Batman’s first big-screen appearance came in a 1943 serial by Columbia Pictures, who produced another in 1949. In the days before television when movie theaters provided the only audiovisual entertainment available, serials were popular and an essential part of the moviegoing experience; basically, TV before TV. The serial form seems a natural one for a comic-book adaptation: episodes of 15-20 minutes are approximately the length (going by the rough ratio of one minute of screen time per page) of one individual issue of a comic, not to mention the shared propensity for action and cliffhanger endings. Batman, almost immediately after his introduction, became an extremely popular hero, and thus a natural for his own serial.
The Batman of Columbia’s first serial would bear some very striking, some might say fundamental, differences to the Batman of Detective Comics. For one, the Batman of the serial was working directly for the U.S. government as a contract agent. This choice was not arbitrary: in 1943, the United States was fully engaged in World War II against the Axis, and the entertainment industry was working in a far closer manner with the government than we, nearly seventy years later, are accustomed (or frankly, would be comfortable).
The upshot of that collaboration was that whenever possible, popular cinema would explicitly and unambiguously endorse the American war effort; Batman’s vigilantism, however identical his ultimate goals were with those of the police, was nonetheless too complicated for Columbia, who insisted on Batman joining civil service for the serial. (Detective Comics had no such problems with nuance, allowing Batman to remain in the private sector, an altogether more apt place for someone with a secret identity.)
This alliance with the war effort also meant that, rather than the Joker, Catwoman, Two-Face, or any other extant villain in the Batman comics, the first serial’s villain was an evil Japanese scientist named Dr. Daka, who sought to conquer America by turning the populace into zombie slaves. This end would be achieved through the use of a laboratory full of really cool-looking stuff (especially on the extremely low budget for which the serial was produced; the damage wrought by that low budget could be seen in literally every other aspect of the serial), not least among which were television monitors to keep an eye on stuff throughout Daka’s lair (the reception on the lair’s monitor is practically HD sharp, no less) and the “radium gun,” a device coming in various sizes, any of which were capable of blowing stuff up.
For much of the serial, Daka doesn’t appear to be doing anything of any major import. He turns Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend’s uncle into a zombie and he maintains a trap door in his office that leads, after a bit of a drop, to a pit of alligators, and he does feed a couple people to the alligators, but the bulk of his efforts to conquer the U.S.A. for the Land of the Rising Sun consist of asking that people refer to him as “Nipponese” rather than “jap” or “oriental.”
In this regard, the first Batman serial falls squarely within the genre of the Yellow Peril tale, an inherently racist form, as it features exclusively demonic East Asian villains (who, to make matters worse, only ever hail from China or Japan; the rest of Asia is considered too insignificant to even be subjected to racist caricature), with even the feeble concession of having an Asian good guy so rare as to not even exist. With the war against Japan, Yellow Peril stories with Japanese villains were very popular, whether as propaganda or legitimate expressions of American attitudes toward Japan.
That said, the racism in the Batman serial is so over-the-top that it becomes comic. Daka, played by J. Carrol Naish (a white guy in makeup), is the most compelling character in the entire serial and the only one who, including Batman and Robin, displays any consistency from episode to episode. Naish is clearly having a massive amount of fun hamming it up, and his accent is absolutely fascinating: an oily New York accent with intermittent odd, vaguely Asian flourishes. His performance is simultaneously fascinating and grotesque.
Naish also establishes a pattern that would repeat throughout Batman movies: the villain being more compelling than the hero. Lewis Wilson makes an oily, ineffectual Bruce Wayne (and one with a honking foghorn Boston accent), upon whom one wishes a kick to the codpiece from love interest Linda Page (Shirley Patterson). One wonders what Linda sees in Bruce Wayne: she’s got a job, she’s reasonably together, and he’s some putz wandering around with this eerily devoted teenage boy who’s constantly at his side. Named Dick, no less.
As Batman and Robin, though, Wilson and Douglas Croft acquit themselves well in the action scenes, though Wilson is a man of sufficient girth as to perhaps be the pioneer of the “fat guy in a baggy costume” era of superhero cinema (which, of course, met its apex with George Reeves’ television Superman of the 50s). The fight scenes make heavy use of undercranked camera—known in layman’s terms as “everything looks all sped up”—and display a bizarre inconsistency that doesn’t even really seem to have much to do with narrative expediency: sometimes Batman and Robin can take out ten guys all by themselves, sometimes one drunk fat guy makes mincemeat of them both.
Still, all (considerable) flaws aside, the first serial is not without entertainment value, though most of that entertainment value is in those flaws. It also, surprisingly, was the introduction of the Batcave into the Batman canon. It contains an array of impressive gadgets—on par with Dr. Daka’s—and the shadows of bats being shaken on sticks by production assistants. It may have been cheesy, but neither Rome nor the Batcave were built in a day. In addition to this, due to the popularity of William Austin’s performance as Alfred, the butler’s appearance in the comics began to take on more of a resemblance to Austin—tall and thin with a mustache—than he had before. These would be the two most lasting legacies of the first Batman serial.
Columbia, following the success of the first serial, gave it another try in 1949. This time, with the war over and all the attendant propaganda considerations no longer necessary, returned to a more traditional, self-employed Batman (and less racism). Batman and Robin were recast with Robert Lowery and John Duncan, and the glaring flaws of the first two actors (Lewis Wilson’s hilarious Boston accent, Douglas Croft looking at least a decade too old to be called a “boy” anything, let alone a wonder) replaced with an inoffensive, neutral dullness. The Batman costume is still rather loose on Lowery, although this was due to it being the same costume worn by the gentleman who played Superman in that serial, who was considerably taller than Lowery, who was in visibly better shape than Wilson.
The villain this go-around is a shadowy, mysterious sort who answers to The Wizard. He can do cool stuff, i.e. become invisible and make things explode, and his identity remains a mystery until the very last episode, whereupon it is revealed (spoiler alert) that rather than it being the scientist, The Wizard is really the scientist’s valet. However, since that one mildly interesting twist comes after 14+ episodes of run-of-the-mill 40s pulp melodrama, its impact is lessened. One other item of note: Batman/Bruce Wayne’s love interest in the serial was Vicki Vale, only recently introduced in the comics at that point, whose popularity in the serial led to her becoming a long-standing institution in the Batman universe.
Bizarrely, as offensive as the 1943 serial could be, the go-for-broke weirdness of certain aspects made it slightly more interesting, and the mere fact of it being offensive made it more interesting than the 1949 iteration. Both suffer from extremely low budgets and from Columbia and supervising producer Sam Katzman caring little about attention to any detail other than the bottom line. In the 1949 serial, the Bat Signal can be seen during the day. Batman pulls an acetylene torch from his utility belt with no tank. Et cetera. While neither serial is particularly well done or more than intermittently even a Batman story, they are not without a certain cracked charm. The kind of cineaste who appreciates the oeuvre of the legendary Edward D. Wood, Jr. (one of whose associates, George H. Plympton, was one of the writers of the 1949 serial) will find much to appreciate in these serials. Although one caveat is necessary: do not attempt to watch either serial in its entirety in one sitting, nor both within one 24 hour span. Let the voice of shaken, traumatized experience advise you: take a break or two.