Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016) Review

I did not see Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders coming. I had heard about it, and loved the concept, but following DC animation’s recent movies, my expectations were low. But HOLY SURPRISE QUALITY, BATMAN! is this movie fantastic. Return of the Caped Crusaders is far and away the best Batman movie this year, and my favorite Batman movie since Mask of the Phantasm.

I fell in love from the opening credits, where Adam West and Burt Ward’s Batman and Robin recreate some of Batman’s most famous comic book covers, like Detective Comics #27 and #38. It’s the sort of call back that, in another movie, would feel pandering, but is done so sincerely here. Backed by the famous ‘60s television theme (naturally), these first few minutes prove that this isn’t just a movie made for a quick buck to capitalize on nostalgia people have for the 60’s show, but is the product of genuine respect and love for Adam West’s Batman.

This radical shift in quality makes sense when you take into account that this movie is written by Michael Jelenic and James Tucker, the people behind the Batman: The Brave and the Bold animated series, and two of the three people best equipped to tell a completely original 60’s style Batman story. (The third is Jeff Parker, who wrote the excellent Batman ’66 comics series.)

Jelenic and Tucker do an incredible job of recapturing the exact sort of campy humor from the TV show. No less than half this script is written in alliteration, and every third line is some sort of pun, double-entendre, or “Holy _____, Batman!” The plot moves forward mainly due to Batman and Robin’s mighty and ridiculous leaps of logic that in themselves are some sort of joke by way of free-association and punning, and that this universe treats as critical deductive reasoning. Batman and Robin carry an inordinate amount of Bat-Sprays, and everything has a label telling you exactly what it is. There are call backs to the show’s famous climbing-up-buildings gag, the three Catwomen actresses, and improbable escapes.

The writing isn’t the only part of this movie with a noticeable bump in quality. This movie looks leagues better than every DC animated film since The Flashpoint Paradox. Part of that can definitely be attributed to the movie’s oversaturated color palette and streamlined character designs that harken back to the Superfriends era, but polished until it shone.

The animation itself also looks smoother and more fluid, which I want to guess is an effect of the characters deliberately moving slower in order to recreate the choreography of the live-action 60’s show. This works really well in this movies fight scenes. Because the characters move at an actual human pace, every punch is screen-legible and carries a lot of heft to it. It also helps that the fight scenes in general are extremely well directed, staying true to the 60’s show, while embellishing only slightly to make Batman and Robin seem that more effective. And yes, specific strikes result in giant comic book sound-effect bubbles popping up on screen, just as you’d expect. And all the fighting is done to that unforgettable theme music. And it’s awesome.

And, it goes without saying, but Adam West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar reprise their iconic roles flawlessly. I can’t overstate how cool it is that we’re still getting original performances from these actors in these rolls 50 years after they started them.

From the first act, you could be mistaken into thinking that this was just an incredible distillation, recreation, and celebration of the camp, wit, sincerity, and everything else that made the 60’s Batman show an icon, and that would probably be enough to win me over. But Return of the Caped Crusaders reveals its true premise in the second act, and it’s the combination of this genius conceit and its flawless execution that raises this movie to must-watch status for any Batman fan.

But, as much as I really want to tell you, I recommend you discover this movie’s genius on your own.

It’s not a twist, or spoiler, or anything like that, but what Return of the Caped Crusaders does reveals itself slowly before dawning on you all at once. In many ways, it’s the obvious direction to take this story, but just as in the TV show, it’s the attention to detail and very deliberate direction/writing/pacing that make it work as well as it does. There was one very specific moment where Adam West’s Batman says a very specific line that filled me with such dissonance that all I could do was laugh out the shivers that ran down my spine.

Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders doesn’t just faithfully recreate the universe of Adam West’s Batman, it reconstructs it, and provides the best possible argument for this more light-hearted approach to the Batman mythos. Far more than just a love letter to the 60’s, Return of the Caped Crusaders shows why it’s important that we continue to tell these sorts of Batman stories, and in doing so, becomes one of the best Batman stories ever animated. A must watch for any fan.

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