Sunday, June 14, 2015

Film Review: Batman & Robin (Movie Serial)

"Batman & Robin"  *** (out of ****)

The Bat is back!

"Batman & Robin" (1949) is a 15 chapter movie serial directed by Spencer Bennet and is a semi-sequel to "Batman" (1943), also a 15 chapter movie serial, which was the first ever screen appearance of the famed comic book character.

Movie serials, for younger readers, were episodic stories audiences would attend a movie theater to see. Each week you would see a new "chapter" not episode. Most of the movie serials I saw as a child were action / adventure stories which would end in cliffhangers; life or death situations the hero would find themselves in. The idea was to leave audiences in suspense in the hopes they would come back next week to find out what happened. It was a marketing gimmick to assure repeat business.

Movie serials appealed to young teenage boys who would get to watch characters like Batman or "Flash Gordon" (1936), "Superman" (1948), "The Green Hornet" (1940), "The Shadow" (1940) or "The Adventures of Captain Marvel" (1941). Many times, as in the case of Batman and Superman, these were the first screen appearances of the characters, which would also excite children. Now they would get to see live-action versions of their favorite superheroes. Think of how excited children are today seeing all the superhero movies.

In "Batman & Robin" the dynamic duo square off against "The Wizard", who disguises himself with a masked hood (and goes uncredited), a mastermind criminal that has stolen a device created by Professor Hammil (William Fawcett) that makes it possible to control any vehicle within a 50 mile radius. According to Commissioner Gordon (Lyle Talbot. I was very surprised to see an actual famous actor in a movie serial!) if this device ends up in the wrong hands a person can control Gotham City.

Now it is up to Batman (Robert Lowery) and the boy wonder Robin (John Duncan) to help Gotham City police find this mysterious masked man before he can set his diabolical plan into motion .

In some ways I like "Batman & Robin" more than the original "Batman", which was a piece of American World War II propaganda. Batman, for instance, works for the U.S. government. The villain in that serial was a Japanese spy master called Dr. Daka. Remember, it was released after Pearl Harbor was attacked. American movies would often present the Japanese and Germans as villains during this time. "Batman & Robin" is not bogged down by American politics. In some ways I find the villain, The Wizard, more interesting than Dr. Daka. But "Batman & Robin" has so many plot holes that it interferes with my enjoying it.

For example, why did Prof. Hammil create such a device? What was its purpose? What void in society was such a machine going to fill? The machine needs diamonds to remain operational. Why? Why would Prof. Hammil chose such a mineral?

As in "Batman" the two crime fighters drive a regular vehicle. In this movie it looks like a 1949 Mercury and it is the same car they drive as Bruce Wayne and Dick Ward! How do they expect to keep their identity as Batman and Robin a secret? They even change into their costumes while in the car. I am sure it was for budget reasons a bat-mobile was not created for both of these movie serials but these actions defeat Batman and Robin's purpose of fighting crime in secret. All someone has to do is trace the license plate number back to Bruce Wayne.

Finally, "Batman & Robin" lacks on suspense. It takes seven chapters before the dynamic duo really come close to getting a clue to solve the mystery of who The Wizard is and it takes equally as long until The Wizard makes any type of demand on Gotham City which leads the viewer to ask, what is The Wizard's ultimate purpose for this device?

The serial really doesn't start to kick into high gear until chapter ten entitled "Batman's Last Chance!". At this point Batman and Robin and starting to get closer and closer to discovering who The Wizard is. However, in the process of that happening the writers, George H. Plympton (who wrote several serials including "Superman" and "Flash Gordon"), Joseph F. Poland and Royal K. Cole, pass up several story-line opportunities including one involving Vicki Vale (Jane Adams), a reporter and possible love interest of Bruce Wayne. At one point Vale starts to suspect Bruce Wayne and Batman are the same person. But nothing is done with it.

In some chapters it is suggested the villains have killed off Batman and in one particular chapter it is suggested a close acquaintance was really Batman after he is killed wearing the Batman costume. At no point in the serial is Vicki Vale shown investigating this possibility or is the media seen reporting the death of Batman.

The chapters also don't all end on cliffhangers and the title of the chapters are often misleading. Chapter titles include "Robin's Wild Ride", "Robin Rescues Batman", "Target - Robin", this would all suggest certain chapters heavily revolve around Robin which quite frankly is not the case.

Those that like a more serious interpretation of Batman, showing him as a brooding figure, a man caught in an inner-conflict with two sides of his personality fighting for control, will be sorely disappointed. The Batman and Robin seen in this serial are crime fighters. Good natured, all-American, clean-cut men that do not struggle with themselves about the burden of crime fighting and living a duel life.

In the movies this serious look at Batman is a more modern approach which some fans say took Christopher Nolan, director of the "Dark Knight Trilogy" to perfect. Prior to those movies and two of Tim Burton's movies, the most popular portrayal of Batman was done by Adam West in the 1966-1968 television show, which was actually more campy than this, but intentionally so.

A lot of action in "Batman & Robin" takes place during the day. Another characteristic at odds with the more expected notion that Batman lurks in the shadows. He is a creature of the night. Batman follows criminals in broad daylight here.

"Batman & Robin" didn't really have to be about Batman and Robin. It could have been any made-up character. It is a typical mystery-adventure story common in movie serials. The characters here just happen to be Batman and Robin. Looking at it in that context, purely on the story alone, it has some interesting moments, mostly in the final chapters. As a piece of mainstream lore into the Batman character, I would imagine it would be disappointing story-wise but of some historical interest, because these serials were the first live-action adaptations of the character.

As a serial "Batman & Robin" works. It is typical of the era and serials in general. Batman fans may be disappointed by the portrayal of the character and the lack of dimension but for a 1940s mystery story I found some things to enjoy.