This is the second installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes. For part one, click here.
After the success of Republic’s Fawcett Comics serials, Columbia Pictures decided to get in the game and licensed several properties from National Periodical, now known as DC Comics. The first DC character they brought to the screen was Batman, along with his youthful sidekick Robin.
“Batman,” released in 1943, starred Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin. It also featured J. Carrol Naish as an original villain, not taken from the comic books, Dr. Tito Daka. Dr. Daka was a Japanese mad scientist who was working directly for Emperor Hirohito.
Produced at the height of American involvement in World War II, “Batman” was certainly a product of its time. The serial features many elements of U.S. propaganda, including several racial slurs against the Japanese and other elements that today could be seen as extremely racist. In the opening narration of the first episode, while describing a deserted street in what used to be a Japanese neighborhood in Gotham City, the narrator describes the neighborhood; “This was part of a foreign land, transplanted bodily to America and known as little Tokyo. Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street.”
The first Batman serial introduced many elements and changes from the source material that would later be integrated into the source material and become iconic pieces of Batman continuity. The Batcave – here referred to as the Bat’s Cave – was first seen in the serial, as well as being the first time Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred was portrayed as a slender man with a mustache. Before then, Alfred of the comics had always been a short, dumpy fellow.
While a Batmobile existed in the comics at the time, Columbia Pictures made no attempt to build one for the serial, not having the budget to do so. Instead, Bruce Wayne and Batman ended up driving around in the same black limousine, with Alfred chauffeuring him around in both identities. When trying to keep a secret identity, this is problematic to say the least.
Dr. Daka’s mad scheme involved using a machine to turn Gotham’s scientists into zombies, ready to do the will of the Japanese Empire. In this case, the will of the Japanese Empire is to steal all of the radium in Gotham City to power his death ray.
In the 1980s, the serial took some criticism for its racial slurs as well as its racist portrayal of Dr. Daka by a non-Asian actor. When the serial was aired on television and released on VHS, it was heavily edited to exclude these offensive elements, although a few television stations did air the original, unedited version. When the serial was released on DVD in 2005, to coincide with the release of “Batman Begins” on DVD it was restored to its theatrical release version.
“Batman” was followed by a sequel, “Batman and Robin,” in 1949. This time, the Dynamic Duo were played by Robert Lowery and John Duncan. Again, an original villain was created, this time a masked mystery man called The Wizard. The sequel also featured character actor Lyle Talbot as Commissioner Gordon, who was conspicuously absent from the first serial. Jane Adams portrayed Bruce Wayne’s love interest Vicki Vale, marking the first on-screen appearance of the character who had been introduced in the comics just a year before. Kim Basinger would famously portray the character in 1989’s “Batman” feature film.
The Wizard’s evil plot revolved around a machine which controlled other machines, allowing him to control cars, airplanes, and virtually any mechanical device he so chose. What The Wizard needs the machine for is left rather unclear. He uses the machine to help him steal diamonds, which he needs to power the machine. Other than that, the serial really doesn’t give the Wizard any sort of motivation except possibly wanting to kill Batman and Robin – who wouldn’t even be bothering with him if he wasn’t controlling machines and stealing diamonds – because reasons.
Again, the serial was filmed on a shoestring budget. Again no attempt was made to build a distinctive Batmobile. As with the first, Batman and Bruce Wayne drive around in the same car, this time a 1949 Mercury instead of a Limousine. Also this time, the car was a convertible and whenever it was Bruce Wayne’s car the top would be up and whenever Batman drove it the top would be down. Expecting this to fool anyone would be ridiculous, and to the serial’s credit there is even dialogue where Vicki Vale asks Batman if Bruce Wayne knew the caped crusader was driving around in his car. Batman dismisses the question, stating that he and Bruce Wayne are friends. Because duh, right?
“Batman and Robin” also featured the first on-screen appearance of the Batsignal, even though its portrayal isn’t exactly true to the comics. Instead of a flood light on the roof of police headquarters, it’s in a small projection box that looks sort of like a small television set, and it’s kept in Commissioner Gordon’s office. It’s also shown in one scene to work in the daytime.
“Batman and Robin” was released in two VHS volumes in 1989 to coincide with the release of Tim Burton’s 1989 film, as part of the resurgence of Batmania that film brought along with it. It was subsequently re-released as a single two tape VHS set in 1997 to coincide with the release of the “Batman and Robin” feature film, and on DVD in 2005 to coincide with the theatrical release of “Batman Begins.” Interestingly, “Batman and Robin” was released on DVD before the original serial.
In both serials, the costumes looked like poorly homemade cosplay, but there are some distinct differences between the two serials. In the original, Batman wears an actual utility belt with pockets, very similar to the one that would later be worn by Adam West in the 1966 television series. In the sequel, Batman’s utility belt is replaced with just a wide belt with no pockets, even though Batman is shown to seemingly retrieve gadgets from the belt, most notably a full sized blow torch.
Instead of the more triangular or pyramid shaped ears worn in more current Batman iterations, Batman’s cowl in both serials has cone shaped ears which point to the side instead of standing straight up. The cone ears tend to look more like horns than bat ears, which does give the mas a rather goofy appearance. Batman’s cowl is also made out of cloth, lacking the molded look of later Batman cowls.
Robin’s costume in both serials is very true to the comics, and very similar to the costume Burt Ward would later wear in the 1966 television series. The noticeable difference is that both Robins wear a large, store bought domino mask, which serves to give the costume more of a cheap and homemade appearance.
While both serials -like all serials of the time – were aimed at children and are as such not all that sophisticated, it still takes itself a little more serious than the Adam West series, which bordered on parody. Both serials also show Batman going out in the daytime, but the character hadn’t yet been turned into the nocturnal Dark Knight that we would later come to know and love.
“Batman” and “Batman and Robin” can be seen as less than stellar by today’s standards, but as contemporary serials went they were on par with other films in the format and were quite well received at the time. They also offer viewers a fairly reasonable snapshot of what the character was in the comics during the time period.
Harmon, Jim; Donald F. Glut (1973). “10. The Long-Underwear Boys “You’ve Met Me, Now Meet My Fist!””. The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury. Routledge. pp. 240–242.ISBN 978-0-7130-0097-9.