ScreenCrush editor, comic-book lover, and undiagnosed masochist Matt Singer is systematically watching every single (American) comic-book movie ever made in the order in which they were released. This week in The Complete History of Comic-Book Movies: The Dynamic Duo return, in decidedly less than dynamic fashion.
Batman and Robin (1949)
Director: Spencer Gordon Bennet
Writers: George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, Royal K. Cole
Starring: Robert Lowery, Johnny Duncan, Jane Adams
Based on: Batman, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, in Detective Comics #27.
Onscreen Iteration: Second appearance.
The Best Special Effect: Batman and Robin follows the epic battle between the Caped Crusader and “The Wizard,” a masked villain who’s acquired a device that can remote control any motor vehicle in a wide vicinity. Early in the serial, Batman (Robert Lowery) and Robin (Johnny Duncan) trail the Wizard’s goons to a train where they hope to acquire some experimental explosives. Batman pulls up alongside the train in his convertible (there’s no Batmobile in this serial, sadly), jumps from one to the other, climbs a ladder, and begins punching it out with the bad guys on the top of the train. A few of these shots are done on a studio with rear projection, but plenty of them are legit: a stunt double, a moving train, and a speeding car.
Even some of the shots on the top of the train are legit.
This is exactly the Batman I want to see onscreen: Brave and daring with a flagrant disregard for his own safety.
The Worst Special Effect: Does Batman’s costume count as a “special effect”? Because if it does, then the answer is Batman’s costume.
This is exactly the Batman I don’t want to see onscreen: Looking like hot garbage.
Just in case it doesn’t count, I’ll give you another example. (Trust me: Batman and Robin is not lacking in the bad special effects department.) Batman and Robin hang out, of course, in the Batcave (the concept of the Batcave having been invented in the previous Batman serial from 1943). The Wizard hangs out in a secret cave lair of his own, hidden beneath another wealthy man’s mansion.
The notion of an evil version of Batman is an intriguing one. Through most of the serial, the Wizard appears to be Professor Hammil (TK), the inventor of the remote-control device. Hammil is a near-perfect doppelganger for Bruce Wayne: He lives in an enormous estate on a hill, and has his own butler and manservant to attend to all his needs (along with that hidden cave beneath his house). He’s an ideal antagonist and dark mirror image for our hero.
There’s just one problem: Producers clearly couldn’t afford two different subterranean hideouts, so they just built one and then redressed the set two different ways. Here’s the Batcave:
And here’s the Wizard’s Cave (note the exact same secret door to the far right and identical rock formation directly beside it):
Holy double vision, Batman!
(A runner-up Worst Special Effect for the movie’s version of the Bat-Signal, which inexplicably works in broad daylight:)
(That’s just stupid.)
Most Dated Moment: Most serials were done on the cheap and by 1949 with television on the rise, the format was basically on the way out. If there was ever time or money to spend on serials, those days were long gone by the time Columbia put Batman and Robin into production. It’s evident in the scenes featuring the dueling cave sets, and pretty much every other moment in the film as well.
Like so many serials, Batman and Robin was shot in and around the Southern California desert. The locations were cheap and offered plenty of space for chases, fights, stunts, and special effects. (They also helped ease the burden of maintaining continuity, allowing the crew to shoot scenes even quicker.) The desert locations do offer a few opportunities for striking visuals, like this one of Batman atop a rocky cliff:
But deserts locations like that one are extremely costly and difficult to light for nighttime, which means Batman and Robin is a Batman adventure that takes place almost entirely during the day; there’s barely a handful of scenes that take place after sunset. Batman’s whole schtick is lurking in the shadows. Kind of tough to do that in the middle of nowhere in broad daylight. It’s hard to imagine any Batman movie in the post-Burton, post-Nolan era making that choice.
