Batman Cinematic Universe Retrospective: Batman (1943)

Throughout my series of articles on the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe a little voice in the back of my mind kept whispering “find a reason to write about Batman”. Batman has been my go-to superhero since I was four or five years old when I began watching the still brilliant Batman: The Animated Series – the only cartoon show of the 90s that is as good as The Simpsons – with my equally-obsessed brother. The Tim Burton movies followed quickly after, solidifying my love of the character and making it impossible for any other superhero to match up.

Which means that these articles will have a more personal touch than the MCU ones, as none of those films contributed to my pop culture education in my formative years, as I analyze the many celluloid versions of The Caped Crusader and how these movies contributed to the Batman legacy. Before I dived into this topic, I assumed that I would be starting with the Adam West version of the character, something that filled me with both excitement (I enjoyed the campy 60s series as a child) and dread (because I’ve become snobbier about Batman in recent years). But I quickly discovered that Batman’s first cinematic appearance wasn’t in the 60s but over 20 years earlier with the 1943 15-part serial, entitled Batman.

Directed by Lambert Hilyer and starring Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin, the serial is a landmark as it marks Batman’s debut on the big screen (each episode would be shown weekly before the main feature) as well as contributing to the ongoing continuity of the comics. Much like Kryptonite debuting in a Superman radio program, the Batman serial gives us the first appearance of aspects of the mythos that have become gospel including a thin Alfred (he was a portly gentleman in the comics up to this point), the grandfather clock entrance to the Bat Cave  (which looked like an absolute pain in the behind to go in and out of) and most surprisingly, the debut of the Bat Cave itself. That’s right, the Bat Cave was created in a propaganda serial that very few people (including me, until three days ago) have heard of.

One of the reasons that the serial isn’t as famous as other Batman properties is probably due to the fact that it’s a propaganda film, and a blatant one at that. Released in 1943, the serial’s plot is rife with racism against the Japanese, who are positioned as the antagonists, with Batman (as both Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego) and Robin working for the U.S. Government. In a modern context some parts of the serial are hard to stomach, especially the man villain Dr. Daka, who is played by the white American actor J. Carrol Naish, a Japanese spy who is also a mad scientist infiltrating parts of Gotham City’s infrastructure. Dr. Daka’s secret lair (because every villain has one) is hidden, without a hint of irony, within the Japanese Carnival of Horrors which is the only active business in Gotham City’s Little Tokyo community as the narrator informs us that “The Wise Government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs”. The racism is far from subtle, with this line also alludes to the rounding-up over 110 000 Japanese citizens and their following incarceration in Internment camps, a huge portion of which were in California. In 1980 an investigation into the camps by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, formed by President Jimmy Carter, found that the camps were a product of institutional racism and that there was little evidence of betrayal from America’s Japanese citizens, but nonetheless, this Batman serial is resolute in the villainy of the Japanese.

Dr. Daka’s evil plan, which includes making zombies (yep, you read that correctly), stealing enough radium for an atomic blaster, and the aforementioned infiltration into US infrastructure through a team of corrupt officials known as The League of the New Order. The fear that Daka is supposed to instill on the audiences of the time is obvious: he wipes the minds of patriotic Americans turning them into subservient zombies, makes traitors of city officials, and wants to make a weapon of mass destruction to use against America. All while spending at least half of his screen-time dramatically opening doors and hearing about how his men have killed Batman, except that they never do. He’s a busy guy, is what I’m saying.

But alright: let’s talk about Batman and how he is portrayed in his debut cinematic appearance. Batman 1943 is just as famous for what it includes as what it leaves out. There is no origin story for Bruce, no mention of his dead parents and how their murders turned him into Batman. There is no recognizable villain from the rogues’ gallery, with only Dr. Daka (who would make appearances in the comics of the early 40s set before the serial) as the central antagonist. There is no Batmobile, no utility belt, and no gadgets, with both Batman and Robin mostly getting changed into their costumes in the backseat of Alfred’s car. The Bat Cave, called the Bat’s Cave here, is only used as an interrogation room, with five goons being brought there over the course of 15 episodes. Batman and Robin are government agents instead of vigilantes with their own views on justice. Alfred is still the comic relief, but the harder-edged butler was still in his future and there is no Commissioner Gordon (despite his existence in the comics at this time) as he’s replaced with an idiotic original character called Captain Arnold.

