Monday, June 12, 2017

R.I.P. Adam West


I was born three years AFTER the iconic Batman TV series of the 1960s was cancelled. It was another eight or nine years before I really got into Batman as a character. Thanks to the power of syndication, it was because of that same series. Way back then, local networks set their weekday schedule so that the hours, three to six o'clock, were aimed at kids just getting home from school. Most of the shows at this time were cartoons. However, WPIX in New York, or channel eleven as we called it, included Batman in their daily lineup. Being a serial, or a spoof of serials as I would later learn, you just HAD to see the next episode. Almost. Every other one ended on a cliffhanger of epic proportions. For me, and for many kids my age, Adam West was Batman. He was not the guy playing Batman. He was Batman.

On Saturday mornings, I watched Super Friends, an animated cartoon starring DC's Justice League if you aren't familiar. As recent and future movies have told us, Batman is basically the leader of this pack. As such he's a major part of the show. I loved that show and other shows which featured him. I also read and enjoyed the comics, though not as often. Still, Adam West was Batman.

It wasn't until I was nearing adulthood that I thought the world might benefit from a different interpretation than the one West gave us. The world was a dark place, not the technicolor playground of 60s Batman where villains were easily identifiable by the dutch angles in which they were framed. We craved a hero befitting the harsh reality swirling around us. With the tragic backstory the show never bothered with, Batman appeared to be the man for the job. When word came that Tim Burton's Batman movie would give us precisely this, the world rejoiced. We were finally getting a Batman for our generation, one that wasn't mired in camp nor playing everything for laughs. We were getting a Batman that wasn't Adam West.

Burton's Batman delivered on that promise. The sequel, Batman Returns took us even further down that dark path. Then a strange thing happened. The character had become too dark for us, at least those of us who took our kids to see it. I didn't have any yet, so I had trouble understanding the sentiment. The general consensus among these people was that they wanted a superhero fit for their little ones, with a lighter tone and happier disposition. They wanted Batman out of the hands of the goth-chic Burton and into those of someone who believed in sunshine without irony. Joel Schumacher was brought in to give us a Batman more like the one Adam West played.


Regrettably, Schumacher gave us all the camp he could in two Bat-features, but neither Val Kilmer nor George Clooney had the magic that West did. The movies, particularly the last one - Batman and Robin, are blamed for ruining the superhero genre, only to be resuscitated in the late 90s by a succession of films based on Marvel characters: Blade, X-Men, and Spider-Man. I was sitting in the theater for each one, cheering the new ultra-serious direction the genre was moving in. It's a direction that would reach its apex because of Batman himself with director Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Trilogy. I was so glad that the character had thoroughly shed itself of the silliness of the 60s show. To me, Adam West was no longer Batman.

Between the last two entries of Nolan's trilogy, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, a funny thing happened. While out doing some DVD shopping, I came across a copy of Batman: The Movie, the 1966 film starring West in the titular role that I had seen many times while growing up. It actually hit theaters after the series had already been on television for a season. The tone was exactly the same, and with the same creative team and cast, it plays like a two hour episode rather than a separate entity. I bought it as a way to revisit my childhood. I hadn't watched it since I was fourteen or fifteen years old. When I put it on, I was transported back to those simpler times. Strangely, I was also made aware how much of an adult I was and how much adult content actually made it into this movie. I was also struck by just how meta it was. It was a movie that knew completely what it was doing. More than any of that, I was struck by the performance of one Adam West. He was fantastic, delivering every line with a wink and nod, knowing what he was doing was goofy, but he never condescended to his audience. He knew there were viewers, particularly younger ones, who would be watching this as an earnest representation of the character. He also knew he was slipping in some seriously risque dialogue they might not understand. It was brilliant. As much as I loved what Christian Bale did with Batman, and Michael Keaton before him, I realized there was a very good reason West was beloved by so many. There was good reason he was beloved by me. He was perfect in the role. He didn't just do what was required of him. He took material with the potential to go over the head of its audience and elevated it to the level of art. I was so fond of it, a few months back I spent fifty bucks on a collection of the entire series. Adam West was once again Batman.


My appreciation for West grew over the last decade. My passion and enjoyment of what he did with the role grew with it. Along with loving my icons, I love seeing them spoofed, when it's done skillfully. Nic Cage's performance as Big Daddy in the film Kick-Ass was a perfect send-up that tickled me in all the right places. Go back and watch that movie and tell me Cage isn't doing an astonishing Adam West impersonation. I've seen West himself pop up in various other things not playing Batman, often doing voice-over work for shows like The Simpsons and Futurama. He even did some voice-over on a few different Batman animated series, but playing someone else before finally getting to return to the role in last year's Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders. He also showed up as himself in a ton of guest appearances on various shows. The characters on the show would either be fawning over him because of his work on the 60s show, or he would be making fun of his own image, much the way William Shatner often does. I don't know how Mr. West would feel about me saying what I'm going to say, but it's true. Whenever I saw his face, I got a knowing smile on my own. I instantly remembered my own childhood. I also reveled in my rekindled love for his work in his most famous role. Through the grin, I never said "There's Adam West." No, I looked at the screen and said aloud, "There's Batman."

Rest in peace, Mr. West. And thank you.



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12 comments:

  1. I know he's iconic and cool. He was probably a super nice guy in person... Unfortunately all I can remember about Adam West is that he wouldn't let anyone take a picture of him at a convention and he demanded $75 for an autograph. Admittedly, I still have a soft spot for him as Batman and of course as the Mayor in Family Guy.

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    1. I've heard he was a nice guy, but I'm only going on how I dealt with him, through my TV set. Sorry you had that experience with him.

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  2. While I will say that Michael Keaton and Christian Bale can take the role as the definitive Batman. Adam West does have a special place in my heart as to me, he's Batman Classic. I just love his approach to humor and how he was able to just play it cool. And it's true, how come Batman doesn't dance anymore? I love doing the Batusi. And it's true. He doesn't have to say he's Batman. He just enters the room and we all know who it is. Pure West. And he's the only thing in Family Guy that I like. Mayor Adam West. That man would've been a better choice as our President instead of the idiot fuck-head we have now.

    We will miss you Adam West.

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    1. I'm on record saying Bale is the best Batman, but West is by far the most unique and the coolest. And yeah, Mayor West would be a better president than the one we have.

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  3. What a Great review and heartfelt review you gave here. I always found his Batman completely separate to all the movie versions from the 1980's and onward. Where we compare the Batmans from Michael Keaton to(sigh) Ben Affleck, we never compared Adam West to them. It isn't just because it was on TV or campy but he really made his Batman his own. He knew it was campy and yet he was able to ride that edge of campy and earnestness. He was simply fun.

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    1. So true, West is somewhat separate from the others. It's a version of the character none of them could have pulled off. And he was all sorts of fun.

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  4. Adam West was "my" Batman - ie, the Batman I grew up with. This is a huge loss. Great write-up dude.

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  5. Sad news, he seems to have been a nice guy judging from the tributes that have been pouring in.

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    1. Seems to be. I just know he's meant a lot to me.

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