So today I got paid, and doing a cursory glance at my Walmart's DVD section I notice a lot of brand new movies at the $5 price point. Specifically, I ran across the complete 1949 Batman & Robin movie serial.
Being a huge Batman fan since I was a little kid, and seeing as how the last time I'd seen this particular DVD it had been $25 at a specialty shop, I figured what the hell? For Five Bucks, it can't be any worse then Resident Evil: Afterlife. (I also finally snagged a DVD Copy of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves for five bucks as well. Woot!)
Now, I guess I didn't look at the DVD close enough, but this is a long friggen story. I was surprised when I cracked the case to find not one, but two DVDs spreading out all 15 parts to this Serial. It clocks in at approximately 261 minutes and I don't see myself getting through it in one sitting, so this is going to be a rolling review. Tonight I sat down to the first two parts, and those are the one's I'll cover.
Batman and Robin are on the case, helping to clean up Gotham in the wake of a shortage of Police Officers in the city. Despite the shortage, Washington D.C. orders Commissioner Gordon to assist in the guarding and transport of a highly experimental machine - A Super Powered Remote Control that can command any and all machinery in a fifty mile radius. But before Gordon and his men can make a move, the device is stolen in a heist pulled off from a phony Payroll truck. The inventor of the machine, a broken down old man in a wheelchair, berates Gordon and company for letting his machine fall into the hands of criminals, with Batman wondering how he heard about the theft so quickly.
Back at the elderly scientist's home, he seats himself in a specialized chair that grants him the ability to move like a young man. He's last seen entering a mysterious chamber hidden behind the fireplace in his study.
Meanwhile, the crooks have set up the device at an unknown location for their boss, a mysterious masked criminal known as The Wizard. With the device in hand, The Wizard proceeds to stage daring robberies of Diamond Exchanges, as the device needs Industrial Diamonds in order to be effective. Batman and Robin attempt to foil the plots, but are in turn baffled when trying to learn more about the Wizard. The second episode ends with Batman engaged in a fist fight on the top of a train loaded with an experimental explosive compound that the Wizard desires.
All the while, Millionaire Playboy Bruce Wayne has to distract and divert his News Reporter Girlfriend Vikki Vale from the truth that Batman and Bruce Wayne are one in the same.
First thing's first: This serial was made in 1949. More then that, it is Batman's first film outing ever and primarily aimed at entertaining children. As a result, the story doesn't move very cohesively and has dialogue that would be far more suitable to a comic book then real life, but to give the actors credit, they do try their best. It's just hard to make stinted dialogue sound anything less then stinted dialogue.
But more then that, the costuming wasn't exactly refined. Batman's ears are just sort of hanging there, and his cloth belt doesn't exactly do much for his whole ensemble. That being said, the Cape is actually impressive in that it's big enough that Batman can strike the trademark "Hands hidden within the cape" pose that the actor does whenever Batman is stationary. In fights the Cape can get in the way, but in general it's the more impressive piece of costuming for Batman and does help a person look past the doofy ears.
Robin's also sporting leggings, but as to whether they're flesh tone or a green I can't tell for certain given the Black and White conditions. Still, for 1949 that's quite ahead of the point in the Comics Robin was finally allowed to wear pants. Robin's domino mask also is obviously an off the shelf model - it covers quite a larger portion of his face then usual, but I think that helps.
The Wizard sports one of the silliest and at the same time more awesome costumes. A dark color affair with full face mask (With very tiny eyeholes), cape, leather gloves and belt, and a popped collar of awesome that would make a Time Lord envious. I absolutely love the look of this guy.
Casting wise, I have to say Robert Lowery cuts a very impressive figure as Bruce Wayne, though as Batman he seems a bit off. There's nothing wrong with him as Batman, it's just instead of altering his voice he carries himself differently as Bruce Wayne or Batman. Oddly, however, his confident, back straight shoulders square performance comes as Bruce Wayne, not in the Batsuit. He does well though, and I definitely have no problems with him as the title character.
In one of the more amusing and character driven moments, Bruce answers a phone call in the batcave after returning from a patrol - and his hair is mussed from the cowl. It's a little thing that shows the scene was done in a single take, but that mussed hair just sells the character for me in a strange way. Especially when he emerges as Bruce, he's taken the time to comb and slick his hair.
John Duncan as Robin, on the other hand, might as well be asleep at the wheel. He's starting to warm into the role a bit, but at the start his statements were as cold and toneless as a cue card. Definitely a weak Robin, especially since he's a bit of a mouth breather.
Jane Adams plays Bruce's squeeze and all around sassy Vikki Vale, a no nonsense street reporter with a nose for the news and not afraid to use her tongue as a weapon. Basically, what we see as the stereotypical "Strong Woman" Archtype in movies today. But, like I said, this was made in 1949 so it wasn't a cliched stereotype back then. Over all I am enjoying her character, as she gets some real nice digs in at Bruce's expense and generally keeps the boys on their toes.
The Wizard is performing well, despite the handicap of a full face mask. I think he deserves special mention though for his handling of the Remote Control device. Unless they keep reusing the same activation sequence, this guy actually follows a pattern when he's activating the machine and that pattern is the same each time.
It's little things like that that can sell even the silliest of plot lines.
The rest of the secondaries do okay. Really, everyone is doing fine save Duncan and like I said, he's warming to the role.
As for the plot, it really isn't that bad by comic book standards, or even serial standards of the day. The universal remote seems a bit far fetched in a time when cars didn't have on board computers or a way of locate/nail down their position (The Wizard can evidently see the vehicles as he controls them, but how this is achieved is never explained), but its still a conceivable threat and I like the fact he can pump enough juice into one machine to cause it to overload and explode.
I also like the paranoid redundancy the Wizard has. Even for a serial villain, this is a guy who understands the phrase "Operational Security":
First, the gang enters a cavern after moving aside a fake bush. Once in the cavern, they pull on a secret floor tile to reveal a ladder going down to a submarine. Once inside, they push a button that tells the Wizard they are there, and the Wizard brings them in under remote control after which they have to stand at a security screen while the Wizard visually inspects they are who they say they are before finally opening the rock face that leads to his secret lab.
I mean, damn. Not even the MST3K crew had to jump through that many doorways to get into the theater.
Like I said, so far the plot isn't any more offensive then any comic book of the day, and they're doing a good job of keeping you guessing who the Wizard really is (Is it the Professor who created the machine? Is it the Radio Announcer who has some awfully accurate insight? Or is it someone else?). Personally, while the serial leads you to assume the Professor is actually the Wizard, I doubt it. It's far too obvious and I think his rejuvenation station is a whole different plot line unconnected to the Wizard.
Overall, I have to say Batman & Robin (1949) is entertaining thus far. The story's serviceable, the action is okay, and for when it was made and who it was made for it has some nice set design and special effects. Probably burn through two more parts tomorrow. I'll let you guys know how it progresses!