RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS
2016, No MPAA Rating, 78 mins.
Adam West as Bruce Wayne/Batman / Burt Ward as Dick Grayson/Robin / Julie Newmar as Catwoman / Jeff Bergman as The Joker / Wally Wingert as The Riddler / William Salyars as The Penguin / Jim Ward as Commission Gordon / Thomas Lennon as Chief O'Hara / Steven Weber as Alfred
Directed by Rick Morales / Written by James Tucker and Michael Jelenic, based on the 1966 BATMAN TV series created by William Dozier
As a fan
of all things Batman I have to admit that I never fully grew to appreciate
and get the iconic and cherished 1960's era TV series until much
later in life.
The peak of my Dark Knight fandom came during the mid to late 1980's, during which time the character was truly flourishing and returning to his roots as a dark and brooding nocturnal vigilante. Then when Tim Burton's highly influential 1989 BATMAN feature film came out it all but cemented that version of the character in my already sullen and moody 14-year-old mind. At this time I simply couldn't process and accept the Batman TV series, especially with its bright, colorful, and aggressively comedic and campy take on the character.
To my adolescent
eyes...this was simply not my Caped Crusader.
though. I grew older,
matured, hopefully became wiser, and my movie, comic book, and TV tastes
evolved. As I segued into
adulthood I found myself gravitating back towards the William Dozier
created series. I certainly
watched a handful of episodes as a child, but the film's satiric leanings
completely went over my naive head (that, and I took it as seriously as a
heart attack). As an adult, though, I began to appreciate not only the skill
and polish of the series, but also what an exemplarily executed comedy it
was. Considering the past
iterations of Bob Kane's and Bill Finger's 1939 creation, it's kind of a
mad stoke of innovative conceptual genius that still mightily holds up
today. In short, this version of Batman, in my mind, is just as
relevant and worthy of an example of the character as anything that
Burton, Christopher Nolan, or Zack Snyder put on the silver screen.
This rather long
build up brings me to, yes, the new DC animated film BATMAN: RETURN OF THE
CAPED CRUSADERS, a direct-to-video venture that's being released on Blu-ray
in November that saw a very limited one-day theatrical engagement this
past week. The Warner
Brothers Animation produced effort is a spiritual sequel film, so to
speak, to the live action antics of Adam West's Batman and Burt Ward's
Robin that graced the small screen half a century ago. Best of
all? Those two stars jubilantly return (alongside Julie Newmar) to
reprise their respective roles in voice acting form.
What's undeniably obvious within a few short minutes of the film is
that it intuitively understands the whole sweeping aesthetic minutia of
what made the 60's-era series tick. I
found myself in a perpetual state of glee watching it, seeing as it's a
pitch perfect distillation of the show with a few legitimately intriguing
twists thrown in for good measure. That,
and we have West and Ward triumphantly returning to their most famous
roles five decades after the fact like they just left the set of the series yesterday.
BATMAN: RETURN OF
THE CAPED CRUSADERS is, in its purest form, a 78-minute version of a
typical TV episode...albeit with some grander ambitions with its narrative
that simply were not possible because of the limitations of the ABC series
of its period. Once again we
have Batman and Robin brought out by the sudden appearance of the most
nefarious members of their rogues gallery, more specifically The Joker (Jeff
Bergman), The Riddler (Wally Wingert), The Penguin (William Salyars) and,
yes, Catwoman (Newmar). It
appears that these dastardly crooks have managed to snag a special ray gun
that has the ability to duplicate whatever it shoots at.
Realizing that their foes cannot possibly be allowed to utilize
this dangerous technology, Commissioner Gordon (Jim Ward) and the
hysterically inept Chief O'Hara (Thoman Lennon) call in Batman and Robin
to apprehend the villainous thugs, a journey that eventually takes them
all to - I'm not making this up - space.
space. In a madly entertaining turn that evidently couldn't figure
into a TV episode of yesteryear with the budgetary constraints of the
time, Batman and Robin do indeed don Bat space suits, hope into the
Batrocket (how they fit it into the Batcave is beyond me) and blast off
towards a Russian space station to do zero gravity fisticuffs with their
adversaries. It should be
noted that director Rick Morales evokes what made the fight sequences of
the series such an unmitigated hoot, utilizing Dutch angles,
preposterously over-the-top moves, and the obligatory POW! and WHAM! title
cards that punctuate each methodical hit.
The attention to detail in BATMAN: RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS is
what ultimately makes it so delectably enjoyable throughout.
There's not classic troupe stone from the series that's left
unturned here, which is superb to witness.
The film even
manages to ironically riff on the unwavering and almost nonsensically
silly wholesomeness of Batman in an unexpectedly novel way.
There's a subplot involving Catwoman's plan to turn Batman into a
villain via a very special toxin that would alter him from hero to heel,
which is a lot harder than it sounds.
Initially, Batman's stupendous moral fiber is able to counteract
the effects of the poison, but as time goes on his cognitive defenses
break, which leaves the well mannered and righteous Batman of old turning
into a darker version of himself that future versions of the character
would ultimately become in the years after the series shut down.
Now, how the TV series never capitalized on such a relatively
straightforward, but fiendishly clever concept is head scratching, as
BATMAN: RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS generates terrific comedic mileage
out of West's Batman becoming a costumed freak with a vicious streak.
Not only does the poisoned Batman fire Alfred, but he also kicks
his youthful ward out of Wayne Manor.
The inspired icing on the cake is when Batman actually quotes two
specific lines of dialogue from Michael Keaton's Batman and Frank
Miller's Batman from DARK KNIGHT RETURNS while mercilessly pummeling Joker
and company to the shocked dismay of Robin.
But of course Batman doesn't stay this way. That would be tonally unfitting to this movie's lovingly affectionate callbacks to the series that inspired it. BATMAN: RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADER finds ample laughs in how one-sidedly noble, decent, and law abiding this Batman is, especially in one extremely amusing moment when Batman abruptly stops Robin from jaywalking to police headquarters, seeing as duly deputized officers of the law like them should not be breaking any laws (they promptly run towards the crosswalk). The film also contains a sensationally ludicrous scene involving Batman and Robin tied to a massive TV dinner (don't ask) that's stuck on a conveyer belt sending them into a giant oven; Batman uses the citric acid of the lemon filled pie he's bound to eat away at his ropes, securing his and Robin's freedom.
It becomes really hard not to giggle incessantly at this film.
West almost never
gets grouped in with Keaton, Bale, and others when debates arise as to who
was the greatest Batman, mostly because his version of the
character is such a diametric polar opposite to those other iterations.
Yet, what he did in the series and in this film is not easy: he has
to play his role with a straight faced, dead panned demeanor that's not
trying to be funny. This
Batman takes being Batman very, very seriously, which is what
allows for the inherent humor of the whole zany enterprise to come to the
forefront. West is in
resoundingly refined form back as Batman, as is Ward, who's able to
miraculously come off as a hyperactively enthusiastic teen yet again
despite his middle aged stature. Newmar is also great returning as her slinky and seductive Catwoman, as are her co-stars that thanklessly
re-create the memorable vocal cadences of the now deceased Caesar Romero,
Frank Gorshin, and Burgess Meredeth respectively.
There are no attempts made hear to modernize the characters or make
them sound audibly different from their 1960's live action counterparts,
which is most refreshing.
If BATMAN: RETURN
OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS were to have a fault then it's the fact that the
animation - again, designed for small screen consumption - at times looks
stiff and rudimentary on a much larger canvas.
That, and the film is missing the quintessential voice over
narration of the series that provided hyperbolic commentary on the story
during scene transitions. Yet, those are minor quibbles, because BATMAN: RETURN OF THE
CAPED CRUSADERS is an infectious delight throughout that matter-of-factly
goes out of its way to justify and reiterate the TV show that inspired it
as a landmark, groundbreaking, and imaginatively engineered pop culture spoof
that's still highly regarded to this day.
This version of Batman is no better or worse, per se, than the more
dramatically ground and emotionally tormented examples of the character
that have permeated both comic books and movies for several decades.
What BATMAN: RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS reminds us of is the
notion that this translation of Batman is just as compelling, significant
and appealing as any other that has come before or since.
And just because West's Batman obsessively obeys traffic and pedestrian laws doesn't make him any less of a hero.