Superhero Sundays: Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016)
Matthew Turner | On 23, Feb 2020
Director: Rick Morales
Cast: Adam West, Burt Ward, Julie Newmar, Jeff Bergman, Thomas Lennon, William Salyers, Wally Wingert, Steven Weber, Sirena Irwin, Jim Ward
On Sunday mornings, we like to watch cartoons. So we’re working our way through animated superhero cartoons. We call it Superhero Sundays.
Directed by Rick Morales and produced by Warner Bros. Animation, 2016’s Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders is the first of two animated features shot in the style of the 1960s Batman live action series, with original Bat-actors Adam West and Burt Ward reprising their roles as Batman and Robin. (The sequel, Batman vs Two-Face, was completed and released posthumously, following West’s death in 2017.)
The plot is every bit as outlandish and comic book-inspired as you might expect. Batman (West) and Robin (Ward) are pitted against a fearsome foursome of foes that includes Joker (Jeff Bergman), The Penguin (William Salyers), The Riddler (Wally Wingert) and Catwoman (Julie Newmar, also reprising her role from the 1960s show). They’ve stolen a Replication Ray, which gives them the power to make a perfect duplicate of anything.
However, during their confrontation, Catwoman infects Batman with a substance she calls “Batnip”, which causes him to act erratically. Soon, the Caped Crusader himself is a bigger threat to Gotham than the fearsome foursome combined, so Robin is forced to team up with Catwoman to return Batman to normal.
If you were a fan of the 1960s Batman show, then Return of the Caped Crusaders is an absolute treat, as the film lovingly recreates every aspect of its live-action source predecessor, from the character designs and costumes to the constant use of alliteration and catchphrases (“Holy spontaneous combustion!”), as well as the endless array of Bat-gadgets (hot tip: never leave the house without your Bat Anti-Isotope Spray) and even the classic walking-up-the-wall shot, a brilliant joke in itself, since there’s no need for that tilt-the-camera-sideways trickery in an animated film.
The film is packed with inspired in-jokes, from references to other Bat-media (note the 1940s serial costumes hanging in the Bat-cave) to clever gags such as the fight captions changing from things like “Pow!” and “Bam!” to “Fracture!”, “Pulverise!” and “Bludgeon!” when Batman goes more violent under the influence of Batnip. There’s also a lovely little nod to the fact that there were three different incarnations of Catwoman in the 1960s – Newmar and Eartha Kitt on the show and Lee Meriwether in the 1966 film.
In fairness, Return of the Caped Crusaders isn’t entirely without its problems. For one thing, the quality of the animation isn’t great, particularly when it comes to depicting the characters’ eyes, plus Robin’s face seems to change shape from scene to scene. It’s possible that the filmmakers were attempting to emulate cheap animation from the era (eg. the 1970s Star Trek series), but if that’s the case, it’s a meta-joke too far.
As for the character designs, the Joker looks exactly like his live-action counterpart and it’s clear that the animators loved drawing Catwoman, but the Riddler and the Penguin look half-hearted by comparison. (Batman’s cowl looks a little weird too, but that’s a minor gripe.)
It’s also fair to say that the voicework suffers from what might be called The Irishman problem, in that Adam West was 87 when he recorded his dialogue and he sounds like Old Man Batman in every scene. By contrast, Ward (a more sprightly 73 at the time of recording) somehow gets away with it, perhaps because his voice is that much higher to begin with.
As for the villains, Newmar is on fine feline form, Bergman does a passable Joker and Salyers nails The Penguin’s distinctive cry, but it’s a shame the filmmakers couldn’t find actors to approximate the distinctive voices of Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith and Frank Gorshin (the original Joker, Penguin and Riddler) more closely.
Despite its flaws, this is an inspired idea that pays off beautifully – it’s a treat to see West, Ward and Newmar back in action and the attention to detail in the gorgeous production design will deliver a pleasurable hit of nostalgia to anyone with fond memories of the 1960s show. Here’s hoping the plans for Wonder Woman 77 (a similarly animated version of the 1970s live-action show) with Lynda Carter come to pass.