Holy Retro Trip, Batman! |
8 Ways Return of The Caped Crusaders Takes Us Back to The Past
By Mikhail Lecaros
Campy, colorful, and unabashedly ridiculous, Batman premiered on US television in 1966 and quickly became a phenomenon. When pop culture historians point to the 60’s as the era of (James) Bond, Batman and The Beatles, they weren’t kidding: twice a week, millions would remember to tune in at the, “Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel,” to catch the latest adventures of the titular hero (Adam West, who currently plays a bizarre version of himself on Family Guy) and his sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder (Burt Ward). Together, the Dynamic Duo fought to keep Gotham City safe from a dastardly cadre of villains played by a revolving door of the day’s A-list talent.
With its whimsical palette and camp sensibilities, detractors frequently cite the show as an embarrassment that delayed the recognition of comic books as a legitimate literary art form. What they tend to forget, however, is that if it hadn’t been a success, Batman probably wouldn’t have remained popular long enough for the later, more realistic interpretations to be created at all – Batman creator Bob Kane was once quoted as saying that the show actually saved the character’s comics from cancellation due to declining sales.
At any rate, showrunner William Dozier (who would also serve as the narrator) and writer Lorenzo Semple’s (Three Days of the Condor) decision to combine a razor sharp pop culture sensibility with a classic character proved to be a case of lightning in a bottle, putting Batman in the global spotlight, spawning inordinate amounts of merchandise, and becoming the very definition of a pop culture milestone.
With the 2013 announcement that Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox had finally put aside five decades of differences (ie. figured out how to divide the money), there came a slew of new merchandise based on the old show, including a first-ever home video release of the entire series in fully-remastered HD glory. But nobody could have predicted the next announcement: an actual feature-length animated film based on the classic TV show that would reunite the surviving stars.
The result, Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders is a deliberate return to the halcyon days before the Caped Crusader got angsty, and you know what? Coming after this year’s so-so reception of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, the disaster that was The Killing Joke, and yet another sequel to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, this throwback to a simpler Bat-time is the Bat-gift we never knew we needed.
Here are 8 reasons why:
#8 The Cast
It’s not often you’re able to reunite a cast fifty years after the fact, but apparently, Christmas came early for Bat-fans, as Return of the Caped Crusaders features the fine folks who originated the roles of Batman (West), Robin (Ward), and Catwoman (Julie Newmar) on television reprising their classic characters. Sure, they sound noticeably older, but there’s so much enthusiasm behind their performances that you’ll forgive the disconnect – it would be a crime to imagine anyone else in their places.
One noticeable omission here is the omnipresent narrator (portrayed on the show by producer William Dozier) whose breathless descriptions did wonders in setting the scene back in the day. Aside from a couple of instances here introducing a TV show the characters are watching, the narrator never actually gets to, well, narrate. Too bad, too, as Jeff Bergman (also playing the Joker) does a great job mimicking Dozier’s delivery.
Curiously, while Batman, Robin, and the villains are clearly patterned after the actors who originally portrayed them, supporting characters like Alfred and Commissioner Gordon seem to have been modified to appear more like their modern day representations.
#7 It’s a self-aware love letter to Batman
What most people don’t realize when dismissing the classic show due to its campiness is just how intelligent the entire thing was. Seriously, once you got past the cartoon colors, crazy camera angles, and overall silliness, you’ll find a remarkably self-aware satire on superhero conventions as a whole – decades before such things were fashionable!
Later seasons would be less sophisticated as Semple became less hands-on, but Return of the Caped Crusaders replicates much of the intelligence from the show’s first season and builds on it, throwing in good-natured digs at Batman portrayals from the last fifty years (Robin’s response to Catwoman’s inviting Batman to retire in favor of sipping tea in a European café a la The Dark Knight Rises is priceless). In fact, the entire plot is itself a commentary on the trend towards grim and gritty heroes, but It’s presented in such a way as to surprise you by the time you realize the method behind the film’s madness. Brilliant.
