Similar to Doctor Who, where different generations have "their Doctor", Batman fans will always have "their Batman". Some will have grown up with Tim Burton's gothic take on the Caped Crusader or Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight, but it seems that I am of that age whose first introduction to Batman was the campy and colourful world of the original TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward.
For me, Batman was coming home from school and making sure my homework was done in time for 6pm so I could watch it on Channel 4. Those cliffhanger episodes that always ended with the narrator saying "Will the dynamic duo escape the evil clutches of (insert name of random villain)? Find out next week, same bat-time, same bat-channel".
The movie was originally released between the first and second series of the TV show, and is therefore a curious article within the Batman cinematic canon and somewhat of a cult classic as a result. There is no origin story here, no explanation of why Bruce Wayne likes to dress up with a teenage boy and fight crime, no mention of the death of his parents. Batman and Robin here are not vigilantes but actually fully deputised members of the Gotham City police department.
It would be fair to say that this is the polar opposite to Nolan's take on The Dark Knight. Where Nolan looked to ground his Gotham in reality and creating a Batman that could exist within the real world, this film embraces the fact that it is based on a comic book - with the emphasis on comic - and isn't afraid to let the audience know that they are in on the joke too. Just look at this disclaimer that appears before the opening credits:
ACKNOWLEDGMENT We wish to express our gratitude to the enemies of crime and crusaders against crime throughout the world for their inspirational example. To them, and to lovers of adventure, lovers of pure escapism, lovers of unadulterated entertainment, lovers of the ridiculous and the bizarre--- To funlovers everywhere--- This picture is respectfully dedicated. ---THE PRODUCERS.
There is no denying that this film is sublimely ridiculous. It begins with an action setpiece that features Batman hanging from a ladder attached to the Batcopter fighting a rubber shark before defeating it with a handy can of anti-shark repellent bat-spray. It establishes a world where Batman combines detective skills with an amazing array of gadgets for any occasion, but is played with a "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" with the characters quick to acknowledge the absurdity of the situations but still playing it completely straight, Airplane-style. For example, when Batman reverses the polarity to destroy an incoming torpedo and the Penguin, rather matter of factly, deduces that "he must be using a super energy reverse polariser".
Due to the alarming incompetence of the GCPD (Commisioner Gordon is blissfully unaware that so many super criminals are out causing havoc), the Dynamic Duo are forced to defend Gotham from a full rogues gallery of Arkham Asylum's finest in the form of The Penguin, The Joker, The Riddler and Catwoman. Where some superhero movies have suffered from having too many villains (cough, Spider-Man 3, cough) here the quadrilogy of villainy have formed the United Underworld and have their Dr. Evil scheme to hold the world's security council to ransom for $1 billion dollars, and each of them get enough screen time to make an impression, particularly Lee Meriweather's Catwoman. And so the stage is set for a battle of wits and fists between the forces of good and evil, yet there is never really any surprise in the eventual outcome. The only time Batman and Robin find themselves in danger when their helicopter is falling to the ground, and even then they rather luckily fall on a giant pile of foam rubber after landing at Gotham's annual foam rubber wholesale convention.
There is no villain as physically imposing as Bane to be found here. Indeed all the villains are replaced by stunt guys for the classic fight scenes where punches land a mile away from the face but are coveed up with a handily placed "Pow!" or "Kersplat!". Neither are they a match in terms of cunning. Cesar Romero's Joker is more manic than the maniacal turn of Heath Ledger (and wouldn't even shave off his moustache. No really, look closely at his make-up!) and The Riddler's skywriter Polaris missiles provide really bad jokes rather than actual clues. Take a look at this:
Batman: [reading a riddle] What has yellow skin and writes?
Robin: A ball-point banana!
Batman: [reads the second riddle] What people are always in a hurry?
Robin: Rushing people... Russians!
Batman: So this means...
Robin: Someone Russian is going to slip on a banana and break their neck!
Batman: Precisely, Robin!"
The logic shown here is astounding! There is always a danger that this camp comic take on the Caped Crusader could go horribly wrong (just look at Batman & Robin for example) but in this case it strikes just the right balance, helped hugely by the performance of Adam West. There's certainly no way that Christian Bale's Batman could have pulled off the line "Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!". West seemed to have visited the same acting school as William Shatner, with both actors synonymous with iconic roles and their acting synonymous with their unique style of line delivery. He has a playful glint in his eye, realising the silliness but always treating the source with respect, and creates a fun paternal chemistry with his 'ward' Dick Grayson (rather than the other dubious relationship many believe is going on between them) and Burt Ward just manages to keep the boy wonder on the right side of annoying with his endless stream of "Holy..." quips and audience-related questions that allow West to exposition ally forward the plot.
It is obvious that the character of Robin would not fit into the Nolan-verse as would the majority of the the 1966 incarnations of these characters. Batman for many people has now been defined by Christopher Nolan's take on the material but for those looking for a lighter take on The Dark Knight then you won't do any better than taking a little trip to this particular Gotham... emphasis on the "ham".