Most Timeless Moment: Batman doesn’t have a lot of great moments in this serial (I mean, just look at him) but he does get one killer sequence worthy of a much better film. He corners one of the Wizard’s men, who spins on his heels and socks Batman right in the jaw. Batman doesn’t flinch, then sarcastically quips “That hurt!” Then he punches the thug in the mouth and drops him like a sack of potatoes. Bad. Ass.
Further Thoughts: Batman & Robin is the first comic-book movie sequel in history, and it really establishes a sad precedent for follow-ups as cheaper, crummier versions of their predecessor. Just about everything about Batman & Robin is worse than 1943’s Batman serial. The sets are hokey and obviously recycled for multiple locations; there are constant goofs, flubs, and continuity errors; Batman’s costume looks like it was made by a drunk or someone with a vendetta against him; Lowery Batphones in his performance and Duncan delivers his lines with all the enthusiasm of a death-row inmate ordering his last meal. On the plus side, Batman and Robin is not shockingly and despicably racist towards the Japanese. So at least it’s got that going for it!
Yes, Batman & Robin is bad but at least it’s hilariously bad; a nice change of pace from a lot of the boringly bad serials from this period of comic-book movie history. It’s pretty clear this film was shot on the cheap and on the quick, with very little time given or attention paid to continuity or even fundamental notions of logic. For most of the serial’s 15 chapters, the prime suspect for the true identity of the Wizard is Professor Hammil. Time and again, Batman and Robin consider the possibility that Hammil could be masquerading as the dastardly evildoer. And time and again Batman eliminates him from consideration because Hammil is confined to a wheelchair and the Wizard is not. Still, the clues keep pointing in Hammil’s direction, so Batman and Robin eventually head to his mansion to confront him. And, naturally, when they do, he looks like this (that’s him between Batman and Robin:
Yes, the man they’re convinced can’t be the Wizard because he can’t walk is walking around. And do Batman and Robin make note of this shocking turn of events? No, they do not. Isn’t Batman supposed to be the world’s greatest detective? Shouldn’t he make note of his prime (paraplegic) suspect mysteriously walking around? Even Inspector Clouseau would have noticed that little detail.
Some of the filmmakers’ choices are just baffling. Batman and Robin keep their costumes in a filing cabinet in the Batcave. Not a closet, not a dresser or a chest of drawers, a freaking filing cabinet. Who puts their clothes in a filing cabinet? No wonder their costumes look so bad. Bruce Wayne is the richest guy on the planet, he can’t afford a couple of wire hangers?
Also, Batman gets electrocuted constantly, as if they couldn’t think of any other idea to incapacitate him. He gets shocked by this metal bar thing:
Then he gets zapped when he slams into this high-tech gadget:
Then he fries a third time when the Wizard sends an electrical charge through his entire base, and Batman touches a metal doorknob.
Batman, I don’t know how else to say this: You suck. How many times do the bad guys have to electrocute you before you learn to insulate your suit? Or stop touching or bumping into things crackling with electricity? C’mon man. You’re supposed to be a superhero! Be even a tiny bit super!
Modern Bat-fans associate the title Batman & Robin with one of the character’s most disastrous media appearances: Joel Schumacher’s goofy 1997 movie featuring George Clooney as Batman and Arnold Schwarzenegger as a pun-dropping Mister Freeze (“What killed the dinosaurs? The Ice Age!”). Curiously, there’s a weird synchronicity between the old Batman and Robin and the modern one. In both films, the villains need to steal diamonds to fuel their fancy machines. And both movies are absolutely and entertainingly terrible. Clearly the title is cursed and should never be used again by the Bat-franchise, at least by anyone looking to make a serious version of the character who fights crime in exciting, competent fashion and hangs his costume in a closet like a normal guy.
Batman and Robin is available on DVD.
The Complete History of Comic-Book Movies Archive
-Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)
-Spy Smasher (1942)
-Captain America (1944)
-Hop Harrigan (1946)
-The Vigilante (1947)
-Congo Bill (1948)