This writer might previously have admitted that he feels somewhat out of step with his time. He has certainly been effusive in his contempt for the contemporary movie franchises clogging up the multiplexes – in its way, a dismal manifestation of rentier capitalism. Perhaps the most significant cultural fault line is that which separates people who take superhero movies seriously, and those who are mystified by popcorn tosh po-facedly masquerading as a window into the human condition. Nowadays we are expected to regard “origin stories” with the utmost seriousness, and to admire the conscientious mapping out and curating of a cinematic universe of characters, even though it saps all the mystery and wonder that make these stories interesting. This mainstreaming of weird, anoraky obsession is almost wholly without merit or charm, but it’s where our popular culture has ended up – an incontinent deluge of essentially interchangeable and quickly forgettable movies, and a concomitant conference circuit of stupendously risible self-importance.
One is given succour by the knowledge that others share this distaste for chadult entertainment, but let us explore the possibility that the problem lies with this writer. Any period of self-interrogation about his position on superheroes on screen always comes back to the same question. Have his formative experiences of this kind of material been irrevocably shaped by the Batman TV series created by William Dozier in the 1960s, and which starred Adam West, who died earlier this month?
There is something marvellous about Adam West’s Batman. As with the recently departed Roger Moore’s take on James Bond, West understood the intrinsic ridiculousness of his character. But sending up a part isn’t the same thing as knowing self-parody, a typically abject brand of humour all too prevalent today. Faithfully creating a role, however frivolous, requires committed participation, a task neither Moore nor West shirked. Yet one could perhaps argue that Moore, however brilliantly, was essentially executing a plotted trajectory for the Bond series within the evolving popular culture sensibility of the 1970s. West, on the other hand, was engaged in a herculean creative endeavour that defied logic and reason in the most benign and amiable fashion, his Batman a Dadaist avatar of riotous camp. He gloriously played up to the zaniness of Batman’s adventures, the villains ranged against him, and the weird and wacky means by which he averted disaster. The ability to be funny while serious and serious while funny is a rare trait that is essential to his portrayal of Batman, and it amplified the fun.
One of the factors that might have hampered his career is that it wasn’t clear how to cast him, but there was plainly greater depth to his talents than he was credited for – a depth that is arguably manifested in his 1994 autobiography Back to the Batcave, in which he draws on Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens and Horace. Airplane! was considered a pioneering piece of comic cinema, in which actors not noted for comedic roles delivered their lines straight, the humour coming from the absurd milieus and even more absurd situations. But Adam West was doing that with Batman almost 15 years previously, and his talents went further still. He might not have been a protégé of Stella Adler or Lee Strasberg, but that didn’t stop him from delivering the single finest ad-libbed line in show business history. Warning Robin about a set of cat ornaments produced by Catwoman, West’s Batman said: ‘Drop that golden pussy Robin – it may be radioactive’. It was with this kind of heroic suaveness that he brought dignity to something that is inherently undignified for any grown adult to be a part of. There are generations of people for whom Adam West will rightly be the most loved Batman, the greatest actor to have put on a silly costume.