Saturday, February 28, 2015

Movie review: Batman and Robin (1949)

PosterI wasn’t very impressed with the original 1943 Batman serial, though I had hoped that the follow-up, 1949’s Batman and Robin would be something of an improvement. It’s more or less the same basic story with the same tropes, clichés, sets, cliffhangers, and repetitiveness. That being said, this second serial has something going for it that the first installment did not have: a sense of mystery.

It’s been a while since I’ve done any heavy reading of the old Golden Age comics, but from what I remember, each one always played tricks on the reader. Scenes would end with impossible predicaments, yet the hero would always escape (and how they did so would always be revealed after the fact so as to trick the reader as well as the villains). That’s a method you don’t really see any more in either comics or movies. Personally, I think it’s a good device as it creates for genuine suspense, though it often comes across as corny (and how!). That’s certainly true of Batman and Robin, in which the true identity of the head villain is a mystery to both the heroes and we the audience. There’s a lot of clues, but I have to admit that once it’s finally revealed in the fifteenth chapter, even I was caught by surprise.

The premise here is as equally ridiculous as the first serial, as it deals with completely implausible sci-fi technology that constantly confounds both Batman and the police. A mysterious masked villain known as “The Wizard” has stolen a device that allows him to remotely control all forms of transportation. I suppose that’s a good weapon for a maniacal villain to have since he can cause chaos from a distance, but the way in which it’s depicted is ludicrous. It’s just a bunch of cabinets with switches, dials and gauges; but how it can pinpoint on one car or plane or train at a certain place and time is never explained. There’s no radar screen or any kind of output that indicates where and what is being controlled. It’s the kind of mad scientist machinery you see in these old works of fiction, so the audience at the time probably just accepted it at face value. The original Batman serial also utilized this type of trope, but at least the villain’s motive was clear; here, it’s impossible to tell what exactly his endgame is. Unlike, say, The Joker, he’s not just causing chaos for the sake of chaos – he wants something, but what it is I never did catch.

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This serial relies more on an over-arching plot than the original. It’s dependent upon certain characters adding specific elements to the story, without whom it would fall apart. It’s also fairly repetitive in its episodic approach of Batman and Robin being at the right place at the right time only to be ambushed and have to escape in the nick of time every time. There is some use of detective work here, though it’s more due to silly sci-fi gizmos and gadgets that enable Batman and the police to figure out what’s what. The cheesiest of them all involves Vicki Vale using an “infrared flash bulb” of some sort to photograph an invisible man.

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There isn’t much point in critiquing the story’s specifics. It’s often silly, ridiculous and unrealistic, though I don’t think anyone expected these serials (nor the comics at the time) to be a gritty, dramatic, earnest thriller (unlike the Christopher Nolan films of the current day). I will say that I appreciated that it opted for a more mysterious approach than the original, but the overall production quality is pretty poor. Absolutely no one has any acting chops here. They are all monotone beyond belief with no real emotion (other than Jane Adams as Vicki Vale who is constantly the damsel in distress). Robert Lowery’s Batman is fairly stern, but whether he’s fighting the bad guys or just relaying information to Commissioner Gordon he’s equally stoic. John Duncan is awful as Robin, though! Each line sounds as though he’s whispering, or that he’s tired. Was every scene shot 30 seconds after he climbed out of bed? I will say I thought the voice of The Wizard worked well as it was very creepy and genuinely evil.

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It’s difficult to believe that by the time this movie was released, Batman had been appearing in comic books for ten years and six years had passed since the first serial. Yet, it doesn’t seem like there had been much evolution or development of the characters, the settings, and worst of all – the production quality of the film itself. I’d like to read some of those old Golden Age comics and see how they compare to these serials. In fact, I’ll do just that over the next few months.

Not Arkham, Markham. Though that's quite a coincidence!
Not Arkham, Markham. Though that’s quite a coincidence!

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