Six Things That Batman ’66 Changed For The Better

[With any long-running, oft-adapted character, there will inevitably be actors who become closely identified with them, who, in effect, ‘become’ them for a generation of fans – and out of all said characters, few have seen more of these than Batman. Just about everyone has ‘their’ Batman.

Michael Keaton is still mine. Kevin Conroy embodies him for many others. For younger generations of fans, he may be Christian Bale, or Ben Affleck.

And yesterday, a Batman died.

For those of you who haven’t heard the news, Adam West has just passed on. He died from leukemia at age 88.

I was greatly saddened to hear of this. My own history with West’s Batman is not particularly extensive – I first saw Batman: The Movie back in college, and watched the actual show only recently – but his uniquely humorous, straight-faced portrayal has still left a deep impression on me. More than that, he himself had always struck me as being a genuinely nice guy in real life, a gentle, funny man who seemed to deeply appreciate having had the chance to portray such a terrific character – he once called himself “the luckiest actor in the world”.

He lived a long life, and died as the patriarch of a large and loving family. He continued being involved in Batman-related projects up until the very end. His was a life well-spent that left a positive impact on millions of people – and though he is no longer with us, I have no doubt that his body of work will continue to affect millions more to come.

As it happened, I had already written this article, which I have been tinkering with and fine-tuning for quite a while now. This seems as appropriate as any a time to post it. I hope you will enjoy it as a tribute to the man’s work, along with that of the many other talented men and women that helped make the ’66 Batman the cultural milestone that it remains even today.

The Bright Knight is gone, but he will never truly leave. Farewell, old chum.]

 

I know, I know, it seems like I post nothing but Batman stuff these days – when I post anything at all, that is. And for the record, I was a touch reluctant to write this one. ‘Really now,’ I told myself, ‘enough’s enough! Sure, you love Batman and all, but for pity’s sake, give it a rest!’

And I will – honest. But right now, I’ve just finished catching up on the ’66 Batman show, all 120 episodes plus the movie, and I have things I’d like to say about it.

It would be pointless to review Batman here. It’s one of those bits of pop cultural phenomena that has been absorbed so deeply into the public consciousness that everyone knows it, even if they think they don’t. Even to this day, mention Batman to some people, and they will automatically think of this show first.

And some other people hate it for that. They have for many years. They think it tarnishes the legacy of the character, and of comics in general. ‘Batman is not a clown’, they say. ‘Batman is dark, dammit! He’s not all ‘Biff Bam Zowie’; he’s a complex, brooding character with a tragic backstory and blah blah blah’. And in that respect, of course, they’re right.

But Batman can be a clown. He is flexible enough to be almost anything. And there is no disgrace in clownery, so long as you know it for what it is – and Batman was always perfectly aware of what it was. It was a comedy, a farce, a spoof. It was pop art incarnate. But it was never just that.

For all the (in the words of Adam West) “Theater of the Absurd” that it indulged in, it was still a superhero show, and the most high-profile and popular one that had (or has) ever been produced. That meant that whatever original treatments it came up with for its concepts and characters would inevitably influence creators further down the line. And whether you like Batman or not (and I do), I doubt that anyone could question that these are largely positive. Indeed, I’d say they’re almost universally so.

Do I hear scoffing from the peanut gallery? Well, don’t think that I would make such a statement without some good examples to back it up. So – atomic batteries to power! Turbines to speed! Here are six things that were changed for the better by Batman ’66.

Batgirl

I suppose I might as well start with the best-known example. What does Batgirl owe to Batman? Well… everything, really.

Mind you, that’s not 100% accurate. There was a Batgirl before the show rolled around, but she was very, very different – and not in a good way. In point of fact, the original Batgirl is one of my least favorite characters ever, and that’s saying something, coming from me. I’m very much a ‘there are no bad characters’ kinda guy, in the normal run of things – and, in fact, there are writers who have apparently gone on to do good things with her, so yeah, great. I’m all about that untapped potential

But it truly was untapped, because honestly, in her original early Silver Age version I can’t think of a single good thing about Batgirl. Her name was Betty Kane, she was the niece of Kathy Kane (AKA the original Batwoman), and while her aunt had a few things going for her, Betty was flat-out worthless. She was created purely as Robin’s distaff counterpart and love interest, and that was painfully obvious – all she did was moon over Robin and fail at fighting crime, because poor little her was so fragile and female and oh wasn’t Robin strong and studly and BLAGGGH. Maybe there are stories out there where she actually does something interesting, but I haven’t read any of them, let’s put it that way. Every good thing about this Batgirl came after she’d stopped being Batgirl.

