Holy role reprisal, Batman!
Adam West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar return as television’s Batman, Robin, and Catwoman in the all-new animated movie Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders. The original film from Warner Bros. Animation sees Batman and Robin continue their courageous crusade against crime, all set within the universe of the beloved and monumental 1966 Batman television series.
To what lengths will the Dynamic Duo go to protect Gotham City?
Will that felonious feline femme fatale finally get the best of Batman?
What will Aunt Harriet discover when she wanders into the study of stately Wayne Manor?
Read on, chums, for the best, worst, and Spoilers are yet to come.
Let’s get this out of the way up front: this is a funny movie. At times, it’s a very funny movie, yet it’s also a (mostly) respectful homage to Batman. Not just the Sixties biff-bam-pow Batman either, but Batman in general. This is evident from the very beginning of the movie, with an opening credits sequence that pays tribute to the character’s comic book origins. At first I was disappointed that we didn’t get an updated version of the show’s opening credits, which are pretty much an animated short already.
While it would have been nice to have that nod to the series, the credits sequence we get is pretty spectacular. It has Batman apprehending his foes in situations reflecting the comic book covers of their most notorious appearances, with little animated skirmishes in between each. It’s a really cool sequence that fits the energy of the movie perfectly while giving respect to the source material. After an initial disappointment, I’m glad it grew on me.
As great as it was, the title sequence shows the first signs of my biggest problem with the movie. For all the effort put forth to make this feel like a continuation of the TV show, down to getting original cast members to do the voices, there are a lot of details that are off. They’re mostly nitpicks and don’t ruin the movie, but it’s so weird how so many things are just right and others aren’t.
Take, for instance, Batman’s costume: it is just about a perfect animated recreation of the live action look. The mask has the nose and eyebrow definition, the utility belt pouches latch at the bottom instead of the top, the symbol is just the right size, and the cowl even has that weird ruffle under the cape. About the only thing I can think of to detract from it is he looks a bit too lean, but hey, it’s an animated movie. Truly, Batman and Robin both look fantastic.
Now look at the Joker.
He certainly looks like the Joker, sure, but if your first thought was “where is his mustache?” then congratulations, we can be super-best friends. Part of the charm of Cesar Romero’s performance was the fact he absolutely refused to shave his (righteous) mustache, instead insisting the makeup crew just apply his face paint right over it. Other than that small detail that’s a pretty good likeness for Cesar Romero, don’t get me wrong, but the curious omission of that detail makes it just “pretty good” instead of “perfect”.
It’s strange, too, because the Batman ’66 comic had stubble on the Joker’s lip, so I can’t really dismiss it as a likeness rights issue. That’s why Commissioner Gordon had glasses in the comic, as Neil Hamilton’s likeness could not be obtained, and it’s a bit of an irony the his character design has a mustache added for the movie. I’m not that familiar with the legality of likeness issues, so I’m not sure if obtaining it for print does not necessarily mean that same likeness can be used in animation, but really I just get the feeling that the animators chose not to add it.
It’s a mustache. A trifle. Hardly anything to get worked up over, and the movie is enjoyable regardless. Still, it’s but one of many weird design choices made that makes the movie feel like a tribute instead of a continuation. The Batcopter looks completely different, for one, and I’ve heard several people point out the the Batmobile exits the Batcave in the wrong direction. Again, just minor details, but there are enough to keep the movie from being as great as it could have been.
Stylistic nitpicks aside, the biggest difference between the movie and its predecessor is the comedy. At least, the type of comedy. Nobody would argue that the Batman television series wasn’t a comedy. It was, and it knew it was. The difference, though, is that it was played almost completely straight with nary a wink to the camera or tongue in cheek. Adam West has put it beautifully how the jokes worked on the show, and I paraphrase: every adult knew that the show was one big joke, but children didn’t. Because of that, so as to not ruin the illusion for the young fans, everybody in front of and behind the camera treated it like it was gravely serious. In turn, this made it gripping for kids and even funnier for adults.
I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve read that Leslie Nielsen was cast in Airplane! because he was the only person who read for the role who didn’t play it for laughs. In fact, he apparently didn’t even think it was a comedy at all and read the lines straight because he didn’t get the jokes. That’s a little hard to believe when he delivered lines like this, but that’s the point: the line itself is stupid, but he delivered it in a deadpan manner like it wasn’t. The humor on Batman stemmed from that same style, making ridiculous lines like “so dreadful I scarcely dare give it utterance” work precisely because they’re ridiculous. It was a comedy that knew it was a comedy and acted like it wasn’t.
