Thank GOD for Rifftrax.
I keep doing this, y’know. This is like when I reviewed the Universal Dracula and Frankenstein, and just assumed that because they were both horror movies made in the thirties by the same studio they must be roughly equivalent in quality.
Not so, dear reader. Not so.
Now, The Batman, the first big screen outing of the caped crusader, was not a good film. Even looking past its use of yellowface and a stance on the internment of Japanese Americans that could charitably be called “a bit unwoke”, it was very much a movie serial of its time: cheap, poorly paced and of interest to the modern viewer mostly as a curiosity. But hot damn, compared to its sequel it is a masterpiece.
Take it from me, the gap in quality between The Batman (1943) and Batman and Robin (1949) is on par with that between The Batman (2022) and Batman and Robin (1997).
So much so, that I genuinely needed to resort to watching the Rifftrax version to even make it through the damn thing.
So, whither this crapitude?
Well, to answer that we need to look at the history of film serials as a form. The heyday of the serial was actually in the silent era, with multiple studios producing long-form series that often ran to over a hundred episodes. Serials thrived because they were popular with audiences but also because they were very cheap to make. But, then, The Jazz Singer had to come along and ruin everyone’s fun.
The transition to sound crushed many of the smaller studios outright and only a few studios (such as Republic, Columbia and Universal) were able to afford to continue producing serialised stories. Serials had gone from being reliable cash cows to potential loss makers. Six years is not a huge amount of time between a movie and its sequel, but a lot had changed in the interim between The Batman and Batman and Robin. In 1943, serials were struggling to remain profitable. But by 1949 the form was facing imminent doom, tied to a railway track while a locomotive with the letters “TV” painted on it barrelled towards it. Serials made near the midpoint of the 20th century were cheaper than the jokes at a roast hosted by Seth McFarlane. If The Batman was made on a shoestring budget, Batman and Robin has no shoes and goes a-running barefoot through the street. It’s for this reason that stately Wayne manor is now a modest suburban home.
So our story begins in Gotham, a city at the mercy of roving bands of white dudes in fedoras.
The only thing standing between the citizenry and this menace is Robin, terror of the night, and his tender boyish sidekick, the Batman. Seriously, this is the first Batman and Robin pair where I would rather meet Batman down a dark alley than Robin. Batman’s actor, Robert Lowery, had a long and successful career spanning 1936 to 1967 and appeared in over 70 films. For this reason I can only assume that he had serious dirt on somebody because he is, hands down, the worst onscreen Batman I have ever seen. Whereas Lewis Wilson played Bruce as a pampered dandy to deflect suspicion of his true identity, Lowery’s Batman has apparently hit on the ingenious tactic of playing Bruce Wayne as somebody too damn boring to ever be the Dark Knight. By contrast, Johnny Duncan’s Robin…you know when you just can tell when somebody has taken a human life? Like, maybe it was an accident but they definitely know what it’s like to look into someone’s eyes and see the light fade? Yeah.
So Batman and Robin are summoned to a military base after a device created by Professor Hamill is stolen by white dudes in fedoras. As the base commander briefs the dynamic duo and Comissioner Gordon, Hamill shows up, his wheelchair being pushed by his valet, Carter (remember the porter, good sirrahs). Hamill is played by William Fawcett, a man who has clearly been told by his director “imagine you’re playing a villain”. Hamill simply came by to tell them that they’re idiots for losing his machine and that whoever stole it is not doubt too clever and handsome to ever be caught by them. Then he peaces out and Batman’s all “hey, did you actually tell him about the theft and everyone’s all “no, why?” and Batman’s all “eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeenteresting.”
Batman then asks the base commander to tell him about the device that was stolen “if you’re free to tell me?”
Okay, so any aspiring actors out there? Here’s a tip on playing Batman. Never act like the time of the person you’re talking to is more important than yours. Because it never is. Because they’re not Batman. You are.
It’s revealed that the device is a remote control, capable of taking control of any vehicle and piloting it wherever the operator desires. And later, it’s even used to take control of devices like…a fucking crowbar.
