In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, we’ll cover the latter part of the “Golden Age of Serials”—1942-1945. And, maybe beyond. We’ll start with a character that has filled theaters in four different decades–Batman.
Batman is still around and doing well, even today. The character is set to make his return to movie screens in Christopher Nolan’s (presumably) final entry in the Batman mythos, The Dark Knight Rises. Many people might mistakenly believe that Batman first appeared in live action during the Batman TV show. Not true. Batman made his live-action debut in the serials, of which he had not one, but two.
Batman first appeared in National/ DC Comics’ Detective Comics #27, cover dated May 1939. He was Bruce Wayne, an orphan who saw his parents gunned down in front of him as a kid. This compelled him to dedicate his life and his vast, inherited fortune to fighting crime. He trained his mind and body to reach the peak of human potential. He spent money to develop the best weaponry and equipment around. After being frightened by a bat flying through a window at his manor home, Bruce became inspired to adopt the guise of Batman as his vigilante identity.
What made Batman popular in the 40s are the two things that make him popular today—the tragic nature of his origin and the fact that he was an ordinary human being, theoretically like us. This allowed readers to relate to him. In 1940, Batman gained another quality that allowed certain readers to relate to him—a kid sidekick named Robin. Robin was Dick Grayson, a circus performer who saw his parents be executed much in the same way that Bruce did. Bruce decided to take the orphan under his care and train him to fight crime as well, starting a trend where just about every superhero picked up a sidekick almost overnight.
Batman and Robin both appear in 1943s Batman, Columbia’s first foray into the superhero serial and National/ DC’s first character to be adapted for film.
In the 15 part serial, Batman and Robin fight a Dr. Jaka, a Japanese scientist who invents a device that can cause men to become his zombie-like slaves. As is typical of the period, there are less than politically correct references and slurs being thrown around. The serial remained relatively true to the comics, with the major difference being that Batman was a government agent instead of a lone vigilante. The serial, much like the Superman radio show did for its character, introduced lasting parts of the Batman mythos, most notably the Batcave.
Columbia promoted the serial as it would one of its own movies, and, therefore had a hit on their hands. It would come back with a sequel six years later with a 15 chapter serial called Batman and Robin.
The sequel was more cheaply produced and it showed. It featured the Dynamic Duo facing off against The Wizard, no relation to the comic book villain of the same name. This Wizard was a scientist who was able to control automobiles and used this device to bedevil Batman and Robin. There would be no more sequels after this 1949 installment.
During 1943, the same year the first Batman serial came out, Republic gave us the 12 part Masked Marvel serial. While there was a Masked Marvel who first appeared in Centaur Publication’s Keen Detective Funnies #7 (1939), that character bore little resemblance to the main character of this serial. However, people claim that the serial was part of the superhero serial trend, so we have included it here.
Republic also brought us the first and only serial to star a character from Timely Comics, the precursor to Marvel Comics. In 1944, the studio brought us Captain America.
If comic book fans are always upset by the copious amount of changes the filmmakers of today make to their favorite characters, they should be thankful that they weren’t alive when this serial came out. The film Captain America resembled the comic Captain America as much as Ernest Borgnine resembles Brad Pitt.
Instead of being Army private Steve Rogers, Cap was district attorney Grant Gardner. Cap’s trademark shield was nowhere to be found, replace by a pistol he used to shot bad guys indiscriminately. And at a time when just about every other serial star was squaring off against Nazi spies and Japanese saboteurs, the hero who was so patriotic that America was part of his name fought a run-of-the-mill mad scientist. Imagine if the Internet was around back then!
Join us next time as we close out the era of the serial as the Man of Steel finally, finally makes his live-action debut and we find out who the Ryan Reynolds (or James McAvoy) of the serial era was.