Making a case for Adam West, who never had to say 'I'm Batman' to prove his mettle
In an episode of The Big Bang Theory where he played himself, Adam West joined in on a conversation with Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki), Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) and Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar) to decipher who was the best Batman. Listening to the boys argue endlessly, West breaks the impasse by saying that even his poodles knew that [Christian] Bale is overrated. West, who played Batman in 1960's television series, died at 88 after battling leukemia, was perhaps the first name that came into the hearts and minds of millions across the world the moment they heard the word ‘Batman.’ The manner in which the late actor settled The Big Bang Theory fan boy argument is perhaps the best memory that the ‘real’ Batman could have left behind. When Howard mocks him point-blank for thinking how could be ahead of Bale, the man who personified ‘I’m Batman’, West just smirked and said, ", I showed up, people knew I was Batman."
In the era before the Christopher Nolan films transformed cinematic superheroes into long-standing sufferers of existential angst, superheroes would usually be interpreted in a very matter-of-fact way. They rarely grappled with anything that transcended the boundaries of obviousness and, on the rare occasion, even if they had to, it was only up until a certain point. You could be Superman – arriving on planet earth from a different world and had superhuman powers – but this did not confound you in any way. There was never an “action philosophy” or a survivor’s answer that guided them; they simply strapped it up. Saving the world was akin to a walk in the park. This state of mind reflected in not only in the way West’s Batman was portrayed, but also how the series that ran for over two years across 120 episodes interpreted the caped-crusader. Ostensibly a crime series, the show was in fact, campy, tongue-in-cheek and “a true situation comedy".
As compared to Nolan’s films, Batman here looked absurd and played for the laughs. Cast by producer William Dozier, who also did the bombastic narrator voice-over, after he was seen in a James Bond-esque avatar in an advertisement, West became famous for keeping a straight face while delivering serious lines in hilarious situations. Even in the midst bright, onomatopoeic visual effects such as "POW!”, "BAM!", "ZONK!", etc plastered over the action on screen, initially used as a money-saving device, or Burt Ward as Robin shouting his ‘Holy **** Batman!’ catchphrase, West continued to be Batman in all seriousness.
By the time Burton got around to making Batman (1989) the concept of Batman/Bruce Wayne had undergone a sea of transformation. Following Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) Batman was no longer the “eccentric Gotham City tycoon Bruce Wayne [who] dons tights to fight crime.” In Miller’s four-issue comic-book miniseries Batman, at 50, has long given up fighting crime but returns to his old vigilante self and included a plot-line where the president, Ronald Reagan, is briefed about the events in Gotham by Superman and the former even suggests that Superman may have to arrest Batman. Burton was heavily influenced by the dark tone of both the comic books and keeping that in mind the Batman as Adam West knew was going to be a thing of the past. By the time the iconic Adam West television series debuted in India in the mid-1990s, there had already been the two Tim Burton Batman films that featured Michael Keaton and talks were on for Batman Forever (1995) that would feature Val Kilmer as Batman. Even though the memory of ‘summer of Batman ‘89’ where Keaton, Jack Nicholson as The Joker along and Prince’s original soundtrack album changed the way you saw Batman was still fresh, the series came as a respite for an entire generation of school kids who grew up on Batman comics. It was difficult for them to adjust to the level of ‘darkness’ that Burton’s Gotham City explored but West’s Batman that was neatly nestled between Keaton and the classic image of Batman from the DC Comics easily rekindled fond memories.
As expected with every actor who successfully portrays any popular fictional character, West was never able to shrug the Batman tag. Although post-Batman West featured in numerous television shows and films, and was also considered to play James Bond but refused on the grounds that Bond ought to be played by a British actor, West was Batman. He later even became the voice of Batman for the CGI-animated short Batman: New Times. The thought of playing Batman was so intrinsic to West that he considered himself to be an automatic choice to reprise the role in Tim Burton’s film version. The fact that he was almost 60 at the time notwithstanding, West was reportedly when he wasn’t offered the lead. Unlike the Burton or Nolan’s Batman films, West’s simplicity endeared him to fans across the globe. Almost a precursor to the manner in which Batman (Christian Bale) ‘disappears’ at the end of the trilogy to lead a regular life, West’s while portraying Batman knew that in the end, like David Lehman’s poem Existentialism suggests, “It’s same old hard earth, and heaven’s as remote as ever” and never really bothered exploring the so-called greater themes. Much like the manner when Nolan’s Batman Begins hit the screens the memory of Burton’s Batman made you feel like a little kid glued to the TV, Adam West will continue to be the archetypal Batman for millions… after all, to quote Igor Stravinsky, one lives by memory and not by truth.