Anyway, the machine is powered by…diamonds…
So Batman tells the commissioner to guard everywhere in the city that sells diamonds, even if he has to hire “special” police.
We now meet our villain, appropriately named The Wizard, because the machine he uses is basically magic.
The next fourteen episodes…
Sorry I typed that wrong.
The next FOURTEEN FUCKING EPISODES essentially consists of Batman and the Wizard competing to see who is the worst at his job. It’s a very close contest, to be sure, and I’m not going to recount every twist and turn because it would bore you to tears. It’s the usual serial format jogging in place until we get to the climax. This series really brought home to me how much Batman needs to be an urban, nocturnal hero. Move the action to drab desert locations in the middle of the day, and suddenly the sight of a grown man dressed as a bat punching random mooks starts feeling, dare I say it? A little silly.
Despite the padding and repitition, there are a few important sub-plots. It turns out that one of the wizard’s white dudes in fedoras is Jimmie Vale, the brother of Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend, gal reporter Vicki Vale. Ask a Batman fan today about Vicki Vale and they might say “oh yeah, the character Kim Basinger played in the 1989 movie” but Vale was actually a major character in the comics until around the sixties, basically acting as the Lois Lane to Bruce’s Clark Kent. In this serial she’s played by Jane Adams and she’s hands down my favourite part of the whole affair. Unlike all the other heroes, she’s not purely reactive, snooping around and surreptitiously snapping photos with a camera the size of an elephant’s head. She also outsmarts Batman a few times (that would be more impressive with literally any other Batman but I’ll takes what I can get).
Like all serials, Batman and Robin makes heavy use of cliffhangers. But these cliffhangers are less exciting, suspenseful, hooks and more a chilling recreation of the experience of living with a psychologically abusive partner.
Chapter 2 ends with Batman and Robin trapped in a burning plane. And then the plane blows up!
Chapter 3 begins with Batman and Robin trapped in a burning plane. And then they open the door and run to safety. And then the plane blows up!
The most egregious of these little bits of narrative gaslighting is the sad tale of Jimmie Vale. The Wizard’s men have Vicki imprisoned. Batman tries to rescue her but gets instantly zapped by an electrified door knob and and knocked unconscious. Jimmie then finds Batman lying on the floor like a drunken hobo and unmasks him, and is shocked to discover that he’s Bruce Wayne.
We next see Batman running down a corridor where he gets into a fight with some of the Wizard’s goons and knocked out a window where he falls to a quick and bloody end.
The NEXT chapter begins with Robin witnessing Batman’s death, only for Bruce Wayne to run up and casually explain that Jimmy stole the Batsuit…for reasons….and then ran around with it (presumably humming “denananananananana Batman!” under his breath) before being made into pavement pizza. Did Jimmie think “boy oh boy, this sure will make a great fakeout for anybody watching this” because that is literally the only reason for him to do that. And DON’T tell me he put on the Batsuit for the psychological advantage in combat because to that I say:
Robin tells Batman that Vicki has already driven off. We then get the single coldest line of dialogue ever spoken by any Batman:
“She doesn’t know about her brother. Well, there’s nothing we can do for her now, let’s go!”
The other big sub-plot, of course, is the Wizard’s identity. Unlike The Batman, which did not play coy with who the villain was (the answer being “all Asians, everywhere”), Batman and Robin tries to string us along with the mystery of just who is under that big black bag. We get thrown a few possible suspects. Is it Professor Hamill? Journalist Barry Brown who seems to know of all the Wizard’s schemes before the police or Batman? That shady private investigator? Is it all Asians, everywhere? No, you’ll never guess. So, remember Carter? The inoccous valet of Professor Hamill who had access to all his scientific secrets and was hiding in plain sight? That’s right! It was Carter’s…previously unmentioned twin brother.
How bad is this serial?
Batman and Robin has a chapter entitled Robin meets the Wizard in which Robin and the Wizard never meet.
The Dark Knight Detective
To be fair, it’s not entirely Lowery’s fault. While he can’t match Wilson’s performance (which, let’s be clear, wasn’t Olivier or anything) he does at least borrow something from his predecessor; his costume. Downside of that is that Lowery and Wilson were very different builds and this bat costume looks even worse when it doesn’t even fit. Ultimately though, Lowery just isn’t there. He’s a void where an actor should be. In scenes with three or more actors he just disappears. While dressed like BATMAN. That’s honestly impressive.
