By the time I was old enough to really appreciate television – I’d say I was maybe 14 or 15 months old – the well-loved Batman ’66 TV series was already more than a decade into reruns. But those reruns were a fixture of my youth, and the youth of millions of couch potatoes the world over. The show was fun no matter what: if you were a kid, you loved the colorful heroes and cartoonish fistfights, and if you were a little older, you also appreciated the show’s fine sense of the absurd. Consequently, for a good few decades, it was impossible to go more than a week without stumbling across Batman while channel surfing. It was omnipresent.
The thing is, Batman never came out on home video in the DVD age. We got so many other popular shows from that era- Star Trek, The Time Tunnel, Man from UNCLE, and of course, The Dick Van Dyke Show– but Batman never made that leap. There are a few competing theories about why, but they’re all generally about the same problem – red tape resulting from the show’s complex brew of producers and rights-holders. Who was calling the shots for Batman on home video? DC Comics, who owned the character? ABC, Fox, or Greenway Productions, the three separate television companies who all had a stake in the show during its production? Or Warner Bros, DC’s parent company? Somehow or another, the mess got sorted out, and Warner Home Video are poised to unleash the entire, fantastic run of 120 episodes on both DVD and Blu-ray today. I took a look at this tremendous new release – let’s see what I’ve taken away from the experience.
1) It. Looks. Amazing.
It’s fair enough to think that this is a foregone conclusion, but you really never know with old TV shows and movies. I’ve seen cartoons from the 1930s that look pristine, and TV shows from the ’70s and ’80s that look like a dog crapped on the films. Batman is a show that was both alive with color and beautifully photographed, and it shines on Blu-ray. Seriously, the show looks amazingly, shockingly, wonderfully vibrant in HD. The grain of the film betrays its age a bit, but the world of Batman ’66 just looks so new, it’ll take your breath away.
It’s fun to dip into a period show like Mad Men, which works hard to recreate a time and place from decades gone by, but Batman lives and breathes its own era, in crystal clarity. Not only is the gleaming marvel of the Batmobile writ large, you’ll catch yourself idly examining fashion choices and signs in the crowd scenes. One small downside: the makeup suffers a bit, especially Cesar Romero’s Joker. His greasepaint-camouflaged mustache wasn’t too hard to spot in the old TV days, but it pops right out on Blu-ray! Of course, that’s all part of the fun.
2) The Packaging Is Splendid, and Humongous.
Like a lot of all-encompassing disc collections, Batman ’66 will take up a sizable chunk of your DVD shelf, so make sure you have a suitably sprawling Batcave ready for it. However, this gargantuan package has a neat magnetic gatefold front, which opens up satisfyingly to display the goods within, and it’s festooned all over with the show’s trademark sound effects.
The actual discs are divvied up by season into digipacks that sport photographs of Batman’s rogues gallery, with the third and final season also containing the extras disc. The total of 120 episodes is spread out across only 13 discs, which sounds a little cramped until you remember that BR50 discs, dual-layer Blu-rays, can easily hold up to nine hours of 1080p video. The whole thing is solid, hefty, satisfying to open up and browse, and will probably make you feel a little less ridiculous about spending more than a hundred dollars on old Batman TV episodes.
There is a button on the side of the box that says “Press Me.” No, I’m not telling you what it does. Go to the store and find out!
3) Some of the On-Disc Extras Are Pretty Great.
The producers of this collection shot almost three hours of brand-new documentary footage to complement the multitude of Batman TV episodes. Some of it is absolutely dynamite stuff, like the 30-minute documentary about fanatical Batman memorabilia collectors, where we meet a professional Batmobile refurbisher, the Guinness record holder for the most Batman collectibles (he built a barn to hold all of his Bat-stuff), and a gent with a sizable collection of Batman props and promotional items. There is a wonderful moment in this featurette where a curious Adam West tours the personal Batcave of a superfan, and eventually puts on a replica cowl presented to him by collector Ralph Garman. The years roll back effortlessly.
Other documentaries include a Ken Burns-style career retrospective by West, and an explanation of how the sound effect gags were used by the man who invented them. A “from the vault” section has much of the remaining Batman apocrypha that you might have seen, including a Batgirl pilot reel and a famous bit of screen test footage featuring the handsome but wooden Lyle Waggoner, the future Steve Trevor from the ’70s Wonder Woman series, as Bruce Wayne, complete with variant Batman costume. Bits and pieces of this screen test, plus West and Ward’s test (also included here) have leaked out earlier, but this is the first time I’ve seen them both presented in their entirety.
