Batman (1943 serial)

Batman (1943), directed by Lambert Hillyer, written by Leslie Swabakcer and Harry Fraser, based on characters created by Bob Kane, starring Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, Shirley Patterson, J. Carrol Naish 

Batman had his first entry to the silver screen as early as 1943 when Paramount Pictures released a movie theatre serial based on the character. That's not too shabby considering Batman was first introduced to the world in 1939, so it didn't take long for him to leap from the world of comics into the world of pulp-serials.

In this 15-part series, Batman is not just a vigilante, but a secret government operative, who stumbles upon a secret plot of a Japanese ring that is trying to sabotage the USA within. Not only does this Japanese ring have a secret weapon that utilizes radium, they also have means of converting justice loving Americans into mindless zombies with computerized mind-control. Suspension and thrills ensue.

It all begins when a playboy Bruce Wayne (Lewis Wilson) and his ward Dick Grayson (Douglas Croft) promise to escort Bruce's lady friend Linda Page (Shirley Patterson) to meet her uncle Martin (Gus Glassmire) on the day he's released from the prison. AS luck has it, Martin is also a scientist, who ends up being kidnapped by the notorious Dr Tito Daka (J. Carrol Naish), the ringleader of the Japanese underground sabotaging the mighty USA.

As Batman and Robin, the duo begins to dig deeper into the case, only to discover that there's more at stake than just plain robberies or other kinds of criminal misdeeds. For the peace, the justice and the American way, the masked vigilantes have to foil the plans of Dakai, before he manages to shake the very foundations of the greatest democracy in the world.

It's painfully obvious that the serial was produced during the turmoils the second world war. Not only is are Batman and Robin made into some sort of secret government agents (a fact that is pointed out a couple of times, but not really otherwise addressed), there is from a modern perspective a nasty taint of anti-Japanese sentiment in the series. Not only does the narrator manage to applaud the decision of transferring the American Japanese to internment camps, terms like "shifty eyes", "slant eyes" and Japs are thrown out here and there. Even Batman throws the term Jap, when he first sees Dr Daka.

Obviously, the serial is a product of its time, and as such, it also works also as a wartime propaganda. Considering that Japan was at the time in the sight of the USA thanks to Pearl Harbour, it's really not that surprising, that the not so favourable sentiments towards the enemies have seeped in here as well. But at the same time that does make the age of the serial even more pronounced.

While Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson are shown as playful characters, especially around Alfred (William Austin), the characterization of Batman is pretty far from playful. Despite he's not shown as quite the one man army that can take on multiple woes at once thanks to his skill, he is still shown as a fighter, who doesn't even hesitate to take a life if need calls. In that, he's very much like the original Batman before he was altered into a character that does his best not to kill.

As a whole though, Batman and Robin come out relatively incompetent fighters throughout the series, as they are pretty often overpowered by the villains. This dynamic duo isn't really that versed in the secrets of martial arts more than they are brawlers, who trust their firsts more than anything else. Also, all kinds of special Bat-gadgets are missing.

The version I saw was over 3 and a half hours, stitched together from the 15 episodes, which really is far too much considering how little material there actually is in the script. It could have carried a shorter movie, but with the serial structure, there's a tonne of fights that end up in cliffhangers only to be resolved effortlessly in a couple of seconds.

Maybe if the fight choreography was better and the filming more inventive, the three and a half hours would have felt like a breeze, but I can't really claim that Batman shines in any area. The acting is pretty decent, but overall the quality isn't enough to carry this version of Batman over the finishing line.

While Batman is an interesting look at the history of the character, especially what comes to variations of him outside comics, I wouldn't really claim this particular take has feared time really that well. In the end, it is what it is, warts and all. If you do plan to see it, there are versions of it that have been cut under three hours, so I'd go with those, as there isn't really that much to miss, unless you are interested in seeing repetitive fight scenes played after each other.

I'm guessing it's not necessarily legal, but there are a couple of versions of it floating around on Youtube, so knock yourself out, if you feel like giving it a spin.