We join our autopsy of the 1943 Columbia serial, The Batman, already in progress…
Chapter Four: Slaves of the Rising Sun!
I was all set for a tragic, yet compelling tale of men drawn inexorably to Marianne Levant’s brothel on St. Louis Street in the French Quarter, good men and true who sacrificed their fortunes, their family honor, even their immortal souls for a kiss from the cruel and mocking lips of a tawny-fleshed coquette.
But all I got was this lousy Batman episode. Anyhow, when we last left our frequently concussed hero, he was stretched across a railroad trestle like Nell from Dudley Do-Right, and about to be drawn and quartered by Thomas the Tank Engine.
But suddenly Robin races onto the tracks and shoves his unconscious boss off the bridge, just seconds before the shaky rear-projection reaches them. (As patently fake as the effect is, I have to concede that the filmmakers came dangerously close to a moment of suspense.) And the danger only increases, because while The Batman has escaped obliteration by locomotive, he and The Robin are now falling toward the river far below, which appears to be a stagnant puddle about two feet deep, leading one to question why the Union Pacific felt it necessary to build a trestle over the kiddie pool at the Community Plunge.
Daka’s boys gather on the bank to see if they’ve managed to keep their DiMaggio-like streak of failures alive. Did they screw-up retrieval of the Radium Gun? Check! Fail to blow up the troop train? Check! But on the bright side, notes Chief Thug Foster, they did eliminate their greatest obstacle:
“Batman and that kid” he declares, “will drown in a few minutes.”
Well…Okay. Grown men have managed to drown in inflatable kiddie pools before, although it usually involved more Blatz beer than we seem to have on hand. I guess there’s no reason to stand there for a moment and make sure. The gangsters trudge off, just as a soggy Batman and Robin climb out of the river – thus demonstrating the limits of faith-based thuggery.
Cut to Daka’s lair, where he squats beside an open trapdoor, tossing Fred Flintstone-sized T-bones to a pair of alligators he keeps in a pool under his office. This pastime apparently fills the Japanese spymaster with glee, since he indicates laughter by carefully annunciating the words, “Heh-heh-heh,” suggesting how the world would look if George W. Bush and Instapundit had a love child who ran a reptile farm. (I realize this observation is a trifle off-topic, but that’s just a sentence you don’t get a chance to write very often.)
Daka is visited by the League of Extremely Ordinary Men, who’ve dropped by to see how the Doctor’s henchmen did in that whole get-the-radium-gun-and-blow-up-the-troop-train event. I don’t mean to impugn Daka’s bona fides as a super-villain, but his schemes are beginning to look less like a quest for world domination and more like an unusually bloody episode of Double Dare.
Daka is so thrilled with the presumed destruction of the troop train that he has a zombie serve “sake,” which at this performance will be played by tumblers full of Welch’s Grape Juice. Then Foster arrives to announce that they killed The Batman and The Robin, but they kinda messed up the other items on the scavenger hunt. Daka goes into a bit of a hissy fit and threatens to fire Foster, whose chest suddenly swells up like John Ashcroft midway through the chorus of “Let the Eagle Soar.”
“That’s okay with me,” the thug rejoins. “I’m fed up with your Jap New Order!” (The movie is vague on this point, but we’re left to conclude that so far as Asian tribute bands are concerned, Foster much prefers the Cambodian Joy Division.) “Maybe the rest of these stooges eat up that applesauce,” he continues, with growing pugnacity. “But I know different. I don’t need any handwriting on the wall to tell me who’s going to come out on top in this war! It’s written as plain and black as DEATH in every newspaper!” (Particularly in the comic strip Barney Google.)
“You’re through!” Foster drones on. “I’m quoting from the winning side, Daka. And believe me, that’s the side where I’m going to be!” It’s interesting that right-wingers regard modern Hollywood as a hotbed of sin and subversion compared to the Hayes Code era, given that this 1943 release seems to advocate overlooking a gangster’s murders, attempted murders, attempted mass murders, high treason, sabotage, grand larceny and terrorism, just because he got a bit shirty with the Mikado.
