? be treated to a rendition of THAT theme tune.
What makes the series so good though, is that as a child you don’t get the joke – Batman may work as a fun adventure show, but it’s really a high-concept spoof of superhero comic books (particularly the overblown ones of the 1950s and 1960s), a scathing satire of 1960s politics and an all-out attack on the self-seriousness of good-vs-evil adventure series. At the centre of it all was the crucial casting of Adam West, who understood so well how to strike the balance of the deadpan straight-man, never succumbing to the absurdity of the colourful villains around him or the over-eager excitement of his junior partner (the also-essential Burt Ward as Robin, the boy wonder).
For anyone who dismisses the notion that Batman was anything other than totally self-aware, watch the brilliant surfing episode where Cesar Romero’s Joker uses a “Surfing Experience and Skill Transferometor” to become king of the surf, culminating in an epic surf-off where Batman wins on a technicality. Or watch the feature-length “Batman” movie where Batman praises the actions of a brave seal who dives in front of a torpedo, saving him and Robin from instant death. There’s also the iconic “Shark Repellant Bat-Spray“ scene. My favourite moment across all 102 of the episodes (see below) is the scene where the caped crusader is trapped in a man-sized Egyptian vase, supposedly driven mad by the villainous King Tut (a college professor who got hit on the head and woke up thinking he was an Egyptian Pharaoh) and turned into a mindless slave. Tut forces Batman to dance for his amusement and Adam West proceeds to deliver what YouTube has accurately named “The Greatest Batusi Ever” – it’s an absolute tour de force that manages to combine nonsensical Dad-dancing with curiously erotic tribal mating calls (it’s the same dance Vincent Vega does in Pulp Fiction, but John Travolta isn’t as cool as Adam West). But! Just as King Tut’s men grow complacent (so entranced are they by this boisterous bat-boogie), Batman turns the tables and beats the shit out of all of them. “Thought you’d UNHINGED me did you?! I kept my reason by practising the multiplication tables BACKWARDS!”. Even amidst the fantastic silliness of the statement, you believe whole-heartedly that that’s how Batman made it out okay and that’s all down to West’s impeccable delivery. Not one of the 102 episodes shows West give it any less than his very best.
Should it even come as a surprise that he couldn’t escape the shadow of the bat? Long after the book had been closed on Batman, Adam West struggled to shake the albatross that came with such an iconic performance. No one wanted to hire him for other work. So he embraced the cape and cowl – he engaged with the fans and learned why he had been so beloved in the first place. When fan conventions were only in their infancy in the 70s and 80s, Adam West was nevertheless a constant feature of them, always happy to meet his fans and share spirited anecdotes about his time on the series (such as the time he and the Riddler were dismissed from an orgy because they insisted on partaking in character). A lot of former stars of cult series are skilled at faking enthusiasm for something that was essentially a paycheck. There was something uniquely honest about West though – in a time when fan-culture hadn’t burst into the mainstream, West really seemed to approach our obsession with fondness, understanding and enthusiasm. There’s an old piece or archive footage showing him examining a fan-made Batman mask and being genuinely impressed by its screen-accuracy.
His unique self-parodical ability to appear as eccentric as his most popular role led to a second wind as a comedic actor. It’s no coincidence that West’s several appearances on The Simpsons are so iconic or that his recurring character on Family Guy was so memorable. Also of note is his brilliant appearance on Batman: The Animated Series, playing an out-of-work actor who can’t shake the memory of his most famous role as a crime fighting hero. Over the course of the episode, he learns to embrace the spirit of his famous alter-ego. Why does that sound so familiar…
While his passing is heartbreaking, there is much to celebrate. At his lowest point, Adam West was unemployed and forgotten – by his own admission he never felt like he’d reach the level of success he once enjoyed. The last twenty-five years of his life resulted in a resurgence of popularity, but the last decade especially has made the man a living legend. In an age where the geek has ruled the Earth. And while Batman is arguably as popular as he’s ever been, Batman has finally been given the respect it has always deserved – in the last five years alone, toys, comics, Halloween costumes and many other types of merchandise have been created specifically in the style of the series (and crucially, containing the likeness of Adam West, Burt Ward and Julie Newmar) for the very first time. After decades of legal wrangling, the series has finally, officially been released on home video on a series of fantastically remastered Blu-rays.
My girlfriend once asked me which of the many screen Batmans I would most like to “be” if I had the choice. My answer was Adam West. Of all the Dark Knights, his is the most confident, the most assured and the most content. Despite facing death traps at the end of literally every episode, you never doubt for a second that Adam West won’t have the right Bat-gadget to save the day (whether it’s something as mundane as a fly-swatter or as fantastic as shark-repellant spray). He never entertains the notion that his crusade is anything but just, his heart is never anything but true (looking at you, Batfleck) and to be fair, of all crusaders caped, he looks like the one who is having the most fun. I will always cherish the adventures I shared with him and I’m confident that his legacy will live on for many generations of Batmen to come. Even if Batman doesn’t dance anymore.
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