Return of the Caped Crusaders, on the other hand, is a straight-up comedy. Like I said earlier, it’s a very funny comedy, but it knows it’s a comedy and and plays like one. Where everyone on the show was the “straight man,” seemingly oblivious to how silly everything is, everybody’s tongue is planted firmly in cheek here. That is by no means a bad thing, it’s just another choice that makes this feel different than the show. Thankfully, other than a few crass asides that were a bit too much and didn’t quite fit, most of the jokes land. There were multiple instances where I was in stitches thanks to a line delivery or background joke, and I can confidently say that the hilarious “giant TV dinner” gag is just one of many similar jokes that deliver in spades.
With that out of the way, on to the movie itself. The plot is actually fairly complex, taking a few unexpected twists along the way. It starts off simply enough: Batman and Robin set out to thwart the fiendish foursome of Joker, Riddler, Penguin, and Catwoman. Their goal? Steal a replicating ray from Acme Atomic Energy Laboratory.
The villains (who sadly do not refer to themselves as the United Underworld) succeed in their heist, though the Dynamic Duo track them to their hideout. A hideout which is, of course, in the frozen food factory, so naturally there’s a skirmish among the ludicrously oversized TV dinners.
I know I went on quite a bit about little details that I feel didn’t work, but believe me: the gags and references that do work far outnumber those that don’t. The above loving nod to the legendary Dick Sprang is just one of many instances of the movie making me grin like an idiot, and the same scene has another gag involving Catwoman that is absolutely perfect. There are so many little touches and labels (oh the labels) that even when it doesn’t always feel quite as faithful as it should, you get the feeling that the production team knew what they were doing. Not every decision works, but those that do work marvelously.
Anyway, in the scuffle, Batman is scratched by Catwoman and is infected by her specially formulated “Bat-nip.” At first the chemical seems to have no effect, so Batman refuses her offer to join her in a life of crime. This leads to the “TV dinner” scene from the preview, which of course the heroes escape from in the most outlandish way possible.
Eventually, the Bat-nip works, making the movie take a turn that I did not see coming.
Again, spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet and want to go in fresh, stop reading.
Batman turns evil. He fires Alfred, practically frightens Aunt Harriet to death, and is just an all-around jerk to Robin and everyone else. It’s not at all what I expected from this movie, and that unpredictability meant that I went from enjoying the movie to actually invested in the story. That’s not a knock toward the opening twenty or so minutes, but there’s an actual plot here instead of just a string of jokes and references.
Once that turn goes into effect, the movie takes another turn that was just as unexpected: Batman and Robin go into space.
Because the bad guys are up there. Naturally.
This sets up one of three big set pieces that I absolutely loved. Batman hasn’t gone full jerk yet, but gets more and more aggressive by the second, and as such he becomes increasingly more brutal toward the villains. There’s a zero-gravity fight scene that is choreographed really cleverly, with Batman and Robin’s punches missing the criminals. This only serves to anger Batman, though, and once he restores gravity he practically becomes unhinged. The grounded fight has sound effect graphics that read “RIP,” “GORE,” and “BLUDGEON,” and Batman quotes both Tim Burton’s Batman and The Dark Knight Returns. I’d heard rumors about those lines before I saw the movie, and they’re actually delivered really well by West. It doesn’t feel like a cute little nod to those works; instead, it’s a great way to show just how much more brutal the normally milquetoast Batman has become.
Eventually the Dynamic Duo leave the villains on the space station to lick their wounds, and once the heroes arrive back on Earth Batman just goes further and further down his dark path. With his relationship with his crimefighting partner strained, not to mention his relationship with law enforcement in general, Batman does the unthinkable: he steals.
For modern readers and viewers this isn’t too shocking, as it’s long been established across many mediums that Bruce Wayne obtains his tools for fighting crime by… borrowing, at best. Sure, most of it is technically his by way of using technology available through Wayne Industries/Enterprises/Tech/what have you and having it written off via purchase through shell companies, but it’s not like he’s just going down to Best Buy or Circuit City (they still have those, right?) and buying computer equipment.
The Batman from 1966, though, is such an upstanding citizen that he refuses to even cross the street without using a crosswalk, let alone taking evidence for his own purposes. So when he steals the replicator ray from police headquarters, it’s a not too subtle but tonally consistent way of letting us know just how far gone he is.
And what he does with the ray is even worse: he makes duplicates of himself.
