The Back Row’s Weekly Serial Review: Batman

In the late 90s, serial star Linda Sterling gave an interview in which she commented that 20 years ago she never would have believed that people would still know about serials today. True, people like me are rare and, frankly, a little strange, but thanks to DVD and the internet you can find almost anything. Most serials can be found online. Youtube has clips, full episodes, and even full serials.

I like watching serials on DVD (and yes, I realize that in this age, where everything should be watched on a 1” cell phone screen, that practically makes me a luddite). Most serials can be found reasonably cheap at Chapters or Amazon. If you’re a hunter you can often find a good deal in used DVD stores or bargain bins. The reason I like DVDs is because, if you’re lucky, there are special features. There are no behind-the-scenes, making-of documentaries, but sometimes they’ll include the trailers, a short or a cartoon, archive footage, production stills, or if you’re really lucky, an interview or two. These extras give you a glimpse into the time and puts what you’re watching in, often much needed, context.

Quick Facts
Released in 1943
Directed by Lambert Hillyer
Written by Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker and Harry Fraser
Starring Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, and J. Carrol Naish

Basic Story Line
During the Second World War, Batman and Robin try to stop Japanese scientist Dr. Daka from developing a super weapon to aid Japan in its war against America.

Batman had potential to be one of the great serials. There is, unfortunately, one minor detail that holds it back: it’s an embarrassingly blatant anti-Japanese propaganda piece.

There are a lot of good things to say about the 1943 Batman serial. It has good production values and a good soundtrack. Very little stock footage is used. They don’t recycle a lot of footage from previous chapters and they don’t have the annoying flashback chapter. Most of the cliff hangers are good, if not a little predictable by the end. It’s far from being a perfect serial. The story is thin and gets thinner as it progresses. The henchmen announce that they’ve killed off Batman “once and for all” almost every episode. The fight scenes involve Batman lining a guy up and punching him. Batman, does however, have what every serial needs and so few actually have: a really cool villain.

Dr. Daka is cool. J. Carrol Naish plays him with the same sinister glee that you would find in such classic Batman villains as the Joker or the Riddler. Dr. Daka has gadgets. He has an alligator pit in the floor, which he uses to dispose of incompetent henchmen. He uses mind control. He has a secret lair hidden in a funhouse that is masquerading as an anti-Japanese propaganda exhibit, to warn people about the horrors of the Japanese empire (in one scene he collects the gate money).

This brings us to the elephant in the room. Most write-ups on this serial tend to either ignore or gloss over the fact that this a clumsy propaganda piece, filled with stereotypes and racial slurs. Had the villain simply been Japanese, it would have been just as effective as a propaganda piece in 1943, and it would still work today. However, this serial is filled with Japanese imperialistic tirades and patriotic American speeches. The writers only seem to have a cursory knowledge of Japanese culture. It’s one thing when bad guys make racist comments, (they’re bad guys, we’re not supposed to like them) it’s quite another thing when the Narrator says “Wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs.” It is so present that I was dreading the moment when Batman came face to face with Daka, for fear of what he might say. I was not disappointed.

It’s hard to know what to make of this serial. It is a product of its time and anti-Japanese sentiment was strong during the Second World War. It also has historical significance in the comic book word for being the first time Batman was ever put on film. Elements of this serial found their way into the Batman lore. However, the racism in this serial is so blatant and pervasive it is jarring to a modern audience.

Things to watch for
-The villains have a car that can switch licence plates and paint itself a different colour while driving.
-Dr. Daka baby talking to his alligators.
-Batman calling Daka a “Jap devil.”

The Back Row Weekly Serial Drinking Game
While watching a serial, anytime you or a friend point out a plot hole or inconsistency, take a drink. (Note: Batman surviving a plane crash is not a plot hole. Batman being the sole survivor of a plane crash and walking away unharmed is.)
Odds of getting sloshed: Medium

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