Let’s face the obvious: there is no superhero as ubiquitous or as reinterpreted as Batman. 2016 alone heralds more iterations of him in current media than a human can count on one hand, without counting any comic books. And yet, for all that, most of this comes from the same starting line: Batman as a brooding, borderline stoic, terribly burdened crimefighting avenger. Enter Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders, Warner Bros Animation’s earnest attempt at recapturing the incorrigible camp and humor of silver age comics and the 1960s Batman TV show spearheaded by the great Adam West (Batman) and Burt Ward (Robin). The crew’s stated intention was to deliver an adventure that would feel like something the show would do without budget and resource concerns holding it back, and it more than delivers.
Return of the Caped Crusaders wastes little time with preamble. In the opening minutes, the villainous quartet of The Joker (Jeff Bergman), The Riddler (Wally Wingert), The Penguin (William Salyers), and Catwoman (Julie Newmar) have hijacked a TV broadcast and goaded Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson into tracking them down as Batman and Robin, setting the stage for our dynamic duo be lured into a ludicrous death trap they have to escape. All this would be basic material for the first half hour of a two-part adventure in the classic Batman TV series, but for this movie it’s just the opening act for an outlandish, ever-escalating plot that defies summary and finds means and excuses to either include or reference anything that fans loved about the Adam West version of Batman. If you loved the gleeful, over-the-top behavior of the villains, the vocal cast is more than up to the task of emulating past performances. Improbable clues and unlikely deductions are nearly as abundant as the seemingly endless parade of Bat-gadgets that conveniently exist for every situation. Stately Wayne Manor is faithfully reproduced in all its retro splendor with eternal butler Alfred and resident busybody Aunt Harriet, as is Commissioner Gordon’s office where he and Chief O’Hara reside to either ask Batman for help or tell him how brilliant he is. PG-rated fisticuffs? Check. Straight-laced, goody-two-shoes advice from Batman to the incorrigible Boy Scout Robin? Absolutely check (remember folks, even if it’s to fight crime, jaywalking is not okay!). Alliteration every other sentence? You betcha, ravenous reader.
Undoubtedly, Return of the Caped Crusaders is a movie by fans for fans with no shortage of references and fanservice, but to its credit it also offers more than a straightforward nostalgia bomb. The adventure takes us through a labyrinth of outrageous plot twists and turns surrounding the heist of a duplication ray (of course!) and an inhibition-killing drug that Catwoman inflicts on Batman, culminating in a situation where Batman himself risks becoming an even greater threat to Gotham than the crooks. This is truly uncharted territory for our campy and lovable Batman, and a hilarious twist on the idea of what a “serious” Batman would be like. For us, this would be a realistic and burdened individual, and maybe a stoic loner as well. But in the context of Batman ’66, what we get is a campy Batman scornful of the trappings of his environment and all too happy to break his world’s arbitrary and nigh-senseless rules. Why have an impotent police department when Batman can do their job better than they can? Why respect anyone else when he’s the most competent guy around? Why pull punches with the Joker? This glimpse of Batman as the happy narcissist has to be seen to be believed, and will prove endlessly entertaining to any fan that ever questioned the conceptions of Batman as a hyper-competent “Bat God”. This matter is something that defines the core of the movie and shakes the very foundations of the Batman ’66 setting, and it’s all the more welcome since it compels the sidekick Robin to step up and do his best to make things right again.
Return of the Caped Crusaders also gets considerable mileage out of Julie Newmar’s reprisal of Catwoman, who’s practically the third main character of the movie as it brings her flirtatious relationship with Batman to the fore. Their obvious mutual attraction isn’t enough to drive either character from their respective paths, though it does render Catwoman more of an anti-villain as the unintended consequences of her plan to turn Batman bad become apparent. This soft spot isn’t lost on the other villains, who waste little time forming a rote boy’s club to push her out. This is actually a bit unfortunate, the motive of revenge for Catwoman’s actions muddles the connection that the film clearly wants us to see is there. Then again, all that cheesy flirting isn’t exactly subtle!
Bonus material for the film is surprisingly scarce in this release, which is packed with more trailers for other movies than extras pertaining to either the film or its roots. It’s unfortunate there isn’t a bit more here — an audio commentary with the creative staff or even a simple featurette on the influence of the original Adam West Batman would have been a gold mine for insight and enjoyable anecdotes. As it is, there are two ten-minute features on the content of the film here. “Those Dastardly Desperados” sees the voice cast spotlight the classic Batman’s interactions with his rogues gallery, highlighting his underlying desire to reform them and the villains’ self-serving perceptions of themselves. “A Classic Cadre of Voices” sees the creative staff paying tribute to the voice talent and reflecting on the task of recapturing the “energy” and comedy of the old TV show. Beyond the praise-filled commentary, the feature is a treat to see for its fleeting looks at the voice recording sessions for the film, which offers fans a taste of Adam West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar in action.
Perhaps the best thing about Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders is how confident and proud it is of its identity. This is a movie fully aware of its campy roots that doubles down on all of it without a hint of apology or self-depreciation. It’s in on the joke and so are we. It’s absurd, it’s silly, it’s the happy Batman brought back so earnestly that we’re laughing with it and not at it. And best of all, it’s not the end: a sequel next year promises to deliver William Shatner as Two-Face and who knows what else. Oh wait, I do: the same joy that Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders will most assuredly bring you.