4) Other On-Disc Extras… Not So Much.
For all of its luster and class, the Batman box set also has one of the dumbest extras I’ve ever watched, a mini-documentary called “Na Na Na Batman.” Ostensibly a quick take on the show’s cultural impact, it’s actually pretty obviously a hastily-assembled time-filler using whoever happened to be on the Warner Bros lot that day. Because of this, we end up with quick interviews with actors from Arrow and Supernatural, plus a handful of other players, and for some reason, Kevin Bacon. Actors react to invocations of the Caped Crusader as if they’d just been asked, “So, do you remember anything about Batman? Anything at all? Please, you must’ve seen Batman at some point. Can you string together two sentences and maybe laugh, so we can get ninety seconds of footage for the final cut?” It’s awkward.
The other documentary of dubious provenance would be “Bats of the Round Table.” The idea isn’t bad – a handful of celebrities sit down and quiz Adam West about the series – but the talk doesn’t reveal much; it kinda comes off like a typical “Ask Adam West about Batman” convention panel. The round table is more evocative of Hollywood Squares than anything else, featuring Phil Morris from the Smallville TV series, Jim Lee from DC Comics, Batman super-collector and radio personality Ralph Garman… and Kevin Smith. I know, I know, the dude’s paid his dues and is a geek movie icon, but I think I’ve just reached a point where I see Kevin Smith come stumping into the shot in his jorts-and-hockey-sweater ensemble, and just think, “ahhhhhh, crap.” Am I alone in this?
5) Physical Extras Are Very Nice, But Not Truly Substantial.
This thing has instantly become my favorite ginormous Warner Bros box set, but I wish it weren’t quite so light on physical extras. The little softcover episode guide is handy enough for reference, but there’s a dearth of real production data – each entry only lists the director, writer, villain and a one-sentence synopsis. The previous holder of Favorite Ginormous Warner Bros box in my household, Singin’ in the Rain, had a much more expansive hardcover book. Batman competes with this via its impressive Adam West hardcover scrapbook, which does have some delightful stuff, like the above Adam West at Shea Stadium tickets, but the fact is, you’ll chew through the books in a matter of minutes. The ultimate collector’s edition book in my stacks came with the Patlabor anime movie – it’s a 150-page production diary and artbook in its own right. Batman‘s extras are neat, but I just wish they were as expansive as that.
There are also trading cards. Trading cards in sets like these always feeling me vaguely confused and sad. Yes, I realize that they’re replicas of a 1966-issue set. The artwork is fabulous, both evocative of the TV series and curiously original in its own right. But… trading cards? I just shuffle through them, forlornly wondering who I’m supposed to trade them with. I wonder if they’ll fit in my bike’s spokes…
6) Adam West Overload.
Is it really possible to overdose on Adam West? After viewing hours of this set, I’m not tired of the man yet, but he’s present in every episode and nearly every extra. He’s certainly the key member of the cast, bringing a sense of cheesy gravity to the character that helped make the series a sensation, but the set could’ve used more data on other people behind the series. In the documentaries, we do get to catch up with Burt Ward, who’s really starting to show his age, and Julie Newmar, who isn’t.
Still, West will leave you grinning broadly over and over again with his stories. At one point, he describes walking out wearing the suit on set for the first time, and the entire production team just went quiet, watching him raptly. At this historic moment, he had a wonderful realization: he could play the role of Batman with as much straight-faced commitment as he could muster, and it would be hilarious. The silence on the set was proof that people would respond to it. He was right!
7) It Has All the Bat-Stuff… But Could’ve Had Even More.
Make no mistake, this set is the definitive collection of the Batman TV show. But in a couple of small ways, it still leaves me wanting more. A few years back, Adam West self-produced a 2-disc documentary called Adam West Naked, which was a quirky, personal trip through the entire series, episode by episode, hosted by West himself, at his home. Chris Sims’ review of it over at Comics Alliance sounds incredible. The set addresses one of this Batman edition’s few deficiencies- the lack of commentary tracks. There is a special feature, very much like a commentary, of two episodes, with West comparing the final footage with notes from his original script, but we don’t get actual guided commentaries. This bums me out a little, because West and Ward did a commentary track for the Batman ’66 movie that is possibly the best ever, both informative and gut-bustingly hilarious.
