Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 10, 2016)
At least since 1989’s Tim Burton/Michael Keaton film brought a darker vision of the character to movie screens, it seems like DC Comics has worked hard to distance Batman from the campy 1960s TV series. Sure, some versions of the character went for a lighter touch – such as the Brave and the Bold animated series – but usually Batman stayed with the grim, somber tone of the Dark Knight Trilogy.
With 2016’s animated Return of the Caped Crusaders, though, we get a new take on the 1960s TV show – replete with some of the original actors. In their desire to defeat Batman (voiced by Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward), four supervillains unite.
Catwoman (Julie Newmar), Joker (Jeff Bergman), Penguin (William Salyers) and Riddler (Wally Wingert) come together to deal with Batman once and for all. This leads to a mix of battles and crazy shenanigans, including a “bad Batman” and multiple clones of the Caped Crusader.
Without a doubt, the producers of the 1960s show knew they were making a campy, silly series. However, Batman played things so straight that it left open wiggle room: was it meant to be a goof or was it just unintentionally ridiculous? The manner in which the series maintained its absurdly self-serious tone offered much of its quirky charm.
No such ambiguity exists with Crusaders, as it plays its camp on the nose. Many parts of the program go for a self-referential approach, as the movie mocks the series. For instance, we get a not-so-sly reference to 1960s casting when a discombobulated Batman sees three Catwomen.
And just in case you’re too dense to get the sight gag, Crusaders voices the other two Catwomen in ways reminiscent of Eartha Kitt and Lee Meriweather. Newmar, Kitt and Meriweather each played Catwoman in the 1960s, so this bit offers another unsubtle way to poke fun at the source.
This doesn’t work. Honestly, the decision to set Crusaders in the 1960s makes little logical sense other than to allow it to act as a firm extension of the series – which is fine, I guess, but lazy. Why not try a 1960s-style Batman in modern day to add a little spice?
Even if I ignore the unambitious choice to keep things in the 1960s, the humor of Crusaders flops because it’s so obvious and on the nose. The original series winked at the audience with its self-seriousness, but Crusaders goes farther – it winks at an audience that winks at itself, and this self-congratulatory sense of irony gets tiresome and seems ineffective.
It also means that Crusaders often feels like fan fiction. The show pours on obvious irony and snark, elements that seem incongruous in its attempts to channel the original series. The script feels like it came from writers who loved the series but who also wants to make sure we understand that they’re above the material.
Like I said, whether or not one enjoyed the original series, at least it managed a form of purity in its self-seriousness. Of course the producers meant it as high camp, but it managed to avoid the kind of conscious self-mockery seen here.
The lack of subtlety means plenty of nods toward the interpreted homosexuality of our lead heroes, such as their “no-woman zone”. The film even tries to go meta with a mocking reference to the ending of Dark Knight Rises.
Again, all of this feels like those involved try way too hard to impress us with their insight and cleverness. Unfortunately, these attempts seem like little more than juvenile snark and lack real wit.
I understand that the “grim Batman” we’ve seen so often over the last 30 years isn’t for everyone, so I get the appeal that comes from a lighter interpretation of the character. However, we already have that, as Batman: The Brave and the Bold takes this approach.
And Brave does so surprisingly well. I tend to prefer my Batman on the Frank Miller side, so I expected to dislike Brave, but it delivers its humor in such a peppy, disingenuous manner that it works for me.
Which contrasts it with the self-conscious, inane Crusaders. It offers a bad attempt to recapture the spirit of the 1960s TV show, one that fails because it saddles the premise with a modern sense of irony. The two eras don’t mesh and these factors leave Crusaders as a weak effort.