Monday, 7 December 2015

Batman and The Avengers

I am watching the first series of Batman (1966). I consoled myself for the reduced-size reopening without a conveyor belt of my favourite sushi restaurant (who the hell picks sushi off a menu?) by buying the boxed set, expecting a diversionary trip down memory lane and some very lightweight viewing indeed, but of course it's set me off thinking. I watched Batman in my childhood, although it was after the 1960s. Since I must have been very young and I remember singing along to the theme tune (truth to tell, it's hard to stop myself doing it even now), and making the sound effects. It must have been before I encountered The Avengers for the first time, which was on the advent of Channel Four in the UK.
That said, on revisiting it, Batman reminds me so much of The Avengers. I have Googled this connection at length and have been unable to find anything on the internet drawing parallels between the two series, although naturally this search is necessarily complicated by the ongoing Batman franchise and the existence of another set of Avengers. I have been trying to formulate a theory around the possible influence, which naturally must stick to the historical facts. It is not very likely that Batman the series was influenced by the fourth series of The Avengers, the first really to ramp up the weirdness, since The Avengers series premiered in October 1965 in the UK, and the first series of Batman premiered in January 1966, in the UK. Batman must have been at least well under production, or at the very least written, as the fourth series of The Avengers appeared on the screen on the other side of the pond. I don't believe it was exported at that time either, so it would have required a writer – a very influential one at that – to have seen the show in the UK and also been writing for Batman for the Avengers to have influenced Batman. I think it more likely that since Batman first appeared in 1939, with his own nominal comic starting 1940, if one show influenced the other it was more likely to be Batman influencing The Avengers.
The most obvious likeness between the two shows is in the area of unreality. The whole point of The Avengers is that it is not real, and if Steed were seen in a real situation he would appear like a caricature. Batman takes this caricature to a whole different level, except given its comic book origins, in many ways what is being parodied is the comic book idiom.
The likeness starts for me with the baddies. The parody and campiness of Batman may seem to be extreme in comparison to that of The Avengers, but in terms of weirdness the baddies actually compare. Remember how the baddies in the Avengers are always megalomaniacs who plan to conquer the whole world by such things as cats' collars? That obsession with cats isn't so far removed from an obsession with jokes or coldness. The Penguin and his obsession with umbrellas takes up a repeated motif of umbrellas used in several episodes of The Avengers, in addition to being a seminal aspect of the Steed figure.
And I think that is what most makes the connection for me – Batman actually uses the same visual language as The Avengers. It is not for nothing that Batman and Robin's alter egos live in a panelled manor house with an English butler – this is exactly the same visual language as that of The Avengers! The panelled manor spells Establishment, solidity. I have deliberately chosen the screen cap which illustrates this post because it shows the way in which the villains appear in the image of respectability, as contravening it. The underlying moral lessons of Batman – Robin not going into a night club because he's too young, say – are another part of their characterisation as respectable figures. The entire point of the villains is that they break the conventions and rules of respectable people. This is exactly the way in which The Avengers paints its villains, frequently putting them in a setting of contravened respectability, old families gone rotten, and so on. I have even been keeping an eye on the books in the various scenes – obviously it is not very likely that Batman would use the Steed's library books from whatever theatrical supplier in Britain they were hired for numerous ITC series, but the leather-bound books have the same purpose: they spell solidity, learning, and so on.
There are two ways in which Batman differs markedly from the world of The Avengers. The first is in the approach to technology, which almost completely lacks the ambivalence found in British television of the era. In Batman, the duo of course use technology at length to help them in their crusades; in The Avengers this happens rarely or never. I feel this probably reflects different attitudes to technology on either side of the Atlantic at the time, but of course wouldn't want to make too much of this generalisation.
That of course relates to the other major difference, which is that the world of Batman is very much American despite borrowing things which would spell olde Englishe respectability for Americans, but which are sometimes just plain wrong for Brits. There is a scene in which the English butler proffers iced tea, for example, and this is just plain wrong. Tea in the US in a markedly different things from here to this day. That said, this use of the language of dream English solidity is using the same symbols used in The Avengers to refer to the same thing, only from a native point of view.
Naturally this theory of mine is one which I have dreamed up as I have been cooking this evening with Batman playing in the background. And of course if anyone is able to point me in the direction of other comparisons of the two shows on the internet I would be delighted to hear them.

3 comments:

Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling (from a year and a half in the future):

Two days after the passing of Adam West, everybody is once again Bat-conscious.

So I go looking here, and lo and behold, I find this post, which I seem to have missed on my previous sweeps.

I don't have much to add here, really; there is something that you might get a kick out of knowing, though.

Batman/TV was a 20th-Century Fox TV production, but when ABC made their sudden order for a January '66 premiere, there was a problem: Fox was having a major run of sales to all three networks - which meant that there was no room on the Fox lot to shoot the show.
Not to be deterred (especially with a solid order from ABC), Bill Dozier and his line producer Howie Horwitz made a deal to rent studio space at Desilu-Culver Studios - which in an earlier life had been the RKO Radio Pictures lot
(Sidebar: when RKO went out of business in the late '50s, the lot was sold to Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball (around the business, this became known as "Lucy's Revenge"), who were doing lots of TV shows for all markets. Word was that the sale was negotiated by the last chief exec of RKO - William Dozier.
But that's another story ...)
Among its holdings, Desilu-Culver had the single largest soundstage in Hollywood: the "King Kong Stage" where the Skull Island Gate was erected back in the '30s.
In '65-'66, this is where they built the Batcave.
D-C also had the old RKO backlot for exteriors, and all the stock footage you could ask for.
But the interiors, Stately Wayne Manor and Commissioner Gordon's office - my guess is that these were already standing sets, possibly dating back to old RKO movies, going as far back as the '30s.
This would include the set decorations and props - such as the books in the Stately Wayne Manor library.
(Old Hollywood Trick: whenever you see a large bookshelf in a movie or TV show, most of what you're looking at aren't really books at all - they're really plaster molds with fake bookbinding on the "spines". You only ever see a "real" book when an actor takes one off the shelf to "read" out of it - and never in a close-up.)
In a way, Batman and other series of the '60s/'70s represent the last days of old-style Hollywood moviemaking - with all the tricks and "cheats" to make the production seem more lavish than the budget would allow.

I don't know where The Avengers was filmed - what studio, I mean - but I'd venture to guess that they had short-cuts of their own, just like their counterparts in Hollywood.

For an old coot like me, this is part of the fun of Old Movies/TV: trying to spot the shortcuts. Maybe it is for you too ...
... or one of these days, it will be ...

John said...

I didn't realise Batman was made on a shoestring!
The Avengers was made here: http://www.elstreestudios.co.uk/About-Us/studio_history.aspx and the locations are all around the studio so that this area around Elstree is actually Avengerland. Of course you will have noticed that I've become obsessed with identifying the books from Steed's library and their appearances in other ITV shows of the time!

Mike Doran said...

Chicago Calling (and Clarifying):

It's not that Batman was made "on a shoestring".

For American TV in the mid-'60s, it was one of the more expensive shows being done - then.

What I meant was that Bill Dozier and his crew were all old Hollywood hands, well-versed in making their films seem like more expensive productions than they actually were.
Remember that television sets in the '60s - even the more expensive color models - didn't give nearly as well-defined pictures as the high-definition flatscreens of today.

I never got to see Batman in color until my family got a color set in 1968 - and only when it went into syndicated reruns (16mm films with a signifcant decrease in definition, on a 16-inch (or smaller) screen).
To see Batman in its DVD incarnation - different as night and day.

Any other questions - you know where I am.