Interestingly, a variant set available only from Warner Bros attempts to address this deficiency, including both the Batman ’66 movie and Adam West Naked (isn’t that a great title? I heard it and immediately went to Google “Adam West nake-” Ha ha, you got me, Adam!) as supplementary extra discs, but it doesn’t look like that choice extra 2-disc set is designed to fit neatly into the big collector’s package. You might as well get the TV series set on sale and track down the other films individually.
They’re both easy to find, though the West commentary-o-rama seems mostly confined to his own site’s webshop, where you can have it personalized. There are also other Batman bits that would’ve been welcome additions to this set, like the 2-episode Legends of the Superheroes cheesefest from the ’70s, West and Ward’s peculiar and modestly entertaining mockumentary Back to the Batcave, and the Filmation cartoon TV series The New Adventures of Batman, which features the pair voicing their characters once again. You can find all of these goodies elsewhere, but their inclusion would’ve made an already gargantuan set absolutely titanic.
8) It Comes With a Tiny Batmobile
Damn right it comes with a tiny Batmobile. We can debate the finer points of whether this Batmobile is truly the best one; above, I’ve got it parked next to my toy replica of the original 1940s Batmobile, to provide a sense of scale and to stack it up to my personal favorite. The ’66 Batmobile is awesome because, as one of the documentaries points out, it’s actually a street-legal car and not just a custom-made prop, but it doesn’t have a giant Bat-face on the front. I consider this a strike against it. It would’ve helped if the car had a giant BATMAN logo on the side, like this sweet Captain America muscle car, but it’s still an absolutely iconic vehicle and a great little toy. You’ll be hard-pressed to decide whether to keep it in the collector’s box or display it separately. Don’t let your kids have it, or you’ll never see it again!
9) There’s Just So Much of It.
Think about this: Batman ’66 lasted only three seasons. By modern standards, it’d be considered a cult hit at best, simply because it didn’t hang around for eight or ten years. But this show did something different: it aired twice a week. Each episode was half of a two-parter, a cliffhanger and a conclusion, with the viewer famously invited to tune in for the second part, “same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.” Even if you’re impatient and watch two episodes per day every day of the week, it’s going to take you at least a couple of months to burn through the whole thing. Season 2 alone, the apex of the show’s popularity, includes a whopping sixty episodes. That’s a whole lot of Bat-magic!
Despite the voluminous amount of episodes, I kind of appreciate that Batman ’66 didn’t overstay its welcome. Like Star Trek, which aired during the same time period, it was an important show that burned bright and faded fast. Another old favorite of mine, the 1950s George Reeves Adventures of Superman show, ultimately had fewer episodes, but it stuck around for 6 years. Even though the later seasons were shot in color, the show really started to run out of energy after a couple of seasons. With Batman, this never, ever happens – it’s good to the last Bat-a-rang.
10) It’s an Ageless Wonder.
Watching this series for the first time in years, I’m struck, at turns, by the fun performances, the colorful costumes, the detailed sets, the crazy Dutch angles, the overwrought narration… the show’s got a lot to offer. Eventually, you’d think, the formula of Commissioner Gordon reaching for the famous red telephone inside of a cake stand would get a bit stale, but the rogue’s gallery keeps things fresh. Plenty of people tip Cesar Romero’s Joker as their favorite, or the fearsomely sexy Julie Newmar/Eartha Kitt/Lee Meriweather triple-threat as Catwoman, but I’ve always liked the teeth-gritting, eyes-bugging nuttiness of Frank Gorshin as the Riddler best.
The theme song and crudely-assembled opening animation never get old. Other Batmen come and go, but while Kevin Conroy’s animated caped crusader may have ultimately set the standard for the character, to me this right here is the definitive live-action, on-screen Batman; each and every episode is sly, zippy, and goes down like cold springwater on a warm day. One look at the spectacle of Adam West doin’ the Batusi in that Bat-suit of his serves as a sharp reminder: I will always, always have time for this show. Warner Bros. have done well to deliver a set that will satisfy completists and delight new viewers alike.
Previously by Mike Toole: