Mention Batman to most people today and it is a fair chance that the image that the word will conjure up will be replete with darkness. A child who turned to fighting crime after seeing his parents gunned down in front of him. A billionaire with no friends, except a ward and a butler, who dons a cape at night and takes on crime in the guise of a bat in the city of Gotham, that is riddled with sadistic and eccentric villains like the Joker, Two-Face, Ra’as al Ghul and Scarecrow. Blame in on Chris Nolan and Frank Miller, but the Caped Crusader has a rather dark and depressing air about him.
Which is a bit of a pity, really. For, while there has always been a touch of darkness about Batman, the character was not all melancholy heroism. Indeed, anyone who followed Batman in the sixties and seventies (and even a part of the early eighties) will tell you that the man had a keen sense of humour and fun. Reading a Batman comic was more likely to make you smile than frown your eyebrows at the dark despair that confronted humanity.
And one of the reasons for this was the man many call the Bright Knight, Adam West, who passed away yesterday. He played the role of Batman in the very successful ABC series from 1966-68, and so popular was his interpretation of the role that for years afterwards, comic book writers and film makers continued to stick to the broad lines of the character the way West had played it.
Those who look at those Batman episodes now (bless you, YouTube) might find it almost comical, with Batman and Robin’s costumes being far from the super sleek kevlar avatars of today – in fact, West sometimes looked distinctly tubby in his Caped Crusader avatar. Special effects were limited, gadgets seemed bulky (the computer in the Bat Cave occupied an entire wall!), action at times seemed laboured and was studded with speech bubbles for sound effects of punches and the like (yes!). But one thing that will also strike you is the amount of bright colour and the snappy dialogue, with puns (especially from Robin) being the rule of the day. West’s Batman had dealt with death and sadness, but he had not become enveloped in them. He was somehow more like a James Bond in a bat costume – serious about his work but not at the cost of his sense of humour and essential humanity. He did not indulge in verbal jousts with villains – he just socked ‘em! And hey, it worked. Interestingly, West WAS offered the Bond role but refused it because he felt it was best played by a British actor (wonder what he would have felt about Daniel Craig!).
It was a different world then, some might say. And comic books were simpler – the villains were super bad, the heroes were super good. There were no shades of grey. Characters were relatively shallow.
Maybe they have a point. Adam West’s Batman did not seem to spend as much struggling with his inner demons and his relationships as Christian Bale’s did.
He just seemed more focused on fighting crime and taking down the baddies.
And seemed to actually LIKE his job. He was not grumpy or pretentious. In fact, his Batman seemed a whole lot more like you and me in a Batty costume – no massive muscles, just some flab could be lost!
Adam West’s biggest contribution to Batman was the fact that he made the most human of all super heroes (Batman has no super powers, remember?) appear just that.
Surely that is not a bad thing, is it?
Rest in peace, Bright Knight.