Comics on Film: Saying Goodbye to Batman's Only 'Bright Knight,' Adam West

Comics on Film: Saying Goodbye to Batman's Only 'Bright Knight,' Adam West

Jun 20, 2017

The iconography of DC Comics’ Batman is one of the things that makes him, arguably, the most malleable and versatile character in all of popular culture. Depending on who you ask at any given time, Batman can be a lot of different things to a lot of different people. If you ask a 20-year-old today, he’s a formidable and perhaps even brutally physical vigilante, defined by his grim beginning as well as by the performances of Christian Bale and Ben Affleck. If you asked someone just walking out of a movie theater after watching Michael Keaton take on Jack Nicholson in the summer of 1989, he was a neurotic – and perhaps even partially psychotic – creature of the night, with a flair of intensity lingering just below the surface.

Ask a kid in front of their TV in 1966, though, and Batman was Gotham City’s number-one citizen and deputized law enforcement officer, always ready to dispense invaluable life lessons on grammar, the importance of culture and the necessity of politeness to his youthful ward, before answering his flashing red phone and riding a pole down to the Batcave to bring atomic batteries to power, and head out to save the day from a mustachioed Joker.

Last week, the world of Batman lost a powerful standard-bearer in actor Adam West, but more importantly, West leaves us a legacy he defined in Batman by giving us the brightest, most unique and unforgettable dimensions to an undisputed cultural icon.

Why the ‘Batman’ TV Series Will Never Die

Back in the mid-1960s, a DC Comics character had not appeared on television in live-action since the original run of The Adventures of Superman starring the late George Reeves was cut short by the lead actor’s mysterious and untimely death. While Reeves’ series was comparatively more serious and recognizable to the kids who’d grown up reading Superman in the comic books of the day, newly-hired Batman producer William Dozier conceived of a bit of a different take on DC Comics’ “Caped Crusader.” Instead of something resembling a more direct adaptation, Dozier envisioned more of a farce than anything else.

Pivotal to pulling off an effective execution of the more whimsical take on the characters would be an actor who had the ability to fully embody the concept. Reportedly, actor Adam West caught Dozier’s eye through a series of tongue-in-cheek Nestlé Quik commercials, where West played a spoofed version of James Bond known as “Captain Q.” Immediately attaching to the kind of camp and irreverence that the show was going for, West became the comically straight-laced, stiff paragon called for by the written material, and crafted a character and series of performances that could be seen in very different ways, simultaneously, by children and adults.

For kids earnestly watching Batman, West was the strong, serious lead hero who always had to try and find a way out of each nefarious plot hatched by Gotham City’s fiendish rogues’ gallery. For adults, West’s performance and penchant for comedic timing could often be riotous, particularly with clever sexual innuendo sailing comfortably over children’s heads, hitting older viewers in the funny bone with each reference to “curious stirrings in [his] utility belt” after encounters with Julie Newmar’s sultry feline fatale, Catwoman, and other encounters of the kind.

All of these elements, with the vital ingredient of West’s intense dedication to the material, helped launch Batman and his world into a widespread sense of “Batmania,” which wouldn’t strike again until Tim Burton and Michael Keaton took the reins of the character from 1989-92. In the years following the show's airing, West was also such a firm believer and cheerleader for it, that he openly and publicly advocated for it to be seen as a legitimate addition to the wider genre of pop art.

Batman: Rebirth

While the Batman character would transform once again in the following decades into a more recognizable conception to the way that Bill Finger and Bob Kane originally envisioned him in 1939, the popularity of the original TV show following its 1969 cancellation never really diminished. Held up from a home media release for years due to a rights dispute between the Batman character's owners at DC Comics/Warner Bros. and the show producers at 20th Century Fox, the Batman TV series was never made available on prevalent home media formats through the eras of VHS and DVD dominance.

Though West himself became a constant, beloved fixture of Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy and continued his association with Batman in a number of other memorable ways (with this writer’s personal favorite likely being the Batman: The Animated Series episode “Beware the Gray Ghost”), literal generations of fans never really got to see what all the fuss was about surrounding the original 1966 TV series. Then, finally, Batman: The Complete Television Series was released on DVD and the high definition Blu-ray format, along with VOD, in November of 2014. With the release came a full-HD remastering of every episode, allowing its vibrant color palette to “pop” off TV screens like never before.

With wider availability, new merchandising endeavors, constant public and convention appearances by West and co-star Burt Ward and a new appetite by WB and DC to keep the show alive in the minds of the public, Adam West’s Bright Knight has been reborn as the legend he’s always been to the Batman-devoted, and has helped keep the most undisputedly unique era in the character’s history alive and tangible.

“…Same Bat-time, Same Bat-channel!”

The loss of Adam West is a painful one. While he most certainly lived a full and vibrant life of 88 years, part of what makes his passing particularly difficult is the fact that he’s likely been a “TV dad” to generations of kids. From the '60s on up through the 2010s, West has embodied a vision and conception of Batman that’s accessible to anyone, from age 9 on up to 90.

While modern adaptations in other media for Batman often favor a much darker, harder-edged interpretation of the character as popularized by the likes of Tim Burton, Frank Miller, Christopher Nolan and now Zack Snyder, the efforts of William Dozier, writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. and Adam West help make the 1966 TV series (and its accompanying movie) the most absolutely memorable, unique and beloved deviation from “traditional” Batman ever committed to any medium the character has appeared in.

Although Mr. West has gone, thankfully we still get to absorb one final performance from him as the "Bright Knight." Last year, WB and DC Animation released a straight-to-DVD film entitled Batman: Return of the Caped Crusader, with West and Ward reprising their roles as Batman and Robin, respectively, while also featuring a returning Julie Newmar as Catwoman. Later this year, we’ll get to watch that film’s sequel, which even throws in William Shatner as Two-Face (a casting choice that seems like it may have been possible a year or so after the cancellation of Star Trek in 1970).

Beyond this, though, it’s time for us to reluctantly bid farewell to the most unique Batman to ever don the cape and cowl. Mr. West’s legacy is one of the Batman character’s brightest, most positive and quirky elements, and his series remains eminently entertaining to this day. It’s hard to imagine it running out of steam anytime soon, especially after its new wave of prominence, and you’d do well to keep it going by remembering when his Batman put a smile on your face.

Share an episode with a young kid, or watch some interviews with West and see the joy that both he and his fans took in his unique take on Batman. Even crotchety, former “Dark Knight-only” fans will likely have no choice but to bow to the greatness of the '60s series.

Either way, when you add together Batman’s iconography and Adam West’s pure, unique charisma, the only thing that both those added elements can equal is immortality. Well done, Caped Crusader, and from a greatful base of Batman fans, thank you so very much.

Stand down, Caped Crusader. Your work is finally done, and the eternal legacy of the Batman is inarguably better for it.

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