‘Zowie!’ Movies

Go figure: During the craze, more superhero movies came from overseas than Hollywood!

Following are excerpts from “Zowie! The TV Superhero Craze in ’60s Pop Culture” by Mark Voger ($43.95, TwoMorrows Publishing, ships July 31).

From top left: The Batcopter; Kitka and Bruce get cozy; a faux Commodore Schmidlapp; a Joker prank. © 20th Century-Fox

‘Batman’ (the 1966 movie)

How do you make a movie that costs money to see out of a show that’s broadcast for free? Ya gotta go big. Add cool, expensive-lookin’ vehicles like the Batcopter and the Batboat. Have four villains instead of one or two, and make ’em the four biggest, baddest, bestest villains ya got. Finally — and this is key — don’t limit their crimes to Gotham City. Cook up a caper with no less than global implications.

Then … you’ve got a movie.

Leslie H. Martinson’s strike-while-the-iron’s-hot theatrical release strives to be bigger than the series. Though there are plenty of TV “Batman” episodes that are superior, the 1966 movie is cinematic enough to qualify as cinema. The challenge was to make a movie based on a TV show with the same cast playing the same characters, often on the same sets, and have it not seem redundant.

Producer William Dozier and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. found a way. For one thing, the production wisely discards the familiar formulas of the TV episodes. The shows always began with a crime … then a Bat-phone call from Commissioner Gordon … then Bruce and Dick receiving that call and sliding down the Batpoles … then the opening credits … then the Batmobile’s hasty exit from Bronson Cave (in undercranked footage) … then the car screeching in front of the steps of the Gotham City Municipal Building (with the same extras walking by every single time).

It’s as comfortable as an old blanket. But it’s not in the movie. Gone, too, are the opening-credits cartoons. You don’t even hear Neal Hefti’s surf-rock-influenced theme until Act Three!

“Ken Wood” (real name Giovanni Cianfriglia) is … Super Argo! © Liber Films

Tights, camera, action!

You’d think with Batmania taking up all of the world’s oxygen between 1966 and ’68, there’d be a slew of superhero movies from Hollywood during that frantic period. Not the case. The 1966 feature “Batman,” based on the Adam West show, was it. Odd in retrospect, but place yourself in the era.

Prior to that film, there was only one full-length American superhero movie (a category which excludes serials). “Superman and the Mole Men” (1951) starring George Reeves was a minor-studio black-and-white flick — not a big-studio, big-budget, aggressively marketed color production like “Batman.”

So in the eyes of the studio “suits,” the box office potential of superhero movies was not sufficiently proven, and thus given scant regard. Once the TV series “Batman” crashed-and-burned in 1968, it cast serious doubt upon the still-kinda-fledgling movie genre. Ten years would pass before another Hollywood superhero swooshed across the silver screen: Richard Donner’s “Superman” (1978), in which Christopher Reeve wore the jet-black forelock.

Yet, there were other superhero movies during Batmania, just not from Hollywood studios. Instead, these came from two relatively off-the-radar sectors: American low-budget “indies” (independent films), and what was then known as the “foreign” market.

Here in the States, where no one bats an eye at commercial exploitation, two schlock filmmakers sought to cash in on the trend with inept spoofs that were rushed to drive-ins and grindhouses in 1966: Ray Dennis Steckler with “Rat Pfink and Boo Boo”
and Jerry Warren with “The Wild World of Batwoman.” Yeeesh!

Films also sprang from such far-flung markets as Italy (with Giovanni Cianfriglia billed as “Ken Wood”); Mexico (where masked wrestlers have muchos paralelas with superheroes); Japan (“The Golden Bat” is wack, y’all); and the Philippines (with brazen knock-offs that were just begging to be slapped with a cease-and-desist).

Maura Monti is the (unlicensed) Mexican Batwoman! © Cinematográfica Calderón

‘Las mujer murcielago’

A mad scientist is killing wrestlers to build a scaly, bug-eyed gill-man in his floating laboratory. Who ya gonna call? Las mujer murcielago, of course. (That’s Batwoman to we Yanks).

Maura Monti stars as a famous luchadora enmasculado (lady masked wrestler) enlisted by the policía. Her costume is a straight ripoff of the one worn by Adam West, save for the periwinkle tights. (Besides the cape and cowl, Batwoman basically walks around town in a nicely filled bikini, hunting for clues and eluding bungling thugs.)

She throws acid in the face of evil Dr. Williams, played by Roberto Cañedo in a virtual reprise of his role in “Doctor of Doom” (1963), which likewise mixed wrestling ladies and monsters. René Cardona, the director of both films, often employs an underwater camera in scenes of Batwoman deftly navigating jagged coral without damaging her precious bat-bikini.

In other words: THIS MOVIE ROCKS.

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