A film review by Craig J. Koban October 15, 2016

BATMAN: 

RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS

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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. 

Things change, 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. 

That's right...outer 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. 

 this film.

  

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