Sunday afternoon I turned on the television determined to find something new that I could watch with the kids. Left to their own devices my kids would watch the same cartoons over and over and over again. Even good ones (we had been watching The Tick and the old Fleischer Superman series) grow old very quickly on endlessly repeated viewings. As luck would have it, we caught the very beginning of the 1966 film Batman, based on the popular Batman television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. It ran for three seasons from 1966-68 and, needless to say, I was a fan. I was seven the year it began, the same age as my son Porter is now, and it quickly became my favorite TV show.
So I thought this would be perfect for the kids to watch with me, and in truth it was. Porter was particularly thrilled with the ham-fisted acting, the ludicrous plot and the oh-so cheesy special effects. It was fun watching it again through his eyes. But as I’d not seen it in quite some time, it was an interesting time capsule of the Sixties. The way they watered-down Batman as a do-gooder not only authorized by the City of Gotham, but embraced by both the establishment and the citizens seemed almost quaint given the dark vigilante themes explored in later versions of the Batman legend. The characters could not have been more square, establishment and unintentionally funny. In the midst of Vietnam, social unrest and political upheaval, television was escapist fare in way I don’t think it’s managed since that time. But despite adopting the bright, garish technicolors of the younger generation, everything about the show was correct and proper, reflecting not the growing baby boomer sentiments, but the established morals and mores of the generation before that, my parents generation, who were born before World War II. In fact, the way they portrayed young people on the show as hippies, beatniks and other unsavory stereotypes was downright hostile and seems almost laughable were it not such an unsubtle attack on them.
As a first-grader in 1966, I noticed none of this, of course, but undoubtedly this was the reason my parents let me watch the show at all, since it was devoid of any message they didn’t approve of and in fact probably more matched their own moral compass. But all of that is my long-winded set up to a scene in the film which surprised the hell out of me yesterday, though upon reflection it really shouldn’t have.
Batman and Robin were down at the docks, the place where nefarious types always congregate, and Batman had climbed in a window in some shady building that housed a bar only to discover a bomb. And not just any bomb, but one of those round, black cartoon bombs with a fuse sticking out of the top that burns nearly forever. For several minutes Batman runs around holding the bomb out in front of him looking for a safe place to dispose of it, only to be thwarted at every turn. It’s hilarious, really; every place he runs he finds a baby stroller, a group of nuns, boy scouts, or something along those lines. I can only imagine the brainstorming session that yielded that scene. Eventually, he finds a safe place, and throws the bomb into the water. Robin catches up with him and they discuss what just happened and Batman’s unwillingness to let innocent people die. And in that exchange, Batman sums up what I imagine was the prevailing way that people at that time regarded people who drink too much.
Robin: You risked your life to save that riff-raff at the bar?
Batman: They may be drinkers, Robin, but they’re also human beings … and may be salvaged. I had to do it.
The way he says “human beings,” he practically chokes on the words, like he’s hard pressed to actually believe they could be human, but still knows he should believe it because it makes him a better person. But it’s not even their humanity that saves them, but instead the fact that they may have the potential to change their wicked ways, to “be salvaged.” That Robin seemed surprised that the “riff-raff” bar folk might be worth saving, I think, says quite a lot. Holy propaganda, Batman!
Wow, to be someone who patronized a bar circa 1966 was to be the lowest of the low, only barely redeemable, a belief many neo-prohibitionists still appear to believe. At least most rational people no longer adhere to such nonsense. Happily, bars have changed, people have changed, and the beer they serve in them has, too. In fact, even Batman has changed. I’d bet even he’d drink a nice craft beer when he’s in his alter-ego guise as Billionaire Bruce Wayne. Thank goodness the Sixties are over.