Why so serious? ‘Batman’ (1966) perfectly encapsulates the goofy Joker we miss

Holy throwback, Batman!

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When did the Joker become so serious? The version of the iconic Batman villain appearing in theaters this weekend is nothing new — the Joker’s been terrifying since at least The Dark Knight — but there was a time when the Clown Prince of Crime was just a goofball looking to make a buck.

The best onscreen version of this slightly more chill Joker is without a doubt Cesar Romero’s performance in the 1960s live-action series led by Adam West in the role of Batman, and one of the best ways to experience that character is in the camp classic 1966 movie Batman, starring West, Romero, Burgess Meredith, Lee Merriwether, and Burt Ward’s legs. Holy nostalgia, Batman! Get ready for superhero absurdity and hilarity at its finest.

This movie doesn’t waste any time jumping straight into the action. Batman and Robin receive a tip that a Commodore Schmidlapp is in danger. Schmidlapp is sailing his yacht to Gotham City to transport a new invention, and word on the street is that someone is after it. Batman and Robin show up on the scene, but while trying to board Schmidlapp’s yacht, Batman realizes that the yacht is actually an illusion. Oh, and then a shark tries to eat his leg.

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Robin manages to help Batman out by getting him the can of bat-shark repellent, which they just happened to have with them. Apparently bat-shark repellent works the same as bug spray. Just spray it at the shark and it’ll plummet to its death. And then blow the hell up!

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The funniest part of this scene is how Batman treats this shark gnawing on his leg as a minor annoyance. Batman’s leg is still attached and he’s suffered no blood loss whatsoever! Pretty impressive given Robin’s glacial pace in getting him the shark repellent.

So, Batman and Robin attend a press conference to lie through their teeth and reassure the public that everything is completely fine! There is absolutely nothing to worry about!

Side note: I don’t know how it’s possible, but this is the first time I’ve realized that Adam West Batman draws on his eyebrows.

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As soon as the press leaves, Batman and Robin assure Commissioner Gordan that nothing is fine and they have a lot to worry about. They can’t locate Schmidlapp’s yacht and it looks like he was kidnapped while Batman was becoming shark chow. Batman and the police go through the outstanding super villain list and narrow it down to four suspects: The Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, and Catwoman.

They come to the conclusion that obviously all four supervillains in on the scheme together through possibly the most random and bizarre line of reasoning:

Commissioner Gordon: It could be any one of them… But which one? Which ones?
Batman: Pretty fishy what happened to me on that ladder…
Commissioner Gordon: You mean where there’s a fish there could be a Penguin?
Robin: But wait! It happened at sea… See? C for Catwoman!

During the time Robin was learning aerials and acrobatics in the circus, his parents clearly neglected to teach him his alphabet. Or spelling.

Batman: Yet, an exploding shark was pulling my leg…
Commissioner Gordon: The Joker!
Chief O’Hara: All adds up to a sinister riddle… Riddle-R. Riddler!
Commissioner Gordon: A thought strikes me… So dreadful I scarcely dare give it utterance…
Batman: The four of them… Their forces combined…
Robin: Holy nightmare!

Well, despite that convoluted thought process the conclusion did turn out to be correct.

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All four villains are indeed in cahoots, and they have captured Commodore Schmidlapp. However, the Commodore doesn’t realize that he’s been kidnapped. The villains have set up the basement to look like his ship’s quarters, so Schmidlapp thinks that he’s still at sea. He even rings for his afternoon tea. Which the Joker happily brings him!

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And no joking around, that’s just regular untainted tea. This has got to be the Joker’s most polite kidnapping on record. Schmidlapp doesn’t know he’s a captive. He can just stay in this one room where he’s perfectly content to look out at the fake ocean, read his books, and the Joker will bring his tea! This is probably the most civilized hostage situation in Joker history!

So, the four villains have joined forces to steal Schmidlapp’s invention, a dehydration machine that can turn human beings into dust. They want to use it to turn the cabinet members of the United World Security Council into powder so they can take over the world. Batman explains that no fewer than four villains could have their sights set on any lower goal.

This does beg a serious question, though. Why the hell did Schmidlapp invent something that turns living organisms into dust? What was he going to use it for? Sadly, this remains one of the unsolved mysteries of the Batman universe.

The four villains all seem to have their roles in the scheme. The Penguin handles strategy and planning, the Joker handles execution, and Catwoman’s specialty is espionage; she goes undercover as a Soviet journalist to seduce Bruce Wayne. And as for the Riddler … actually, the Riddler doesn’t do very much except send out his stupid riddles to Batman to give away the entire plan. Honestly, I don’t know why the other three felt they needed to include the Riddler given his overall uselessness. They probably would have been fine taking over the world on their own without having to give him a cut. But it’s been established that four people are needed for world domination, so I guess Riddler was the last-minute add-on to the team to round things out.

