A mere four years after The Bat-Man made his debut in the pages of Detective Comics, the world was a very different place. Specifically, it was at war. For the United States, the front lines of the war were threefold: the war in Europe, the war in the Pacific, and the propaganda war on the home front. In 1943, comic book characters, and especially superheroes, were a large part of that propaganda war. As Hollywood was also a giant cog in that machine, it was only natural that superheroes should make the jump from page to screen. Superman had already done so in a series of animated shorts by Max Fleischer Studios and Paramount Pictures. But Superman had powers and abilities that couldn’t be readily translated to live action in those days. Superheroes needed to be real to be truly inspiring, or so people thought at the time.
In those days, when you went to see a film, you were seeing an event. It was as big a production at the theater to present a film as it was to have one made. Today, we have the luxury of seeing these things at home if we so desire, skipping past the commercials and movie trailers and such. If we go to the theater, we get some ads and some trailers for coming films. Back then, it was a whole different ball game. You got some trailers, but they weren’t anything close to the polished adverts you see now, nor were they for movies that wouldn’t be released for 6-8 months. The studio would advertise a movie that it was releasing in the next couple of weeks. But the real pre-game attractions came in the form of the cartoon short, the newsreel, and the serial. People didn’t have television back then. They got their news and entertainment from the radio at home, so going to the theater brought these things into focus. This is where people saw the faces of heroes and villains, both fact and fiction. This is where the propaganda machine staked its flag.
The average movie serial of that time consisted of 15 chapters, shown one chapter a week, with each chapter being shown in front of a different film as studios at that time churned out films at a far faster rate than they can today. Fewer special effects, fewer reshoots, no expectations that people would scrutinize these things on home video a thousand times, scripts that could be performed on a stage as easily as on a screen… these were all standards in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Star power was everything.
This is where Batman became a star. But as the Caped Crusader made his official on-screen debut in a serial, that meant all of the standard clichés and pitfalls inherent in the format. There would be the obligatory cliffhanger ending. This is where the term comes from, because many serials would literally have the hero dangling off a cliff. Audiences knew the hero would get out of what ever death trap was sprung, but they’d have to go back to the movies the next week to see how it was done. Production values on these serials weren’t spectacular by any stretch of imagination. The costumes were often pretty bad and ill-fitting, designed to be a “one-size fits all” kind of thing in the event that actors needed replacing (which sometimes happened). Special effects usually consisted of smoke or some kind of weird lighting or sound effect. Dialogue was written in a hurry and tended to directly reflect the canned plot. The video and sound quality was inconsistent at best, depending upon what they had to work with at the time, and what could be preserved over the decades for us to see. 1943’s Batman suffered all of this and more.
For starters, there’s no Batmobile. They ride around in Bruce Wayne’s convertible, even as Batman and Robin. Lame, I know. But it gets far worse.
As I say, it was wartime, and that meant Batman would be facing the real world wartime menace of the Japanese. In pulps and comics of the 1930s and 40s, there was a kind of cheap demonization around Asian cultures commonly referred to as “The Yellow Peril.” The unfortunate thing about stereotypes is that, like it or not, they come from somewhere. The United States had many Chinese and Japanese immigrants for decades, and there were a few generations of that heritage who were natural born citizens by this point in history. Despite their considerable contributions to society, they were still seen as outsiders from a culture that wouldn’t begin to open up to the rest of the world in any meaningful way until Bruce Lee came a-knocking a generation later. Part of that is the unwillingness to integrate on both sides, and part of that is a complete disconnect between the cultural attitudes. What’s common in those cultures are points of difference that can be singled out, caricatured, and used as a kind of shorthand that uncultured audiences of that era would better understand. Because of the war, the Yellow Peril was a very real thing in the minds of the average American. If you have the opportunity, listen to the stories told by Star Trek‘s George Takei about the years he spent in an interment camp, all rights and freedoms revoked. The enemy could be anywhere, and nobody could tell by looking who might be German, but you knew if they were Asian, even if you couldn’t tell the difference between the cultures. Translate those horrors and stupidities to popular entertainment, and you’ve got the absolute worst kinds of backwards thinking embodied in a character that audiences are predisposed to hate.
