Sunday, June 11, 2017

'To the Batpoles': A tribute to Adam West and his impact on Batman's legacy

The late Adam West played Batman on TV for only three seasons and one feature film in the late 1960s, but it's a role to which he will be forever linked. His performances and the zany TV series are so iconic their influence has impacted the way fans, the media and critics have perceived the superhero.

West died Friday at age 88.
What do you say when a part of your childhood is gone? In my case, I must say a simple thanks.

Outside of seeing Batman in a comic book or his image plastered on a product or toy, West's Batman and the TV show was my first in-depth exposure to the Caped Crusader as a boy. I wouldn't have remained as hooked as I am to Batman if it weren't for West and the character's impact on my childhood.

For many fans, millionaire Bruce Wayne and Batman stops and ends with Adam West.

As a TV series, "Batman" was, and is, tongue in cheek — engaging and and colorful enough to attract young children (and the young at heart) while the circumstances and dialogue were played for laughs for the older kids and adults.

Through it all, West took his role seriously; he delivered his lines in an earnest fashion and exuberantly jumped into the fight scenes. Without West taking the role so seriously, Batmania merchandising never would have existed and the series certainly wouldn't continue to be as memorable as it is. His deadly sincere performances are instrumental to what makes the TV series so hysterical.

Who hasn't given it at least a second to consider joining the Dynamic Duo as they slide down the Batpole or race to the Batmobile thanks to West's line delivery? That's the power he brought to playing Batman and Bruce Wayne.

West's Wayne and Batman are men of supreme intelligence — often to the point of being ludicrous — but then again, that was the point of the show. In short, he played both roles with heart and sincerity.

His handsome millionaire Bruce Wayne is a debonair, cultured man who always wants the best for his ward, Dick Grayson (Burt Ward). A ladies man no doubt, Wayne was grounded enough to let his sweet yet ignorant Aunt Harriet live in "stately Wayne Manor."

Adam West's impact on the onscreen Batman

West called his take on Batman "the Bright Knight."

The Caped Crusader never skirts danger, but is always concerned about the safety of the citizens of Gotham City. Batman and Robin jump into a fight when the time called for it, but at the end of the day (or two-part episode, as the first two seasons were presented) Batman seeks reform for the even the most dastardly of his Rogue Gallery of Villains.

TV's Dynamic Duo, actors Burt Ward (left) and the late Adam West, in this promotional photo,
pose by the Batpoles their characters used to access the Batcave in the TV series "Batman."
Lately on my Cary's Comics Craze blog, I have been posting op-eds lamenting the loss of what I've come to call the compassionate Caped Crusader.

"My Batman" is far more grim and complex than West's, yet far less brutal than Ben Affleck's and not nearly as neurotic or distant as Michael Keaton's. The key to my preferred take on Batman — what I've read in the comics from the 1970s through the mid-1990s — is a complicated Caped Crusader with just a dash of the Dark Knight.

When it comes right down to it, the heart of "my Batman" resonates with what West brought to the character — an intelligent, highly trained brawler who looks out for the weak and downtrodden. West's Batman — and mine — is a man who saves lives, not takes them.

West's connection to the Caped Crusader lasted well past his three seasons on "Batman."

He voiced the superhero in cartoons and even reprised his role in a live-action TV special, "Legend of the Superheroes," in 1979. Just in November, West and Ward reunited to voice the Dynamic Duo in the straight-to DVD/Blu-ray animated movie, "Batman: The Return of the Caped Crusaders," which also brought Julie Newmar back to playing Catwoman.

(It's unknown what the plans are now for the follow-up, featuring William Shatner as Two-Face, a villain that never, er, faced off against the Dynamic Duo on TV, but I've read it's supposed to be in post-production and should come out this year sometime.)

In "Return," West's voice is a bit shaky at times, but his generally strong voice is as unmistakable as ever. Newmar's Catwoman, during a scheme in a TV episode to steal various voices for ransom, said she'd never rob Batman of his rich baritone because when he told her "Catwoman — you're under arrest," all was right with the world.

The "Batman" TV series was a double-edged sword for the character. While the runaway appeal of the series basically saved Batman titles from being scrapped by DC Comics, its subsequent legacy kept filmmakers from believing they could bring a serious version of Batman to the big screen.

Starting with Tim Burton's "Batman" in 1989 (the first of two movies starring Keaton) through Affleck's current Batman (affectionately called Batfleck by fans), Gotham's guardian has been more Dark Knight than Caped Crusader.

The various onscreen incarnations of Wayne have veered far from West's earnest portrayal, usually playing the billionaire businessman as an obsessed brooder or loose cannon. Aside from Affleck and Christian Bale, no one actor has seemed to quite capture the easy charisma and charm that West brought to the role.

Decades after West gave up the cape and cowl, fans still came out in droves to see him in person.

I witnessed this at the 2016 Motor City Comic Con, when West made a rare combined convention appearance with Ward. I played dodge 'em with the backs of fans' heads just to get a glimpse of West signing autographs and chatting with fans. But the crowd remained too thick and the lines too long for me to even have a half-a-chance at capturing a decent photo. And the prices that Team West wanted for his signed photographs were too rich for my blood.

The late Adam West poses with a replica of the Batmobile soon after
getting his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in early April 2012.
Behind him and to the left is George Barris, who created the Batmobile for the TV series.
The "Batman" series has become "a thing" in my household.

My daughters, ages 8 and 13, love to binge-watch it with me. My teenager "gets" the silliness, but she gets wrapped up in the high-energy episodes just as much as her younger sister does. (And Burt Ward has become her first celebrity crush — like Julie Newmar was one of mine.)

So, thanks, Adam West.

Thanks for your important part in the legacy of the Batman character. Thanks for entertaining me, introducing me to the world of a superhero I adore and the bonding moments and laughter I've shared with my daughters watching your show.

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