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While modern audiences are definitely used to theaters with multiple comic book and superhero films playing at one time, that wasn't at all the case in 1966, when director Leslie H. Martinson broke ground by bringing the vividly colorful world of the beloved Batman TV series to the big screen after its bummer of a cancellation. Sadly, Martinson passed away today at the ripe old age of 101, but his work will live on, and I'm convinced rewatching Batman: The Movie should be required for filmmakers bringing superhero stories to theaters in the future.
For one, Batman: The Movie nails its tone and never strays far from its central purpose of entertaining audiences. While many consider this film and the 1960s TV series too campy and parodic, that isn't proof against the success of its intentions. This is a fun romp that lays on the laughs, to be sure, but it's also one that immediately begins with its central heroes in high stakes danger, and the movie keeps putting them back in such precarious situations. Granted, these aren't CGI-filled stunts that cost millions of dollars, and they're the kind of situations that can be solved with Bat-repellent, but there is an obvious balance maintained between the comedy and the action-adventure.
Marvel is arguably the best at delivering this balance across its cinematic universe, though the jubilant mirth from several of those films usually bows down to overwhelming effects sequences; some (but not all) of those sequences still keep the fun factor high, thankfully. Over on DC's side, you have overly serious filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, Tim Burton and Zack Snyder, or overt maniacs like Joel Schumacher. Any way you look at it, relatively few DC flicks have delivered an equal number of laughs, stunts and drama. (Note that I'm not saying this is necessarily a terrible thing, as almost every superhero films works in one way or another.)
Batman: The Movie should also serve as an inspiration concerning its storyline, which was a pretty brilliant mix of the TV show's best elements, the out-there-ness of 1960s Batman comics and Cold War paranoia. Yes, I know that using a dehydrator to turn a government organization into dust for the sake of kidnapping them is ludicrous and over the top, but it doesn't take any more than that sentence to explain the motivations of Catwoman, the Joker, the Riddler and the Penguin. Except, I guess, for that whole wanting to destroy Batman and Robin thing. The point is: there are no meandering B-plots or pointless excursions mucking things up.
Contrasting that simplicity is just about everything big budget comic book movies are doing now, where even tangential characters can have detail-filled backstories and exhaustive M.O.s. Of course, such complications reflect the long history and evolution of comics and fans' enjoyment of the unlimited expansiveness, but any outsider who just wants to watch a high-octane Marvel movie will inevitably get bombarded by Infinity Stone references, Thanos appearances and other connective tissues that make very little sense to anyone unfamiliar with the MCU's very specific context. The Dark Knight's Joker is perhaps the best exception to this, since Nolan knowingly allowed the character to exist as a chaotic tempest without grounded origins.
For a third point, let's take things back to the movie's instantly identifiable villains. While these big bads would appear one and two at a time on the small screen, Batman: The Movie delivers that most epic of team-ups with Cesar Romero's The Joker, Lee Meriwether's Catwoman, Burgess Meredith's The Penguin and Frank Gorshin's The Riddler. I mean, these actors are all spectacular already, and they only get more interesting when they're all in the same room, slightly more diagonal than everyone else. Catwoman and Penguin do the buik of the large scale evildoing, but that doesn't make the other pair any less excellent to behold for longer than an episode's length.
Now, you'll never hear me say anything negative about Tom Hiddleston's Loki, who would be a fantastic villain in a project of any quality. But we have all aired our grievances about overloaded messes like Spider-Man 3 and Iron Man 2, to name a few, for dumping multiple one-dimensional baddies on audiences. Too often, we get multiple villains whose actions and schemes don't intertwine and thus feel like they came from different projects. Not so much of a problem with the pre-Nolan Batman movies and the X-Men films (among others), but it's the future we're worried about. A delicate balance is just as important with villainy as it is everything else, regardless of whether there is one person or four people trying to destroy the city.
I could go on, but that would run the risk of just sounding like I'm merely complaining about every little thing, rather than seeking out a better path for today's superhero storytellers to follow. As you might imagine, I'm super excited for the upcoming Batman '66 feature, which would seemingly hit all the points I so desire. And I dare to dream that LEGO Batman and Spider-Man: Homecoming will also win me over completely. (As will Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, especially without Ronan involved.) But there are a LOT of other films coming that don't automatically instill confidence, and I'm just saying a little Batman: The Movie playing while the scripts are being written wouldn't hurt anyone. While we're waiting on all that, go check out the pilot for Amazon's reboot of The Tick, which is another extremely even-handed adaptation.
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