The one workable aspect about the Yellow Peril I always appreciated was that, regardless of anything else, the villains were never stupid. If anything, they were far smarter than your average mobster thug, a threat worthy of testing your favorite heroes. Such is the case here. I will argue to the end of time that the quality of a hero is defined first and foremost by the quality of the threat they face, and the Yellow Peril stereotype gave us some classic villains. Fu Manchu or The Shadow’s arch-nemesis Shi-Wan Khan are prime examples. In Batman, the threat is Dr. Daka, an agent of the Japanese Imperial government, sent over to undermine the American war effort through sabotage. Rest assured his scheme is far more grandiose and far more interesting. Sadly, it’s a caricature that’s ripped straight out of the local headlines of the time, and that’s why such caricatures stick in our minds. Sabotage on the home front was a very real issue. Even more sadly, as relevant as this might have been in 1943, for modern audiences, it’s squirm-worthy to see and hear such overt racial slurs and bigotry, especially from one of pop culture’s most enduring icons. It says a lot for how far we’ve come, and just how fearful audiences were then. And just to cement the point home, Batman isn’t some wildcard vigilante like we know today. In the serial, he’s a contract agent of the U.S. government. When you hear about things being spelled out in black and white, well, it’s spelled out here as clearly as it can possibly be.
All in all, this is a classic serial, and all that implies. It’s cheap entertainment, a curiosity of its time, and the idea is far better than the execution. As a fan of serials, it’s nothing I haven’t seen hundreds of times, and often far better in a great many other serials. But for fans of the Batman character and mythos, there are other reasons to sit through this. There are reasons to actually engage with the material for the diehards out there.
First, as I say, it’s an historic first live action portrayal of Batman and Robin, by Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft, respectively. Most people today can’t tell you who they are, but their mark on Bat-history is undeniable. Say what you will about their bad costumes. The performances these two give are rather outstanding, all things considered. You can put them side by side with their comic book counterparts of the time and believe these are the same characters. That’s an achievement by any standard. Don’t get me started on how they can’t seem to accomplish that same feat in a Batman movie today. I’ll go further to applaud this because of Robin. In the comics of that time, Robin was often kept at arm’s length when the danger was kicked up to higher levels. Here, Robin is side by side with his mentor and partner, down in the same muck. That no doubt had an effect on young minds of the era.
The second big reason is what this serial brought to the Batman mythos that wasn’t there before. Let’s start with everyone’s favorite butler, Alfred Pennyworth. Portrayed by William Austin, Alfred’s on-screen portrayal would define the character for a generation in the pages of the comics. He was never just “the help.” Right from the beginning, Alfred is a confidant who knows our heroes’ secret identities and is often called into service to aid them. He was technically created for the comics by Batman creators Bill Finger and Bob Kane, first appearing that same year, but the serial introduced him a mere couple of months after his page debut and heavily influenced how he would develop.
Another important contribution to the mythos that wasn’t there before is the Batcave. This is solely the work of a screenwriter’s imagination, so if you think about it, Batman ran around for four years before this point without having a Batcave to call home base. I have trouble wrapping my head around that sometimes, and I’ve read those comics. It’s just not something you think about until somebody points it out, and then you tend to fixate on it a bit because the realization is so jarring.
This serial’s contribution to the mythos is one thing. Its contribution to pop culture is a whole different matter. This serial was re-released in theaters in its entirety in 1965, billed as An Evening with Batman. A generation after its original release, audiences of the time honed in on the ridiculous nature of what they saw on screen. Its success, both monetarily and in hitting the pop culture chord could only mean one thing: revival. Think about the date here, and I’ll bet you know what came about as a direct result.
You guessed it…
Boggles the mind, doesn’t it, how something like this serial could have a very different kind of impact only 20 years later?
As a serial, the run time on this is over four hours, and I would challenge anyone to accept the mental beating of a marathon viewing. It sounds easy; trust me, it’s anything but. I would also be one of those people that advocates for keeping something like this completely intact for the sake of history. When you edit something out, it’s the same thing as saying it never happened, which in my mind is as big a crime as the original crime. But from an editorial point of view, I think this serial could actually benefit from a stripped down 2-hour version, with some of the heavy-handed racial elements and a good deal of the ridiculous stuff sidelined. Editing can make or break a film, after all, and the cookie-cutter formula of serials were cookie-cutter for a reason. It was a formula that worked. A little trim here and there, and it might be a far better story. But if such a thing were to ever happen, I’d be the first to demand the original to be packaged with it just on account. The good old days weren’t always good, and some things just need to be seen to be believed.