Thursday, February 9, 2017

Theory Thursday: Adam West is the Best Live Action Batman

Adam West
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: The LEGO Batman movie opens in theaters this Friday.
Theory: Adam West is the best live action version of Batman.

Scene from The LEGO Batman Movie
It is a popular past time to anticipate the new Batman movies. For over 50 years, the iconic character has appeared in some capacity on the big screen or on TV. He remains an icon of standing up for justice and fighting some of comic book history's greatest villains. It makes sense then that the series would collaborate with the LEGO company to market the hero to kids, wishing to tear Batman apart and rebuild him in their image. After a memorable appearance in The LEGO Movie, it only made sense that the character who won the hearts of everyone young and old would get his own movie. In a time where Batman is "dark" and nihilistic, it only seems right to adapt the character in a satirical model that is accessible to younger audiences who maybe aren't allowed to watch Batman v. Superman or The Dark Knight just yet.

With that said, the argument rages on in regards to who the best Batman is. I will say upfront that my expertise is largely in the live action realm. I have read a dozen or so D.C. Comics story lines, but have no deeper perception of what the hero should be in its truest form. I just know that I want to see the caped crusader fight crime with an awesome soundtrack to boot. I am pretty much open to any cinematic version, as I feel that it's part of the hero's appeal over the decades. He adapts to the times, and he in some ways becomes an American version of James Bond: someone so iconic that he isn't tied to one specific actor. There are those who have played him better, but most everyone has left a memorable mark. For this week's Theory Thursday, I'm mostly asking who the "best" is among the iconic performances, which will include: Adam West (Batman '66), Michael Keaton (Batman '89, Batman Returns), Val Kilmer (Batman Forever), George Clooney (Batman & Robin), Christian Bale (The Dark Knight trilogy), and Ben Affleck (Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad).

Christian Bale in The Dark Knight
It becomes tough to really suggest that there's a wrong answer besides Kilmer or Clooney. All of the movies stand out as exceptional pieces of entertainment, reflective of their era with a brooding mix of darkness and hope. I definitely think there's strong suggestions that Keaton is probably the most exciting of the performances, as he is genuinely weird, and Tim Burton made those films into a beautifully weird dreamscape. I will always have a soft spot for Bale because of my love for Christopher Nolan's work on the films - though I'm willing to be swayed that Nolan's films are good in spite of Bale, who always seems secondary to his own adventures. I think Affleck is too new to be properly assessed, though I do hope that The Batman will examine his character in a way that elevates him to something on par with Keaton and Bale.

Through the process of elimination, you can easily guess where things are going. I admit that it's sort of a cheat to suggest that West is the best Batman, but I hope that you hear me out. There is a lot to hate about Batman from the 1960's. It was corny and the later episodes were plagued with budget cuts. The special effects and odd jokes aren't in keeping with the reinvention that writers like Alan Moore and Frank Miller brought to the character in the 1980's. In fact, the seemingly toothless exterior is probably to be blamed on the "Silver Age" of comics era where censorship kept stories from getting dark. Even then, there is something to West's Batman that is missing from almost every other incarnation. Many could suggest that Joel Schumacher tried to ape this campy tone for Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, but I think that's part of the problem. Because someone did it wrong, West's version gets more flack than it deserves.

I am including the Batman TV series that ran from 1966 to 1968 in this assessment. It may be unfair to give West more clout outside of film, but that is part of the reason that he stands out. While Batman '66 is more comical than thrilling, it would be difficult to suggest that what he brings to the role is bad. In fact, I argue that he is one of the few actors to play the role with a sense of enthusiasm. Most of the other roles play Batman as a character with a woeful and drudging sense of duty. They may make for better movies, but there's no hope in those films that isn't undermined by some weird dramatic subtext. Batman '89 had a strange kindred spirit twist while The Dark Knight had a philosophy course's worth of existentialism to unpack. By comparison, West doesn't have anything but the catchiest of the theme songs, and plenty of great catchphrases to boot.

If nothing else, West's version had the most assured vision of what the hero could do. He was an actual detective solving crackerjack mysteries against a gallery of villains who ranged from great (The Joker) to terrible (Egghead). The show's advantage is that it gave life to many villains who would never see the light of day on the cinematic screen. Even if it's arguable that the actors playing those guest starring stealers didn't do a faithful job, they always fit into the formula of a fun comic book show. Onomatopoeias erupt as punches are thrown. The narrator explains too much from time to time. Even Robin seems more like a plot device than a character at least once every episode. However, it had no great superhero TV series to compare itself to. It may have not been the first, but its one advantage is that it was a parody of detective series, firmly having its tongue in cheek the entire time with a fairly flimsy wardrobe to boot.

This is all captured nicely in the movie Batman '66, which did feature opening credits akin to a mystery movie with every character appearing before a spotlight. It has the intrigue, the villains, the music, and even a memorable scene in which West famously tries to dispose of a giant bomb, but keeps running into literal safety hazards. He is a hero, but sometimes the comedy comes from the hurdles that keep him from properly saving the day. Yes, the threats of the main villains - The Joker, The Penguin, The Riddler, and Catwoman - are very silly and lame compared to later renditions, but it became so iconic that it defined the public's consciousness of Batman for 20 years until Burton's reboot forever made him dark. Even then, West began to have a resurgence through beloved fans who made a documentary about him, a few cartoon movies where he voiced the caped crusader, and even is currently starring as the narrator of the new superhero sitcom Powerless.

While Batman '66 the movie would rank pretty low on my favorite Batman movies, I can't think of an actor who has embodied the character with more joy. He may lack emotional depth, but he also comes from a counterculture era where it was fun to pick on common decency. Batman was at the time rebellious in the way that Laugh In and The Monkees were. It may look silly today, but it's important to note that this isn't the worst thing that a series can be accused of. It was meant to have fun, and it arguably has some of the benchmarks for what everything to come since had. People were suspicious about Jack Nicholson playing The Joker after Caesar Romero. Many were convinced that Burton would make Batman '89 retrograde. The perfect sign of how integral West was is that Schumacher's version tried to do it, but failed miserably. Why? Because its heart was in the wrong place. You have to be passionate like West to make it work. That's why he's the best.

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