The Boy Wonder
How can I articulate this sensitively? Whenever Johnny Duncan’s Robin is onscreen, I expect him to ask Batman when they’re getting a farm so that he can look after the rabbits.
His Faithful Manservant
Eric Wilton plays Alfred in an uncredited performance. He plays it with all the passion and effort that implies. He’s not bad. He’s just a glorified extra.
Our Nefarious Villain
Apparently you can have a good villain in yellowface, or a villain who sucks without yellowface, but not both.
After an inexplicable omission from The Batman, one of the single most important characters in the entire franchise makes his onscreen debut. Veteran actor Lyle Talbot as Comissioner Gordon is one of the best things here. Which means he’s a notch above “passable”.
Our Plucky Sidekicks
Jane Adams gives a spirited performance as Vicki Vale, appearing a mere year after her print debut.
Batman NEVER kills, except:
True, Lowery!Bat doesn’t kill anyone onscreen. Onscreen. But there is a sequence where Batman and Robin track the wizard’s hoods with irradiated dollar bills. During a fight, some of those bills fall on some dry straw and burst into flames. Because they’re irradiated, you see. Now, I’m no doctor. But I’m pretty sure if those bills were radioactive enough to start fires then ALL those men have the really bad cancers now. Also, he makes his aged man-servant dress up as Batman and run around a warehouse filled with armed criminals. It’s not murder, but that’s just blind luck.
Where does he get those wonderful toys?:
We get the first appearance of the Bat-signal onscreen (or the “Batman” signal, they go back and forth). This serial at least understands that Batman is supposed to use gadgets. He gets a bat blowtorch and portable respirators. And of course a geiger counter to track those bills that are apparently more radioactive than Chernobyl Reactor 4.
Again, it’s the villain who gets the best tech. As well as the remote control, he can broadcast messages on a television screen, which Batman smashes in a vain attempt to prevent the death of the serial format.
It’s the car, right? Chicks dig the car:
The Cadillac Series 70 may not have been the most impressive vehicle to ever play the Batmobile, but it was at least a good looking car. By contrast, Batman and Robin has millionaire Bruce Wayne driving…a 1949 Mercury, one of the most inexpensive cars on the market.
Unfortunately, the car handled so badly that it was frequently damaged during stunts. On the plus side, it was so cheap they were able to swap in a new car whenever one was damaged. Gadgets? Eh…it has lights and a working motor? Oh, and it has a fake police siren to scare off criminals. Seems like that’s kinda something BATMAN should be able to do himself but what do I know?
Oh, remember I joked about people in Gotham just accepting that Bruce Wayne lets Batman use his car? Well, that’s actually addressed in this serial when Vicki asks Batman if Bruce Wayne knows he’s using his car and Batman’s all “yes, of course” and she’s all “well, okay then”.
These people are idiots, is what I’m saying.
FINAL SCORE OUT OF TEN:
God, even this movie’s bat emblem is embarassing.
NEXT UPDATE: 16 February 2023
NEXT TIME: Look, I’m juggling deadlines left right and centre, I need something light, okay?
What is about adding Batman and Robin to the title of a project that turns it into a magnet of suck?
Seriously, we’ve got this drudgery of a serial, that lousy movie with Governor “Ice to see you” and whatever the hell that Frank Miller created whilst in the midst of the angriest drug trip imaginable.
But going for Once Upon a Time? Good luck, before Rings of Power came out, it had the title of “Most Expensive Fan Fiction Ever Created.”
I watched once upon a time for the first two seasons. It was absolutely bananas.
I saw it until somewhere into season 5. It went completely off the rails in every bad way possible the first episode of season 4.
I saw this as a kid in 1993, when the UK’s Channel 4 played it during the summer holidays. Six-year old me was rather riveted in places, and the cliffhanger to Chapter 14 really scared me!
