Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:

Batman (1943)

As a rule, my original concept for Old Ass Movies was to spotlight films that were made before 1960. It’s fairly arbitrary – like most things around here – but I wanted to stick to it. So, when we were gearing up for The Dark Knight, and often-dictator-like Editor Neil Miller wanted me to do this feature on the camp-tastic 1966 version of Batman starring Adam West that we all know and love, I didn’t want to.

Don’t get me wrong. I use shark-repellent on a daily basis, but Adam West’s Batman seemed too “new” to be an Old Ass Movie.

So instead, I decided to head all the way back to the beginning, to the very first time that the Dark Knight found himself shining gloriously on the silver screen.

If it was even possible to get campier, back when superheroes donned cartoonishly padded costumes and racial slurs were the norm, Batman found Bruce Wayne (Lewis Wilson) jauntily masquerading in the fight against evil doctors, low-budget zombies, and ridiculous plot-lines. The bulk of the plot involves Batman and Robin’s (Douglas Croft) fight against the diabolical Dr. Daka (J. Carrol Naish), a Japanese scientist and master of espionage. His master-plan involves setting up shop in Gotham City and turning the best scientific minds into brain-washed zombies that will help him secure the chemical components needed for an atomic super-weapon. World domination. The usual.

You should be warned that this movie (a serial to be more accurate – 15 episodes stringing together to create a story that’s over four hours long) isn’t something you’ll want to watch for its own merit. The sets are laughable, the writing is terrible, and each episode is essentially the same story told in a different location and with Bats fighting a different number of henchmen. It’s something to make you cringe at our cinematic history or to revel in how far we’ve come.

You should also be warned that it’s really racist. As in, really, really racist. Ethnic slurs about the Japanese are thrown around like Bat-a-rangs, and the standard message is that the government was correct in tossing every Japanese-American indiscriminately into internment camps. It can be a bit startling to hear that sort of thing used so naturally and casually,

But if you think it didn’t have an impact on the superhero genre or on the Batman story itself, you’re completely mistaken.

This is the first time we see the Batcave – a dark lair where Batman controls his crimefighting from a stylish, antique oak desk. Until this point, the Alfred of the comic was obese and drove Bruce and Dick around even when they were in costume as Batman and Robin. The comic actually adopted the look of actor William Austin who played Alfred in the movie – thin, witty and mustachioed.

So it does have some internally redeeming features. If nothing else, Batman 1943 is another evolutionary step in a long journey that has created one of the most humanly complex superheroes to date, and it can’t be overlooked simply because it was an early, awkward step.

It’s melodramatic, made on a dime, and despite what the narrator says about Batman’s “somber costume” striking “terror to the heart of many swaggering denizens of the Underworld,” it’s more likely that they would have been subdued by how laughable lycra stretched over pillows looks on a full-grown man.

Nevertheless, it’s worth the effort to check out, especially if you consider yourself a true Bat-fan.


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