Obviously, the biggest news this past month for Batman film fans was the October 18 DVD release of Batman Begins
, Warner Brothers’ very successful restart of their Batman movie franchise. Almost as noteworthy for many of these fans was Warner’s simultaneous release of “Special Edition” DVD sets of their four previous Batman films Batman
(1989), Batman Returns
(1992), Batman Forever
(1995), and Batman and Robin
(1997). Loaded with “making of” documentaries and deleted scenes, these DVD sets gave Batman fans hours and hours of new material to pore over.
Given the release of all of these new Batman DVDs, it would be very easy to overlook yet another Batman DVD set that came out on October 18. But in my opinion, any Batman fan who is interested in the character’s cinematic history should not miss Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s new 2-disc set of the Caped Crusader’s first celluloid appearance, the 1943 Columbia black-and-white 15-chapter serial simply entitled Batman.
Batman is an odd but fascinating mixture of Batman comic mythos, World War II propaganda and cheaply crafted cliffhanger clichés. Like most all serials of its time, each of Batman’s chapters ended with a scene showing our hero facing seemingly inescapable mortal danger. Of course, Batman always managed to escape this danger in the next chapter, but the only way 1940’s moviegoers could know this for sure was to spend their money on a ticket for next week’s show.
Batman starred Lewis Wilson as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Douglas Croft as Robin/Dick Grayson, and J. Carrol Naish as the diabolical Japanese criminal mastermind Dr. Daka. Daka was Batman’s only villain – all 15 chapters of the serial revolved around Batman and Robin’s efforts to find him and bring him to justice. The villain had never appeared in Batman comic stories – he was created specifically for the serial in order to reflect the United States’ preoccupation with World War II. Daka seemed to represent all of the fear and anger that America felt toward Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in December 1941 – he was a ruthless and insidiously clever agent of the Japanese government who was determined to see the American way of life wiped off the face of the earth.
Obviously, Batman was trying to bridge a rather uncomfortable gap between real-life threats to America and escapist entertainment. This combination might have seemed appropriate in the heat of the World War II years, but it will surely make 2005 audiences somewhat uncomfortable --many of the anti-Japanese sentiments found in Batman’s scenes involving Daka come across now as bigoted and hysterical.
To make matters worse, like most other serials of its time, Batman was filmed quickly and very cheaply – so not surprisingly, it left much to be desired in terms of its production values. For example, Batman and Robin’s costumes were ill-fitting and badly designed, and they were not even given a Batmobile to drive – they were forced to drive Bruce Wayne’s rather modest-looking convertible around Gotham City while they were fighting crime! Also, many of the serial’s action sequences were unimaginatively staged and unconvincingly executed.
Now, you might be asking yourself at this point, “What is wrong with this reviewer? First he says Batman is a must-have DVD for Batman film fans, and then he spends the next few paragraphs talking about how bad it is!” I am not recommending this DVD because Batman was any kind of cinematic masterpiece. I am recommending it because the serial did have its moments, and even more importantly, it was responsible for introducing a number of elements into the Batman mythos that became as vital to the character as his cape and cowl.
For example, the Batcave was entirely an invention of the film’s screenwriters. It was actually referred to as the “Bat’s Cave” in the serial, but its name was just about the only element of it that would be changed from the screen to the comic page. In Batman’s first scenes, the Bat’s Cave” was established as Batman’s secret base of operations located under Bruce Wayne’s residence in Gotham City. It was made up of a dimly lit main chamber that featured a bat insignia on one of its rocky walls, and a state-of-the-art crime lab in a separate room. Batman’s “Bat’s Cave” certainly was not as elaborate as the comic book Batcave would become over the years, but it holds the distinction of being Batman’s first official “home.”
