Release Date(s)1966-68 (November 11, 2014)
Studio(s)20th Century Fox (Warner Bros.)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B-
There have, of course, been many different incarnations of Batman in the years since the character was first created by Bob Kane way back in 1939 in the pages of Detective Comics. There’s the tortured Frank Miller depiction, there’s the Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan film versions, there’s the 1970s Saturday morning cartoon version, Bruce Timm’s more recent animated series, and the original classic comic books to name but a few. But for those of my generation, the 1966 ABC TV series Batman, starring Adam West and Burt Ward as the Dynamic Duo, is the lynchpin of all of it. This series was for many fans – certainly for me, many of you, and lots of those working on new Batman projects today – their first exposure to this character and to the idea of what superheroes could be like on screen.
I absolutely fell in love with this series as a kid. I have blurry, faded pictures of myself at age 5 wearing one of those cheesy plastic (and no doubt terribly flammable) Batman Halloween costumes. The die-cast Corgi Batmobile toy car was the very first Greatest Thing I Ever Owned, and I beat the hell out of it in daily play. I even had some of the original MEGO character dolls, as I’m sure did many of you.
Given the hallowed place this show occupies in the memory of its fans, it’s no wonder that Batman ’66 has been at or near the top of the list of Most Wanted TV Titles on DVD (and now Blu-ray), since the debut of the DVD format back in 1997. I won’t get into all the complicated rights issues that prevented this from happening over the years in this review, nor the equally complicated – and highly fascinating – maneuvering that was required to finally make it happen. If you’re interested, I recommend that you read this fantastic article by Jake Rossen at Wired.com that explains all the details. (And before I continue, let me just say a special thank you to John Stacks, Wally Wingert, Reed Kaplan, and Eric Ellenbogen, who each worked tirelessly – and largely unsung – to make this home video release possible. Well done, guys.)
Suffice it to say that fans have waited a long time for Batman on Blu-ray and DVD. Now, it’s finally here in new Limited Edition box sets from Warner Home Video (street date 11/11). Given the long wait, it’s a pleasure to be able to say that these episodes look terrific, especially on Blu-ray in high-definition. Even more importantly though, I’m pleased to say that Batman ’66 is a much better TV show than you probably remember.
As kids, we all watched Batman as a straight-laced action entertainment. Thinking back on it as an adult however, what you tend to recall is how cheesy it was and how kind of embarrassed you are to have loved it so much, given the “better” incarnations we’ve seen since. In fact, Batman ’66 has been considered by some in recent years to be a low point in the modern era of superhero depictions on-screen. But the good news about this home video release is that, when you finally have the chance to revisit the show as an adult, you realize just how smart its humor actually was, especially for the day, and how many iconic performers of the time appeared as guest stars and villains.
Adam West (Batman) knew that the series was meant to be a comedy at the time, but to call the show camp sells it short. West considers it an homage to the original DC comics, and certainly its rich color palate, Dutch camera angles, animated title sequence, dramatic cliff-hanger endings, and multi-episode storylines are all meant to honor the classic comic pages. There’s plenty here to capture the attention of children, but there’s a lot here for adults too. West and company walk the perfect line between straight-laced sincerity and parody with their performances. There’s puns and double entendre a plenty, mixed with select racy moments that completely went over the heads of young viewers at the time. In addition, many of the show’s villains and their cohorts are presented as hippies and counter-culture figures – this was a pop culture commentary on society at large – depictions that would certainly have entertained adults in the audience. Rest assured, Batman isn’t the Lost in Space of the superhero genre that some would have you believe. It’s a smart and savvy television series that’s well worth revisiting on disc.
Warner’s Limited Edition box set contains 12 Blu-ray Discs, including all three seasons of the series – 120 episodes in all – plus bonus features.
Shot and finished on film, the series is presented on Blu-ray at the original 1.33:1 TV aspect ratio. The film has been scanned in HD, and carefully cleaned and color-timed. The color is every bit as rich and accurate as you’d hope, which is important given this show’s vibrant production design. Contrast is solid, with dark blacks and nicely detailed shadows. The image is clean and crisp without looking edgy, revealing light grain and abundant subtle textures in the sets and costumes. The image is actually so good that, from time to time, you can see detail that was never meant to be visible on TV – the extra thick make-up some of the actors are wearing, coffee stains on teeth, a little sweat around the Bat symbol on West’s costume, guide wires, obvious stunt people in fight scenes (not that any of this merits complaining). Optical titles, transitions, and stock footage show a bit more dust and grain, but that’s to be expected. Certainly, for a series of this vintage, it’s pretty amazing to see it looking so good on disc.
