To even once hear the theme song from TV’s all-time most imaginative, rule-breaking, and slyly subversive superhero series is to never get it out of your head—or, more importantly, your heart. That tuneful spellbinding first beguiled humanity fifty years ago, when ABC debuted Batman on January 12, 1966, and we’ve all been disciples of the Dynamic Duo ever since—whether we realize it or not.
As profoundly as Batman’s sing-along jingle may be, it’s just one of the show’s lasting impacts on art, entertainment, and society itself. Across the half-century since the series reconfiguredpopular culture in its own off-the-wall (and up-the-side-of-the-building) image, Batman’s influence continues unabated. In fact, it routinely picks up steam and sinks in even deeper.
Here’s how Batman on TV largely established our present reality of art, entertainment, and even conversation (because what is an emoji if not the present tech version of a screen-filling graphic that declares, “ZOWIE!”?).
From the “Most Interesting Man in the World” beer ads to the unblinking winks of cartoons-for-all-ages like Adventure Time to nudge-nudge cineplex-packers such as the ’70s-soundtracked Guardians of the Galaxy, irony informs so much of what we presently experience via the media. That, very specifically, dates to Batman.
Batman took its characters, setting, and standard costumed savior dynamics from DC Comics’ long-running line, and then blew that all up brilliantly. The show amplified the ludicrous leaps required by comic book logistics, and dropped in Adam West (as Batman) and Burt Ward (as Robin the Boy Wonder) to lead a cast that flawlessly played it straight.
Even the show’s aforementioned theme song, with its baby-talk sort-of-lyrics, is spoof of mid-’60s rock-and-roll, referring back to the Beatles’ “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” (the show would hit that target more specifically in time via “The Batusi”).
In essence, Batman translated the cutting-edge iconoclasm of pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein for network primetime. However, each episode also made sure to function as a cool, colorful adventure story for kids. That combination rendered Batman an immediate global phenomenon—which it remains, too, now and forever.
Proto-Retro Reality TV Celebs
One of Batman’s sweetest and cheekiest treats came in casting its rotating roster of supervillians old-time movie actors, cult icons, oddball famous folks, and an occasional veteran glamour queen. Interestingly, Cesar Romero, who famously played the Joker, pretty much qualifies for each of those categories.
Consider, as well, the show’s other best loved baddies: esteemed character thespian Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, standup funnyman Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, and the show’s three Catwomen—pin-up vamp Julie Newmar, seductive chanteuse Eartha Kitt, and Miss America 1955 Lee Meriwether.
Their very presence is a nutty, we’re-in-on-the-joke notion, further compounded familiar face cameos that pop out from windows when Batman and Robin are scaling the side of a skyscraper. Among those visitors are Dick Clark, Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis Jr., and “Lurch” from The Addams Family.
Decades later, reality programs such as The Surreal Life and Breaking Bonaduce would snarkily celebrate the formerly famous by inviting them to send up themselves. The trend has evolved since then, but Celebrity Apprentice and Keeping Up With the Kardashians share roots with Vincent Price’s portrayal of Gotham city’s ovular antagonist, Egghead.
Let the Titans Fit the Time
Upon its 1966 arrival, Batman explosively encapsulated its moment, capturing and communicating the boom of youth culture in ascent, the dawn of candy-hued mind expansion, and the upending of institutions by wry wits with one Batboot in buttoned-up tradition and the other in early psychedelic revolution.
Although the show ultimately proved timeless, by 1968, Batman’s bloom dimmed because it could no longer work in a world fully devastated by assassinations, riots, uprisings, and Vietnam. Rather than allow the show to embarrass itself, ABC and its creators got out on top, letting Batman’s definitive statement remain unmarred (the fact that they had a syndication-ready 120 episodes in the can no doubt aided such an act of integrity).
That attitude of “let Batman be the right Batman for the time” has kept the character at the forefront of pop consciousness ever since.
Twenty years after Adam West’s Caped Crusader debut, writer and artist Frank Miller reimagined Batman as a manic vigilante in his Dark Knight comic book series. Miller’s vision matched the mean, scary, nuclear overhang of the mid-’80s Cold War, where even the mightiest defender of justice could and would be driven mad by existential threats to humanity’s very existence.
Since then, Batman has existed largely as a movie star, in blockbuster vehicles that keep up with the tenor of their release dates. The throughline begins with Tim Burton’s overstuffed gothic tweak in 1989, carries on via the post-9/11 psychosis of the Christian Bale Bat-pics in the 2000s and has continued most recently with the Millennial-friendly, anti-macho undercutting of Batman in 2014’s The Lego Movie. As for Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne take in the Trump-era Batman vs. Superman, time will tell, won’t it?
Sell Those Superheroes
Batman toys and accessories existed prior to the 1966 TV series. So did gee-gaw tie-ins to Superman, Mickey Mouse, Popeye, James Bond and myriad other kid-friendly media concoctions.
Alas, after the Batman show, saturation marketing of franchise collectibles erupted not just in the form of dolls, pajamas, talking alarm clocks, and aerosol vomited Crazy Foam, but also as an infinite succession of new, monstrously marketable franchises themselves.
Most directly, Batman begat the short-lived Green Hornet series (which introduced America to Bruce Lee) from its own creators and a too-clunky-to-be-campy attempted cash-in pilot based on Dick Tracy. In a grander sense, Batman unleashed the universality of traditional superheroes as relentlessly reworkable money machines that captivate and extract cash from admirers of all ages.
Big-screen Hollywood movies, once a mixed offering at any given time of a multitude of genres, are entirely dominated now by comic book adaptations. Primetime television is riddled with Arrow, The Flash, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and so on. So, too, is everything else we see and here. Batman began it—all.
When it comes to 2015 superhero culture, women rule. Witness TV series such as Supergirl and Jessica Jones, equal-footed movie portrayals by Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, and the Internet-empowered rise of female writers, artists, and fans who are dispelling any previous balloon-boobed, bare mid-riffed limitations imposed on them by the old boys’ club of “geekdom.”
Is it all thanks to Batgirl? Of course not. Still, we cannot underestimate Yvonne Craig’s flame-maned, acrobatic, Bat-cycle-piloting 1967 debut as Police Commissioner Gordon’s daughter who refused to just sit back and let the men (and Boy Wonder) mix it up against evil.
Over the course of the show’s final season, Batgirl proved to be so much more than a mere add-on to the Dynamic Duo, frequently rescuing Batman and Robin and taking down a wrong-doer on her own tough terms.
So forward-thinking was the character, in fact, that in 1974, Yvonne Craig and Burt Ward donned their Gotham costumes opposite Dick Gautier as the Caped Crusader for a PSA regarding equal pay for women workers—starting with getting Batgirl on par with Robin.