The 1943 “Batman” serial put the Caped Crusader in the role of U.S. government agent during World War II
Or the one who beat up Japanese spies?
When we think about the history of Batman on-screen, our memories typically only extend back to Adam West in the 1960s. But the first time anyone saw Batman and Robin on the big screen was during World War II in a 15-part serial. No exhaustive prep for “Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice” is complete without looking all the way back to 1943 — just four years after the “Batman” comic was introduced.
Batman was played by 23-year-old Lewis Wilson and Robin by an actual teenager, the 15-year-old Douglas Croft. Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson appear to be best friends outside work as well as during it — a side effect, I suppose, of everyone else their age being shipped off to war.
In the serial, Batman is a sanctioned agent of the U.S. government. He faces off against a Japanese spy (played, of course, by a white actor) named Dr. Daka.
Daka’s base is in Gotham City’s Little Tokyo — which is a ghost town because, as the narrator notes, “a wise government rounded up the shifty eyed Japs” who lived and worked there.
Daka is attempting to take out America from within using a mind-control device that causes its victims to shamble around like zombies as well as strengthening them significantly. Early on we see one of these jump off a building and land on a sidewalk, only to get up and walk away.
Aside from being openly racist and comically jingoistic, the 1943 “Batman” serial is a fun relic because of its serial format. Each episode ran about 25 minutes and would be shown weekly in movie theaters. Episodes would typically end in a ludicrous cliffhanger — at the end of the first chapter Batman is thrown off the edge of a skyscraper. The next episode picks up as he lands on a suspended scaffold and escapes unscathed. It’s amazingly cheap and great.
Other fun things: There’s no Batmobile here, but instead a BatCadillac — which is actually just a regular Cadillac. The entrance to the “Bat’s Cave” from Wayne Manor is inside a grandfather clock. They don’t use any tools or any of the cool gadgets we’ve come to expect from “Batman” movies, instead just walking into rooms and punching their enemies. The bad guy’s base in Little Tokyo is inside an abandoned funhouse. After handcuffing some mobsters to a light pole in the opening sequence of the series, they hop in the BatCadillac and toss back their masks and laugh as they drive off in broad daylight. Dr. Daka is eventually killed when he falls through his own secret trapdoor into a pit of crocodiles and is eaten.
Fortunately for us, the 1943 “Batman” serial is available in full on YouTube, and we’ve embedded the first episode of the series above.