I know that Super Batman & Mazinger V is just one of many patchwork, copyright-flaunting children's films made in South Korea during the 80s and early 90s, but there is something about its combination of lazily disguised knock-offs of both American and Japanese nerdy pop cultural icons that seems so specifically designed to lure me in that I wouldn't be surprised if it was part of some kind of trash cinema based sting operation with me as its target. And watching the film did nothing to allay this paranoid mindset on my part. I just couldn't shake the feeling that the film was somehow speaking to me directly:
Do you see? DO YOU SEE?
Of course, the benefit to watching Super Batman & Mazinger V in a state of paranoid agitation is that it actually makes the film more interesting, which is desperately called for. Despite its apparent aspirations toward zaniness, the movie moves along at a pace that is mysteriously sedate, with the only relief being intermittent, Power Rangers style fight scenes and random moments at which we suddenly find ourselves watching a cartoon. In fact, if there is a conspiracy afoot here, I suspect that it is one on the part of the evil forces of boredom, who are trying to reel in susceptible souls such as myself for the purpose of exposing us to all kinds of really terrible, child-sung Korean synth-pop songs. (I only hesitantly include the Super Batman theme song -- or, as sung, "Supah Betuman-O!" -- in that characterization, as it almost approaches awesome.)
Our cast of characters here includes a fat guy in a pith helmet who's always carrying a toy robot around with him, a little girl, a fat kid with freckles painted on his face, a generically attractive young woman, a guy with a band-aid on his forehead, and a childlike guy in a Miami Vice style linen suit jacket who turns out to be the alter ego of Super Batman. Periodically, this group or various combinations thereof are attacked by either a space wolfman in wrestling togs or a group of guys in leotards wearing animal masks, all of whom seem to be after the toy robot that pith helmet guy is carrying. Whenever this occurs, Super Batman shows up out of nowhere for one of many acrobatic fight scenes -- accompanied by the aforementioned toddler-screamed theme song -- that probably wouldn't be very interesting if there was anything going on between them, but, as is, come as something of a blessing.
Eventually the group retires to band-aid guy's apartment to discuss the toy robot at what seems like very great length. Pith helmet guy then launches us into a cartoon flashback in which we learn, I think (I confess that I leaned on the fast forward an awful lot during this), that he was once the pilot of the giant robot Mazinger V, which disappeared after being stolen by an evil space lady. Soon after, the group discovers that the toy robot contains a map outlining the whereabouts of the robot. Conveniently, it is in the same wooded, lakeside area where all of Super Batman & Mazinger V's exterior sequences not shot in the courtyard of a nondescript apartment block were filmed. And so they set off, only to be dogged in their quest to find Mazinger V by the aforementioned animal-masked baddies and a couple of live-action evil space ladies who look nothing like the evil space lady in the cartoon flashback. (And, yes, I smell Joseph Lai all over this one, too, though it doesn't appear in his IMDB filmography -- perhaps because there was never any attempt to foist it upon unsuspecting English speaking children.*)
By the way, for all you classic Japanese robot enthusiasts out there, the nerd in me feels compelled to point out that Mazinger V indeed looks something like the robot Great Mazinger, despite being all orange. On the other hand (pause to wipe fog from glasses caused by combination of hyperventilation and mouth breathing), the toy robot carried around by pith helmet guy looks more like a cross between Combattler V and Raidee... Okay, I'll stop. (Also, the toy itself looks like a plastic Korean knock-off of a Japanese transforming toy, which isn't too surprising, since it seems like a lot of these Korean kiddie films were in part designed to sell corresponding toy lines that were themselves knock-offs of more recognized lines.)
Super Batman & Mazinger V briefly approaches the level of sublimity promised by its title at about the one hour mark, when its hero flies through an opening in the Earth into a subterranean hell world. Here Super Batman undergoes an ordeal of near mythical proportions, which, in its presentation, is a triumph of limited animation combined with cut-outs from still photographs. (It looks a lot like a filmed version of one of those old Santo photo-comics.) First he's attacked by cartoon bats, and then has his head vomited on by a giant cartoon spider, after which he is threatened by a giant cartoon snake before having to fight some cartoon skeletons and some hooded vampires that he vanquishes using a cross and a laser beam that shoots out of his mouth. Throughout all of this, Super Batman is screaming in pain and terror, which, as you might imagine, is more than a little unsettling.
Finally Super Batman survives his agonies to make his way to Mazinger V's hiding place. Pith helmet guy then turns into a cartoon to take his rightful place at the robot's controls, and the space wolfman guy turns into a giant, black cartoon robot so that the movie can end with a giant cartoon robot fight. Then the drum machine is turned on and the kids in the background start screaming about "Supah Betuman-O!" as the credits roll.
And I run to the kitchen to grab the tinfoil so I can make a new hat.
(*Yeah, laugh it up, fat boy. Since posting this article, I've found an IMDB listing for this film under the title Super Betaman, which includes a summary that lists the name of the featured robot as "Zangga". Despite that, I'm leaving the references to Batman and Mazinger in the post as is, because you'd be hard pressed to convince me that those resemblances weren't intentional. Also, if this listing is to be believed, Joseph Lai actually had nothing to do with Super Betaman, as it is produced by someone named Bong-shik Ahn and directed by a character called Yeong-han Kim. Incredible, I know.)