Audio is available in the original mono in 1.0 Dolby Digital in English, French, German, and Italian on Season One, 1.0 Dolby Digital in English, French (on select episodes only), German, and Italian on Season Two, and 1.0 Dolby Digital on English, German, and Italian on Season Three. To confirm, there is no French audio available for the final season, which is likely a function of how and where the show was syndicated around the world back in the day. Nevertheless, optional subtitles for all the episodes are available in English (for the deaf and hard of hearing), French, German, Italian, and Spanish. The English audio tracks are surprisingly clean for vintage TV mono. Dialogue is clear and nearly always readily discernable. This isn’t demo material by any means, but the tracks sound better than you’ve ever heard them before and they pair well with the restored film imagery.
All of the extras are found on the last disc of the set, including some three hours of all-new documentary material. It’s presented in HD video at the 1.78:1 aspect ratio (with select upconverted vintage material). The extras feature English Dolby Digital 2.0 audio only, but subtitles are once again available in English (for the deaf and hard of hearing), French, German, Italian, and Spanish. The documentary content includes:
Hanging with Batman (29:56) is a decent retrospective piece with Adam West looking back on his life and career, featuring lots of rare behind-the-scenes photographs, vintage press clippings and magazine covers, new and vintage interviews, clips from old TV appearances and the like. It’s a little bit of an odd duck though, as the tone is slightly strange – equal parts Ken Burns, West’s signature quirkiness, and somber reflection – and the editing is somewhat too flashy for that tone. Still, it’s a solid piece.
Holy Memorabilia Batman! (29:59) may be my favorite thing on this set. Super collectors Ralph Garman and Kevin Silva take you behind-the-scenes for a look at their massive collections of Batman memorabilia. Garman gives West a personal tour of his items, which delivers a great moment when West tries on an original Batman cowl in Garman’s collection. This piece also introduces us to Mark Racop, who reproduces full-scale, drivable Batmobiles in exacting detail for collectors around the world. This is a fanboy treat.
Batman Born! Building the World of Batman (29:41) is a terrific study of the show by Batman experts (including historians and many of the artists and filmmakers who work on Batman projects today) that puts the ’66 TV series in the historical context of its time, talks about how it pulled stylistically from the pages of the classic comics, and examines the ways it influenced other Batman and superhero projects that came later. It also looks back the production design, features new interviews with West, Ward, Julie Newmar, Bruce Timm, Andy Mangels, and many others, and also includes vintage interviews with a few the show’s original writers, producers, and stars.
Bats of the Round Table (45:08) brings together Adam West, director Kevin Smith, collector Ralph Garman, actor Phil Morris, and DC Comics’ Jim Lee, at the Smoke House restaurant in Burbank, to talk about the history and legacy of the TV show. West shares interesting behind-the-scenes stories, while the others ask him questions and talk about the impact the show had on them. It’s not quite as good a discussion as I was expecting, but it’s still worth your time.
Inventing Batman in the Words of Adam West, which includes Hi Diddle Riddle (29:30) and Smack in the Middle (29:39), is a bit like a no-frills Maximum Movie Mode, without Warner going to all the production effort. Basically, it lets you watch the first two episodes of the show, with West commenting here and there through audio voice-over, and video cutaways and picture-in-picture windows. West talks about how he created the character based on the scripts by Lorenzo Semple Jr., revealing little story insights and nuances in his performance. Unfortunately, you sometimes go a few minutes without seeing or hearing him, but then he finally returns and talks more. It’s not perfect, but it works, and West’s thoughts are always interesting.
Na Na Na Batman! (12:15) is where things get dicey. This featurette is an embarrassment. Basically, for twelve minutes you’re expected to listen to the stars and producers other Warner TV series (think Arrow, The Mentalist, The Following, and Supernatural) reminisce about the show and talk about how much they loved it. Or, in some cases, were too young to have seen it. Occasionally, West, Ward, and Newmar appear to try to keep things interesting, but to no avail. This piece is just as lame as it sounds. Why it’s here at all is hard to fathom, especially when you consider what’s not on this set (but should be – more on that in a minute). It’s the kind of blatantly cross-promotional feature that only a studio marketing executive would think is a great idea. But nobody who is enough of a classic Batman fan to spend $175 or more on this box set should be asked to sit through it. Blech!
Fortunately, the extras finish on a somewhat stronger note with a collection of Bat Rarities! Straight from the Vault. They include the original Batgirl TV pilot (in HD – 7:54), the complete Burt Ward (aka Burton Gervis) and Adam West screen test (in HD – 6:16), another screen test featuring actors Lyle Waggoner and Peter Deyell as Batman and Robin (in HD – 4:23), and a vintage clip of James Blakeley, who was the show’s Post-production Supervisor, talking about how he came up with the idea to use comic book-style onomatopoeia text to punctuate the fight scenes (upconverted SD – 2:24).