#6 It’s Surprisingly Suggestive
Now this is something you probably wouldn’t have noticed when you were younger, but aside from the obvious bits of sexiness (Julie Newmar’s form-fitting costume), the dialogue on the old Batman show was positively dripping with double-entendres and innuendo, especially whenever it came to scenes involving Catwoman. Seriously, watch the first season again, and you’ll be amazed by how much they got away with. Return of the Caped Crusaders is definitely in on the joke, and if there’s another animated feature this year where a female supervillain lectures the hero on the impoliteness of rubbing his masculine superiority in a woman’s face, we certainly haven’t heard about it.
#5 It’s a Colorful Trip Down Memory Lane
After the dreary, generic-looking mess that was The Killing Joke earlier this year, the animators at Warner Bros. Feature Animation have stepped up their game for Return of the Caped Crusaders, delivering a far worthier visual successor to the Batman TV show than the cheap cartoons of the 70’s that followed it. While liberties have been taken with some of the sets, iconic elements such as Wayne Manor, the characters, and props have been reproduced with obvious care. Even the onscreen sound effects that pop up during fight scenes make the transition from live action intact. Make no mistake, the quality of the animation is light years removed from a polished Disney production (or even the now-classic Animated Series from the 90s), but it’s clear Return of the Caped Crusaders was a labor of love from everyone involved.
#4 The Villains!
It’s no secret that the villains were often the best part of the show, portrayed by famed actors like Joan Collins, Vincent Price, and Eartha Kitt (Frank Sinatra himself lobbied to be cast as the Joker), and some of the most entertaining episodes (and the spin-off feature film that premiered between the first and second seasons) were the ones in which the villains teamed up to make life miserable for the Dynamic Duo. Return of the Caped Crusaders goes all in, featuring fan favorites the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin, and Catwoman in featured roles.
Unfortunately, while Newmar was on hand to reprise her role, her co-stars have all passed away, requiring their roles to be portrayed by sound-alikes, to varying degrees of success. William Saly (Rigby on Regular Show) is the worst of the three, with his Penguin sounding nothing like Burgess Meredith’s (Rocky) squawking chain-smoker. Faring better are Jeff Bergman (the current official Bugs Bunny), who nails Cesar Romero’s Joker laugh but slips somewhat whenever the scene calls for him to deliver dialogue, and Wally Wingert, who modifies his Riddler from the Arkham Asylum series of video games to deliver a spot-on Frank Gorshin version of the manic quizmaster all throughout.
#3 The Bat Gadgets
If it can be prefixed by the word, “Bat”, it’s probably in here somewhere. Every classic gadget from the Bat-zooka to the Bat Boat makes an appearance, while new creations, such as a Bat space rocket and deep dive exploration suits for the heroes, have been designed with an eye towards the 1960s aesthetic. Just try not to cheer when the Batmobile is revealed in all its glory for the first time.
#2 It’s absurd in all the right ways
Hitting screens over a decade before Superman the Movie showed the world that comic books could be taken seriously, the Batman TV show reveled in poking fun at superhero tropes. Aside from the endless parade of Bat gadgets, the old show delighted in constantly having Batman be the smartest man in the room, correctly deriving the most out-of-left field deductions from non sequitur clues, causing supporting characters shake their heads at how they themselves were unable to reach such “obvious” conclusions.
Also present here is Batman’s predilection to instruct Robin in the finer points of everything from ballet form to fastening his seatbelt, making use of pedestrian crossings, and even the importance of upper body strength for their infamous Bat-climbs. Honestly, the only thing missing here is Sammy Davis Jr. sticking his head out a window for a mid-Bat-climb cameo.
#1 There’s a sequel!
Just as it’s a miracle that Return of the Caped Crusaders exists at all, it was announced earlier this month at New York Comic Con that the film would be receiving a sequel next year, with Two-Face as the villain as voiced by none other than the original Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner! This will mark Two-Face’s first appearance in the 1966 TV universe, as the character was previously believed to be too scary for younger viewers.
If nothing else, the very notion of the legendarily hammy Shatner matching wits with West and Ward’s Dynamic Duo shows that whoever came up with the idea of reintroducing Batman ‘66 in animated form should go right on making them for as long as they want.
Holy retro-trip, Batman! Half a century on, it’s a good time to be a Bat-fan.
Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on November 1