Sunday, June 11, 2017

Adam West, The Fun Batman, R.I.P.

When asked which incarnation of Batman is my favorite...I usually answer with a composite that exists in my imagination: a Jim Aparo design, wearing a bright blue and grey batsuit, with Kevin Conroy's voice...driving the Batmobile from the 1989 movie. If that's too cerebral, I'll say either the 1989 Michael Keaton Batman or the Batman: The Animated Series Batman.

And if that question is followed-up with, "What'd you think of that old Batman TV show? The one with the 'Pow!' 'Bam!' 'Zowie!'?"

"Oh, do you mean the one with Adam West? That was fun. He fought the Joker in a surfing contest..."

THAT episode - "Surf's Up! The Joker's Under! " is considered a low point of the series, where it just surrenders to becoming the comedic spoof that it's detractors were accusing it of being - rather than the light-hearted Adeventure-Comedy-Mystery series it appeared to aspire to be early in it's first season - a 60's counterpart to 50's adventure shows like Zorro, The Lone Ranger and The Adventures of Superman...and yet, seeing Batman and The Joker appear in a sendup of 60's Beach Party movies neatly encapsulates the tone of the series in general: this is meant to be a fun Batman show. Adam West will forever be known as The "Fun Batman".

As an actor, Adam West's range went from "Bruce Wayne" to "Batman" and "Adam West" in between. That...halting...way..of speaking..isn't exclusive to the Caped Crusader. You can try digging deep into his pre-Batman work and come to the conclusion that Batman was a role Adam West was destined to play. He always looked more at-ease in the part than any of the other live-action Batman actors. You could argue he had it easier, since a purple leotard and cardboard mask doesn't weigh as much as the molded rubber suits worn by the film Bat-actors...but Adam also wore a utility belt that looked like it was manufactured by Fisher Price or Playskool...and wore a bat-emblem on his chest that looked like an iron-on transfer of the kind that came bundled with a sheet of stickers. He also couldn't be shown beating up villains without the use of psychedelic onomatopeia super-imposed over every punch: "BIFF!" "BAM!" "POW!" "KA-POW!" "OUCH!" "ZOWIE!"...as if perhaps constant exposure to doses of multi-colored gases from the Penguin's umbrellas, the Joker's squirting flowers, the ink in the Riddler's riddles or Catwoman's kitty litter was having an effect on Batman, Robin and Batgirl's senses; they could see the sounds made during their brawling!

And yet, his Bruce Wayne is actually still the best Bruce Wayne I've seen in live-action...there are a lot of episodes of that show that I found terribly boring, usually the ones that introduced new villains created for the series, like Lord Fogg (even West admitted in his memoirs to being puzzled as to why the show didn't introduce more villains from the comics - like Catman or Two-Face), but when it was good, it was really good and I was entertained. I remember watching reruns of the show for the first time in the late-Summer/Fall of 1989 - when it was brought back into circulation to capitalize on the new wave of "Batmania" after Tim Burton's Batman became a monster hit. By the time you get to the low-key Green Hornet crossover with Bruce Lee as Kato, it felt like the show had gotten stale...then Yvonne Craig pops up as Batgirl and injects a shot in the arm that helped the last season wrap up without a whimper and making you wonder what a 4th season would look like...on a different network..with just Batman & Batgirl..with Chief O'Hara and Robin written out..as per alleged network suggestions....

I think Adam West always felt slighted that he never got to appear in any of the modern films, not even in the kind of cameos that Stan Lee does for Marvel Studios films. On the other hand, his career comeback came from appearing in two cartoon series during the 90's: in "Beware The Grey Ghost", an episode of Batman: The Animated Series...and as himself in "Mr. Plow", an episode of The Simpsons. Next thing you know, he's getting work that winks back at his past credits, yet allows him to show off some comedic timing..he became cool. Then you see him doing guest-star spots in live-action 90's TV shows like Goosebumps, The Adventures of Pete and Pete and Politically Incorrect, or lending his voice to more cartoons like Johnny Bravo and Family Guy, playing a stylized, exaggerated caricature of himself..and suddenly he's cool enough as Adam West that he's won over a new generation that may not have even seen a single episode of his Batman but know him for playing "Mayor West" or just a Hollywood legend that makes appearances at conventions without having to wear a Batman costume...which he had to do during the 70s and 80s to stay afloat, financially.

I think his last role might be the sequel to the direct-to-video cartoon movie Batman: Return of The Caped Crusaders. That was a pastiche of the TV show, featuring his surviving co-stars Burt Ward and Julie Newmar. The sequel had cast William Shatner as the voice of Two-Face. I'm sure it'll be fun to hear Adam West as Batman for one last time.

Adam West, R.I.P.

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