All in all, the disc-based extras on this set are solid, if something of a mixed bag. There are a few real gems, a few items that are just okay, and then there’s The Feature That Shall Not Be Named. But the surprise is what’s missing here. I would certainly have expected a stand-alone featurette on the Rogues Gallery of villains that appeared on this series, and the legendary character actors who played them (in addition to Julie Newmar – people like Frank Gorshin, Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero, Eartha Kitt, Otto Preminger, Eli Wallach, Vincent Price, and Milton Berle to name but a few). That’s a huge omission. There’s little attention given to all the great actors and personalities who made cameos on the show. There’s little time given to the many hilarious Bat-gadgets in Batman’s iconic Utility Belt. I’m surprised that Yvonne Craig (who played Batgirl) isn’t featured in new interviews – she’s still alive as far as I know. While West, Ward, and Newmar all appeared in a Hall H panel at Comic-Con this summer, that footage is nowhere to be found here. Rather than shoehorning Mark Racop into the Memorabilia featurette, how about a stand-alone piece on just the Batmobile itself so we might get a better look at it? Also, while Hanging with Batman is fine, there’s a terrific 98-minute crowdfunded documentary from 2013 called Starring Adam West that I wish had been included here. Directed by James E. Tooley, it’s a much more comprehensive look at West’s life and career. It ran on Starz Encore last year and can be purchased on Blu-ray and DVD here. (I definitely recommend that fans pick up a copy and check it out – you can read my review here at The Bits.) And finally, given the hefty SRP of this Limited Edition set, it might have been nice for Warner and Fox to have included Batman: The Movie on Blu-ray for completeness’ sake. Honestly, going through these extras made me wish that Shout! Factory had been involved somehow. What Warner has produced is decent and, as I said, there are a couple real gems. But given the long wait fans have had for this series on disc, they really should have hit this material out of the park (and I know Shout! would have done).
[Editor’s Note: The Limited Edition set is numbered, part of a run of 95,000 units. It’s also worth mentioning that there are featurettes on the Batmobile on the Batman: The Movie Blu-ray available here from Fox, which makes the film’s omission here a little more puzzling. In any case, be sure to pick up a copy of the movie on Blu-ray to complete this set.]
Still, if there are a few deficiencies in the set’s disc-based extras, I have to say that Warner’s Limited Edition packaging and swag are outstanding. This glossy and brightly-colored box is just gorgeous. The front is actually a magnetic lid with sturdy flaps that open left and right. Inside is a velvet liner with slots that hold the physical contents. Included on the right-hand side is a 4-inch long Hot Wheels replica of the Batmobile in its own plastic box. There are no moving parts other than the wheels, but it’s still pretty awesome and nicely detailed. You also get a package of Batman collector’s cards. There are 44 in all, and they reproduce a selection of images from vintage 1966 Topps collector’s cards. This isn’t a complete reproduction set – Topps produced black, red and blue-Bat sets totaling over 100 cards back in the day – but the 44 cards you do get here include some of the most classic art images. Then on the left side of the package is a larger slot that holds three full-season Digipacks plus an Episode Guide booklet (that offers a breakdown of the episodes on each disc with original airdates, plot synopsis, etc, and a list of the extras). Finally, there’s The Adam West Scrapbook, which is a small hardcover book featuring rare photos and notes from West. On the inside of each lid flap, you’ll find some familiar text – think ZOK! SWISH! POW! – in glossy black lettering on a matte black background. On each end of the box, there’s a classic image of Batman and Robin scaling up the sides via Batrope. On the right side, there’s even a little button you can press that plays a few seconds of the show’s iconic Nelson Riddle theme song. Very nice. Finally, the set also includes a paper insert with a code that grants access to UltraViolet digital copy versions of all 120 episodes – another nice touch.
Ultimately, I’m pleased to report that Batman is the rare classic TV series that actually gets better when you watch it on Blu-ray. It’s not a show you can really binge watch though. Instead, I recommend that you watch it on disc in much the same way we all did back in the 60s and 70s – a few episodes at a time. The series appeared on ABC two days a week, often with a cliffhanger leading from one episode to the next. So it’s all too easy to pop a Blu-ray in your player and watch two, three or four episodes in a shot, then come back a few days later and repeat the process with the next batch.
However you choose to experience it, the opportunity to revisit ’66 TV Batman on Blu-ray has not only reaffirmed my lifelong love of this series, but it’s given me new reasons to love it all the more. I really wish the disc-based special features here felt a little more special, but the A/V quality of these episodes is excellent, and the package looks and feels so nice in your hands that it’s relatively easy to overlook the set’s shortcomings.
It’s been a long wait, but Batman: The Complete Television Series is here at last on disc… and it’s recommended, at least for diehard fans. Just be sure to get it a good sale price (like Amazon’s usual 30% off).
- Bill Hunt