If you’ve been on social media or YouTube in the past decade, chances are you’ve seen people complaining about political plotlines and messaging in modern superhero stories. “I just want to enjoy superhero stories without politics!” is a pretty common gripe – mostly from a subset of the audience who disagree with the perceived message.
But superhero stories have always been political, since the dawn of the genre. From Captain America punching Hitler in 1941 to Homelander symbolizing American arrogance and power The boys to Robert Pattinson learning to be a responsible progressive billionaire in The Batman, superheroes have been entrenched in the biggest political debates of their time. And it goes back to the first terrible theatrical adaptation of Batman.
An Evening with Batman and Robin
In 1943, Columbia Pictures released Batman, a series released in theaters across the United States. This is the first live performance of The Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder, featuring Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft, the youngest actors to play Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson.
Today the 1943 Batman looks like a low-budget series, but Columbia Pictures put a lot of care and effort into its marketing at the time, periodically re-releasing it and the 1949 follow-up, batman and robin, such as “An Evening with Batman and Robin”. These successful reruns kept Batman in the public eye, until Adam West took over the cowl in the 1960s.
The 1943 series introduced some key elements of Batman lore to film audiences for the first time, including the Bat Cave (sometimes referred to as the “Bat’s Cave”) and Alfred’s redesign. (Before the series, Alfred was portly – a far cry from his sleek, lean iteration in modern comics.)
While the series was popular among audiences upon its release, critics saw the whole thing as a prank. Critic Raymond William Stedman wrote in his 1971 book The series ; Suspense and drama per episode“This war soap opera received good reviews in the press, even if, from the point of view of the 1970s, it hardly deserved them.”
The 1943 Batman featured cheesy effects, with unconvincing voice actors from Wilson and Croft. The series also lacks appearances from Batman’s iconic rogues gallery. Joker, it seems, was cast at some point in the series, judging by early promotional material, before Columbia opted to introduce an original villain, Doctor Daka, as Batman’s adversary.
But while the 1943 Batman it lacked Catwoman, Penguin, etc., it didn’t lack a political angle. Like many wartime soap operas, it was political propaganda portraying America as the only force standing against an unrelenting tyranny. And he delivered that message via horrific Yellow Peril stereotypes, vindicating one of the cruelest chapters in American history.
Doctor Daka and Yellow Peril
When people discuss 1943 Batman in the modern age, they often point to his overt racism, especially in the characterization of Doctor Daka. He is a Japanese nationalist and a loyal soldier under Emperor Hirohito. He forms an alliance with Gotham’s underworld, using them to help develop an atom-smasher that can dismantle America’s infrastructure. He turns people into zombies to manipulate them into helping him. He’s a real threat, but the series isn’t due to the usual convoluted motivations of Batman villains, but his Japanese origins. His henchmen often use slurs when referring to him. Batman, after confronting Daka, immediately calls him “a Jap”.
Daka might as well have been called Fu Manchu, as he represents the same brand of Yellow Peril paranoia. It goes without saying that Daka is not played by a Japanese actor, but by the decidedly white actor J. Carrol Naish. Naish was eventually nominated for multiple Oscars (including for playing an Italian in 1943 Sahara), but here he plays Daka as an Orientalist caricature. He speaks in a high-pitched voice with an exaggerated accent and plays a passive role, hiding behind a henchman—meant to contrast Batman’s relative masculinity as a fearless fighter.
With America at war with Japan, Columbia wanted a symbolic figure of war for Batman to defeat. In this series, Batman is treated as a stand-in for American virtue, while Daka is the evil alien force – a proxy for the real target of the American war machine at this time. All this shot the 1943 Batman in a feel-good story, designed to build confidence in the American war effort and help vilify the American enemy. But he does so in a way that not only promotes racial stereotyping, but also specifically justifies some of the atrocities committed by the United States during the war.
America, good and never bad
Batman 1943 takes the political position that America is always right, and anyone who disagrees is a troublemaker who must be silenced. Daka is bad because he supports his country against America. His henchmen are evil because they are all criminal mercenaries, as well as traitors to their country. In contrast, a would-be henchman, whom Daka kidnaps directly from prison, refuses to surrender to Daka out of pride for the American way. Daka uses his technology to extract whatever information he wants from this man, then turns him into a machine-controlled zombie.
