If you’ve been on social media or YouTube over the last decade, chances are that you’ve seen people complaining about the political plotlines and messages in modern superhero stories. “I just want to enjoy superhero stories without politics!” is a fairly common gripe — mostly from a subset of the audience that disagrees with whatever the perceived message might be.
But superhero stories have always been political, right back to the dawn of the genre. From Captain America punching Hitler in 1941 to Homelander symbolizing American arrogance and power on The Boys to Robert Pattinson learning how to be a responsible progressive billionaire in The Batman, superheroes have been entrenched in the biggest political debates of their eras. And that goes all the way back to the first terrible theatrical Batman adaptation.
An Evening With Batman and Robin
In 1943, Columbia Pictures released Batman, a serial shown in theaters across the United States. It stands as the first live-action depiction of the Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder, starring Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft, the youngest actors to play Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson.
Today, the 1943 Batman looks like a low-budget serial, but Columbia Pictures put a great deal of focus and effort into its marketing back in its day, periodically re-releasing it and the 1949 follow-up, Batman and Robin, as “An Evening With Batman and Robin.” These successful re-airings kept Batman in the public eye, right until Adam West took up the cowl in the 1960s.
The 1943 serial introduced some key elements of Batman lore to film audiences for the first time, including the Bat Cave (sometimes called the “Bat’s Cave”) and Alfred’s redesign. (Prior to the serial, Alfred was portly — a far cry from his elegant, thin iteration in modern comics.)
While the serial was popular among audiences upon release, critics saw the whole thing as farcical. Critic Raymond William Stedman wrote in his 1971 book The Serials; Suspense and Drama By Installment, “This wartime serial garnered some good press notices, although, from the vantage point of the 1970s, it scarcely deserved them.”
The 1943 Batman featured cheesy effects, with unconvincing acting from both Wilson and Croft. The serial also lacks any appearances from Batman’s iconic rogues gallery. Joker, it seems, was cast at one point in the serial, judging by early promotional material, before Columbia opted to present an original villain, Doctor Daka, as Batman’s adversary.
But while the 1943 Batman was missing Catwoman, Penguin, and the like, it wasn’t missing out on a political angle. Like many wartime serials, it was political propaganda presenting America as the single force standing up against unrelenting tyranny. And it got across that message via horrendous Yellow Peril stereotypes, justifying one of the cruelest chapters in American history.
Doctor Daka and Yellow Peril
When people discuss 1943’s Batman in the modern era, they often point out its overt racism, particularly in the characterization of Doctor Daka. He’s a Japanese nationalist and loyal soldier under Emperor Hirohito. He forms an alliance with Gotham’s criminal underworld, using them to help develop an atom-smasher that can dismantle America’s infrastructure. He turns people into zombies to manipulate them into assisting him. He’s a true threat, but the serial credits that not to the usual complicated Batman villain motivations, but due to his Japanese origins. His henchmen often use slurs when referring to him. Batman, upon confronting Daka, immediately calls him “a Jap.”
Daka might as well have been named Fu Manchu, as he represents the same brand of Yellow Peril paranoia. It likely goes without saying that Daka isn’t played by a Japanese actor, but by decidedly white actor J. Carrol Naish. Naish was eventually nominated for multiple Oscars (including for playing an Italian man in 1943’s Sahara), but here, he plays Daka as an Orientalist caricature. He speaks in a high-pitched voice with an exaggerated accent, and takes a passive role, hiding behind henchman — meant to contrast with Batman’s comparative masculinity as a fearless fighter.
With America at war with Japan, Columbia wanted a symbolic figure of war for Batman to defeat. In this serial, Batman is treated as a stand-in for American virtue, while Daka is the evil foreign force — a proxy for the real-world target of the American war machine at that time. All of which turned the 1943 Batman into a feel-good story, designed to reinforce confidence in America’s war effort and help vilify America’s enemy. But it does so in ways that not only promote racial stereotypes, but also specifically justify some of America’s wartime atrocities during the war.
