Holy Back-to-the-Sixties! Adam West and Burt Ward – the definitive Batman and Robin, let’s face it – are back in this bold, silly, audacious new eighty-minute animation, which spectacularly and lovingly recreates the classic day-glo Batman TV series which burned so brightly for three seasons five decades ago. It’s not always easy to recreate a phenomenon from the mists of time, especially one so rooted in the hip’n’happening multicolour pop culture of the 1960s and The Return of the Caped Crusaders isn’t an unparalleled success; but by and large it’s a rather touching and heartfelt tribute to a TV series so many of us grew up with and which has entertained generations across the years in countless TV reruns and last year’s long-awaited DVD/Blu-Ray release of the entire series.
But we’re all older and wiser now and it’s hard not to feel a bit cynical and to wonder if this is really such a good idea. But once the credits kick in, beautifully evoking the style of the old Detective Comics covers, underscored by a strident re-recording of Neil Hefti’s classic TV series theme, you’ll most likely sit back with a big cheesy grin on your face and let the madness wash over you. For mad it most certainly is, the first half plunging us right into a story which wouldn’t have disgraced the TV show, before launching off into outrageous new directions in its second half as it recognises the darker edge Batman has acquired in his various incarnations since his days as a TV superstar and sets out to puncture their pomposity and lack of grace. Batman and Robin’s most fearsome villainous quartet - Joker, Riddler, Penguin and Catwoman are back together – and they’ve stolen a revolutionary Duplication Ray. After a battle with the Caped Crusaders the villains hi-jack a space-shot to an orbiting space station with the intention of duplicating the earth so they’ll each have a planet to dominate. Naturally our heroes thwart their devilish, if not ludicrous, scheme but it turns out there’s more to their plan than meets the eye, especially when Bruce Wayne/Batman, starts to behave disturbingly out of character…
In truth, The Return of the Caped Crusaders is a game of two halves. The first thirty minutes or so are an absolute love-letter to the TV series and the script cleverly captures its wry larger-than-life humour whilst acknowledging – as it has to – that that was then and this is now. The voice work is astonishing. West and Ward are back on Batduties; the former sounds a bit breathless but that’s only to be expected of a man close to 90 years of age and Julie Newmar slips purrfectly back into the slinky tones of the voluptuous Catwoman. But it’s elsewhere that our socks were knocked clean off, as all the supporting baddies and players – Joker, Penguin, Riddler, Commissioner Gordon, Chief O’Hara, Alfred, Aunt Harriet – sound virtually identical to their TV originals who have all, terrifyingly, long since passed away. Joker and Penguin are especially outstanding and it’s hard to believe we’re not listening to Cesar Romero and Frank Gorshin back in the saddle.
The second half of the movie loses its charm and pace a little though. Batman goes ‘dark’, affected by Catwoman’s poison, and the story’s focus drifts a bit as Batman replicates himself to create a Bat-army to control Gotham City. Batman slips on a knuckle duster to give Joker and co a proper beating – on-screen captions, perfectly-pitched in earlier well-animated fight sequences – now change from ‘SOCK’ and ‘OOF’ to ‘BLUDGEON’ and ‘FRACTURE.’ The Return of the Caped Crusaders is really at its best when its revisiting the style and tone of the legendary TV series (even with some stylistic changes to some of the show’s classic sequences, such as Bruce and Dick hurtling down the Batpoles and the Batmobile roaring out of the Batcave) and its acknowledgement of and attempts to deal with the fall-out of decades of Darker Dark Knights robs it of some of its charm and innocence.
But on a purely instinctual level, it’s genuinely great to have West and Ward back, even in animated form. You may have your doubts about this one going in – we certainly did – but it does, here and there, genuinely roll back the years and remind us of a time when superheroes were allowed to have fun. Chances are, you will too.
Special features: Villains featurette / Voice artists featurette
BATMAN – RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: RICK MORALES / SCREENPLAY: MICHAEL JELENIC, JAMES TUCKER / STARRING: ADAM WEST, BURT WARD, JULIE NEWMAR / RELEASE DATE: 7TH NOVEMBER