Anti-Japanese imagery is incorporated into the set and background of the series. Daka’s lair is located in Little Tokyo, in the “Japanese House of Horrors”, a wax museum filled with depictions of Japanese soldiers capturing and killing Americans. Many wax figures are secretly Daka’s guards. The House of Horrors portrayed is built around making the Japanese look creepy and monstrous – not just because they could murder American soldiers, but because they have a museum celebrating such murders.
Worst of all, Batman justifies the American internment camps, which disrupted the lives of more than 120,000 people during World War II, when peaceful American citizens were incarcerated because of their cultural background. As the narration on the introduction to Daka’s Lair and Little Tokyo says:
“It was part of a foreign country, physically transplanted to America and known as Little Tokyo. Ever since a wise government rounded up those shifty-eyed Japs, it’s become practically a ghost street, where a single business survives, living a precarious existence at the expense of the curious.
During the internment, Japanese Americans were forced to sell their possessions – losing businesses, vehicles and personal property – before being locked behind barbed wire for four years and subjected to loyalty tests to determine their devotion to America. It was common to find that inmates at the camp were horrified that the government thought they were not loyal American citizens. While testing generally proved the people in the camps posed no threat, internment lasted until 1946.
Batman and Robin, however, see the Japanese as enemies of the United States. Batman’s use of one racial slur in particular is a low point for the character, siding with a paranoid bigotry that was blatantly unfounded even in his time.
Just for his time? Not enough.
Many people justify the older media’s racist standards by saying that it’s simply “standard for the times.” In this case, it’s not true: Yellowface performances like Naish’s were controversial and criticized even in the 1940s. And other superhero series and adaptations of that era exoticized or misunderstood cultures. foreign, but rarely vilified them in this extreme way.
1941 The Adventures of Captain Marvel, one of the premier superhero series of all time, pits Billy Batson against Scorpion, a scientist transformed by ancient Siamese magic when he bursts into an ancient tomb. He is ultimately defeated when the people of Siam once again turn magic against him. While Siam – now modern Thailand – is treated like an exotic foreign culture, it is not subject to constant insults and dehumanization.
And the famous Superman radio series from 1946 The Adventures of Superman, which pitted Superman against the Ku Klux Klan in the 16-part series “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” was careful to portray the Chinese-American characters in sympathetic roles, as one of the minorities threatened by the Klan. In this case, Superman spoke out against racism, exposing the real-world code words and hateful practices of the Klan to an audience that otherwise might not have known. This information was collected by Stetson Kennedy, an activist investigating the Klan. Unlike 1943 Batman, which justifies bigotry, “Clan of the Fiery Cross” aimed to combat it. (Although it should be noted that the reasoning was still nationalistic – China was America’s ally against Japan during the war, and pro-China sentiment was as much a part of the war effort as messages anti-Japanese.) Supermanless focused on race and political moments, and more on generic villains.
The 1943 Batman stands as an anomaly – a point where Batman was used to promote xenophobic nationalism. Living the series is like traveling back in time in the worst possible way. Its terribly slow pace and overly simplistic plot leave audiences with little to enjoy. In an age when even the worst Batman stories manage to be memorable, this series is utterly forgettable, aside from its startling racism.
But it’s important not to forget the story of our most iconic characters. It’s important to see how far we’ve come in terms of storytelling. Gone are the days when audiences were content to watch Batman punch gangsters whose fedoras seemed to stick to their receding hairline. Cinema has raised our standards, and Batman’s cinematic debut simply doesn’t live up to them.
There’s no Batman story like the 1943 series. Maybe that makes this nearly 80-year-old story unique. Maybe that makes it a disaster. The closest the modern Batman has to the overt racism of the old series is when Frank Miller tried to pitch his graphic novel Holy Terror like a Batman story. DC was wary of publishing the comic. They were right to be suspicious.
The 1943 Batman series is free streaming with ad support on Tubi.