My disappointment with the movie was not because West’s voice isn’t what it used to be—that can’t be helped, though it is astonishing how much Ward sounds like he did fifty years ago, and Newmar recreates her younger self more often than not. (Your mileage may vary; other critics evaluated the voice work exactly the opposite of my reaction.) Instead, the fault lies with Warner Bros., which seemed to think that a few gags and calling back to some of the 1966 series’ most famous moments would be sufficient to resurrect the spirit of the original. It was not.
The problem, instead, is that the producers assumed that the only important part of the classic series was its characters, so all of the aesthetics were thrown by the wayside. In 1966, it was expensive to shoot at night, so Batman took place in broad daylight, but here the producers decided to place all of the action in the dead of night. Not only is this off-putting, but it also mires the entire movie in gray and blue gloom. The 1966 Batman was a work of pop art, drenched in bright and joyous color, with unrealistic but artistic set design. (Some of this was the accidental result of budget cuts.) The new movie is stubbornly literal, dingy, and uninspired in its visual design. They didn’t even use the infamous Dutch angle for the villains, except once, as a joke. There is no pop art here, and even familiar parts of the old series, like Commissioner Gordon’s office, are not reproduced in their original Technicolor gaudiness but are draped in flat sepia. By contrast, the Cartoon Network series Batman: The Brave and the Bold did a better job at capturing the right aesthetic, and Warner Bros. might have benefited from recycling that show’s design rather than the “house style” of all their animated Batman films.
The lack of inspiration permeates the whole movie. They actually had an actor on hand who could imitate William Dozier’s excited narration, and they chose not to use him to narrate the movie! The lack of narration decisively breaks the movie out of the old cliffhanger framework inherited from 1940s serials, and also deprives the movie of a chance to add jokes or even build suspense. With the film’s three-act structure, it would have been so simple to have narration open and close each segment as though they were three episodes of the TV series. With just a little more creativity, they could have dropped a short teaser between segments. Imagine, for example, how fun it might have been to place between segments short little parodies adding Batman villains to classic films or TV series of 1966-1968. There’s a lot that could have been done, but wasn’t.
You’ll notice I didn’t say anything about the plot. It’s sort of beside the point, but the story does offer an important if overly familiar critique of Batman and the modern penchant for a dark and brooding Batman. In the movie, Catwoman infects Batman with a serum that only gradually makes him into a villain, and the movie’s best moments occur when Batman slowly morphs from the happy warrior of 1966 through the grim modern version before going full villain. You can draw your own conclusions about what the movie is trying to say, but the argument about the light vs. dark Batman is a familiar one, though good to see interrogated on screen.
There very little of the campiness of 1966, though, only a dull literalness that copies the notes but not the music. The closest the film comes to having something to say about the values of the middle twentieth century is when Aunt Harriet seems to imply that she’s a fan of Seduction of the Innocent and believes that Bruce and Dick are secret lovers. It’s meant to play as cute, but a teen boy’s aunt giggling at a middle-aged man running off at all hours to have sex with her nephew still reads as weird, not as progressive. The running gag is played ambiguously, so we can also read Aunt Harriet as realizing that Bruce and Dick are Batman and Robin. I assume this is intentional.
Batman: The Return of the Caped Crusaders suffers from expectations. After fifty years, I expected a little more fun, a little more creativity, and a little bit more of what the old TV show conjures up in the imaginations of those of us who watched it as kids. Instead, it’s more or less an adequate approximation of what would happen if you dumped the 1966 Batman characters into any given Warner Bros. direct to video animated Batman feature. Personally, I don’t think that’s quite enough.