RIP Adam West: The Only Batman That Mattered

IT’S AN INEXORABLE, if lamentable rite of passage: revisiting mementos from one’s childhood and discovering that, to an adult’s eyes, they’re lacking.

But then, “putting away childish things” is how we avoid arrested development, a condition that impairs critical faculties, stymies meaningful relationships and makes one susceptible to things like libertarianism. (If, for instance, you re-read Ayn Rand and her porcine-fisted prose still seems eloquent, you’ve got some growing up to do; if you encounter her sophomoric metaphysics for the first time as an adult and are inexplicably smitten, you are, unfortunately, a lost cause, both morally and intellectually.)

When I was a child, you would have had to pry the bowl of Boo Berry from my cold, dead hand. Now I understand my teeth would rot on contact, even if I were able to score a box online (apparently this is actually possible; this is America). I used to think a Big Mac (washed down with that non-carbonated orange drink, obviously) was the height of culinary bliss, a sort of pre-adolescent ambrosia. I thought scary movies were, well, scary. In other words, I thought a lot of things. I was even correct about one or two of them.

I thought, for instance, that the Batman TV series was amazing. It turns out I was wrong. It’s not amazing; it’s sublime.

Bear with me. When’s the last time you saw (when’s the last time you thought about) Batman and imagined Adam West instead of, say, Christian Bale or Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson, etc.?

I certainly recall that the original Superman never resonated with me, in part because that show was not old school, it was antediluvian school. Plus, the George Reeves incarnation was always a tad too fascistic for my delicate sensibilities. (Incidentally, am I the only one to recently discover George Reeves died by a bullet wound that may have been suicide? Holy irony, Batman.) Then again, I’ve never been much of a Superman guy; in my formative years it was always Batman and Spiderman, both of whom were funnier, darker and more human.

And how can we forget how outstanding the other bad guys were? Burgess Meredith as The Penguin, anyone? Yes, please. And don’t overlook Frank Gorshin as The Riddler. This trio comprises an untouchable criminal triptych that could not possibly be improved upon. For irrefutable evidence of this claim, please appreciate this clip from the movie, wherein we have Penguin fencing with Batman (making appropriate Penguin noises), Romero’s brown hair obvious under the wig and The Riddler doing some bad ballet on board a boat: it’s the sine qua non of caped-crusading camp. This is the all-in Battle Royale (with cheese), a brawl that involves all the assorted players, because duh. And the capper, when our hero saves the kitten from drowning with the winking send-off “Bon voyage pussy!”. Holy blissful extravagance, Batman!

But special mention must be made for Cesar Romero.

Anyone born after 1980-ish probably can’t appreciate this, but for people of my generation, Cesar Romero was The Joker. I sort of recall reading the occasional comic book but don’t have any special memories of how he translated on the page. I do have memories of the laugh, the green hair, the purple suit and the unhinged antics that were, at once hilarious and horrifying. What I did not recall, since I was a kid at the time, was how irredeemably,magnificently campy the show was.

Obviously Jack Nicholson was tapping into that campy vibe in 1989, but his role, however amusing, was over-the-top in ways that don’t age particularly well (kind of like the movie itself). Not many people would argue that Heath Ledger’s pitch-black, though still sardonic take was not a huge improvement. Nevertheless, before we crown Ledger’s uncanny performance the final word on the subject, we are obliged to return to the beginning. Have you forgotten how unbelievably perfect Cesar Romero was? Check it out:

Any questions?

Maybe it’s the fact that he was a bit older. It also didn’t hurt that his Cuban/Italian descent imparted a subtly exotic, almost indescribably outré edge. This is The Joker I grew up with, and it’s the only arch villain I can imagine actually rooting for — as a child or an adult. Just reading about Romero makes me happy. Check this out. The fact that he refused to shave his mustache — his decades-old trademark — for this role is so genius I can scarcely handle it: like the Joker himself, a recalcitrant rascal. How brilliant is that? The most incorrigible fiend played by an incorrigible, image-conscious movie star with prima donna tendencies? Bliss. And extra marks: if you look at photos or, if you’re smart, find some clips online, you can totally see the impossible-to-conceal ‘stache in each episode. Truth is always odder and better than even the best fiction.

And lest we forget (how could we forget?) there is Catwoman. Can I get an Amen? I’m a rather huge fan of Lee Meriwether, and everyone has to appreciate the incomparable Eartha Kitt (from Season Three). But let’s not kid ourselves here: it’s all about Julie Newmar. The young me would like to say, Thank you, Catwoman. The adult me would like to say, Will you marry me, Ms. Newmar?

Her perfection as Catwoman, as a woman, period, would suffice, but seeing how she has remained engaged, politically active, and completely down to earth (and appreciative, after all these years, of her fans) makes her as attractive, eight decades on, as she’s ever been. (Swoon.)

And don’t think I’m sleeping on Adam West. I won’t (can’t?) compare him to the subsequent Batmen played in the various movies, but kind of like with The Joker, he did it first and he did it best. He is Batman. A gentleman, a humanitarian, a…dork. His (West’s) goofiness can’t be overstated, and that humanity gives the character a distinct vulnerability. How can you not love this guy?

In addition to everything else, it’s possible that Batman was the first series to jump the shark (or at least repel the shark). Consider the clip, above: obviously the series was straining to keep its edge (or appeal, or whatever) and by Season Three the producers/writers seemed to understand what may have worked in 1966 was not registering in late ’67. The world, of course, was changing. Hence, we have the most camptastic — and transcendent — few moments of TV I can ever recall watching: Batman and Joker surfing. With bathing suits over their costumes In shark-infested waters, obviously. (And a handy, if obligatory bottle of Shark Repellent, because OBVIOUSLY.) With real surfers cheering from shore. This is a line in the sands of Santa Monica: you’re either with me or against me. I defy you to watch this clip and not join the party.

Super heroes aren’t real and all of us are getting older every second, but retaining a child-like joy for certain things is still the best way to keep age and cynicism at bay. For that alone, Adam West was not only a hero, but a unique and wonderful American icon.

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