Release Date: July 16th, 1943 (first chapter)
Directed by: Lambert Hillyer
Written by: Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, Harry L. Fraser
Based on: Batman created by Bob Kane
Cast: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson
Columbia Pictures, 260 Minutes total (15 episodes)
The first time that Batman hit the big screen wasn’t 1989’s Batman or the 1966 Batman film based on the hit television series. It was actually way back in 1943 when Batman was only four years-old. Batman is a 15 chapter serial produced by Columbia Pictures and it went on to inspire a sequel and paved the way for a ton of future Batman films and television series for generations.
Lewis Wilson has the distinction of being the first live action Batman, while Douglas Croft is the first Robin. The villain was not from the comics however. Instead it was a Japanese secret agent named Dr. Daka and was played by J. Carrol Naish. The cast is rounded out by Golden Age Bruce Wayne love interest Linda Page (played by Shirley Patterson) and the famous Wayne butler Alfred Pennyworth (played by William Austin).
Like pretty much every action adventure serial, it is broken up into several chapters, each featuring a cliffhanger that wouldn’t be resolved until the following episode was released.
The highlight of this serial is the cinematography. It is well shot and really captures the advantages of black and white film. It uses a lot of contrast, shadows and highlights. The opening scene of the first chapter looks fantastic, as Batman sits at a desk in the dark Batcave with the silhouettes of bats flapping around.
The costumes are pretty good for the era. Although, Robin’s mask is a bit too big and Batman’s ears look more like devil horns. Although, it is pretty consistent with the look of early Batman comics. Unfortunately though, there is no Batmobile; our heroes just drive around in a normal car.
Batman and Robin aren’t as good at fighting as they would later become. They have trouble tangling with normal mobsters but in the end, they still win.
Dr. Daka is an okay and passable villain for a serial but he is just a white guy in yellowface. While common for the time, especially being that this was made and released while we were at war with Japan, it just doesn’t play well today. It is really just a reminder of the racism in the entertainment of that era.
All in all, Batman is a fun serial. It is well executed, well shot and pretty artistic in its presentation. It is certainly worth a look for hardcore Batman fans.