Welcome back to Fates Worse Than Death (#summerserials on Twitter). I’ll be exploring the legacy of the motion picture serial every week this summer between Memorial Day and Labor Day (which, yes, is more ambitious than last year’s biweekly schedule, so wish me luck). You can read the introduction to last year’s series here to see what this is all about, and you can access the complete list of last year’s entries by visiting the Series page.
“Crime, stalking our city by night and day, is on the increase! Our undermanned police force is helpless to cope with the situation. But they have an ally: Batman, who, with the faithful Robin, wages unending war against all criminals!” The stentorian voice-over is accompanied by a montage of the Dynamic Duo fighting it out with a variety of gangsters and henchmen interspersed with spinning headlines describing their victories. Batman and Robin are already established crimefighters with a reputation for cleaning up the streets. However, their greatest threat looms before them: will they have what it takes to wrest Gotham City from the remote-control terror of the masked villain known only as the Wizard?
After I reviewed 1943’s Batman serial last summer, a friend warned me that the 1949 follow-up Batman and Robin was “less racist but somehow more terrible.” Batman and Robin is much less offensive: unlike the wartime Batman, Batman and Robin has no need to demonize the Japanese or anyone else, and is purely cops-and-robbers. It’s unfortunately deficient in energy and suspense, however, so my friend’s warning proved sadly apt.
The problems start with leads Robert Lowery as Bruce Wayne/Batman and John Duncan as Dick Grayson/Robin, who are not very convincing as either superheroes or their civilian alter egos. (Duncan in particular is cursed with marble-mouthed line delivery and is just plain too old to be the “Boy” Wonder.) They continue with a plot that, in true serial fashion, is at once baldly simple—a criminal mastermind who calls himself the Wizard has stolen a high-tech gizmo that allows him to take control of any vehicle at a distance, bringing Gotham City to its knees—and at the same time confusingly roundabout, with a boatload of characters and each chapter featuring its own distinctive crisis or mission.
It’s not all bad, however (and Batman and Robin is far from the worst serial I’ve seen). For fans of the comics, Batman and Robin gets closer to the character’s essence than Batman, and includes such familiar characters as faithful butler Alfred (who has much more presence here, and participates by wearing some disguises and driving the car) and Commissioner Gordon, and such essential props as the Bat Signal (there’s still no Batmobile as such, however: at least once the villains wonder why Batman showed up driving Bruce Wayne’s car). There are no criminals left for the police with the “sign of the bat” stamped on their foreheads, nor is Batman presented as a government agent secretly working with Uncle Sam. One new character, photographer Vicki Vale, would prove popular enough to appear in Batman’s comic book adventures, where she is now an established part of his mythos (just as the Bat Cave was introduced in the ’43 serial and has become a constant fixture of Batman’s adventures).
The biggest change for comics readers is the villain: the Wizard himself, a hooded, cloaked figure of scientific genius and unshakeable confidence (“I always have a plan!” he states more than once), is a type frequently found in contemporary pulp magazines and in other serials. Unlike the themed villains that were already facing off against Batman in the comics, the Wizard is fairly generic, using superscience to project his image at great distances, extract secrets by hypnotic suggestion, controlling his henchmen from a secret lair accessible only by submarine, and even making himself invisible for brief stretches.
As is often the case, his identity is unknown until the final chapter, but several candidates are presented to the audience: is the Wizard actually radio newsman Barry Brown, whose broadcasts always seem to include information that the Wizard’s gang needs to commit their crimes? Or is it wheelchair-bound Professor Hammil, the inventor of the remote control device, who regularly visits a secret laboratory and rejuvenates himself so that he can stand and walk for periods of time? Or perhaps it is the private detective Dunne, who always seems to turn up after the Wizard’s crimes have been committed, and claims to be on the trail of the stolen device?
From one perspective, the problems with Batman and Robin are problems with serialized stories in general, and they are the same problems that comic books, serialized TV shows, and the interconnected feature films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have all had to deal with. To wit, it’s necessary that each installment tell a complete (or nearly complete) story while contributing to the larger arc and teasing a cliffhanger or loose thread that will intrigue audiences enough to return for the next episode. Furthermore, while self-contained stories generally feature change, the classic superheroes are largely static: if one villain is defeated, another will simply arise to take their place.
Superheroes are often described as “timeless,” and even compared to the gods and heroes of mythology; surely their simple, stylized appearance and highly formulaic (ritualized, one might say) storylines contribute to this feeling, but could their “timelessness” not also be a side effect of the sliding timeline that has made these characters contemporary–and roughly the same age–for over three quarters of a century? A few literary characters have been reinvented in contemporary fashion, their adventures updated so that Sherlock Holmes, for example, has exercised his powers of deduction during both World War II and the War on Terror, and Dracula has awoken to terrorize horror audiences in the 1930s, 1960s, and 1990s (he’s already immortal, though, so perhaps he doesn’t count). That’s different from, say, Indiana Jones, who is inseparable from both a milieu and a definite timeline.
