For the majority of Batman’s fifteen chapters, the serial has a set formula when it comes to the action. Batman (Lewis Wilson) and Robin (Douglas Croft) get into fist fights with the same five or six thugs. Croft gets beat up early while Wilson takes on at least two of the villain, then two or three of the thugs beat up Wilson. They either put him in danger, triggering the chapter’s cliffhanger, or Croft just wakes up and helps him. Or, in the subsequent chapter’s resolution at the beginning, Croft wakes up and helps him.
Even on the rare occasions it’s something different, elements of the formula remain. Screenwriters Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker, and Harry L. Fraser don’t have much plotting ingenuity. Especially not for fifteen chapters. Other variations to the fight and cliffhanger formulas include whether or not Wilson abandons Croft to the thugs or, you know, whether or not Wilson kills someone. Sometimes he means to kill them, sometimes it’s incidental. The only time he ever stops to worry about it is when it’s bad guys–as opposed to when he kills an innocent civilian through his ineptitude–and, in that case, the bad guys turn out to be dead anyway.
Not much of a role model, this Batman, despite being an official government agent. Or, maybe, because of it.
In addition to Wilson’s careless crimefighting, he’s not really good at investigating. Despite fighting the same group of thugs throughout the serial–and even bringing some of them to his “Bat’s Cave” for rather ineffective interrogation–Batman doesn’t even discover his adversary’s identity until the final chapter. He’s dreadfully bad at his job.
The villain of Batman is J. Carrol Naish. He’s playing an evil Japanese scientist, in full yellowface. The serial is exceptionally racist. Even as wartime propaganda, Batman is a lot to take. The first chapter narration makes special mention of the just internment of Japanese Americans. It, and the way the serial’s heroes are, you know, heroic for their stupid ignorance when they meet Naish, is astoundingly gross. The racism does not, however, distract from the serial’s utter stupidity. Sometimes, though not with Naish’s thugs, it manages to be gross and stupid. Usually it’s just stupid, with occasional flakes of racism.
The worst part of it? Naish gives the best performance in the entire thing. Even though he’s a coniving villain, out to use a giant radium gun to wreck havoc (it’s actually entirely unimportant as the serial progresses), Naish gives the role a lot more characterization and personality than anyone else gives theirs’. He even figures out Batman’s secret identity at one point.
Besides Naish, the best performances are from Charles Middleton and William Austin. Middleton is a radium miner, which seems likes it’s going to be important in the middle chapters of the serial. It’s not, but it does at least give Batman a chance to get off the backlot and go on location in the mountains. Director Hillyer does a little better with those exteriors. He never does well, but he does do a little better there.
But Middleton’s not around for long and, even if he were, it’s doubtful the screenwriters would give him anything to do. Middleton as bearded, folksy mountain man brings energy to Batman, something the serial sorely lacks. Hillyer doesn’t direct the actors’ performances–at least, one hopes he doesn’t, because then it’d be even worse–and Wilson and Croft aren’t engaging. Croft even less than Wilson.
The one time Wilson and Croft do get energized is opposite Austin, who plays Alfred the butler. Austin drives Wilson and Croft around town most of the chapters, whether they’re crimefighting or not. Occasionally, he gets roped into helping them in the crimefighting, which is usually at least mildly amusing. Austin’s got fine comic timing. Timing is another thing Batman tends to lack. Editors Dwight Caldwell and Earl Turner are better than anyone else on the crew, but Hillyer’s a lousy director and James S. Brown Jr.’s photography is rarely competent. Lots of bad day for night in Batman. Lots.
Shirley Patterson plays Wilson’s love interest, who just can’t figure out why Batman is always around once Wilson leaves the room (or vice versa), and she’s got almost nothing to do. The serial treats her like an annoyance or a victim or a damsel in distress. Wilson usually just treats her like a pest, condescending or dismissing her. For a while, those moments are actually Wilson’s best as an actor. Until he puts on a fake nose and pretends to be a thug to get in with the gang. Shockingly enough, Wilson’s engaging during those scenes. It’s a downright treat when he skips the Batman costume for a chapter to (stupidly) investigate in his disguise.
Some of Naish’s thugs actually give decent performances–Robert Fiske the most, but also George J. Lewis and Warren Jackson. Competency helps a lot in Batman. There’s not much of it, so when someone isn’t terrible, it’s a big deal.
Sadly, Charles C. Wilson is atrocious as the moron police chief who occasionally pops up to answer Wilson’s questions about bad guys the Batman has apprehended. Even though Naish spends at least half the chapters assuming Batman has died (in the lame cliffhangers), he’s still too savvy to get taken down by the bumbling “heroes.”
The script has no character development, no character relationship development (it’s not like Wilson treats Patterson any differently as things go along, he always treats her like crap), it does nothing with Naish’s various schemes, just kills time. In the end, only the first two and last two chapters are relevant to the narrative. The rest could be chucked… if only we could be so lucky.
But we aren’t. And Batman trucks along, its best chapters never even registering mediocrity, Austin and Middleton’s contributions for naught, Naish’s relative success a debasement.
Though Lee Zahler does eventually get to some good music, albeit only in the last couple chapters.