Lost in Translation has looked at a couple of Batman adaptations in the past, one for the Fluxx card game and once for the Adam West series. Created by Bob Kane, the character has been around since 1939, with his first appearance in Detective Comics #27, and has gone through many iterations, from World’s Greatest Detective to the always prepared Bat-god. Batman is one of DC Comics’ Big Three alongside Superman and Wonder Woman. Naturally, a popular character will be noticed by Hollywood, leading to Batman’s first silver screen appearance, the 1943 fifteen-chapter serial Batman, starring Lewis Wilson as Bruce Wayne, Douglas Croft as Dick Grayson, Shirley Patterson as Linda Page, William Austin as Alfred, and J. Carrol Naish as Dr. Tito Daka.
The US in 1943 had just entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December of the previous year. The United States had maintained official neutrality despite sending materiel to the Allied Forces in Europe until the bombing. After the attack, the American war effort redoubled. Propaganda produced during the war wasn`t subtle. Even such notables as Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney weren’t above making unflattering caricatures of Axis leaders. Serials, being a way to pull in an audience to the movie theatre, took advantage.
The 1943 Batman serial is a product of its time. The villain, Daka who was created for the serial, is a racist stereotype, plotting against the US. In the first chapter, “The Electrical Brain”, the narrator all but cheers the decision to place Japanese-Americans into internment camps. Even Batman calls Daka a “Jap”. The racism isn’t always front and centre, but it lurks under the surface.
That said, the war does provide the villain a motive. Daka has a new weapon, a radium-powered disintegration ray. Coupled with a device that turns people into his own controlled zombies, Daka is a credible threat to the US. Worse, Daka is getting help from the criminal element in Gotham City. Needing help, the American government calls in secret agent Batman who brings along his youthful sidekick Robin to find and stop the Japanese agent.
Each step of the investigation in each chapter of the serial brings Batman and Robin closer to Daka. Criminal lairs are found, crooks are defeated, all leading up to finding Daka’s lab. Daka, though, needs a larger source of radium. Despite losing one of the ray guns to Batman, Daka has extras, larger models, and a source of radium to power them would let Japan bring the war to the US. Complicating matters, Bruce’s girlfriend, Linda, needs his help to clear her uncle’s good name. Daka kidnapped her uncle and turned him into a mind-controlled zombie. Worse, Linda also suffers the same fate. It’s up to Batman and Robin to stop Daka and help his zombified victims.
Lewis Wilson’s Batman is nothing like Adam West’s, Kevin Conroy’s, or Christian Bale’s. His is a detective first, not a martial artist. Criminals are afraid of him, but will attack him if the odds are in their favour, around three-to-one or better. Douglas Croft’s Robin, though, is the youthful ward, similar to Burt Ward in the 1966 series. The Dynamic Duo of the serial reflects the Batman and Robin of the comics of the time, with some changes imposed by the change in format.
As mentioned above, Batman is a secret agent working for the US government. Vigilantism wasn’t allowed by film censors of the the day. No taking the law into your own hands. But government agents fighting against the Axis threat? Perfectly fine. The line comes up once in the first chapter; for the rest of the serial, there’s no mention of the government connection. The Gotham City Police Department aren’t sure of Batman, wanting to arrest him.
Serials have limited budgets. They’re backup features, not the main draw, though a popular serial can bring an audience back week after week. Columbia, the studio behind Batman, took a risk and had it run fifteen chapters, the longest serial they had to date. This meant stretching a budget a bit longer than normal, even if the budget is bigger overall. This means that some elements need to get dropped. The Batmobile was once such victim. While Batman had a car, he had to share with Bruce Wayne. The difference – Bruce had the top down on his convertible while Batman kept the roof up.
The costumes are recognizably the Dynamic Duo’s. While black and white film doesn’t allow for checking that the colours are correct, both Batman and Robin and wearing costumes that come from their comic counterparts. Spandex isn’t yet available, and fabrics like nylon are being rationed due to the needs of the American armed forces. Batman’s costume starts looking a little baggy at times; chalk that up to the nature of the times. Despite that, the costumes are accurate.
The serial looks off when compared to today’s Batman media – comics, cartoons, and movies – but there isn’t a way to adapt a work that hasn’t yet been made. Batman works with the material DC released up to 1943 and reflects that time in both the US and the character’s history.