Saturday, June 10, 2017

Too Much TV: A note on Adam West

You may have seen a news story the other day reporting that Batman had asked Catwoman to marry him in the latest issue of his comic book. Like a lot of things having to do with comic book heroes -- or, arguably, everything in non-print popular culture having to do with comic book heroes -- that probably doesn't happen without the Batman TV show starring Adam West, who died this weekend at the age of 88. You probably wouldn't be hearing or talking about all these comic-book movies being made today without that show, so credit it or blame it as you please. Batman, itself inspired by some sincere but incompetent movie serials from the 1940s, provoked an ongoing dialectic in which superhero media, with the defiant exception of The Lego Batman Movie, defines itself as the antithesis of the 1966-8 series. For all that the Marvel movies in particular promise the sort of "fun" their DC competition has struggled or refused to provide, it's all "laugh with" fun rather than the "laugh at" fun that made Batman contemptible for generations of comic-book fans. But is that distinction justified? A few days ago I saw a documentary about superheroes in which some talking head testified that, as a child, he took Batman in deadly earnest, impatient between episodes to know how the hero would escape the latest death trap. If comics fans resented reminders of the old show as time went on, it was more because superhero comics had grown more ambitious (or pretentious), and the fans had become proportionately less tolerant of disrespect, than because Batman itself was a mockery of the superhero genre as it was in 1966, when Stan Lee's written narration on the pages of the supposedly more progressive Marvel Comics was not so different in its self-conscious pomposity from William Dozier's spoken narration on the TV show.

West's career probably suffered from the resentment of comics readers who grew up to become filmmakers, while the wider culture, perhaps never sure whether the show was the way it was on purpose or not, judged West a bad actor. Having seen a fair share of his other work, from early TV appearances on westerns to his acclaimed supporting role in Michael Tolkin's The New Age (1994), I can't say that West was a great actor, but Batman transformed his limitations into strengths, while his interaction with Julie Newmar as Catwoman in particular revealed a gift for comic timing that any unprejudiced observer will acknowledge, while sparking what had always been potential between the two characters since their first encounter in 1940 into a lit fuse that has burned intermittently for half a century. In Batman West achieved something genuinely great that he either couldn't do or wasn't allowed to do again. His most obvious limitation was an inability to reinvent himself the way William Shatner, on the opposite side of the same coin, has done. Shatner transformed himself into an almost folkloric figure by taking on the persona of a mountebank ham actor, so that the limitations of his performances as Captain Kirk became extensions of the barnstorming Shatner personality, an entertainment in its own right. But Adam West's futile lobbying for inclusion in Batman movies only made him look pathetic, and he never really became more than a nostalgia act, though some saw his final return to his one great role to voice a cartoon movie last year as a vindication. For in fact, while some comics-shop denizens no doubt still resent the old show, a recent backlash against the "grimdark" tendencies expressed most obnoxiously, to many observers,  in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, points toward a fresh appreciation of West's achievement. Nostalgia, no doubt, will work wonders also. Someday a new generation may watch Adam West as Batman without resentment or contempt, and then history will decide how good he really was.

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