Batman was also responsible for creating one of Batman’s most memorable supporting characters – Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s faithful English butler. Alfred, played by William Austin, was an essential but slightly bumbling member of Batman’s crimefighting team and the only person who knew that Bruce and Dick were actually Batman and Robin. Many times during the course of the serial he was called into service to assist them. Batman’s writers likely created Alfred to be a “comic relief sidekick,” much like the characters “Gabby” Hayes and Smiley Burnette played in 1940’s western films. Alfred was unquestionably a “good guy” in the serial, but one who often found himself on the receiving end of Bruce and Dick’s wisecracks and practical jokes. Obviously, over the years Alfred would evolve into a far more respected member of Batman’s inner circle – but Batman marks the moment when the character first entered Batman’s world.
Batman not only featured these Batman “firsts,” it also featured a strong performance by Lewis Wilson as Batman/Bruce Wayne. He brought the character to the screen for the first time in a straightforward, square-jawed action hero manner that at times transcended his ill-fitting Batman costume. And Douglas Croft was equally good as Robin. Croft had one major advantage over every other actor who would play the role – namely, he was closer in age to the character than they were. To date, Croft has been the screen’s only true “Boy Wonder” – he was about 13 years old when Batman was filmed, and his youthful exuberance was perfectly suited for the role.
In fact, I think it is worth noting that Batman is the only live-action Batman screen work to feature a juvenile Robin operating within Batman’s world of murder, death and destruction. The serial played up the harder-edged crime drama aspects found in many Batman comic plots of the 1940’s – consequently, the youngster was faced with some pretty horrific scenes in Batman, such as people being buried in mine collapses or devoured by ravenous alligators.
Enough with the history lesson – let’s talk about the specifics of the DVD set itself. It is most certainly not a “high end” release. It contains no bonus features or printed material dealing with the making of the serial. The picture and sound quality varies from chapter to chapter – some chapters look and sound quite good, while others appear to be derived from inferior quality prints. I have heard some complaints about the set’s picture/sound quality from Batman fans who say that Sony Pictures Home Entertainment should have been able to locate a much better film print of the serial to transfer onto DVD. This may well be true – however, I must say that I thought the technical quality of the set was far superior to the only other “official” home video version of Batman, the GoodTimes Home Video two-part VHS tape set released in 1990. That version was recorded at substandard playback speed, which resulted in picture and sound being considerably less sharp than most pre-recorded videotapes. So while the DVD version of Batman definitely leaves something to be desired in terms of technical quality, I personally consider it a significant upgrade over my GoodTimes VHS version.
To me, one of the most interesting/amusing things about this DVD release of Batman is the set’s packaging. It features dramatic, sepia-toned artwork depicting Batman and Robin swooping down from out of the sky – to be honest, the artwork is far more stylish and striking than anything found in the serial itself! Obviously, the artwork is a not-so-subtle attempt to market the set as a kind of counterpart to the Batman Begins DVD, which of course features dramatic sepia-toned images of Christian Bale as Batman. Just in case anyone misses Sony’s attempt to connect the two works, there is a tag line displayed prominently on Batman’s back cover that reads “SEE HOW BATMAN REALLY BEGAN!”
The back cover of the Batman DVD set also features a second sepia-toned image of Batman overlooking Gotham City that is a direct trace-over of one of Alex Ross’s paintings found in the wonderful 1999 oversize graphic novel Batman: War on Crime by Ross and Paul Dini. Again, it is a great image, but it gives the impression that Batman is a far more visually stylish work than it actually is! (Given the fact that Sony does not own any of the rights to the Batman character, it would be interesting to know how much behind-the-scenes negotiating took place between the company and Batman’s “rightful owner,” AOL Time Warner, in order to decide just what material Sony would be allowed to use in promoting Batman)
In my 2004 book The Batman Filmography, I put forth the idea that Batman could perhaps be “improved” by releasing a tightly-edited version of the serial on DVD. I argued that Batman might be a much more watchable production for modern audiences if it was stripped of its racist and most ridiculous scenes. But just as quickly as I tossed out this idea, I discarded it. Because when all is said and done, Batman simply is what it is – a not particularly good serial, but a very important milestone in the character’s history. I am happy to have the opportunity to own this milestone on DVD, warts and all.