Unlike many Batman movies, the 1943 version does play around with Bruce’s status as the World’s Greatest Detective. This is shown with scenes that deliberately mimic that actions of literature’s most famous, and cinema’s first, detective, Sherlock Holmes. Granted, most of the detection is wrapped up in the chemistry of radium, the pursuit of which fuels much of the story, but Bruce does use disguises, like Holmes does: most notably a low-life name Chuck White to infiltrate criminal establishments when he doesn’t choose to just crash through the windows. There is also a bizarre scene in which both Batman and Dr. Daka receive messages from their respective governments. Batman’s message is a standard delivery, but Daka’s comes in the form of a dead Japanese soldier who he brings back to life long enough to get the secret message before the soldier dies for good. This is a strange, strange serial.

The real question is whether this is a good version of Batman. The answer can be summed up in the serial’s very first scene. We are shown Batman sitting at a desk in the Bat Cave, with the shadows of bats in the background and an ominous narration that introduces him to the audience:

“High atop one of the hills which ring the teaming metropolis of Gotham City, a large house rears its bulk against the dark sky. Outwardly there’s nothing to distinguish this house from many others, but deep in the cavernous basements of this house is a chamber hewn from the living rock of the mountainside, strange, dimly lighted, mysteriously secret bat cave headquarters of America’s #1 crimefighter, Batman! Yes, Batman, clad in the somber costume which has struck terror to the heart of many swaggering denizens of the Underworld. Batman, who is even now pondering a plan of a new assault against the forces of crime, a crushing blow against evil…”

Very cool, right? Then the dark atmosphere is ruined as soon as Robin, The Boy Wonder, who is the universal symbol for Batman movies with a light tone, comes onscreen to deflate the mood. In all fairness, in terms of super-heroics, Robin is the serial’s MVP. Shocking, I know, but the truth is that Batman sucks for most of this story. With its status as a serial, each installment has to end on a cliffhanger, and because Batman is the main character, they usually end with him in a situation of almost certain death. The problem with this is that it makes Batman look like an amateur. He gets his ass handed to him in every fight, with nameless goons able to punch him out with no problem. Up until the last few installments, Robin has had to save Batman’s life on many occasions, and those times where Robin doesn’t intervene Batman survives through sheer luck: such as landing on a scaffold after being thrown off a building, surviving a mine explosion through the debris forming a perfect arch around him, and coming out unscathed after a damn plane crash! When going through my notes while writing this article, I’ve written that Batman is a lucky bastard five times, and that he is bad at his job a whopping ten times. As charming as Lewis Wilson is in the role, especially as the shiftless Bruce Wayne, this Batman is not formidable.

While the Batman serial is far from the perfect version of the character, it does introduce things that have been used in more recent movies. Batman leaves criminals tied up outside Gotham Police Station just like in The Dark Knight, he uses fear and intimidation when interrogating criminals, and there is even an early version of marking his enemies to show that he defeated them. While this isn’t as drastic as Batfleck branding criminals with his symbol, so they would be killed in prison, 1943’s Batman puts bat shaped stickers on criminal’s foreheads. There is also the forgettable love interest that would become part of the cinematic Batman’s DNA in the form of the constantly gassed and captured Linda Page.

In terms of a cinematic introduction, the Batman serial is an interesting place to start in terms of the character’s history, all 15 installments are available on YouTube, but it also shows how much Batman has changed over the years. Much of the character’s idiosyncrasies would grow with each incarnation, but apart from the fact that this Batman is a bit of a wimp, the purely Caped Crusader parts of the story should be explored.

On the next Batman retrospective: Will the Adam West version be unwatchable camp, or will it have grown into a lovable spoof? Tune in next week!

If you enjoyed this retrospective, please be sure to tune in next week for our look at the Adam West Batman feature. You can also take a look at our other cinematic universe retrospectives, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Jurassic Park movies! And, as ever, if you enjoyed this and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting us on Patreon.

By Kevin Boyle

(header image courtesy of Pinterest)

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