The main thing that cracks me up in this serial? Professor Hammil is meant to be wheelchair bound (though he secretly can restore his walking with some fancy gizmo), but in one of the later chapters, he’s suddenly walking around and chatting to Batman, who doesn’t notice it. I can only assume they lost the chair between days, which to be fair happened to me when I played Roosevelt in Annie at high school!
And Johnny Duncan is a dead ringer for Michael Rooker in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer!
THAT’S who je reminds me of!
His other claim to fame…stretcher bearer in Plan 9 from Outer Space
God I hope I’m never bored enough to sit through there’s a Rifftrax, you say? Still, 14 episodes, that’s gonna be a long sit.
Batman is the best superhero because he’s wonderful when done well and hilarious when he’s done poorly. “Guy beating people while dressed as bat” is either awesome or amusing, there is no in between. Or at least there shouldn’t be, sounds like these guys finally cracked the code to Boring Batman.
Hilarious review, though. And it references both Glass Onion and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Does the Rifftrax version reference Glass Onion and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace? No? Then I declare Unshaved Mouse the winner.
*whispers* I didn’t actually like Glass Onion.
I liked parts of GLASS ONION very much indeed, but the whole struck me as less than the sun of its parts.
For one thing they had Hugh Grant as the other Mister Blanc and he ISN’T acting as this show’s Watson? FOR SHAME!
I’m wondering: how does the ranking system for these Batman reviews work? By which I mean, does a full Bat Emblem count for two points out of ten or one? Because if it counts for two points, that would make this a 2/10, where the first serial was a 6/10.
Nope, just out of ten. This was a one, last one was a 3.
Anybody else think The Wizard looks like Dragon King?
You need something light and pick Once Upon a Time? To quote the Batplane in “The Forgotten.”
“Ask a Batman fan today about Vicki Vale and they might say “oh yeah, the character Kim Basinger played in the 1989 movie” but Vale was actually a major character in the comics until around the sixties, basically acting as the Lois Lane to Bruce’s Clark Kent.”
Hey now, I know Vicki Vale- she was in Batman vs. Dracula.
I also know she was written to be in the best Super Friends episode, but she got replaced with Wonder Woman.
I almost wonder if the Wizard was based off the little-known The Monk. The design is fairly similar.
And OUAT huh? Never watched it, and whenever my sister tried to explain it to me my eyes would glaze over. But it does have a very hot Captain Hook.
Yes, I definetly made the connection between The Monk and The Wizard when I first saw this – I had the tie-in making-of book for the 1989 movie, and that had a picture of The Monk in it.
I can’t even count how many movies MST3k/Rifftrax did that have interchangeable group of white guys in suits as the villain(s). I think Radar Secret Service is where they make the most jokes about it though.
Also, apparently “The Wizard” is supposed to be a reference to Thomas Edison, The “Wizard” of Menlo Park. Your reason is better though, Mr. Mouse.
Really? The guy who got rich stealing other people’s tech was based on Edison?
I prefer the 97 Batman and Robin to Matt Reeves overrated piece of garbage.
did the guy who played The Wizard ever get elected Governor of California? because if not, then at least the 1997 Batman and Robin has something over this one.
“Bruce Wayne has been reduced to poverty, and yet insists on retaining his butler. It’s downright Chekhovian.“
I’d say it’s more of a Wodehouseian set-up, but it’s undeniably comic.
Oooh, ONCE UPON A TIME, eh?
Goodness me, it’s been ages since I watched that particular show: I don’t mean to go back to it, but the first season was fairly entertaining.
Mouse, at this point one can only hope that the legends are true and that you’re actually an Irishman who sometimes shaves rather than an invariably hirsute, remarkably industrious rodent – because otherwise recommending you watch PUSS IN BOOTS: THE LAST WISH might be taken the wrong way.
It is a really, really good time at the cinema – on the other hand it has a LOT of cats in it and I don’t want to risk pulling any triggers.
Even though there are cats in the movie, the most pants-shittingly terrifying character in the movie isn’t a cat. Honestly the movie should have been rated FTTFM, Far Too Terryfying for Mice.
Luckily for us humans, the movie is amazing.