While investigating the Commodore disappearance at sea in the Batboat, Batman and Robin are captured by a magnetized buoy that attracts their utility belts. Why they didn’t just take off their belts to escape? Yet another unsolvable mystery.

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Then suddenly, the dynamic duo is attacked by torpedos from the Penguin’s submarine. Batman is able to destroy two of the torpedos with a radio detonator that “reverses the polarity,” but when a third one is coming at them, Batman’s detonator doesn’t work! Gasp! It’s out of batteries! Curse you and your everlasting lies, Energizer Bunny!

Not to worry, though. Batman and Robin are saved offscreen by a passing porpoise who bravely sacrifices its life! Hopefully, this doesn’t cause a spat with Aquaman later on.

Batman is pretty pissed off after that fight, so he rings up the Pentagon’s toll-free number to have a chat with the U.S. Navy and find out whether they’ve recently sold any war surplus submarines. “Why yes, we have!” the Admiral cheerfully informs them. Yes, they just sold a pre-atomic model to “P.N. Guinn” of no fixed address.

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Batman expresses his disgust upon realizing that the government is run by a bunch of idiots who sell deadly weapons to any rando who coughs up enough money.

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When Batman locates the villains’ lair (right above a public bar). They’ve all vanished, but they leave behind a literal smoking bomb. This leads to this delightful scene of Batman hilarity which must be allowed to speak for itself:

It’s a perfectly executed moment of absurdity and randomness. If you ever wanted to know what a typical 1960s Batman episode is like, this scene pretty well sums it up.

Personally, I’m a fan of these two ladies who are just not having it with this “bomb scare” business.

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They must be New Yorkers.

And I love Batman and Robin’s exchange after Batman gets rid of the bomb:

Robin: You risked your life to save that riffraff in the bar?
Batman: They may be drinkers, Robin, but they’re also human beings.

Wow, Robin’s kind of a dick.

The villains are off to the United World Building to annihilate a bunch of world leaders, and Batman and Robin are far behind. The two leap into action to get downtown the quickest way possible!

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Yeah, they couldn’t take the Batmobile because rush hour is a bitch.

But our heroes don’t make it in time (Bats, the bad guys already had a head start. Just take the Batcopter next time.), and nine world leaders have been dehydrated into powder. Hey, at least they come in lots of fun colors!

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The villains escape to the Penguin’s submarine with the leaders’ remains. But Batman and Robin give chase in the Batboat and attack them with a sonic charge weapon to bring the submarine to the surface, which shakes it up pretty badly. This doesn’t seem that smart on Batman’s end given the fate of the planet rests on saving the candy-colored remains of the world’s leaders.

Eventually, Batman forces the submarine to resurface, leading to the villains’ arrest. All that’s left is to rehydrate the leaders. Until the still imprisoned Commodore Schmidlapp accidentally breaks the vials containing the dusted council members, scattering them everywhere.

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Jesus Christ, Shmidlapp, haven’t you done enough? I mean, this whole mess is really your fault because you just had to create a doohickey that turns human beings into ground-up jelly bean remains.

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So, Batman and Robin have to go through the arduous task of creating a machine that sorts and filters all the dust.

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Robin proposes that maybe they should mingle the dust so that humans won’t be able to hurt each other! But Batman, says no because it would be interfering with nature, and they don't know what else this hydrator thing could do to people. If they mixed up the dust, someone could get rehydrated with four arms attached to their face.

Robin is actually starting to scare me with his DNA co-mingling idea. Batman should probably keep an eye on him, maybe install a few surveillance cameras around the lab equipment.

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Luckily, the council members are rehydrated physically unharmed, but now each of them has acquired the language and mannerisms of a different country. They continue to yell at each other, oblivious to anything that has happened in the last several hours, while Batman and Robin quietly slip out.

My final verdict on Batman (1966)? It’s awesome, it’s fun, and it perfectly encapsulates what the 1960s Batman was all about. This is not the dark, gritty Gotham that we’re used to seeing. You know that this is silly, but that’s what is so great about it. The actors are terrific — it’s fantastic to watch Adam West and Burt Ward spew their ridiculous lines with perfectly straight faces — and our four villains play off each other marvelously.

If you liked the Batman: The Animated Series episode, “Almost Got Him,” you’ll probably enjoy watching the Batman villains of old team-up and interact with each other. And if you’re in the mood for some light, old-fashioned superhero fun, I’d say check it out. With a glass of wine, of course. Maybe two or three.

You can stream Batman (1966) for Amazon for $1.99. Joker is in theaters on October 4.

Rewind is an Inverse series that remembers the forgotten heroes we love.

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