Daka instructs his zombies to stop Foster, because we’re all getting really bored with his speech, but the ex-thug plugs the lumbering undead, then turns his gat on Daka and sneers, “Now, are you going to let me out, or would you like a quick trip to your ancestors?”
Daka agrees to release him, prompting Foster to crank the sneer up to 11 and really let fly with the italics: “That’s the kind of answer that fits the color of your skin!”
Daka unlocks the door and Fosters utters the immortal words, “So long, suckers!” which would have been a really cool battle cry if only Texas Guinan had fought crime as a costumed superhero. To no one’s surprise, Daka springs the trapdoor and the alligators Ask Mr. Foster if he’d like an all expenses paid tour of their alimentary canals.
A spy radios Daka that the Gotham Foundation is expecting a new shipment of radium at the train station, and only Linda Page is authorized to pick it up. Speaking from painful experience, I’ve just got to say – this is typical. Office temps always get the crappiest assignments. “Great, I’ve got to go all the way down to UPS and pick up a bunch of radioactive matter on my lunch hour . I wonder if I can swing by Quiznos on the way…”
Meanwhile, back at The Bat’s Cave, Bruce and Dick check their contracts, and realize they’re legally obliged to pretend to do something, so they put on smocks and stare blankly at the Radium Gun. Then Linda phones in a panic; it seems that she just received a mysterious call instructing her to visit a fortune teller in a bad part of town, who would reveal where her Uncle Martin was being kept. She begs Bruce and Dick to accompany her, but Bruce says he just washed his hair and can’t leave the house. Linda contemplates breaking up with him, but then remembers that all the straight men and closeted gays are in the Army at the moment, so she really can’t afford to burn any bridges if she wants a date for New Years Eve.
Bruce and Dick get to “Swami Dar’s” place first and beat him up and strip him, leading to the cinema’s first non-consensual de-turbaning.. This time, Bruce isn’t about to let a bunch of thugs outsmart him and kidnap Linda right from under his nose. He stations Dick outside as a sentry, and instructs Alfred to follow her when she leaves. Then he puts on the turban and a shawl, and pretends to be Swami Dar, who tells Linda thanks for coming, but that stuff about finding her uncle was all crap, and she should just go home. Linda is a little miffed about coming all the way down here for nothing, but she’s hourly, so what the hell. She leaves the Swami’s inner sanctum, and is promptly gassed and abducted in the foyer.
Bruce and Dick eventually get Linda back, but not before Daka’s henchmen steal the claim check for the radium and race away in an armored truck. Our heroes give chase, awkwardly changing from their street clothes to their costumes in the car (giving us a glimpse of what it must actually feel like to be The Batman and Robin! And apparently it feels like having to rush straight from work to a Halloween party).
Batman jumps onto the speeding armored car, then climbs into the cab so he and the driver can have a listless, girly slapfight. It’s sort of like Raiders of the Lost Ark if Indiana Jones had been played by Joe Besser; suddenly, they miss a curve and a Matchbox car falls off that mountain Richard Dreyfuss made out of mashed potatoes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Finally, we’re back on firm and familiar territory. At the end of Chapter 1, The Batman fell off a building. At the end of Chapter 2, he fell off a cable between two buildings. At the end of Chapter 3, they threw us a curve – he just fell down. But at the beginning of Chapter 4, he fell off a railroad trestle, and at the end of the chapter, he falls off a mountain. Now that’s what I call fan service!
What conclusions can we draw from this? Well, as Joseph Campbell would observe, every hero has one mortal weakness. Superman is susceptible to kryptonite. Green Lantern’s ring is ineffective against the color yellow. Wonder Woman is powerless against any man who ties her bracelets together. And The Batman can’t seem to cope with gravity.
Still, they’re heroes because they overcome their vulnerabilities and frailties and triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds. But I still wouldn’t recommend asking The Batman to get up on that stepladder in the kitchen and change the light bulb.
For the first three chapters in the serial, click here: Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three