And now for something completely different… I was reading a Vox article this week about the influence of Turner Classic Movies in terms of promoting classic film in an age when the recent-release bias of streaming services have made some of the greatest movies of all time practically invisible to anyone under 30. In it, Todd VanDerWerff quotes David Bordwell quoting Roger Ebert to the effect that when today’s film scholars came of age, Casablanca was a newer movie than the Godfather is to young adults today. The former film was 25 in the middle 1960s, while today the Godfather is about to turn 45. I was thinking about that when I watched Warner Bros. new direct-to-video movie Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders, based on the 1966-1968 Batman television series. When I first watched Batman in syndicated reruns as a little kid, it was only 20 years old. That’s hard enough to believe, but it’s horrifying to realize than in just a couple of months Buffy the Vampire Slayer will be as old as Batman was then. Time comes for us all in the end.
Perhaps it is the desire to freeze time in place that drives the nostalgia boom. I don’t know. I do know, however, that Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders, which is currently on digital video and will be released on DVD November 1, doesn’t just attempt to resurrect the beloved 1960s TV series but features the voice work of original series stars Adam West (Batman), Burt Ward (Robin), and Julie Newmar (Catwoman). It was meant as a nostalgia trip, but I found it disappointing—and I say that as someone who loved the Batman ’66 digital comic series, which managed to capture the spirit of the TV series while expanding on it and offering a bit of a veiled critique as well.
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.
10/23/2016 10:29:06 am
Jason your still a kid! I can remember batman and star trek when they were running before reruns! I was born in 63 and can remember my older sisters first monkeys album. Yes time comes for all of us but given how over stimulated my kids generation is with social media and the expectation you can hear any music or see almost all movies in seconds and the obsession with their damn smartphones I'll take even be 80s. We actually would go out o pubs and debate politics, science, economics instead to playing stupid YouTube videos. I know I'm an old fart now but I'm damn glad I'm not a kid today
10/24/2016 03:43:40 pm
you were born in '63, you rotten kid! I coulda been your babysitter - why you never even saw an episode of the original Howdy Doody.
10/24/2016 08:24:36 pm
If you were a kid today, you would still be debating politics, science, and economics. You'd just be doing it on Facebook and tumblr rather than while developing alcoholism.
10/25/2016 08:38:04 am
Thete is something to say about personal interactions in person. U neef to be a little more polite and perhaps open minded when you are talking to someone u know who is a fre feet away.
10/23/2016 12:15:02 pm
Question: Why isn't a single positive review found on this site? Seriously.
10/23/2016 12:29:29 pm
10/23/2016 01:23:37 pm
John (the other one)
10/23/2016 05:26:26 pm
Maybe it's the lack of care and original thought that goes into most of the work reviewed? A lot of what is discussed here seems to be based solely on other copying other crappy ideas how could that net a good review? If the work reviewed was better then the review would be better, no?
10/23/2016 08:02:10 pm
One of the purposes of this blog is to shed light on bogus claims by "fringe" historians; claims that are not based on or supported by known facts and sound scientific reasoning. Jason shows where their facts are wrong, where they have relied on other peoples flawed work instead of doing the necessary research to back up their claims, and how their assumptions are not logical or are based on wishful thinking, e.g. starting with what they want to believe and miss-interpreting the evidence so as to get to that conclusion. He does give positive reviews to those who do good research and honest work.
10/23/2016 01:23:39 pm
"Perhaps it is the desire to freeze time in place that drives the nostalgia boom. I don’t know."
10/23/2016 01:41:51 pm
Perhaps that's why I get so many e-mails with material from the 1950s: 45 rpm adapter discs, slinkies, bank passbooks, curb feelers, and the like.
10/23/2016 03:01:13 pm
10/25/2016 01:43:15 pm
I have a pet rock I'll sell you...
10/24/2016 01:05:38 am
Yah. I just became part of the iPhone crowd (it's company issue, but I am encouraged to take it home), and that's brought to forefront again some qualms I have about the digital generation. There's this illusion of transparency with streaming and on-demand content, ebooks, etc. So much comes to your fingertips so effortlessly, you have to really think about making the effort to see what isn't being included.
10/25/2016 01:47:20 pm
It's all about sales. Do some Google searches of a few products, car, truck, boat, shoes, it doesn't even matter, and then just go around looking at CNN or other news outlets, and see how many ads come up reflecting your previous searches. We're all being tracked, but not by the all seeing and knowing eye of the government. It's the corporations who are tracking us in the effort to pry as much money out of our hands as possible.
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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