Adam West died this week and people have been understandably reminiscent about his role as TV’s The Batman in the late 60s. It was his most famous role, even though it was fundamentally ridiculous, and to West’s credit, it was one he stood beside even to his final years.
West’s–and the TV show’s producers’–portrayal of The Batman had subtle but profound cultural influences. Shades of it can be seen in Roger Moore’s James Bond, and John Travolta and Uma Thurman replicated one of West’s dance moves in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). Until recently when people who didn’t read comic books talked about comic books, it was obvious that they were really talking about West’s Batman (and Christopher Reeve’s more earnest, but ultimately as silly Superman). “Oh, yes, I know comic books. Pow! Sok! Right?”
West’s Batman also had an inverse cultural impact. Writer and artist Frank Miller was so frustrated by the show’s notoriety that he created the DARK KNIGHT RETURNS limited series in 1986. This four-issue mini-series inspired Tim Burton to take a darker Batman to film in 1989, a venture that many thought would fail. The Batman movies of the 90s were drawn back into the gravity of the “camp crusader” until Christopher Nolan took Bruce Wayne’s alter ego back into the shadows with his Dark Knight trilogy.
These days a dark and brooding Batman is very much in the public image. Everyone can recite his story: a young boy sees his parents gunned down in front of him by a mugger and grows up to devote his life to fighting crime in a brutal, visceral fashion. Ben Affleck’s Batman kills those who attack him, brands murderers with his symbol, and cares nothing about property damage. He works above the law and doesn’t seem to care as much about justice as he does about revenge.
It is clear that Batman is mentally imbalanced. If he really wanted to make the world a better place then he’d use his millions much more constructively, benefiting society rather than building gadgets to catch evildoers. He’d start up after school programs for children of low-income gothamites and summer camps so that underprivileged children could see the wilderness. Wayne Enterprises would found charitable organisations, invest in clean energy renewables, and lobby congress on behalf of the needy.
But instead we have a Batman who spends his nights drawing gunfire and harpooning cars from a tank that he had a jet engine mounted on. So it goes. But why is this gritty Batman championed as being “realistic”? Why is a happy and smirking Batman not just as realistic?
Think about it–with the sort of mental break that young Bruce Wayne suffered–the kind to make him dress up as a bat–he could have gone either way. Dark and depressed or light and ironic. And really, the light and ironic Batman is far more sustainable for Bruce’s shattered psyche. The picture of a happy Batman is a rather touching one, and takes on a quixotic tint. Surrounded by well-wishing enablers–a butler, his adopted son, and the police commissioner–a man dresses up in tights and involves himself in criminal investigations. And like the man of La Mancha, everyone around Gotham’s caped crusader, could be just as amazed and appalled at his success to prevent these crimes and bring the perpetrators to justice. Surely there will come a time when this obvious lunatic’s luck will run out, right? And in that sense there is a great deal more inherent tension in the tale. When will this absurd eccentric finally get in a situation too deep to wriggle out of?
I, for one, would be up for a return to a more light-hearted masked avenger. The dark Batman we have now is fairly indistinguishable from the criminals he fights. For all of West’s Batman’s faults, it was always clear that he always, uncompromisingly fought on the side of good. We may not always deserve that Batman, but we always need him.