Batman scrapped all that. They gave us a Batgirl worth taking seriously, even though she was surrounded by silliness. The Betty Kane version could have easily been retrofitted in, but the writers wanted to do their own version of things – and they did.

To start with, of course, she wasn’t Betty Kane anymore; she was Barbara Gordon, the Commissioner’s daughter – but that was small potatoes. In place of the earlier Batgirl’s thinly-disguised Robin drag, we got a sleek purple-and-yellow costume that actually looked better than Batman’s. In place of an out-of-her-depth 13-year old who piggybacked off her aunt’s resources, we got a confident young woman with her own personal set of bat-gadgets. In place of ‘oh Robin, save me’, we got a butt-kicking, resourceful lady detective who was more than able to hold her own with ‘the boys’.

In short, everything that we think of as classic Batgirl today came from the show (except for her origin story, but even in the comics, that was always more of an afterthought, anyway). She was the first lady of TV superheroines – without her popularity as an example, it’s entirely possible that such much-loved favorites as the Wonder Woman show might never have been green-lit. If it weren’t for her, and Yvonne Craig’s lively performance, the name Batgirl would still summon up images of ‘Batwoman’s pretty niece’ – and the world of comics would be much the poorer for it.

Mr. Freeze

Now here’s a somewhat less obvious one. I can already picture some of the fanboys blinking in confusion. ”Ang on a tick’, they are saying (these are British fanboys, for some reason), ‘I think you’ve got it wrong. Everyone knows that it was B:tAS that transformed Mr. Freeze; sure, he was on Batman, but that was the silly version that people did sod-all with for decades. What’s the story? Surely you are not losing your touch.’

A: thanks for asking, B: I certainly am not, and C: no, I haven’t gotten it wrong – although the situation is somewhat confusing, I’ll grant you that. To clear this up, let’s go back to the beginning.

The history of Mr. Freeze resembles an iceberg in many regards – high peaks followed by slippery slopes. Arguably, he’s on the latter at the moment, following a rather towering peak back during B:tAS – nowadays, people can’t think of much to do with him except ape/subvert that treatment – and he started on a similar slippy-slide directly after Batman, but he never would have gotten to any peak at all if it weren’t for being on the show.

You see, initially Freeze wasn’t even called Freeze. He was called ‘Mr. Zero’ (as in ‘sub-zero’, but still, not exactly a name that reeks with dignity, is it?), and didn’t even get a real name. He was just a ‘rogue scientist’ (they had a lot of ’em back then) who suffered an accident during an experiment, and that’s why he was stuck in the cold suit. He had only the one story that I’m aware of, and that actually ended with him being cured! Under normal circumstances, it’s likely that we would now look back at him in much the same manner as, say, Professor Radium or the Puppet-Master – a somewhat intriguing one-shot Bat-villain that never quite made the grade.

But then along came Batman, and its writers proved there was a bit more juice left in this ‘Mr. Zero’.

To start with, they wisely changed the name – Mr. Freeze was he, then and forevermore. As for the rest – well, lookit. Freeze made three appearances on the show, and each time was played by a completely different actor. The most ‘iconic’ ’66 Freeze is probably the Otto Preminger version from season two – you know the one, the blue bald guy with the flaming red eyebrows. Or perhaps you might be picturing the Eli Wallach version with the frosted hairdo.

But for some reason, the George Sanders version seems to get a bit lost in the crowd – maybe because he’s not as visually interesting, I don’t know. (Or possibly because Sanders didn’t interpret the character as broadly as his successors – he played the role more like a Bond villain, which I think worked pretty well, but perhaps was a bit at odds with the tone the show specialized in.) Regardless, for my money this Freeze is the best of the bunch – not just because he’s the first, but because I honestly think, despite not having heard it mentioned anywhere, that the writers for B:tAS must have been directly influenced by this version when they created their own Freeze, since there are some startlingly direct parallels between the two.

