‘Batman: Return Of The Caped Crusaders’ Takes ‘Batman ’66’ To The Next Level (And Outer Space) [Review]
This week marks the digital release of Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders, the new film that reunites Adam West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar for an all-new adventure set in the campy, pop-art gotham city of the 1966 Batman television show.
The movie stands alongside projects like the Batman '66 comic and the home video release of the entire series as part of a new (and welcome) wave of appreciation that we're enjoying here at the 50th anniversary, but by its very nature, that sets a standard that ends up being very difficult to live up to.
The end result is a very strange project that's full of weird quirks, but that also delivers on a promise to do everything you want it to do --- including a few things that you never knew you wanted until they were right in front of you on the screen. And as weird as it is, it's also unquestionably my favorite DC animated movie yet.
To be fair, I've been about as far in the tank for this thing as it's possible to be ever since it was announced. The very idea of reuniting the surviving cast members from Batman: The Movie for a story that sent the Caped Crusader into space and featured Adam West quoting lines from The Dark Knight Returns, brought to us by some of the same people who were behind Batman: The Brave and the Bold --- including screenwriters and producers James Tucker and Michael Jelenic and animator Ben Jones --- makes this the movie most perfectly tailored to my tastes since... Well, probably ever. And that's before we even got to the plot.
Much like the '66 comics, one of the missions of Return of the Caped Crusaders seems to be to go beyond what it was possible to do on the show, and the movie's three-act structure --- with each act, of course, punctuated by a deathtrap and a daring deus ex machina escape --- does exactly that. After a heist that involves a shocking cameo by Professor Carter Nichols, the minor Silver Age character primarily responsible for sending Batman and Robin back in time, villains the Riddler, the Joker, the Penguin, and Catwoman end up with a duplicator ray that they intend to use for crime.
Naturally, Batman and Robin are called into action to stop them, and after determining that they're not in Gotham City, they track them to an abandoned space station (!!!) and recover it. For the entire time, though, Batman is himself slowly turning evil thanks to Catwoman's sinister machinations, changing into a far angrier, more violent version of himself. Thus, the third act of the adventure, in which Robin and Catwoman team up to stop a power-mad Batman from taking over Gotham City with an army of equally evil duplicates of himself.
The idea of Batman turning evil is one that feels so natural that, in retrospect, it's amazing that they never did it on the show. To be fair, though, that might be because we've seen it done with every other character since, and while it might just be kicking around my brain since I watched the episode of Supergirl that homaged it the other day, I couldn't help but mentally compare Batman's turn in this movie to that amazing middle section of Superman III. It did not, however, climax with Batman fighting himself in a junkyard, which I think we can all agree would've made it the world's most perfect film.
Still, it works, largely because it makes for the greatest possible challenge to West's Batman. The Batman of the television series is, after all, not just the world's greatest crime-fighter, he's the greatest man on Earth. Virtually every episode is built around this idea, whether it's showing off his prowess as a fighter, the boundless, esoteric knowledge that allows for the apophenia necessary to puzzle out his enemies' clues, or the pure intelligence of being able to think fourteen moves ahead in a game of quadruple-decker chess. He is the unquestioned master of all things, and mind-controlling him into becoming a crook makes him the most threatening arch-villain that Gotham City can face.
With Batman himself as the ultimate enemy, and exotic locations like an abandoned space station festooned with onion domes, this is the grandest possible adventure that these characters could have. On top of that, it has all the requisite nods that you want to see from a Batman '66 homage: The Dutch angles, the Batusi, the seemingly endless litany of Robin's "Holy" exclamations, the ridiculous ineptitude of the Gotham City Police Department, and plenty of callbacks to the original show and its roster of Special Guest villains.
There's even a moment where Batman gets clobbered on the head and ends up seeing three Catwomen, getting Lee Meriwether and Eartha Kitt's versions in there for a brief cameo. The only things it doesn't have are window cameos (the absence of which is the movie's biggest surprise).
More than that, though, it's fun. The big reveal of the space station and Batman's personal crimefighting rocket is truly delightful, and getting things like car chases and Bat-Diving Suits are new twists that come off exactly as entertaining as we want them to, even in a post-BATB world where we've seen the natural continuation of the '66 aesthetic.
There are, however, a couple of bits that don't quite come together as well as you'd want. I absolutely love that West, Ward, and Newmar returned for their roles, and they turned in fantastic performances. I honestly hope they keep coming back for as long as they want to. With that in mind, and believe me when I say that I mean this with no disrespect to them or their performances, there is a brief moment of disconnect to see cartoon versions of a young Batman and Robin with voices fifty years older than their characters.
It passes quickly, though, and I'm sure it's far more noticeable if you've re-watched episodes of the show more recently than hearing some of West's other voice work. That said, it's indicative of the problems in doing an homage that exists a full five decades after the original, when a good half of the main cast has unfortunately passed away.
It's the villains that suffer most of the burden here, and while the actors turn in solid performances, they're just different enough to be very noticeable. The Riddler --- portrayed here by Wally Wingert, who also voices a vastly different version of the same character in the Arkham video games --- does a pretty impressive impression of Frank Gorshin's theatrical cadence, but he's easily one of the best. The only other stand-in who does a better job is Jeff Bergman (who played Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and a host of other characters on the 2011 Looney Tunes Show), who manages a spot-on take on William Dozier's Desmond Doomsday, the show's over-the-top narrator.
Unfortunately, that performance is extremely brief, and as weird as it might sound, the absence of the narrator over otherwise silent scene transitions is one of the movie's most notable departures from the original. If there was one change to be made in the film, it would be to add a couple of "MEANwhile..." and "But what's THIS?!" moments back in.
Along the same lines, it's a little distracting to see characters show up in a movie that's so thoroughly tied into the show that are a little off-model --- specifically Commissioner Gordon and Alfred, who match their comic book counterparts a little more closely than Neil Hamilton and Alan Napier, respectively.
But that, I suspect, is something that can't be helped.
Again, these are very minor problems, and I suspect that they have more to do with me as an obsessive fan than the average viewer who has fond memories of the television show and didn't write a novel-length annotation of the first season. At worst, they were momentary distractions, and they didn't stop me from loving the movie and what it did as an homage. I am a little curious as to how a kid who was the same age as I was when I first started watching the TV show would react to the movie, though, as by its very nature it skews a little more towards a knowing wink at the audience.
In any case, it's a highly enjoyable take on the characters and the aesthetic, and one that wrings more than a few surprises out of its premise of resurrecting the classic Batman for what is hopefully not the last time. For those of us with fond memories of the show, its cast, and its role as one of the most influential interpretations of comics --- or for readers who liked Batman '66 as a comic and need something to get us two hours closer to its crossover with Wonder Woman --- it's well worth checking out.
Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders is available now digitally, and on physical media on November 1.