As with anyone else growing up between 1966 and 1990, I watched the original Batman television series. As a kid, I jumped around the furniture in my parents’ basement or around my backyard, imagining myself as the one who would save the caped crusaders from certain doom. As recent iterations of Batman have become increasingly focused on the dark side of the character, I became distanced from him. Batman was no longer the Batman I grew up with. Adam West, my first Batman, my favorite Batman, and, as he calls it, the “Happy Batman.” The character I wanted to introduce to my son was the one with whom I had grown up, and now, Batman: The Return of the Caped Crusaders provides that opportunity.
With Batman: The Return of the Caped Crusaders, Adam West reinvigorates his iconic role for an all new audience. Mr. West explained, “the narrative they gave me was pretty good. To be able to recall it and summon that up was a challenge for about five minutes. Because if you do something for so many years, you sort of nail it.” When asked about whether he thought the key to his longevity and success lay in never being completely comfortable and continually working hard, Mr. West nodded, responding, “You know how we all go through these moments at four in the morning, and the dog is biting your leg, but that challenge for me has always been like the starter button in the car. I don’t mean to sound overly ambitious, but I guess I am fairly competitive. You’re right about that. Really, that is the American way, competition with free market and all that. The other thing, when I get material that I feel is well amusing or affecting that does it. That’s what an actor looks for.” In terms of the Caped Crusaders, the movie managed to appeal to him in a way that brought him back to the Batman property.
For the long term Batman fans, Batman: The Return of the Caped Crusaders will be everything you’ve dreamed of since you were a kid. Director Rick Morales noted that his goal in making the project was “there really is a place for this type of Batman. It’s family friendly. It’s a little more wholesome. There’s definitely a place for that.” Bringing the 1960’s aesthetic into the modern day, Mr. Morales shared, “it’s an interesting challenge to do that. We drew a lot from the comic books of the era. Our designer on this was Dusty Able. He’s done a lot in his career and he’s a fantastic artist. He just kind of did his thing. It’s classic enough that it feels of that era but also with the animation that we provide on this it’s got a twist to it.” Focusing predominantly on the 1950’s era comics for inspiration, Morales wanted to create an homage to the 1960’s live action series while creating something entirely new. James Tucker, writer and supervising producer, agreed saying that “getting into the mechanics of it was more difficult. We didn’t want to just recreate the show because the show is the show. We wanted to bring more elements of the comic books that inspired the show. We wanted it to be its own animal so that there was something fresh and new that would add on to people who enjoyed the show not just replicate something they already had.” This is one of the places where the movie shines. Upon viewing, it will very definitely feel like the old Batman show complete with kapows but also have a definite sense of being something entirely new.
This updating meant putting together a mosaic of comics and live action to create the pastiche that is the movie. James Tucker noted that in doing do, a lot of this comes by intuition, “we don’t have a focus group. It’s just what feels right. Coming from the conceit that it’s the unofficial fourth season, it necessitated changing things while homaging the feel of elements of the show. Wherever we changed things, we went to the comics as the root. Most of the time the comic had done it first. As wacky as the show was, it wasn’t as wacky as what the comics did. So we thought if the show didn’t have a budget, what would they have done? Would he have gone into space? Would he have deep sea dived? The idea was just to blow it out and make it something big and different.” Watching the movie, the plot does go big. With Joker, Riddler, Penguin, Catwoman, Alfred, Aunt Harriet, Commissioner Gordon, and Chief O’Hara, the full casting plus the ability to incorporate the fantastical, evidenced by the trailer’s oversized frozen dinner, made the movie a joy to watch in all the hyperbolic ways possible.
Negotiating the nostalgic desire for a new Adam West Batman with the desires of today’s youth, the movie needed to hit a sweet spot between modern cartoons and the old campy show. When asked how they planned to update the campy factor of the show to appeal to the modern child demographic while still negotiating the adults, Morales added, “I think one of the things is that you have a clever script. We have Michael Jelenic and James Tucker, and they are really great. James really understands the entire DC universe. If you watch this movie, if you’re a comic book fan or you’ve watched the Batman movies recently, like the Michael Keaton stuff, there are a lot of Easter eggs in there for you. As far as modernizing it, it’s jut putting them in scenarios that you haven’t seen them in before. Like you said, we have a budget. It’s animation so there’s a lot more leeway, and I think we did a great job of taking advantage of that.” Following that, the inimitable Mr. West also noted that appealing to children and bringing them into the fandom was the purpose or mission for Batman: The Return of the Caped Crusaders. He continued, “this was done primarily for kids, kids of all ages. So the adults would be amused of course again. But this really just hammered right in to please the kids. You see it updated. They’ve taken our Batman and given him an homage then brought in it more in tune with what’s happening out there today, all the technology. We’re out in space, and we’re doing things that you might want to hack.” As one of the kids of all ages who was looking forward to a fun romp that required the same willing suspension of disbelief the 1960’s show required, I was very much impressed and pleased.
