In preparation for the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, I figured it was time to do a Batman movie marathon! While most people tend to think of Tim Burton's Batman being the first, there's actually a few theatrical releases that proceed it, the first two being serials rather than full feature films. As the blog title tells you, the first one was made in 1943. Unfortunately.
I say unfortunately because this means that it aired right when America was in the midst of fighting in World War II and is therefore chock full of propaganda. Batman isn't a vigilante, he's a secret agent for the army. Racism against the Japanese is prevalent in the serial from the very beginning when our narrator gleefully tells us that all the Japanese Americans in Little Tokyo have been rounded up and put in detention camps "where they belong" though our main villain Dr. Daka has somehow escaped their clutches. Daka is of course not actually played by an Asian man but the Irish J. Carrol Naish in full stereotypical ethnic portrayal of the time. This really isn't so much a Batman story as it is a Pro-American Anti-Japanese film starring guys dressed in Batman and Robin costumes to play the heroes.
I usually have a fascination with this type of stuff. I'm a firm believer that those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it, and I tend to enjoy it as a learning experience. Here in New Orleans we have the excellent World War II museum, and the section dedicated to propaganda is fascinating, as it shows propaganda from both sides of the war. But I really don't need to be reminded every single episode that the Japanese are trying to build an evil empire, the Americans are strong willed patriots who will always prevail, and that apparently the English are a little bungling and silly. Both Alfred and another English character are shown in a silly light, and all I can imagine is that this was some kind of sentiment related to believing that the English weren't capable of winning the war on their own and desperately needed us? It's rather head scratching.
However, you can't deny that this film is important to Batman continuity as a whole. While referred to as "The Bat's Cave" this is the first appearance of the Batcave and would lead to it being established in the comics as well. Also, Alfred here is very thin with a mustache, while previously in the comics he had been more portly. In a move we're all now incredibly familiar with in recent Marvel films and comics, Alfred went off to a health spa and came back looking more like William Austin's portrayal in this serial.
As a serial that means that every episode ends on a cliffhanger, and all I can think of is Annie Wilkes from Misery. She tells author Paul Sheldon that pretending Misery had never really died in the previous book was a cheat like the old serials she watched as a kid. We see a car careen off a cliff and explode with the hero stuck inside, but then the next episode starts and we learn that he actually escaped the car just before it went off the cliff. Well, Annie, I'm with you. It is a cheat, and Batman didn't get out of that cockadoodie car either. I can just imagine how incredibly tired people got of seeing heroes seemingly blow up, fall to their deaths, almost get run over by trains, etc. in cinema back then. Seems like every serial I've ever seen uses those tricks.
However this silliness also led to another important part of Batman history - that being the 1960s TV series. It's easy to see that series as a direct parody of this and the later serial, with tongue planted firmly in cheek all the while.
So I can't really recommend this serial for anyone other than the die hard fan, or perhaps someone who is a really big fan of WWII propaganda films. But I am glad I at least checked it out. It's available pretty cheap on DVD these days, so if you're curious, I say go for it.