The first cinematic appearance of Batman features fun and flaws. On the fun side the movie has a pretty familiar Batman with a lot of his character traits in place. He has a mansion, a cave, Robin, Alfred and a cool car at his disposal.
Then there’s the flaws. The biggest one is it’s openly contemptuous of Japanese people. Most of the reviews and articles I found say this movie was made as a reaction to Pearl Harbor. Makes sense. You wouldn’t know we were at war with anyone but Japan from this movie.
“The Batman” is a display of Unhinged Early World War II paranoia. Batman had first shown up in comics just about four years earlier.
Coming in at an unreasonable three and a half hours it’s really a collection of fifteen short serial films of the kind George Lucas always speaks fondly of. They’re fun, but flawed and dated. By today’s standards it’s offensive. Still, it’s a Batman movie and I wanted to see it.
Filmed in black and white by Columbia Pictures this serial originally released across the year 1943. It’s a slightly different but not awful take on Batman. Some of the things we see are very familiar. This movie establishes a lot of Cinematic Batman’s traits going forward. For your enjoyment- There’s a link to the movie for free at the end of this post.
I guess the most positive aspect of the movie is how well preserved it is. The soundtrack is even in great shape. It’s pretty unusual to see a low to middle budget movie this old so well preserved. It’s mostly due to the movie’s commercial success.
When this serial starts its release people LOVE it. In subsequent years it was regularly re-released and was on early Television a LOT. It’s been a consistent money maker, so it was well curated and looked after.
You can still see the same thing movie goers saw in 1943, but as one long movie.
The Batman we see is immediately recognizable. Robin has a big presence in this movie as well. Aside from the worst possible raccoon mask Robin is almost exactly as we always see him. So the characters are what we expect.
What holds this movie back most is that it’s marbled through with ugly, straight up racist war propaganda. Looking back on it now it seems to me it sounds a little desperate and like its coming from scared writers.
The writers wanted the villain to be a Japanese spy, so Dr Daka wears contemporary clothes and has no supervillain get-up. Dr Daka is just not the best villain and a racist stereotype. The actor is still pretty decent at being malevolent here and there though.
The World War II bad guys are evil enough, so even the Joker isn’t shown playing around with them. I would have to say that this was a solid, forward looking choice. The absence of any villains from the comics tells us they knew how NOT to destroy characters.
There’s narration here and there to help us out. It’s delivered in what I can only call ‘A Grand Old Style.” Its orienting people who haven’t seen the previous installment. The Narrator has some interesting takes and opinions on the war to put it mildly. It’s very possible this movie was subsidized by the government.
The core of the story actually isn’t too bad, it’s in the low middle of the pack of Batman movies as far as the plot’s quality.
The movie you see is very much of its time and reflects an America long gone, in some ways for the best. The story is fictional but the outright racism is real.
How racist is The Batman 1943? The movie simply exists in a segregated, racist America. It didn’t invent or create this, its how America was and it’s presented without being questioned. There is actually value in this movie in a historical, social sense.
The war and postwar ideas and consumer goods just haven’t showed up anywhere yet- because this from early in the war. What we see is more of the Depression Era America on screen.
The fear that fueled this movies dialogue was real too. Batman was marketed to people scared to death New York or LA would be invaded or bombed. When it released there’s fines for having open shades at night. Local Air Raid Wardens patrolled enforcing this nightly.
The attacks never came, but people didn’t know that yet. In 1943 a massive Air Raid on an American city was assumed to be imminent. Hollywood latched on to the emotions and cranked them to Paranoiac levels.
This mentality gets us hateful movies like Fighting SeaBees, Back to Bataan and The Batman. It’s strange that The Batman is accidentally much less insane than the other movies because he’s a comic book hero. It’s not supposed to be realistic. Whether we needed it or not, most of this stuff did not age well.
After 9-11 these same kind of feelings packed theaters showing Black Hawk Down. The truth is that people do (or at least did) look to Hollywood to feel a little better sometimes.
In the case of Black Hawk Down the enemy was close enough to the 9-11 attackers for people to see it just to feel a sense of ‘payback.’ Black Hawk Down, however, is a much better movie about a noble but botched attempt to stop mass starvation.
In The Batman people speak in a crudely racist way while using roundabout, puritanical terms about sex. It seems weird because it is. I felt a little better about where we are now watching it.
