In 1999, the ABC network aired Come On, Get Happy: The Partridge Family Story, which started a new trend of seriocomic docudramas telling tales off of set about old TV shows. 2000 saw Daydream Believers: The Monkees Story and Growing Up Brady (based on Barry "Greg Brady" Williams' book). Williams narrated and played his elder self in wraparound segments, a feat one-upped by Dawn Wells in 2001's Surviving Gilligan's Island: The Incredibly True Story of the Longest Three Hour Tour in History. Wells, who also co-executive produced the telepic, walked into recreations of the '60s series and interacted with the actress playing her.
The team behind the Gilligan's Island docudrama—Wells, writer Duane Poole, and director Paul A. Kaufman—reunited two years later to take on the legendary 1960s Batman series, and they would take the concept yet one step beyond, by fully merging the docudrama with the tried-and-true (but essentially out of vogue) "reunion movie." Instead of merely a gossipy behind-the-scenes movie or a "sit around and reminisce" special, CBS's Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt provided an alternative described in press-ready purple prose as a "reflexive, meta-level television reunion movie." (The telefilm aired on March 9, 2003 to low ratings. Historians will recall that the '60s series aired not on CBS but on ABC.)
"Batman" Adam West and "Robin" Burt Ward play more than faintly ridiculous versions of themselves in a plot that requires them to recall the best and worst of times of Batman. At West's fictional Los Angeles mansion, the 74-year-old actor camps it up with his butler Jerry (Curtis Armstrong of Moonlighting), who the supposedly addled West calls "Alfred." A mysterious invite to a car museum's charity gala prompts West to request "something Clooney-ish" to wear (an allusion to the most recent screen Batman at that time). At the museum, West bumps into Ward, and they witness the theft of Chuck Barris's famous 1966 Batmobile, a tricked-out Lincoln Futura. Though Ward demurs to a fan, "That was just a role I played," the movie cheerily blurs illusion and reality. "This is a job for actors!" blurts West, and the chase down memory lane is on.
The clues prompt flashbacks for West and Ward, played—in younger, fitter form—by Jack Brewer and Jason Marsden (The Munsters Today, Eerie, Indiana), both fine likenesses to the genuine articles. If the present day is colorfully surreal, with the tone of a kids' show, the past is detailed in its recreations of the sets, costumes, and personalities surrounding the Batman series (Brett Rickaby does a mean Frank Gorshin). The scenes cover the actors' pre-Batman career status, Batman screen tests, network issues, girl trouble, and the series' inevitable cancellation. Though accurately rendered in style, the past is suspect in its recounting of randy episodes mostly culled from Ward's 1995 memoir Boy Wonder: My Life in Tights.
West and Ward don't exactly come off as angels, since attention is paid to both men's divorces and resulting promiscuity (the real-life math doesn't appear to add up, in Ward's case). Then again, these guys have been dining out on their devil-may-care rep for years, and in many respects, the '60s episodes go out of their way to puff up West and Ward. Besides Brewer's lack of love handles, the script name-drops West's lovers (Marsden's Ward sputters, "All the women you date: Jill St. John, Raquel Welch, Natalie Wood, Leslie Ann Warren") and squeezes yuks from Ward's purportedly prodigious penis. West gets ribbed for scene-stealing, but he also takes Ward under his Bat-wing ("Fame is an aphrodisiac, my friend. Enjoy it while you can").
Though Ward's book spurs most of the flashbacks, the present-day West—credited as Executive Creative Consultant—gets to deliver most of the Bat-patter he's developed over the years in interviews, conventions, and his own 1994 memoir Back to the Batcave. It's all here: repeated references to the immortal line about "strange stirrings" in his utility belt, the explanation that the villains were always shot in dutch angles because "they're crooked!", and another spin on the dance floor to reprise the beloved Batusi (with Julie Newmar, no less).
The latter scene is a doozy that sums up the movie. Real-life West and Ward walk into a bar (it's a joke already), where a (barely) disguised Newmar, playing herself, dances with West in front of a video screen showing clips from the 1966 Batman movie, in which Lee Meriwether played Catwoman (they dance to "Batman Theme Remix," Neal hefti by way of J. Flexx). Then West and Ward fight henchmen—costumed in nickname-labeled shirts, as on the series—as the screen nostalgically fills with expletives: "WHAP!!... BIFF!... KA-POWWW!!" The scene, peppered with obvious shots of stuntmen, serves as a distinct reminder that Ward, unlike West, is terribly out-of-shape...um, as an actor.
The movie is purposefully self-referential to the nth degree, with gags involving a Batman-styled narrator (who turns out to be a truly unusual special guest star), corny segues ("Well, I guess that takes care of the 'Whatever happened to' business"), and loony running gags (West plays cheapskate, stiffing Ward with every bill). Lyle Waggoner's actual screen test for Batman shows up, Betty White makes a cameo in the style of the old series, Meriwether pops up in a diner scene, and Newmar joins the real Frank Gorshin in a totally unhinged finale. Fans of the series will be hooked, if not thoroughly delighted, and others may prove unable to resist the train-wreck spectacle. Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt is head-spinning camp: unabashedly cheesy but 100% mesmerizing.
[For Groucho's complete Batman coverage, head over to the Batman Begins Watch!]
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