Remembering Adam West, the First Best Batman
My 18-month-old daughter is suddenly very into superheroes. Every night before bed we do story time; this week she’s become obsessed with a board book called My First Batman Book. Since she likes when I sing the words of her books to her, I naturally began singing the theme to the classic 1960s Batman as part of our nightly ritual. And she liked that so much that this morning, for the very first time, I showed her the old show’s opening credits.
She watched it with her eyes wide, mouth agape. Each time it ended she immediately yelled “More! More!” We replayed it four times. She would have watched it more if I had let her. She was hooked.
A few hours later, I read that Adam West had died.
The timing was surreal and sad, but it also took a little of the sting out of losing my favorite childhood Batman. Adam West will live forever. As long as kids like superheroes, people will be watching his Batman.
The photo at the top of this piece comes from the filming of a 1967 public service announcement. It might make some modern Batman fans groan. Their Batman would never hold children’s hands and help them learn to cross the road safely. But Adam West’s Batman would, and did. He was a good guy, in the purest and truest sense of the phrase.
Adam West wasn’t the first man to play Batman onscreen — Lewis Wilson and Robert Lowery had portrayed the character in a pair of 1940s serials — but he was the first best Batman, the one who brought the character to full life in all of his complexities, who made him seem real and alive.
Today we live in a world where superheroes are ubiquitous. None of that would exist without the Adam West Batman, which proved that comic-book heroes could be translated, with huge success and popularity, to other mediums. Though Batman’s original run lasted just three seasons and a spinoff feature, its impact was enormous and long-lasting. For decades, and for better and worse, the West Batman’s style and tropes — bright colors, arch comedy, onscreen sound effects — became synonymous with comics.
Its success spawned the first wave of comic-book TV shows and big-budget movies. For a while after that, it fell out of fashion; comics grew darker and more serious, and so did the movies. Some fans resented the fact that people who didn’t understand their beloved medium only knew Batman and thought all comic books were like it. But as comics moved further into the mainstream, that stereotype faded, and people were able to once again appreciate Batman, and Adam West’s performance as the title hero, for what it was: The perfect Batman for its time and place.
When I was a kid, Batman reruns aired briefly on the Family Channel; I taped a few episodes, and watched them over and over. (My favorite was a two-parter about the Clock King that I learned today was co-written by Batman co-creator Bill Finger.) Although there were plenty of superhero cartoons in the 1980s, their animation was stiff and sluggish; they rarely matched the superheroic struggles I saw in my imagination reading old issues of Amazing Spider-Man and Detective Comics. The Adam West Batman was the first movie or show I ever encountered that really captured the frenzied, adrenalized energy of great superhero comics. The long fight scenes, with their stylized onscreen sound effects, jazzy score, and hard-hitting stunts, hold up to this day. For decades, naysayers dismissed the Adam West Batman as a joke, and the show was undeniably jokey at times. But the fight scenes were badass:
When I look back at these clips, and I think about how I felt about Adam West’s Batman when I was a kid, the word I keep coming up with is credibility. As goofy as the show sometimes was, Adam West was a credible Batman. I believed him. I believed he cared about justice enough to put on that wacky costume. I believed he was tough enough to beat the crap out of Joker’s goons. I believed he would rather die himself than blow up a family of ducks while trying to dispose of a bomb. And I believed that, under the right circumstances, this Batman would occasionally dance.
You can laugh at Adam West’s Batman. You can say he looked silly at times. And you know what? You would be right. West understood that the core premise of Batman, a wealthy socialite who spends his nights dressed as a bat fighting crime, was a little silly, and he embraced it. He and the show around him were purposefully campy and fun. Comics and superheroes should be fun. Not everything needs to be grim and serious.
I love Christopher Nolan’s Batman. I love Frank Miller’s Batman. And I love Adam West’s Batman too. He was the first Batman I fell in love with as a kid. And he’s already the first Batman my daughter fell in love with. And that makes me love him even more.
West considered his Batman the “Bright Knight,” a lovely inversion of the Dark Knight interpretation that has come to define the character in later years. That’s exactly what West was; a hero to aspire to and to admire. He was the guy you could trust to stop the bad guy — and to help you cross the street. Rest in Bat-peace, Adam West. And thank you.