Caped Crusaders navigates the child/adult audience gap beautifully. As a parent who has seen remakes of other properties that took modernization to an inappropriate place, such as Bugs Bunny and Daffy going streaking at Spring Break, I asked if there was anything in this movie that would cross the line from adult nodding humor to full-on adult humor. Although Mr. Morales agreed, “I totally get it. I’m a parent as well, and I grew up on comic books. There’s a lot of stuff now where I’m like ‘Would I let my kid read that at 8 years old?’ And I don’t think I would, so I totally get that. That’s the good thing I think about this movie. There’s some good things for adults but it totally works for children as well. I feel completely comfortable showing this to my kids.” Indeed, Mr. Morales was correct. The vaguely adult humor comes in the continued double entendre flirting between Catwoman and Batman. Although at one point Batman refers to her as a “dominatrix,” even this banter can be read as completely family-friendly.
After watching the movie, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what worked so well. It occurred to me that the way in which the movie nods to the adults who grew up with the Adam West Batman show does it in a way that adults will see as referential homage while children will buy into the scenes using their unique “kid logic.” The prime example of this lies in the continual “logical” solutions that Batman and Robin provide. At the outset, one line by Robin solves the puzzle by saying, “Nothing…zero….zilch…. GOOSE EGG!!!” Morales noted during the panel after the preview that this was a nod to the traditional ridiculous logic in the original show. However, what they did so well here was that it’s not a “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” moment just for adults. If you’ve ever talked to a little kid and had them logic you through something, this is precisely the illogical logic the child will give you. This means that while adults are laughing at the ridiculousness, the kids will be buying into what’s going on.
Watching the movie, I giggled like a school girl throughout. Every time the plot takes a twist, Robin yells out, “Holy <insertthinghere>.” My personal favorite occurred during a moment with Catwoman where he shouted, “Holy Faster Pussycat Kill Kill!” Referring to a cult classic of the 1960’s, this line is one of many little surprises for the audience. My personal favorite was the hyperbolic alliteration. As a word nerd, I’m particularly upset that the interviews were before watching the movie, not after. I almost got up to ask the writers how long it took to work in all that alliteration.
When sitting in the post screening panel, one audience member questioned how the panel felt about giving a female character, in this case Catwoman, more agency than was done in a parallel animated movie released this year, The Killing Joke. The panel smiled, looked at each other, and chose not to answer, understandably. However, Catwoman in this movie is by far one of the most resourceful characters while still rooted in the traditional sense. When asked how the creators had decided to update her character for a more feminist or progressive audience of children, Mr. Morales responded, “I don’t know that there was too much thought given to that. Really, we wanted to make the most entertaining piece of work that we could. Not that you can’t do that within those parameters, but I don’t think it was anything that was given too much thought, like ‘we have to do this certain thing.’ We’re basing it within that certain era and off of some of the comics of that era. I don’t think there’s anything in our movie that would be objectionable.” As someone keyed into the current zeitgeist, I love that The Caped Crusaders, despite being predominantly rooted in this protofeminist era, managed to create a character who is strong, sexy, smart, and complex without giving it a lot of thought. To me, this means that we are one step closer to characters like this becoming the norm as opposed to the outlier.
Watching the Caped Crusaders, the aesthetic appealed to me because it was so rooted in the original series and comics. Reading a lot of comics and watching a lot of action movies, one of the issues I’ve noticed over the years is that unrealistic body image expectations they create for young men. Recently, in one of the classes I teach, my 18-year-olds were discussing this and many of the young men felt that the “six pack” abs and muscularity represented in media as setting unrealistic expectations. Moreover, listening to my son ask “how many packs does he have, mama? You know, like how many tummy packs?” made me realize how much he’s picking up about body image at such a young age. The Caped Crusaders does a really amazing job of giving Batman the same realistic body that Adam West’s Batman had. The 1960’s live action show did a great job of allowing the superhero to have a body type similar to real people. While obviously physically fit, Mr. West did not have the kind of chiseled figure that many modern day action heroes exhibit.
This comparison prompted me to ask Mr. West how he feels the aesthetic has changed over the years and how he sees the Caped Crusaders presenting a positive body image for young kids. Mr. West responded, “I think when you see some of the people today who are doing these heroic roles and they’re so damn pumped up and they work out and it’s like they’re pneumatic dolls that you blow up, I think it gives the young guys that wrong impression. I had a pretty good bod, but I think it’s more important to do hard work and involve yourself in things that would develop you physically. You don’t have to go on to the gym every day and pump the iron. You don’t have to. It’s not bad to go to the gym to work out, it’s very good for many people. I don’t believe in excess. I think excess like that can really be damaging. I went through it, I really did. People think you can do anything, especially if you’re Batman, and it’s very tiring. As far was body image for young guys, I think it’s very good for the athletes and some of the so called superheroes. They may not be able to run like Flash or spin a web like Spidey, but they can certainly aspire to be stronger. But go out and do some work! Rake the leaves!”
At one point, Mr. West attempted to ruin everyone’s entire childhood by reminding us all, “that I’m not really Batman.” As all of us at the table chuckled, I realized that he was wrong. Listening to him reprise the role and being in his presence, Mr. Adam West is The Batman. He will always be my Batman, and he will always encapsulate everything about being The Batman as both a person and actor. Thank you, Old Chum.