It can be pretty hard to compare one Batman to another Batman. The points of similarity between the super-campy Adam West iteration, the super-rubber Michael Keaton iteration, and the super-dark Christian Bale iteration essentially begin and end with the pointy ears. Val Kilmer and George Clooney are both sleepwalking through their outings, so there’s that. Ben Affleck’s latest incarnation in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice looks to change it up yet again, providing a more world-weary Dark Knight Rises spin on the superhero. Surely the longevity of the character is the major contributing factor to the gradual shifts in tone, as with goofy/serious Bond and goofy/serious Sherlock, and it’s true of the Caped Crusader in the comics as well.
We talked about all of that in our review of Batman Returns, but it’s far more obvious when we go all the way back to the 1943 serial Batman. “Batman and Robin” wasn’t at all a part of the cultural lexicon at this point. The character had only just appeared in 1939, largely as a response to the popularity of counterpart Superman, and so the 1943 theater release of the 3.5-hour marathon serial was for many the very first encounter with Batman. More importantly, 1943 was arguably the height of World War II, meaning that a solid 85% of theatrically-released serials felt compelled to include a strong commentary on nationalistic duty and American pride. Batman was no different. Watch it today and you might find yourself using different descriptors, those being really really racist.
The point is that the Batman serial is two things — a Batman adventure and a WWII movie serial — and those two things have little to do with each other. As the former, Batman isn’t very noteworthy aside from the handful of character traits it introduced (the “Bat’s Cave”, the secret entrance through the grandfather clock, and the entire appearance of the previously-overweight Alfred). As the latter, Batman is exactly what you’d expect. It’s an action-heavy serial with a small number of actors prancing around a large number of locations, the bad guy is Japanese, and the narration is breathless. Serial historians are probably excited by this. Batman historians are probably excited, too, but only because Batman shows how far the character has come and how much writers still hadn’t figured out yet.
Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft play Batman and Robin, and again, the action and the costumes are about what you’d expect. There are more than three instances where Batman gives Robin ten fingers to get up over a ledge or onto a rooftop. They always seems to be clambering over each other. Wilson started a trend that West, Keaton, Kilmer, Clooney, and Bale would carry on by being surprisingly good as Bruce Wayne and pretty damn ridiculous as alter-ego Batman. He’s a cross between Sean Connery and Bruce Campbell donning Hulk Hogan’s heavyweight belt and Bridget Jones’s granny panties. Meanwhile, Croft started a trend that Burt Ward and Chris O’Donnell would carry on by sucking as both Dick Grayson and alter-ego Robin. Is Robin that complex of a character that no one can get him right? He’s a lad in tights. Hardly Machiavellian.
Besides the wise decision to make all of the costumes significantly less baggy, the actual process of changing from mild-mannered to super-powered has gone through a bit of an interesting evolution. Batman Forever and Batman & Robin had those ridiculous zoom-in costume montages which never fail to crop up images of director Joel Schumacher spending due time to line up a perfect shot of that half-basketball codpiece (“juuuussst…right!”); Batman Begins matured the same sequence while Bruce perfects his armor. The serial Batman makes the first stabs at such a scene. A few years ago I used to have a 9-5 day job and an evening gig starting at 6, meaning I had to wrestle with a different uniform at red lights and stop signs on the way from one job to the next. That’s essentially what Bruce and Dick do here, and of course Dick usually exclaims “Let’s get into our outfits!” because he’s a f*cking idiot and changing into green and yellow spandex in the backseat of a moving vehicle is the best part of his day.
The most interesting thing about Batman is the villain. Again, the rampant racism throughout the serial really tends to bog everything down in front of a modern audience. TCM aired Batman this past year without any edits or censors, inspiring many an op-ed piece. The evil Japanese scientist Dr. Daka is the ostensible subject of all of the ugly race-baiting, but if he were to be freed of that he’d be a classic ’40s Batman baddie. He runs a cult called Rising Sun, maintains an alligator pit, and develops a “radium gun” that blasts holes in everything. Best of all is his mind-control headset, placed like a crown on anyone who defies him. “I’ve converted him into a zombie,” he proudly announces of his latest ward in the same polite voice C-3PO uses to say “We are now a part of the tribe.” Daka is the kind of Batman villain that Grant Morrison would reforge into a primary antagonist for the Dark Knight, pulled from obscurity and shown to be controlling a cross-section of the rogue’s gallery all along. One has to wonder if that will ever happen, or if the fear of reverting to that racist mentality cripples a character forever. If it does, then Daka sadly flops out of the gate.
The plus column isn’t entirely blank, though, and there’s more actual humor here (by “actual” we mean “intentionally funny”) than in the entirety of Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. In one scene bumbling old Alfred blindly fires a pistol into a room full of bad guys and then asks how many he’s killed once said bad guys flee. “Seven,” snaps Batman. “But there were only four of the ruffians,” whines Alfred. “You killed three of them twice,” exclaims Robin, showing he’s not entirely useless by employing some math skills. It’s classic Golden Age serial banter, something that might take the kids a moment before sending them into a fit of giggles.
And the second plus is a surprising one: the action. By Batman-on-film standards, the serial has more fistfights-per-minute than any other version so far. By 1943 standards, these fight scenes practically deserve an Oscar. It’s very obvious that there is absolutely zero choreography whatsoever. Most of these aren’t one-on-one fights, either, but brawls wherein Batman and Robin take on four or five guys. As mentioned previously about the weird sense that everyone’s always clambering over each other, one might take a look at these scenes and just call them a mess. True, it’s often hard to tell who exactly it was that we just saw flung across the room. But maybe it’s the lack of choreography that adds to the afternoon serial charm of the event. Sure, Dark Knight Rises pits Bats against the hulking and impressive Bane, but at the end it’s somewhat inescapable that the two are following the motions and landing punches where they mean to and falling down with style. Here, Batman and Robin get their asses kicked several times. Then they get up and launch themselves ungracefully at whoever’s in front of them and haymaker the shit out of everyone until the music stops. Odd that a ’40s fight scene would be all the more visceral than a big-budget scene from 2012, but there you have it.
So Batman, for better or worse, is very much a product of the times. In one sense that mars the serial, the racism making the whole thing touchy and sending characters like Dr. Daka off to the Island of Forgotten Foes. On the other hand, this is the Batman of the original era, only a few years after he first hit the comic books. There’s no legacy to uphold or little fan-winks to a larger universe or dark, weighty mood swings. This is Batman before all that, Batman in a raw state. Neither of those automatically mean the Batman serial is enjoyable, but they do make it pretty fascinating. And thankfully it is enjoyable, more so as an afternoon chapter play than as a Batman story. If nothing else, Batman is tangible proof of how far the character has come in the ensuing 75 years. Or, in Robin’s case, how far he hasn’t.