Timeless, iconic characters, while attractive from the perspective of intellectual property and merchandising, however, must still be able to take part in actual stories–stories where the setting and action are sharpened from the vague dreamtime of the iconic to the specific here and now of this time, this place–if they are to remain current and alive, lest they become only a brand.
Batman, in particular, is a character that has been interpreted in many different ways, from the kid-friendly “happy warrior” of the Adam West-starring TV show and the Super Friends cartoons to the wounded child of Tim Burton’s films and the Arthurian scion of Gotham City in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, and that’s only looking at film and television portrayals. Of those, only Burton and Nolan are interested in exploring Batman’s origins and asking (as comics did, post-Watchmen and post-The Dark Knight Returns) why an orphaned millionaire might choose this particular form of costumed vigilantism instead of, say, investing in social programs; and only Nolan chose to bring the Batman myth-cycle to its conclusion, asking what specific act of justice would heal Bruce Wayne sufficiently that he could hang up the cape and cowl for good.
Although neither serial addresses Batman’s origins, it’s likely that viewers familiar with the comics would at least be aware of his adventures in the comics, and possibly the earlier serial as well, so it doesn’t seem unfair to compare the 1949 serial to other portrayals of the character. All adaptations carry the baggage of already-familiar characters, even if fans in the 1940s wouldn’t have expected their voices to carry like they do now. It’s useful to ask, at least rhetorically, what does this specific version bring to the table, and why was this interpretation resonant at the time it was made? (It’s not necessary for the filmmakers to be conscious of such questions, of course: it wasn’t a given that costumed heroes had anything to say about their cultures in those days, and writers weren’t churning out “thinkpieces” about either the comics or the movies.)
In this context, the 1943 Batman serial is the wartime Batman: its excesses are those of a nation throwing all of its resources into existential war, and while that doesn’t excuse the racist caricature of Dr. Daka it gives the serial a definite identity, a context in which Batman, like all other costumed heroes of the time, were on the side of good, which meant fighting America’s foes. The 1949 serial has no such purpose, and has no dramatic vision to replace it; like many of the later serials, it is primarily aimed at children, and even within that context it’s mostly going through the motions.
What I watched: Batman and Robin (Columbia, 1949)
Where I watched it: Mill Creek Entertainment’s 2-disc Gotham City Serials, which also includes 1943’s Batman
No. of chapters: 15
Best chapter title: “The Wizard’s Challenge” (chapter 13)
Best cliffhanger: At the end of chapter 14 (“Batman vs. Wizard”), the Wizard, turned invisible by the combination of the remote control device and a “neutralizing ray” designed to counter it (just go with it), attempts to kill Commissioner Gordon (as he has previously threatened to do) by hanging from a rope and shooting Gordon through his office window while Batman and Vicki Vale stand by. The Wizard is invisible, but the rope and gun aren’t, so Gordon appears to be shot by a gun floating in mid-air. (Fortunately, Vicki is able to take a picture of the unmasked Wizard using a special infra-red flash bulb devised by Batman. Whew!)
Best character: The only person who looks like he’s having any fun in Batman and Robin is William Fawcett, who plays the wheelchair-bound Professor Hammil. An actual Ph.D. and professor of theater with hundreds of credits to his name (mostly in Westerns and television programs), Fawcett would have been an obvious choice to play Captain Marvel’s nemesis Dr. Sivana if he had ever been portrayed onscreen. (There was a Captain Marvel serial, but it had a tenuous connection to the comic book, and Sivana is nowhere to be found in it).
The wiry and cantankerous Professor Hammil steals just about every scene he’s in. Right off the bat, as the inventor of the remote control device everyone is searching for, Hammil demands to be driven to the research plant just to insult everyone when the device is stolen. (“You’re a pack of careless idiots! Whoever stole it probably has more brains than all of you!”) For another thing, Hammil’s house is nicer than Bruce Wayne’s (the Bruce Wayne I know wouldn’t live in the suburbs!), and even includes a secret laboratory like the Bat Cave (see Matt Singer’s comments below). Hammil actually is known to the public as an inventor, of course, so security is presumably a bigger concern than secrecy, but still: both Hammil and Wayne know that no mansion is complete without a secret passageway to a hidden lair. I’m not going to say whether Hammil is the Wizard or not, but he is nonetheless not a person to be tangled with.
Sample dialogue: “Batman gets entirely too much credit as it is, Vicki. . . . I get tired just hearing about it.” –Bruce Wayne in Chapter 1 (“Batman Takes Over”)
What Others Have Said: “The notion of an evil version of Batman is an intriguing one. . . . Hammil is a near-perfect doppelganger for Bruce Wayne: He lives in an enormous estate on a hill with his own butler to attend to all his needs (along with that hidden, high-tech cave beneath his house). He’s an ideal antagonist and dark mirror image for our hero.” —Matt Singer, whose “Complete History of Comic-Book Movies” at Screencrush is well worth checking out. Singer is, if anything, harder on Batman and Robin than I am.
What’s Next: Join me next week as I explore Atlantis in Undersea Kingdom, starring Ray “Crash” Corrigan.