The Late Adam West Made Batman Truly Great Again

The Late Adam West Made Batman Truly Great Again

The actor's comedic portrayal of Batman may not be considered the greatest or most moving. But he made all other Batmans possible.
Aaron Gleason
By

Batman is almost certainly the greatest literary/mythic character created in the last 100 years. Nine different actors have portrayed him on the silver screen (that’s two more than James Bond, even counting David Niven).

But of all those portrayals, the most important one belongs to Bill Dozier and the late Adam West. Obviously the comics are most important, in that they actually created the Bat-Man—and if you’re interested in how that actually happened, you should watch the documentary “Batman and Bill,” available on YouTube and Hulu.

But after the comics “Batman ’66,” Bill Dozier’s “Batman” (you can call it the weird one where he dances) really deserves the top spot in the Bat significance canon. And honestly not just for Batman—Adam West saved superheroes forever. The Los Angeles Times did an excellent article on West’s Batman, but there’s more to the story than just a great TV show.

I Grew Up Hating ‘Batman ’66’

I grew up hating “Batman ’66,” and so did many in my generation. Initially I thought it was great. The song was catchy and the episodes always ended on a cliffhanger. It reminded me of a brightly colored Lone Ranger. But all my love for “Batman ’66” turned to bitter bile when I became acquainted with a different Batman.

This Batman was Juilliard-trained theater actor Kevin Conroy. He made me hate Adam West. When “Batman: The Animated Series” came on the scene in 1992, it took everything I thought I knew about superheroes (which wasn’t much, since I was only seven) and flushed it down the toilet. Kevin Conroy made Batman serious and epic. And Mark Hamil’s Joker was hilarious and vile. Basically it was the best thing in the history of things. Don’t believe me? Here’s the fantastic opening.

But it made me realize that “Batman ’66” wasn’t taking this stuff seriously! It was making fun of my hero! And to me, playing the Dark Knight up for laughs was a crime against God, humanity, Nasdaq, whatever. Basically I was done with Adam West. I had no time for this nonsense! And when I finally saw “Batman 89” (years after it premiered), I decided that West was a batvillain on par with the Joker.

How Michael Uslan Revealed West’s Greatness

This brings me to the first puzzle piece of Adam West’s greatness: Michael Uslan. Michael Uslan is to Batfans what Moses is to the Jews. He took them out of their infantile captivity and brought them to the promised land. He created the first university class on comics, and has been a major guiding force as executive producer on all the major Bat media from the 80s onward. But here’s the thing about Uslan. He doesn’t become the great defender of Batman without “Batman ’66.” Because young Michael, being an avid comic book reader in the 60s, instantly understood what it took me years to see: “Batman ’66” was a comedy!

This was so devastating to Uslan, he vowed this would never happen to any Batfan again! Which is a great example of life imitating art, since the young Bruce Wayne makes a similar vow after his parents are murdered. Except that vow was to fight crime so that no child ever had their parents’ taken away again. Uslan decided to dedicate his life to forcing the world to take Batman seriously, just as Bruce would dedicate his life to ridding the world of crime. None of this happens without West. If it weren’t for the camp and jokes, then we probably never would’ve gotten to see Nolan’s near-definitive trilogy in the ’00s. Which paved the way for the amazing Lego Batman. Nolan and David S. Goyer made the character so dark and tragic that we can actually laugh at him again. It all came full circle. And for Batfreaks like me, our hearts have been reopened to “Batman ’66.” Because it’s finally clear: Adam West is the catalyst that made all this happen.

But to truly see how indebted we are, we must revisit a villain almost as bad as the Joker: Fredric Wertham and his “The Seduction of the Innocent.” See the excellent book “The Ten-Cent Plague” for a full explanation of what took place, but for now suffice it to say that cultural forces of censorship coalesced and almost destroyed comics for good. Wertham was a psychologist who wanted to prove that comics were antisocial trash corrupting America’s youth. And his crusade was basically successful. The SJW censorship of comics today is devastating the industry in a similar way.

‘Batman ’66’ Achieved Something Remarkable

But thanks in no small part to Stan Lee, and a slew of new talent, the ’60s funny books were gaining ground again. Even so, if they were going to make a Batman show that was financially viable, they had to have a strategy. The comics needed to be appealing to children because comics and superheroes have a guaranteed market with kids. But marketing it that way could lead to bad press, given the lingering stigma.

Superman had massive success on TV in the ’50s, but George Reeves donned his cape before and continued through the Wertham censorship. Batman has always been more of a criminal/vigilante to Supes’ sun god/messiah. Superman is simply more American than Batman. He’s an immigrant orphan from Kansas raised by farmers. And Batman is a blueblood Wasp! There could be unseen societal land mines anywhere.

These issues made for a show that could fail in any number of ways. So how did they solve this problem? Comedy. But comedy the kids wouldn’t necessarily get. Adam West had to be both a positive role model replacing the old comics’ distaste with civic duty and Waspish virtue, but also be relatable to children. So they added cliffhangers to the comedy. What emerged was maybe the most balanced family show ever made.

Children took West seriously as Batman because he was so serious. And parents thought it was hilarious because he was so serious! There’s never really been anything like it before or since. West stood magnificently in the center, combining hair-raising thrills with deadpan slapstick and incessant life lessons about the virtuous life directed at Robin (but the kids knew he was taking to them). Nobody but the eventual mayor of Quohog could’ve pulled it off.

Adam West Gave Us The Batman We Needed

It both is and isn’t Batman. It wasn’t the Batman everyone wanted, but it was the one we needed… and deserved. Parents were actually tricked into liking superheroes and comics again. Well, maybe not liking, but seeing them as harmless fun. The show was actually crafted to look like a comic book. Bang! Pow! So after Dozier’s Batman, people could look at a boy reading a comic and think “that’s cute.” Instead of assuming he was some sort of deviant.

And with this newfound credibility the comics grew more serious and amazing than they had been before. Adam West gave Batman the cover he needed to evolve in the shadows and reemerge as “The Dark Knight Returns” by Frank Miller in 1986. And the third part of that epic interpretation of Batman ended with Issue 9 on June 7, 2017.

As if this was the bat signal he had been waiting for, two days later, the man who made it all possible finally hung up his bright cape and cowl for good. RIP, Mr. West. Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.

A.C. Gleason grew up in the Philippines as a child of evangelical missionaries. He is a graduate of Biola University (where he met his wonderful wife) and Talbot Seminary, where he studied philosophy and theology. Currently he works with special-needs students in California public schools.
Photo Adam West and Burt Ward in Batman (1966)

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