I’ve been gushing a lot lately about superhero media that dials the clock back to before the adult-marketed era The Dark Knight has unwittingly spawned. Titles like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows & Roger Corman’s infamously discarded Fantastic Four adaptation have been a comforting return to the Saturday morning cartoon era of superhero media for me, a time where kids’ stuff was actually made, you know, for kids. The recent animated feature Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders brilliantly, deliberately calls back to the superhero movie’s goofy past that I miss so much. Especially in the face of Zach Snyder’s glowering realm of DC Comics adaptations, this kind of campy kids’ media is the exact breath of fresh air the world needs before it suffocates on its own doom & gloom. There were four feature films in the Batman universe released in 2016. Two of those films (Dawn of Justice & The Killing Joke) were tonal nightmares of ultra macho self-seriousness. The other two got by on the entertainment value of so-bad-it’s-good camp. Of that enjoyable half, only Return of the Caped Crusaders can claim to have been bad on purpose (with Suicide Squad‘s mild guilty pleasures seeming much more unintentional). I think it’s fair to say, then, that this silly, animated trifle was the best Batman movie of the year, which is an unlikely distinction, considering the crowded field and its dedication to camp & frivolity.
As with most bankable successes in recent years, Batman or otherwise, Return of the Caped Crusaders is a property that survives entirely on nostalgia. Its voice acting crew is a reunited cast from the original 1960s Batman series, featuring Adam West as the titular Caped Crusader and an ancient Burt Ward as his young . . . boy ward. Much like in the original series, the film’s overloaded with Batman & Robin saturating each line with unnecessary puns & alliteration. When they find a sheet of aluminum foil at a crime scene, they exclaim “We’ve been foiled!” They don’t operate regular civilian weaponry, but cleverly named artillery like “the batzooka.” They refer to Gotham’s A-list villains as “felonious fiends” and to Catwoman in particular as “that dominatrix of deviltry.” When Catwoman fights back by poisoning Batman with a substance she calls “batnip,” she gleefully brags, “His mass muscles will be mine to manipulate.” The whole movie is overwhelmed by these over-written punchlines and by the time Batman admonishes Robin for jaywalking with the line, “No one’s above the law, even when you’re trying to enforce it . . . To the crosswalk!”, it’s easy to wonder if the film is maybe a little too silly & self-aware. Think back to the Adam West performance in The Batman Movie (1966) in those moments. Is anything in Return of the Caped Crusaders really at all sillier than the physical comedy gag where Batman’s attempting to ditch a bomb; but ducks, nuns, and children keep getting in his way? The over-the-top goofball sense of humor in this profoundly silly cartoon match the energy of its source material exactly, right down to the “BOFF!”, “OOMPF!”, and “SPORK!” interjections that color its fight scenes. We’ve just gotten so used to a glowering, no-fun-allowed Batman in the last decade that this feels like a bit much; in truth, it’s exactly what we need.
If I could bother to complain about any one aspect of Return of the Caped Crusaders, it’d be easy to fault the film for having too loose & inconsequential of a plot. The episodic story beats of this animated production feel like a several installments’ arc of a new television series instead of a proper feature film. Batman’s unholy trinity of treacherous traitors are all present here: Catwoman, The Joker, The Penguin, The Riddler (Julie Newmar, Jeff Bergman, William Saylers, and Wally Wingert, respectively). They each get in a scheme to stop Batman and each fails in due time, usually because Catwoman is in love with the billionaire brute. This parade of failed crimes leads to some interesting novelty locations (a circus, a blimp, an American Bandstand knockoff, a TV dinner factory, outer space), but the story mostly just serves as an exercise for more puns & more alliteration. The only decidedly modern aspect to the film is that characters openly & frequently imply that Bruce Wayne & his young ward are a romantic couple, mistakenly believing that to be their reason for secretly sneaking off at night. Everything else feels like a low-ambition return to 60s Batman camp, a silly indulgence in returning to a time where Batman was fun and delighted both young children & stoned college students alike. Some of that 60s vibe doesn’t translate well into a modern context (especially in the multiple scenes of characters being drugged & “seduced”), but for the most part it’s a welcome return to the over-the-top absurdity I wish we’d see more of in our modern superhero movies. Return of the Caped Crusaders doesn’t amount to much more than a nostalgia callback, but it’s a callback to a gloriously silly time in comic book aesthetic we should have never left behind.