How so? Well, to start off, the Sanders and B:tAS versions are the only two to get actual names. Although more than one article online has erroneously given ’66 Freeze the modern name of Victor Fries, he was actually called Dr. Schimmel (first name unknown). Here’s where the parallels truly begin – Schimmel, like Fries, is a Germanic-accented scientist working in (one may presume) the field of cryogenics. (I’ve gone back and forth several times as to whether Fries’ accent could be described as German or not, but that’s the closest I can get to describing it, so… yeah.) Like Fries (at least, in his original ‘Heart of Ice’ appearance), he is consumed by the need for vengeance against the man who made him this way – in Fries’ case, his evil boss, in Schimmel’s, Batman (who interrupted him in the middle of an experiment and spilled freeze-chemicals on him during a fight). Heck, compare these two quotes:

Fries: Think of it, Batman. To never again walk on a summer’s day with a hot wind in your face, and a warm hand to hold. Oh yes, I’d kill for that!

Schimmel: No, you must pay for what you did to me, for forcing me to live like this – never again to know the warmth of a summer breeze, never to feel the heat of burning logs in wintertime! Revenge. That is what I need! Revenge! I will have revenge!

Uncanny, huh?

True, the whole romance angle isn’t there, but it’s kind of added in later by the Preminger/Wallach versions, both of whom have a romantic subplot as part of their stories. (As for the Preminger version, I’m pretty sure he directly influenced Fries’ signature bald head and pointy eyebrows.)

Of course, all these elements were dropped like a ton of bricks when Batman ended, and Freeze promptly continued his career as the relative nobody he’d been prior to being adapted – albeit now a slightly higher-profile nobody. It took several decades for a fresh set of creative talents to pick them up again, and incorporate them into the tragically villainous figure we all know now.

Not, mind you, that I’m suggesting the B:tAS writers were copycats or anything – there are enough obvious differences to make it perfectly clear that their version was an original creation. Still, it’s clear that without the ’66 show, Freeze never would have survived as a character in the first place, let alone shown the potential to become anything more than the generic bad guy he started out as. So if you like Victor Fries, then you owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Schimmel.

The Batmobile

This one is a touch more subtle. Naturally, the Batmobile was around long before the show – there are versions of it that go right back to the Dark Knight’s very first appearance. So one can’t really say that Batman popularized the Batmobile – it was always popular. However, there are aspects of it that the show did change, and which have remained in the limelight ever since.

The show’s Batmobile took cues from both the then-recent comics and the ones further in the past. The original Batmobiles were all big, burly vehicles, seeming more like battering rams on wheels than anything else – but that had recently changed. The ‘bat’s head’ design had been phased out in favor of a more ‘modern’ two-seater convertible, the focus switching more towards speed than power.

Batman‘s version effectively combined the two. I don’t know enough about cars myself to go into the design specs or anything (although it is well-known that the car was a modified ’55 Lincoln Futura), but suffice it to say that the ’66 Batmobile had prominent elements of both speed and power – it was a big, powerful-looking vehicle, but it was streamlined enough to make it convincing as something that could streak to the scene of the crime. Also, while most versions in the comics had up to that point been primarily a sort of blue-black (or just plain dark blue) the show’s version was unambiguously black, with a sleek, shiny matte finish. Ever since then, that has largely defined what we expect from a Batmobile – black, shiny, powerful and fast, a slim, sleek rocket on wheels (except, of course, for the Tumbler from the Nolanverse – but then, it was trying to be a conscious departure from what had come before. Even it was black and shiny).

There is, of course, something a little less subtle about it that was added – the ‘jet engine’ in the back. Subsequently, every Batmobile has had some version of this. If your Batmobile doesn’t at least have the capability to roar forward on a jet of flame, well then that just ain’t a Batmobile, my friend.

