Sunday, July 27, 2008

Batman: The Complete 1943 Movie Serial Collection

All the hype about Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight backfired on me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it’s a great film and I’m grateful Christian Bale and director Christopher Nolan have rejuvenated a franchise that was in serious danger of imploding, but all the Ledger worshipping and long movie lines discouraged me.

Instead, I opted to reboot the Batman saga my own way by going back to the beginning. Not by the way of Michael Keaton or Adam West but further back to 1943 when Lewis Wilson played the Caped Crusader. If you haven’t ever heard of Wilson, don’t worry, neither had I, even though I was aware of the old serial.

My opinion is mixed; but first, my gripes, starting with the cover art for this 2005 dvd release. Columbia Pictures chose to use a scene that, while eye-catching, could very easily be confused with a current animated Batman feature. I realize their motive is to sell extra copies by creating a connection to the current Batman, but I feel this is a bit of a misrepresentation to snag the unsuspecting.

The biggest detraction is the racism. Early in the first episode, an empty Japanese community is explained as being evacuated by a “wise” (US) government. The main villain, a Japanese scientist who is working for Emperor Hirohito, has a henchmen turn on him, saying, "That's the kind of answer that fits the color of your skin." Other offensive remarks such as "shifty eyed Japs", "twisted oriental brains", and "squinty-eyes" are tossed in the narrative and dialogue. Considering the internment and treatment many Japanese Americans experienced during WWII, these cringe inducing moments might not be appropriate for younger viewers, and while I understand the film reflects the feelings of a nation drawn into WWII following Pearl Harbor, that doesn’t make it any easier to watch in 2008.

The low budget and formulaic plot add to the show’s silliness. All 15 episodes center on Batman and Robin thwarting the attempts of the one and only villain, Dr. Daka, who is out to annihilate America with his radium-powered death ray and a mind-control device to transform people into "zombie" servants. Columbia Pictures, with a reputation for being cheap, saved beaucoup bucks by buying a 1939 Cadillac for the Batmobile which doubles as Bruce Wayne's personal car – it’s surprising the Gotham City PD never made the connection. Not to mention the ill-fitting costumes of the dynamic duo are distracting, and in a hilarious scene, Batman loses his cape while fighting, but it mysteriously reappears before the fight is over.

On the positive side, this serial uses the old cliffhanger clichés relatively well. There is plenty of "fist-a-cuffs" with the bad guys and director Lambert Hillyer keeps the action brisk. Lewis Wilson makes a good first Batman/Bruce Wayne and at times he manages to rise above the campy action. One noteworthy item, this serial introduced the bat cave to the mythology, even though the fake bats on strings are a hoot.

True fans and collectors should not pass up this historical Batman but casual viewers should probably skip it and head off to the theater instead.

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