“Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders” brings back the satirical superhero, only slightly darker

Fathom has additional screenings nationwide today for Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders at 7:30 PM and 10:00 PM, with the film receiving digital release tomorrow, October 11, and a Blu-Ray and DVD release on November 1.

This review contains minor spoilers. Spoiler-heavy discussion, including all the references you may have missed in the film, are here.

Although I’m a child of the ‘80s and ‘90s, my first encounter with the Batman franchise was not Superfriends, the Keaton/Burton films, or The Animated Series. In the late 1980s, when I was in preschool, the Family Channel aired re-runs of the 1960’s Adam West series, Batman ‘66 (which, given its camp factor popular in queer studies, makes it all the more delicious that Pat Robertson still put this show on his network, when he’s not defending lecherous old perverts). The colorful villains, hokey one-liners, and aw-shucks moralizing of Bruce and Dick attracted my attention as a child, and it tends to be a factor I look for in superhero stories. While these superheroes and supervillains are epic in nature, drawing upon the larger-than-life status of the gods from which they draw inspiration, I don’t like adaptations that fail to also capture that theatricality–the exaggerated costumes, emotions, plots, and settings–that also suit such Greek and Roman ideas of the superhero, and which are so goofy as to be a largely harmless escape from mundane life. It’s why, for animation, I like Batman: The Brave and the Bold more than Beware the Batman; it’s why I prefer the 1990s animated The Tick to the new Amazon pilot; and it’s why I prefer Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog to whatever mess DC is trying with live-action.

So of course I was going to attend today’s afternoon Fathom Event screening for the new animated adaptation of the Adam West series, Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders, written and produced by The Brave and the Bold’s Michael Jelenic and James Tucker, with West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar reprising their roles as Batman, Robin, and Catwoman. While I’m not sure the film is worth seeing in theaters, it is definitely worth a rental.

The film’s writing is like the original television series: rather than only mocking the original or serving as a pale imitation, it feels like what an episode would look like with a better budget: fights can be more elaborate, the setting can move beyond Gotham, and far more fantasy and science fiction can be incorporate to exaggerate this fantasy world in which Batman and Robin fight supervillains. Plotwise, the film is messy, able to be broken into pieces rather easily for episodic serialization, unfortunately without the Batman ‘66 announcer (originally the late William Dozier, here replaced with Jeff Bergman) to interrupt with the obligatory “Is it curtains for our Dynamic Duo?!” This mess may be the problem of the originating series rather than this film, however.

While the film has a villain not revealed in the trailers, and which draws out an excellent performance from their actor, this twist still does not overcome some problems for the overall film. I found myself a bit bored as Return of the Caped Crusaders feels a bit repetitive, especially in fight sequence–again, a problem more inherent to the original series than this film alone. And at times the plot shifted, depending on which conflict Batman was facing: Is the film about the duplicator gun the villains possessed, or Batman facing his own darkness, or his romance with Catwoman? These are not isolated threads: they are interwoven. So the plot, while a bit disorganized, is ambitious and coherent–as coherent as a plot can be with duplicator guns, Bat-Spacesuits, and unstable molecules (the last a reference to the Adam West Batman film from 1967).

As the title suggests, Return of the Caped Crusaders feels like a continuation of the original series, thanks in part because West, Ward, and Newmar portray their animated selves as well as they did in the original–not too surprising, not only given their skills with the characters before, but because West and Newmar, even as on-screen actors, have significant experience in animation voice acting. As well, the actors stepping in for characters whose actors have passed away do great work, especially William Salyers, Wally Wingert, and Bergman embodying Burgess Meredith’s Penguin, Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, and Cesar Romero’s Joker, all three of them down to the laughs, a challenge for which these actors deserve considerable praise.

The animation team did excellent work with character designs, striking the proper balance between transplanting the real-life actors’ features onto the characters and simplifying the designs for smoother animation. Unlike the recent comic book continuation of Batman ‘66, in which the Joker looks much more like Cesar Romero, down to the bits of facial hair poking out of the makeup, his animated counterpart here has a simplified design, although obviously just makeup here. I can’t help but feel unnerved by this design, however: like the live-action version, that painted-on smile persists even when Joker himself is frowning. Details such as Batman and Bruce being lighted more often in shadows as they descend into darkness, and Catwoman forgoing her mask when allying with our heroes, serve as clever moments for foreshadowing plot details. The film also has an excellent opening, with Robin, Catwoman, Riddler, Joker, and Penguin emerging from the covers of their original first issues in the comics, and the opening scene set at night to draw out more lightning and to contrast to the usually daylight-hours of the live-action series, and a hint at the slightly darker atmosphere to this film.

The disappointments in the film are limited to the animation and some music. The visuals are about what you would expect from a Warner Bros direct-to-video production, such as the more recent Scooby Doo features. The use of CGI on vehicles and some backgrounds is obvious. The digital coloring is usually vibrant to match the kitsch of the original live-action, although lacking in some depth, minus the film’s climactic battle and an important shading technique used on Batman to demonstrate a dark change in his personality. The fight sequences here are a bit more violent than the original series, with fewer visual onomatopoeic interruptions and more visceral sound effects of fists against bone, yet the choreography to them only becomes more impressive in the two final battles between Batman and supervillains. The music sounded orchestral, yet something still sounded off, lacking the big-band quality I expected, and while the theme song is used repeatedly, it is instrumental with none of the “Na-na-na” vocals.

There are also some subversions I wish the film had taken with the source material. While the wink to the audience about Bruce and Dick’s sexuality repeats a few times, I was more interested in how the film keeps showing Catwoman off to the sidelines, rarely actually involved in the fight sequences, which is from the original series–and yet, it would be nice to see her actually in combat more often. As well, the film does increase racial diversity among Gotham’s bystanders and hired goons for the villains, helping to de-whiten the original series, itself controversial for how the Batman/Catwoman romance practically evaporated once she was re-cast with Eartha Kitt.  

While I am happy I attend this afternoon’s screening, I think the film itself is worth only a rental from fans of animation and superhero stories, and only a purchase on disc for hardcore Batman fans, whether or not they are fans of the Adam West version. Even as a hardcore Batman ‘66 fan myself, I have some regrets for seeing the film in theaters rather than waiting to purchase it on disc. The theater’s large screen and speakers certainly make the viewing and listening experiences better. But having to pay again to re-watch the film and pause to catch the numerous sight gags is disappointing. As a fan of this iteration of Batman, I do think fans should pay to see it, whether it is in theaters, rental, or purchase. And with a sequel already announced, with William Shatner cast as Two-Face to try to out-awkward act Adam West, maybe this return of the Caped Crusaders can go forward for a few more adventures.  

Summary: If you’re watching with a group, see it at Fathom tonight. Otherwise, rent it or, if you are a Batman fan of any form, buy it on Blu-Ray.

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