Catwoman

In some ways, this was actually one of the characters that was changed the least. Catwoman had always had a little thing going on with Batman, and so she did in the show. She’d always been kind of slinky and seductive and semi-sympathetic, and so she was in the show. All the basics were there.

However, what the show did change, and somewhat dramatically, at that, was her appearance – and appearances, for that matter, as Catwoman had actually not appeared in the comics for over a decade at the time Batman hit the air (writers were apparently afraid that she’d violate the Comics Code). So naturally, her ‘standard’ outfit was still as it was back during the Golden Age, i.e, the slinky purple dress and green cape.

Had the show gone with that look, therefore, it would not have been surprising; however, they went in an entirely different direction. Instead of a dress, she now wore a black catsuit, and this has become her iconic look (though, I admit, I have a bit of a soft spot for the original). People try her with different colors and such – I’ve seen her in purple, green, grey, even orange – but it always winds up going back to basic black.

This changed not just her look, but aspects of her character as well. Original-flavor Catwoman was, like most of Batman’s rogue’s gallery, a schemer, a planner, the leader of a gang – and, of course, that’s exactly how she was portrayed on the show. But there was a physicality to her now, an implicit athleticism, a dangerous sexiness. A dress can be for lounging around in, but a catsuit implies action and movement; it implies doing things yourself, and the more she did for herself, the less she needed to be the leader of a gang. So it’s not surprising that she was quickly brought back to her roots as a literal cat-burglar, where, with a few slight departures, she has remained ever since.

That wasn’t all, though – there are a few more subtle things. The claws, for instance – not only weren’t they there before, but she uses them in ways that were directly imitated in later adaptations (I speak specifically of the cutting-a-circle-through-glass bit, which would later become a favorite trick of the BtAS Catwoman). Also, while this is more metafictional than anything else, Julie Newmar’s unavailability during the third season led to the casting of Eartha Kitt in the role, meaning that the character not only switched actresses, but skin colors. Although Kitt was technically only a third African-American (her father was white, her mother was half-black, half-Cherokee), and didn’t specifically identify as ‘black’, such semantics didn’t stop her Catwoman from gaining a legion of black fans, then and subsequently. This in and of itself was good, of course – yay inclusivity! – but it also set an important example for future live-action superhero yarns, showing that comic book characters need not necessarily have their race set in stone – without Kitt, we probably would never have gotten such cinematic castings as Idris Elba’s Heimdall in Thor, or Michael Clarke Duncan’s Kingpin in Daredevil. (Of course, she also set a precedent which was almost certainly responsible for Halle Berry being cast as the character in the Catwoman movie, which many would argue was not a good thing, but whatever.)

Mad Hatter

This one is pretty simple. What is the Mad Hatter’s primary gimmick? Mind control, of course – he controls people’s minds using hats. Well, originally the Hatter did no such thing. The ’66 version was the first.

Mind you, it started out being quite different. The modern Hatter’s standard method of operation is what you might call a ‘hat-to-hat transfer’ – he has gizmos built into his own hat that let him control the mind of whoever is wearing another hat laden with said gizmos. There are variations, of course, but that’s generally how it works. In Batman, this was much less complex – his hat had a ‘Super Instant Mesmerizing Device’ built into it, aka a pair of googly eyes that popped out of the top and zapped its victims with rays that knocked them out. Not exactly what we’d call ‘mind control’ these days, but heck, it was called a ‘Mesmerizing Device’, so some form of hypnosis was clearly implied to be going on. (I think, in fact, the first villain on the show to achieve ‘true’ mind control was King Tut.)

Here’s the interesting thing, though – most of the changes I’ve talked about so far took place almost immediately, but not this one. The Hatter was a goofy hat-obsessed villain with no other gimmicks prior to the show, and he kept on being one after the show. It wasn’t until ’81 that the ‘modern’ Mad Hatter first appeared, complete with mind control. So, bit of a… delayed reaction, you might say, but still, the influence of Batman is pretty obvious.

Alfred

And finally, let’s wrap up with one that, in retrospect, may have been one of the most significant changes of all.

