In celebration of the new Batman film this year I’m going to review a bunch of Batman films. To qualify it has to be a theatrical release and Batman has to be the central focus. So no spin-offs like Catwoman (2004), Suicide Squad (2016), Joker (2019), Birds of Prey (2020), and The Suicide Squad (2021).
First up is lesser-known Batman (1943). Originally a 15-chapter theatrically released serial, this makes it the first Batman film to fly onto the big screen. When watching them all together it’s 3 hours and 30 minutes. Taking place shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, a Japanese spymaster uses mind control on American scientists for his own nefarious purposes. This is my SPOILER-FREE review. Does the film do the Dark Knight justice?
Batman was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, debuting in 1939. Kane has a delightful cameo as a Newsie well before Stan Lee made that a thing. Speaking of which, this film introduces many Batman mainstays we know and love today like Gotham City, the Bat Cave, Bat symbol, Robin, the costumes, Alfred, and the secret passageways in Wayne Manor.
Directed by Lambert Hillyer, he uses interesting filming techniques to shoot action scenes. I love how miniatures are used and various other filming techniques of the 40s. Most of the practical effects made me wonder how they accomplished what they did. That’s pure movie magic. This includes epic fight scenes on skyscraper rooftops. The highlight is the fight on the railroad bridge. Great fight choreography too. Humorously, for some reason, they sped up the fight scenes so feels cartoonish. I like how henchman put up a good fight too. The Dynamic Duo get beaten up pretty badly at times so when they do win it’s that much more satisfying. It also has great car chases. Given the time it was made, it’s very impressive. I also like how it’s in black and white too.
Written by Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, and Harry L. Fraser, it’s very much WWII propaganda and hilariously politically incorrect. They use phrases like “I’m not scared of those squint eyes.” Another one they use frequently I won’t write but it rhymes with “Lap” or “Chap”. It has other silly sexist dialogue too but it was a different time. It doesn’t take itself too seriously either, brazenly capturing the comic book atmosphere. I love how it shows the detective aspect. Batman and Robin investigate crime scenes and do science experiments in the Bat Cave to solve the mystery. Surprisingly, it’s not an origin story. Only a brief mention of it in the beginning. It does have significant plot holes like Batman inexplicably escaping or surviving certain death or how the Dynamic Duo could be in two places at once but not enough to ruin it. They do well at keeping the pace moving without it feeling rushed nor are there too many slow points. It doesn’t even feel like it’s over 3 hours when watching it in one sitting.
It stars Lewis Wilson as Batman/Bruce Wayne. He’s sufficient as both the billionaire and the caped crusader. The film balances time for both sides of him so he gets to play both roles fairly equally. He’s both charming and intimidating when need be. That dichotomy is so important to the character. He also plays up the bumbling lazy oaf well so everyone quickly dismisses the possibility of him being the Batman.
Douglas Croft is Robin/Dick Grayson. He plays him with joyful liveliness, an enthusiastic, smart sidekick that’s very helpful in the case. It’s nice he has an active role instead of just being there for the sake of it.
William Austin is Alfred, the loyal butler. Before this film, Alfred was drawn differently in the comics but later he was depicted as slim with a thin moustache, mimicking Austin’s appearance here. Unfortunately, his character is rather one-dimensional so he’s sidelined. Unlike the iterations, we know that, the development of the plot. He’s just there to clean house and play chauffeur.
Shirley Patterson is Linda Page. The lesser-known love interest debuted in Batman #5 in 1941, where she only occasionally showed up in various issues after that. In this film, when her uncle goes missing she needs Batman in locating him. Unfortunately, women were written differently back then so she’s relegated to merely a one-dimensional damsel in distress. She’s a convincing actress even though doesn’t have much to do.
J. Carrol Naish as the villainous Dr. Tito Daka, a character created solely for the film. Because of his problematic depiction, it wouldn’t be until 1985 that the character got reinvented and made his comic debut. His menacing performance as the stoic criminal mastermind is still sufficient despite the racial issues.
Overall, despite being wildly racist and sexist, it’s a cheesy, campy, silly action-packed film. It’s fun to see the filmmaking technology of the era being used. The film feels like a time capsule, giving the modern audience a glimpse of a different time. I love the score of the 40s with that classic sound of the era too. Is it problematic? Yes but I still recommend this to Bat Fans because of the historical significance. This film sets the stage for comic book movies we know and love today. It’s an extremely entertaining rewatchable film that does justice to both Batman and Robin, at least, if you can look past the obvious politically incorrect flaws. It’s available for free on Tubi and YouTube in Ontario, Canada, if you’re interested it may be available in your state or province too. You don’t know until you try. And remember, you don’t need to be a detective to get a clue about where the Batman came from.
Grade: Large Popcorn
You can see how I go more in depth in my video review here