See, Batman is the perfect champion of justice, dare we say the perfect man in all of Gotham. Who better to replace anyone and everyone who falls short of his example? And now that there can be an unlimited number of Batmen…
Now that there can be more than one Batman, now that he can be in multiple places at once, Batman can take over the jobs of lesser citizens.
Like the Commissioner and Chief of Police.
Spoiler alert: that is the best joke in the whole movie. It’s just brilliant, and reading it does not do it any justice.
With Batman out of control, a solo Robin seeks out Catwoman and begs her to give Batman the antidote. She liked the square Batman much more than the jerk Batman, so she agrees, and that leads to the second big set piece of the movie, and probably my favorite scene overall: a Batgadget duel. It’s the perfect example of the deadpan humor that the movie mostly eschews in favor of straight jokes, and anyone who likes how these two are prepared for literally any situation is bound to get a kick out of it.
Without spoiling too much more, there’s one more big set piece between all of Batman’s duplicates and pretty much every villain who ever appeared on the show that is an absolute delight, only to be followed by a denouement that drags on for a bit too long. The movie does sadly run out of steam toward the end, which is disappointing considering how fun it is and how great that big fight scene is. Had this been about ten minutes shorter it would have likely flowed better, though the movie never drags until the penultimate scene. The film’s overall pacing is good, and it ends on a pretty great joke so it isn’t too bad, I suppose.
Now, the main draw of the movie: the voice acting. Hearing West, Ward, and Newmar reprise their roles is great for a nostalgic jolt if nothing else, but how do they do?
Well, they’re certainly game, that’s for sure. It should be noted that this isn’t actually the first time that West and Ward have reprised their roles since the show ended. There are too many to list, but they’ve appeared on a few television specials in character, loaned their voices to cartoons, and even played themselves in a made-for-TV movie about fifteen years ago. Newmar hadn’t revisited her character before now, though she did appear in Return to the Batcave in a cameo role and voiced Martha Wayne alongside Adam West’s Thomas Wayne in an episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
As far as their performances here go, Ward sounds the best of the three, by far. In fact, other than a slightly deeper timbre he sounds exactly the same. His performance is full of youthful energy and zest, and he does a great job.
West sounds his age, though it’s obvious he’s still having a great time. He’s still smart as a whip and is more than capable of delivering his lines well, but the years are evident in his voice. It’s most notable when he tries to evoke the straightfoward, matter-of-fact style he would use when solving riddles or explaining some obscure bit of information. There are spots where his delivery outshines his co-stars, though, and he gets some of the best lines in the script. Overall his performance is fine, with a few spots that are absolutely great.
It’s Newmar who fares the worst, unfortunately. She sounds tired, though that may be due more to the fact that she’s asked to be sultry and seductive more often that she’s required to actually emote. I’m glad she was game for the movie, and it was certainly great to hear her voice again, I just feel like the material didn’t serve her well.
The supporting cast is, at best, a mixed bag. Wally Wingert’s Riddler sounds the best, to the point that he gets eerily close to imitating Frank Gorshin at points. His laugh in particular is spot-on, though he voiced the Riddler in the Arkham games so he has prior experience. William Salyers’ Penguin and Jeff Bergman’s Joker are pretty nondescript, though Bergman also portrays the announcer and does a perfect William Dozier/Desmond Doomsday inpression. Steven Weber’s Alfred is a bit muffled but generally fine, and Lynne Marie Stewart does a pretty good Aunt Harriet. Jim Ward’s Commissioner Gordon is average, and shockingly Thomas Lennon’s Chief O’Hara is pretty bad. Yes, the same Thomas Lennon who played that one doctor in The Dark Knight Rises, along with being an all-around funny guy. I didn’t much like the performance while I was watching the movie, and when I found out it was Lennon I was genuinely shocked.
Despite a mixed bag of vocal performances, we have the next installment to look forward to which will include William Shatner as Two-Face. Given that this was by and large a good time, hopefully this is just the first of many installments with the newly reunited Caped Crusaders.
Overall: While I wanted to love it more than just liking it, I did like this quite a bit. There are some flaws that keep it from being both a great movie and a great continuation of the classic TV show, but the overall product is still a funny, consistently enjoyable time. Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders is a fun adventure that’s smarter than it needed to be, and hearing three legends back in their iconic roles adds to the legitimacy. While it may not be perfect, it’s a solid movie in its own right, and with the promise of at least one future installment I can’t help but think that this is the start of great things to come.