June 14, 2017

Adam West, R.I.P.

It isn't in our nature to think of superheroes dying. It's true that when we're small, we often watch with our eyes covered, peeking between the fingers, and we've been known to shout to our heroes on the big screen, warning them about the bad guy who's coming up behind him.

But by-and-large, we know that Superman will survive that Kryptonite, we know that Spider-Man will escape the clutches of the Green Goblin, we know that the Incredible Hulk will avoid capture by the police even as he manages to apprehend the criminal. Unless it's the last movie in the series, we know our hero will live to fight another day, and even when an arc of movies wraps up, it's not likely that anything will befall him (or her); after all, how do you reboot the concept otherwise?

Things are different in real life - almost the opposite, in fact - and I suppose the best way to think about it is to look at the superhero as a surrogate parent. To a child, the parent is larger than life, indestructible, always stronger than the dad down the street, or smarter than a friend's mother. It's not until we grow older, when the child who was taken care of becomes the adult to takes care of, that we begin to understand and appreciate the fleeting nature of life. If the superhero is indestructible, a superhuman, we find one day that our parents are all-too human. It is, I suppose, part of becoming an adult.

Though an outsider might look at the superhero as a phenomenon of the child, it actually appeals to the child in all of us. How else to explain the skimpy wardrobe or the brooding intensity? As we mature, the superhero evolves, from comic book to Saturday serial to TV star to big-screen phenomenon. There is, however, still a portion of that original hero that lingers in us long after we grow older, an image that evokes warmth and comfort, a recognition of better, or at least simpler, times.

And so it was when Adam West, TV's original Batman, died on Saturday at the age of 88. There was, unsurprisingly, a great outpouring of affection from people who had grown up with his version of the Caped Crusader, which we all know to be the best version, but there was something about West that allowed his image, at least to me, to evolve as we evolved. Even when he donned the cape and mask, there was a knowing wink in his performance, one that went beyond the camp that the series represented. I noticed it a couple of years ago in a profile that TV Guide's Dwight Whitney did of him, when we had a chance to see the self-deprecation, the twinkle in the eye.

The chant "We want Batman!" rises in shrill crescendo.  "Ah, the adulation!" he continues, undulating like a Girl Scout in a tight girdle.  "Oh, I love it, basking in the sincere warm smiles of the little children.   What!  You say Chief O'Hara isn't working today?  Oh, I miss the Chief.  The family's disintegrating - Robin off to college, Aunt Harriet drafted and being shipped to Vietnam. Oh, the heartbreak of it all.  Here, give me that!"

You couldn't help but like him for that.

It must have been frustrating for anyone trying to be a serious actor to be pigeonholed in such a role; it had to have taken time to come to terms with it. But he did, and in the years to come it was as if he'd discovered a new role to take on, one that only he could do: not Adam West, but "Adam West." I'm thinking now of his performance in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day marathon from twenty-odd years ago, when he hosted the between-commercial segments with the same mock-seriousness (tinged with a certain dignity) that he had displayed as Batman. It's hard to put a finger on it, but it was as if we had the chance to see him without the costume, without the trappings of playing the superhero, only to find (to our delight, certainly) that he was the same person. It was as if we'd discovered somehow that Batman's alter ego was not Bruce Wayne but was in fact Adam West, and always had been; and that Bruce Wayne was nothing more than a creation of West's, to keep the rest of us guessing.

And so, even as we continued to enjoy Batman when we saw it on television or DVD, we were able to enjoy West at the same time, as the man who both was and was not Batman. You couldn't say that about Michael Keaton, or Val Kilmer, or George Clooney (especially not George Clooney), or Christian Bale - good as he was, for his Batman they even had to use a different name, The Dark Knight. When all is said and done, what we're left with is this - that Adam West was the superhero who allowed us to grow old with him, rather than being stuck in time, the one who combined the immortality of the cartoon character with the finite reach of the man. It's why, when he died, it felt as if a piece of each of us did as well, when we realized that we were growing old as well.

7 comments:

Keep those cards and letters coming in!