In this movie The Batman is a US Government Agent who receives regular communications from Washington. Dr Daka is an Axis spy he’s tasked with taking out. This explains why the cops are ok with him. Whether the Government knows who Bruce Wayne is never gets addressed, it seems to be implied they do.
The movie went out of its way to include an American Indian who talks like a caveman. Batman, as Bruce Wayne, is courteous to the Indian in a way other people don’t bother to be. These are apparently throw away scenes with throw away lines trying to undue the damage of the one dimensional, hateful image of the Indians derived from a million poorly done Westerns.
The movie has varying levels of contempt for different kinds of people. Maybe the Irish come off best. They comprise close to half the cops we hear speak.
It was probably super easy to create the hateful stereotypical Japanese character to be vanquished by Batman. And in 1943 people wanted it. You can be sure a young George Takei HATED this movie when he saw it in what amounts to a jail.
This movie has a novel, excellent Batmobile. It’s a 1939 Cadillac Series 75 convertible I loved. They probably borrowed it from a studio executive. It’s classic, weird and different.
Mostly it’s driven by Alfred. When they are in costume Robin often drives. The movie doesn’t really have a car chase. It’s merely how they get around.
These characters spend more than half their time in street clothes. The movie takes pains to show us Bruce Wayne busting out a suitcase with their costumes in it or show them opening the secret door to the Bat Cave to segue from Bruce Wayne to Batman.
It’s notable that both Superman and Batman incorporate the need for costume changes into their plots at this time. It’s something that’s now mostly gone from Batman and Superman movies. We usually see Batman sort of gird for war in one big gear up scene now.
This movie doesn’t tease the idea of anyone getting close to figuring out Bruce Wayne is Batman. It’s more about the bad guys wrongly being sure they killed Batman a bunch of times.
This whole movie is a look into the past, somewhat darkly. The story is long and drawn out by intent. It looks hastily made but the boom mic is only ‘in the picture’ once in over three hours! The makers of this movie had a mixed bag of assets and standards.
The quality of this movies locations and sets can change in an instant. One moment its a believable street and the next The Batman is in a terrible looking cave or mine. They only have sets as good as Old School Star Trek or worse half the time.
Dr Daka’s Zombie Lab is ridiculous, but good for a chuckle. The Radium mine as well. Offsetting this to a point, there’s a lot of outdoor shoots and a couple of good studio lot streets they filmed on. Mundane things are usually real and the 1940’s phones and cars are simply fascinating.
This movie is literally a historical document made in the middle of a war of insane proportions. Oddly, the word “Germany” may never have been spoken in this movie. The release date Wikipedia provides is July 1943, but not which of the 15 chapters debuted that day? The first? The last? It would have taken from four to fifteen months to release all of this. The whole war is about 40 months.
Had Batman gone after the Nazi’s they might have left us with a less cringe movie, but this movie was well received by audiences at its time. Hollywood loves the reliably profitable World War II movie to this day.
It was an ok experience. It was pretty enlightening in a couple of ways. I’ve seen at least two Batman movies that were a little worse and one that was even longer. I got through 70 minutes the first session of viewing with no real problem. The movie is pretty repetitive though.
One person I’m sure saw this movie and loved it is Zack Snyder. The first reason is Batman would be he reuses the idea Batman “brands” people. I can’t recall seeing this again til his movie Batman vs Superman.
We don’t see Batman doing it, but every bad guy Batman captures gets what looks to be a black ink stamp of the familiar Batman logo on their forehead. It’s first revealed at 3:36 on the time-code of the version I saw.
The other reason I think Zack loved this movie is because it’s slightly obsessed with showing us people walking up and down stairs. It’s boring and just to pad the run time of the FIFTEEN chapters. This Batman and Robin are mostly sprinting from floor to floor rather than grim, purposeful marching, though.
Fight scenes are so bad they’re ironically great.They go on forever too. There’s a wrestling move here and there and lots of pulled punches and falls.
This movie has a consistent vision for how the characters fight. It’s still used today.
Robin takes an acrobatic approach while Batman is just a tank. Batman can take a lot of punches, fall a long distance and pull off feats of strength that require peak human ability. He doesn’t have one punch knock out power. He also isn’t all that great at evading any move and doesn’t really grapple.
