“Even crimefighters need mindless entertainment,” comes the familiar voice of Adam West in the opening moments of BATMAN: RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS, the first of many self-reflective acknowledgements the film makes on the changing nature of Batman over the years. More than just a retro revival of a classic TV series, the animated film is a tribute to an era and a commentary of the place this comic book character has in pop culture history.
Writer extraordinaire and super fan Grant Morrison once posited that it was fun to think of every iteration of Batman being the same person. In doing so, we have to accept that the crazy and camp stories that ran throughout the 1960s are as much a part of Batman lore as Christopher Nolan or Zack Snyder’s films. Rightfully so, as it provided some of the goofier bits of levity to a character that has desperately tried to crush it with Dark Knights and even darker storylines in the half-century since.
The 120 episodes of the Batman TV series ran from 1966 to 1968, including a sharktacular movie, but the legacy of the of the show runs through everything from the Batman ’66 comic book to the LEGO playsets and video game appearances. This film takes the very simple premise of Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) having to contend with the latest scheme from Joker (Jeff Bergman), Riddler (Wally Wingert), Penguin (William Salyers) and Catwoman (Julie Newmar) and just running with it. It doesn’t always have to make sense, as long as the tone is right.
BATMAN: RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS definitely gets the tone right for the most part, and a lot of this has to do with the presence of original stars West and Ward. It’s hard not to crack a smile as the righteous West declares “Quickly Robin: to the crosswalk!” or Ward throws in a “Holy faster pussycat kill kill!” At another point, a dazed Batman sees Catwoman in triplicate, with animated versions of Newmar, Eartha Kitt and Lee Meriwether hilariously representing the various actresses who have played the iconic villain. There’s knowing winks in the presence of Aunt Harriet, who believes she was only being kept around for “appearances.”
On the other hand, once the in-joke has delivered the first couple of punchlines, there’s a fine line between love letter and imitation. After all, it’s hard for animation to replicate the silliness of the Caped Crusaders walking up a wall, or Caesar Romero’s moustache under makeup. Catwoman is an integral part of the narrative, yet Newmar’s tin-eared delivery is stilted and far from sexy. Even at a brief 78 minutes, this may have worked better as several small episodes instead of a feature.
Regardless of these quibbles, BATMAN: RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS will undoubtedly please fans of classic Batman and tickle the funny-bones of modern viewers. In a tip of the hat to Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, Catwoman suggests that she and Batman run off to Europe to drink coffee together. Robin’s exclamation of “Holy unsatisfying ending!” speaks for countless fans who felt that the franchise might have nuked the fridge. Which is why we ultimately need this animated take, as it is a reminder of a time when superheroes weren’t fighting each other, but instead embracing the silliness of the whole genre.