Before diving into the film, it might help to explain its format and exactly what a serial is. The serial's roots extend to the silent film era then decline around the time TV became popular. A predecessor of the TV series, the serial consists of short episodic feature films. In '43 the Batman serial was created in the popular tradition of heroic American action serials that were dominated by westerns and stared the likes of Gene Autry. These short weekly episodes were punctuated by the cliff-hanger endings with a narrator enthusiastically recounting the dastardly situation our hero found himself in and if that sounds a bit like the Batman '66 series it's supposed to.
In Batman 1943, Batman is this film's cowboy placed in a story that borrows elements from sci-fi and gangster films of the era. The stories are aimed at a younger audience probably designed to appeal to pre-teen boys in a world less concerned about political correctness. There are plenty of fisticuffs and hair raising stunts in Batman '43 the action packed features were the hook that drew young men to the movies of that era much like the special effects blockbusters are the hook to today's summer fare. The fight scenes are particularly amusing, choreographed true to the cowboy movie style, wide camera angles with exaggerated haymaker punches that knock the opponent over often followed with a dive on top of a fallen foe. The fighting style, while dramatic and over-blown is more interesting than the stiff jerky close up motions performed by Michael Keaton in body armour. Lewis Wilson plays a big, burly Batman but a well groomed and dashing Bruce Wayne who sometimes takes a thorny tone with his co-stars. Robin, played by 17 year old Douglas Croft is a wooly haired teenager that captures an eager Robin who isn't simply a smaller duplicate of Batman, Robin struggles to do all the same feats that come easy to Batman but sometimes he screws up. Batman/Wayne does not hold back from admonishing his ward when he falls short of expectations. Alfred (William Austin) seems like a timid servant, much less the fully developed Alfred character we know from later comics, shows and movies.
One of the most important aspects of this DVD collection for Batman and cinema fans alike is that you're viewing a genuine piece of history, complete with all its nationalistic warts. This aspect of the viewing will require a certain distance from the material at times, taking it in context with the era. The US was at war when this was made and the story is a powerful commentary of American anxieties during the war. In the opening episode the narrator quite shockingly declares that a “...wise government rounded up the Japs...” referring to the unfortunate US policy of taking Japanese Americans into internment camps. The villain is Japanese, the evil Daka has a secret lair hidden on American soil beneath a carnival ride called the Cave of Horrors where he subverts American minds turning people into mindless zombies under his control (no Bush jokes please). The Cave of Horrors itself is a priceless demonstration of wartime fear, one of its displays shows a blonde (American) girl wearing her Sunday best being captured by Japanese infantrymen at gunpoint with fixed bayonets. If the racial or nationalistic overtones weren't harsh enough, I was surprised at how harsh Bruce Wayne could be to his co-stars. Alfred is treated curtly throughout the feature as no more than a servant, Bruce Wayne and Dick are actually mean to him on at least one occasion when they catch Alfred sitting around reading a “Detective Comic” they scare him out of his wits and then laugh at him. Bruce and Dick's levity (at Alfred's expense) is suddenly broken as Bruce Wayne barks orders at Alfred like he's about to give his servant the back of his hand for reading comics when he's supposed to be working, and he's just as curt toward Dick Grayson. Maybe Wilson was playing Wayne as a neurotic, which would explain how Bruce Wayne can alternate from smiling charm to rudely barking out orders. Clearly this is not your father's Batman and Robin, your grandfather's maybe.
The subplots and action sequences are surprisingly complex for a feature aimed at youngsters, if you liked the 1960's Batman TV series, this one is easily palatable even though it takes itself seriously. There are as many death defying stunts as fights, Batman will jump from a moving car, land a plane being shelled by artillery they look surprisingly well choreographed for action scenes made in an era without special effects, this was the era of real stuntmen and no CGI. Wilson's Batman fights like a real brawler as he and Robin often take as much melee as they're dishing out. There are no martial arts of the Far East used by this Batman, he brutally knocks people's faces into walls or drags them across cluttered desks before feeding them repeated knuckle sandwiches the old fashioned way. If you're a fan of Batman the '43 serial is a terrific slice of caped crusaders history capturing the era before he was a vigilante when he served his country as an operative for the FBI. It was this serial that invented Batman's hidden lair that went on to become the Bat-Cave which hadn't previously existed in the comics.
Legend has it that the Batman '43 serial was a movie night favourite at the Playboy mansion in Chicago with Hugh Hefner and friends in the early 60's. I can imagine movers and shakers in the entertainment industry hanging out with Hef at the mansion being treated to his own early rendition of home theatre. Executives from the ABC network were in attendance during one of these movie nights, inspired by what they say they saw they acquired the rights to the Batman character. The new project was then handed off to William Dozier who was also a fan of the early serial. Dozier's name is credited as creator of the 60's TV series, his voice is familiar to anyone who watched the 60's Batman it was his voice that narrated the episodes. “Meanwhile, hidden in his secret laboratory...”