Alfred Pennyworth (or ‘Alfred Beagle’, as he used to be called) has always been at least a little bit awesome. Even in his very earliest days, when his role was mostly as the bumbling comic relief, he consistently managed to show grit, courage and determination when it really counted. He was sometimes a bit of a nitwit, but from a modern point of view it’s easy to see the roots of the fully fleshed-out character he would ultimately become.

The trouble was, nobody knew that at the time. Even if you liked Alfred, he had been ‘oh, that wacky Alfred’ for long enough that it was difficult to truly take him seriously. In fact, when the show debuted, he had actually been killed off in the comics, a situation that had stuck for two years worth of stories. (He did, at least, get a heroic death, killed in the line of action while saving the lives of his beloved employers. It was actually this sacrifice that led to the creation of what would one day become the Wayne Foundation – although, at the time, it was the ‘Alfred Foundation’, named and founded in his memory. ) His place in the Wayne household had been filled by Dick’s Aunt Harriet (who also made it on the show, of course, although frankly I wish she hadn’t), and while the character was far from forgotten, he was rapidly fading into the past. He wasn’t a fan-favorite, no one was clamoring for his return, things seemed to be carrying on perfectly well without him – if Alfred were to be saved, he would need a miracle.

Batman was that miracle. Their use of Alfred caused such a sudden surge of popularity for the character that he was swiftly resurrected. So, if nothing else, it saved his bacon.

More than that, though, it gave him a shot in the arm that has yet to wear off lo these many years later. For a long time, Michael Gough’s Alfred was the definitive live action version so far as I was concerned, and yeah, he’ll probably always be ‘my’ Alfred, if for no other reason than nostalgia – but Alan Napier has been giving Gough a serious run for his money ever since I started watching the show.

I kid you not, Napier’s Alfred is one of the best onscreen versions of the character I’ve ever seen. Not to say, mind you, that subsequent TV and movie versions haven’t also been awesome, but while most Alfreds spend the majority of their time puttering around behind the scenes and/or acting as Batman’s sounding board, this Alfred leaps into things feet first.

Napier’s Alfred was a man of action. True, he also spent a fair amount of time at the usual butlerly tasks, but the contrast between him and the previous comics version is astounding. Far from being the well-intentioned bumbler who saves the day by accident, Alfred was a useful and essential member of the team. He often went incognito on special assignments, he fielded communications on the Bat-Phone whenever Batman was incommunicado, he drove the Batmobile on several occasions, he rescued the Dynamic Duo from death traps, he got into a sword fight with the Joker and kicked his pasty rear – heck, he even played Batman himself more than once to give his boss an alibi! And all of this on top of (in the third season) playing Batgirl’s Man Friday as well. Not to mention also keeping the house and the Batcave clean, operating the emergency equipment, and making sure that Master Robin got his afternoon snack.

It is honestly not much of an exaggeration, therefore, to state that without Alfred, Batman and Robin’s careers would have come crashing down within a week or two. At the very least, their secret identities would not have survived very long. There have certainly been many subsequent incarnations of our Mr. Pennyworth who’ve been deeper and richer characters – but there’s been none I’ve seen who’ve been as active.

And indeed, the fact that they are deeper and richer characters can be traced directly back to Batman – I mean, I’m sure there were other factors as well, but none as obvious in retrospect. There had been onscreen Alfreds before, but never one like Napier’s, and as the Dark Knight came to depend on him more and more, so too did his comic counterpart, a process that has continued up to the present day.

So scorn the ’66 show if you will, but remember, without it, it is extremely doubtful that Alfred Pennyworth would have become the integral father figure/medic/mechanic/badass that he is today. Yes, he didn’t start there, but it was a major step in his evolution, and, indeed, survival. Without Batman, we might still be stuck with frickin’ Aunt Harriet instead. Think about that for a moment.

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2 Comments

  1. Hmmm…. After reading this, I have to wonder if it was the fond memories of the TV series that encouraged Hollywood to agree to greenlight the movies……

    • If by that you mean the original Batman movies, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. There were probably WB studio execs back then who were kids when the show was at its peak – and even if they didn’t watch it themselves, they’d definitely have remembered the gigantic amount of exposure it got. Nothing gets movies made faster than the possibility of replicating success.

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