Thursday, 14 July 2011

Batman (1943)

Excerpt from Batman (1943).

In my previous (and popular) review of Max Fleischer's Superman cartoons I observed that the two greatest superheroes ever created are fundamentally Pulp heroes and work best in a setting that reflects this. Superman, first published in 1938, is most ideal against his Fritz Lang, World's Fair setting. Batman, created a year later, is also better against a Noir background, attested too by the recreation of such a setting for The Batman Adventures animated series in the 1990's.

1939 is a notable date for another reason: the onset of World War II. The second batch of Superman cartoons had the Man of Steel fight on the Pacific front, and the first translation of Batman into film had him fight domestic terrorism. And boy is it ever a propaganda piece! One cannot reasonably expect nuanced portrayals of Germans and Japanese people in films of this vintage (they remain a rarity then and now, be it 49th Parallel or Letters from Iwo-Jima), but Batman outdoes itself.

In the first of the serial's 15 episodes, we are shown the vista of an empty "Little Tokyo", Gotham City's Japanese quarter. The narrator explains the dereliction as the product of how "a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs..." The camera pans to the only operating business: a "cave of horrors" ghost train in which mannequins recreate the war crimes of Japanese soldiers. Within this lair lurks J. Carrol Naish, a white actor in heavy make-up playing the Japanese scientific genius Dr. Daka.

Daka's plan is to bring together technological experts, enlisting them in his conspiracy against the United States government. Those who fail to voluntarily help him obtain the components of his massive radium gun submit unwillingly to his electric zombification process, which saps their wills and renders them mindless slaves. Only Batman and Robin - now government secret agents - can foil his scheme. Lewis Wilson enjoys the rare distinction of playing a picture perfect Bruce Wayne, with Douglas Croft as the Boy Wonder, but suffers as Batman. The costume isn't all it could be, which is forgivable insofar as its very difficult to compensate for the inability of comic book spandex costumes to look good on a real person. He's not quite as acrobatic as one might hope for in a Caped Crusader either.

Every popular rendition of Batman leaves its mark on the source material. For example, after her fame in The Batman Adventures, Joker's accomplice Harley Quinn was added to the comic book's line-up. Thanks to Batman Returns, the Penguin became a deformed beast-man instead of merely a chubby gangster with good fashion sense. The Batman serial was no different, bequeathing to posterity the Bat Cave and the tall, thin, mustachioed Alfred Pennyworth. Originally the character was Penguinesque in stature, but this serial turned him into a more proper British servant. Thankfully the American jingoism and all that comes with it did not translate to the comic.

The serial does improve in this regard, with decreasingly overt racism, over the course of the 15 episodes. It still isn't in the same class as other movie serials of the era or the Superman cartoon. For the most part it is notable only for its place in history.


Xenorama said...

I like this serial (man, what the heck with the costumes though?). the second one is actually a better serial overall though.

it's one of the better comic to serial adaptions, though not as good as Captain Marvel or Spy Smasher, but on a par with Captain America.

good post!

Cory Gross said...

Thank you!

I haven't seen Batman and RObin but I hear it was so campy that it was the inspiration behind the 1960's TV show.

Xenorama said...

well, all superheroes have the element of "camp" to them, in the strictest sense of the word.

that is, "unintended humor". grown men in costumes is inherently silly, and these are played completely straight so there is some funny stuff do to that.

but it's as good as the previous serial. very exciting stuff!