America, right and never wrong
Batman 1943 takes the political stance that America is always right, and anyone who disagrees is a disruptor who needs to be silenced. Daka is evil because he stands with his country against America. His henchmen are evil because they’re all criminal hirelings, as well as traitors to their country. By contrast, one potential henchman, who Daka kidnaps straight from jail, refuses to surrender to Daka out of pride for the American way. Daka uses his technology to extract the information he wants from this man, then turns him into a machine-controlled zombie.
Anti-Japanese imagery is baked into the serial’s setting and background. 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 of the wax statues are secretly Daka’s guards. The House of Horrors depicts is built around making Japanese people look frightening and monstrous — not just because they might murder American soldiers, but because they have a museum celebrating such killings.
Worst of all, Batman justifies America’s internment camps, which disrupted more than 120,000 lives during World War II, as peaceful American citizens were incarcerated due to their cultural background. As the narration over the introduction of Daka’s lair and Little Tokyo says:
“This was part of a foreign land, transplanted bodily to America and known as Little Tokyo. Since a wise government rounded up those shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street, where only one business survives, eking out a precarious existence on the dimes of curiosity-seekers.”
Under internment, Japanese-Americans were forced to sell off their property — losing businesses, vehicles, and personal possessions — before being locked behind barbed wire for four years and given Loyalty Tests to determine their dedication to America. It was common to find that camp incarcerees were horrified that the government thought they weren’t loyal American citizens. While the tests generally proved that 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 a racial slur in particular is a low point for the character, a siding with paranoid bigotry that was demonstrably unfounded even in its day.
Fair for its time? Not quite.
Many people justify the racist standards of older media by saying it’s just “standard for its time.” In this case, it isn’t true: Yellowface performances like Naish’s were controversial and criticized even back in the 1940s. And other superhero serials and adaptations from this era exoticized or misunderstood foreign cultures, but rarely villainized them in this extreme manner.
1941’s Adventures of Captain Marvel, one of the first superhero serials ever, sets Billy Batson against the Scorpion, a scientist transformed by ancient Siamese magic when he wrongfully broke into an ancient tomb. He’s ultimately defeated when the people of Siam turn the magic against him yet again. While Siam — now modern-day Thailand — is treated as an exotic foreign culture, it isn’t subject to constant slurs and dehumanization.
And 1946’s famous Superman radio series Adventures of Superman, which pitted Superman against the Ku Klux Klan in the 16-part serial “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” took pains to portray Chinese-American characters in sympathetic roles, as one of the minorities threatened by the Klan. In this case, Superman came out against racism, exposing the Klan’s real-world codewords and hateful practices to an audience who otherwise might not have been aware of them. This information was gathered by Stetson Kennedy, an activist investigating the Klan. Unlike 1943’s Batman, which justifies bigotry, “Clan of the Fiery Cross” was aimed at fighting it. (Though it’s notable that the reasoning was still nationalist — China was America’s ally against Japan in the war, and pro-Chinese sentiment was as much a part of the war effort as anti-Japanese messaging.) Meanwhile, later serials, including 1948’s Superman, focused less on race and political moments, and more on generic supervillains.
The 1943 Batman stands as an anomaly — a point where Batman was used to promote xenophobic nationalism. Experiencing the serial is like traveling back in time in all the worst ways. Its dreadfully slow pacing and overly simplistic plotting leaves audiences with little to enjoy. In an era where even the worst Batman stories manage to be memorable, this serial is utterly forgettable, apart from its startling racism.
But it’s important not to forget the history of our most iconic characters. It’s important to see how far we’ve come in terms of storytelling. Gone are the days where audiences were satisfied watching Batman punch gangsters whose fedoras seemed glued to their receding hairlines. Cinema has raised our standards, and Batman’s cinematic debut just doesn’t meet them.
There is no Batman story quite like the 1943 serial. Maybe that makes this nearly 80-year-old story unique. Maybe that just makes it a disaster. The closest modern Batman has come to reaching the overt racism of the old serial is when Frank Miller tried to pitch his graphic novel Holy Terror as a Batman story. DC was leery about publishing the comic. They were right to be wary.
The 1943 Batman serial is streaming free with ad support on Tubi.