There aren’t a lot of cuts in these scenes, so ‘The Batman’ is constantly being impeded by his cape! It’s reliably humorous. The original Dynamic Duo uses what I’d call a “Swarming Attack Style.”
I can only imagine some producer nodding approvingly saying;”Kids love action!” I’d rate the action in The Batman as somewhat better than that of the average Republic Pictures John Wayne movie. It’s made and preserved better than most of those too. I think Columbia just had more money, better equipment and film stock than Republic ever did.
Everyone in this movie is establishing their character for the first time onscreen and everyone does a relatively decent job. These were mid tier actors, not garbage tier. The cast is ok. Most notably, this movie established a new look for Alfred, who had been portrayed very differently before.
The cast is actually pretty good. Lewis Wilson is fine as Bruce Wayne and Batman. He’s one woman kind of man rather than a playboy, but he’s also really weird.
This Bruce Wayne wards off the idea he’s Batman by acting like a flighty air-head who would score really low on an IQ test. Douglas Croft is pretty enthusiastic in his enjoyable portrayal of Boy Wonder Robin.
In this movie Robin’s personality never changes. He’s always an irrepressible little scamp in or out of costume. This is the youngest live action Robin ever, probably because he needed to be too young to serve in the military.
Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend is really attractive. Shirley Patterson is good in the role of Linda and turns in a decent performance despite some of the more ridiculous things we see.
There’s a secret entrance to ‘The Bat’s Cave’ inside a grandfather clock at Wayne Manner. The Batman is pretty mean and direct with bad guys. It’s more or less the way we’ve seen everyone try to show Batman ever since. He menaces captured crooks with Bats, but he doesn’t torture people. He just dumps them out of his car hogtied in front of Police HQ when he’s done. In interrogation scenes he asks bound up bad guys questions from behind the sort of desk a millionaire might have.
This concept is an easier sell than Superman. The Batman doesn’t have to fly, have X-Ray vision or be bulletproof. He isn’t a Super strong alien who is always going to win. Batman is just a tough guy. He can be shot or otherwise killed. There’s always more at stake for Batman and Robin. It’s no wonder they were always so appealing.
Axis Agent Dr Daka has 2 front businesses, some henchmen and some fun bad guy tech. Dr Daka is played by Irish American actor J Carroll Naish, born in New York City. He’s the biggest star in the movie when it debuts.
Naish has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was nominated for TWO Academy Awards. He was nicknamed “Hollywood’s One Man U.N.” and mostly played non white people and “hispanics.” He’s in over 200 movies. Heavily made up and hopefully a bit drunk, he gives the directors the performance they wanted as Dr Daka. They essentially made their own Japanese guy rather than spring a Japanese American actor from a camp.
Daka’s best villain tech is a “Zombie Maker” that turns anyone he uses it on into a mind blanked super-strong Zombie. Throw on a Zombie Headpiece and Dr Daka can completely control anyone with a microphone. He also has a pit of alligators under a trap door in his office. Dr Daka is a bit more like a Bond Villain than a Batman villain. His spy ring is called the League of the New Order- which is a decent enough name for a fascist spy ring.
Daka has other bad guy tech, too. Like a palm scanner to identify his henchmen as well as a ‘Radium Gun’ that Batman soon appropriates. He has a set of Axis schemes and assets, including a Japanese submarine on call nearby. He causes some zombie suicides and kills failed underlings in novel ways, but he’s no Joker.
This Batman takes place in Los Angeles, California. So this isn’t supposed to be Gotham City. Dont worry, Batman’s town is still shown as drab and crime ridden. Outside the address on a letter we see nailing the location to LA (blink and you miss it) its not mentioned. So you’d be forgiven for thinking this movie takes place in Gotham.
While he’s lighthearted and breezy as Bruce Wayne, The Batman’s personality is purposeful and includes a strong detective streak. He enjoys collecting info while disguised and even has some tech of his own. Like a spectrometer of some kind and a lab of sorts.
I recommend The Batman, warts and all. Just consider the time it was made before getting too outraged. I would say you could learn a good deal about 1943 America.
If nothing else since this movie was made -even if its been incremental – we’ve come a pretty long way. The abject matter of fact racial outlook of this movie is stark and gross. The movies Social Commentary on the times is just not flattering.
The 1966 Batman movie and show is directly lampooning this movie.
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Here, for your enjoyment is the YouTube version of THE BATMAN 1943, for free.