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Non-Review Review: Batman – Mask of the Phantasm

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.

There is a legitimate argument to be made that Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is the best Batman movie produced prior to Christopher Nolan taking over the film franchise. While I narrowly prefer Batman Returns, it’s hard to deny that this animated take on the character from the creator behind Batman: The Animated Series isn’t a superb exploration of the Caped Crusader and his world. Kevin Conroy is still, after all these years, my favourite actor to play Batman, and I can’t help but feel like the movie deserves a lavish re-release to celebrate the pending release of The Dark Knight Rises.

You’d have to finally go batty to do this in the long-term…

It’s hard to describe just how influential and successful The Animated Series was all those years ago. The series will be twenty years old later this year, and it’s hard to argue that it didn’t make a massive impression on the Caped Crusader or on animated superhero adaptations. Characters have transitioned from the show to the original comic books (Harley Quinn being the most obvious example), and virtually every major superhero animated show has existed in the shadow of this Emmy-Award-winning masterpiece.

So, hoping to cash on the series’ success, Warner Brothers decided to release a theatrical film. While the studio did afford the production a lavish budget, the crew found themselves under considerable pressure to get the film ready for a release. Not that it shows at all, to be fair. However, the movie didn’t really impress at the box office – with various parties suggesting various reasons for the financial disappointment. I suspect there were lots of factors at play, including a lack of publicity leading up to the release and the fact that the movie was released while the show was still on television.

Cutting remarks…

While the movie’s box office fortunes might have been disappointing, the film itself is absolutely top notch. It’s pretty much just a slightly extended two-part episode from the television show, but that’s not a bad thing, to be fair. Written by a collection of writers who worked on the television show, the film shares the show’s nuanced view of Batman. I honestly think that animated Batman seen here and in the show represents one of the most psychologically complex takes on the character – suspicious without being paranoid; open without being too trusting; aggressive without being a jerk.

There’s never a sense, unlike with some adaptations of the character, that the writers ever took Batman too seriously. When media commentators begin to question the sanity of the masked vigilante, Alfred is quick to reassure his master, “What rot, sir! Why you’re the very model of sanity. Oh by the way, I pressed your tights and put away your exploding gas balls.”The movie as with the show, is actually willing to accept that there’s a great deal of complexity to the character, and that Bruce isn’t necessarily a simple or straightforward hero. There’s a wealth of ambiguity there, and it seems like the animated series grasped this concept better than any of the live action efforts before Nolan.

Caving to pressure…

In fact, the film even calls Bruce to task over the consequences of his ruse – the collateral damage caused by Bruce’s attempts to blend into Gotham’s upper-class society. At a posh reception, while doing his “rich idiot playboy” thing, an ex-lover is quick to burst the bubbles of the women fawning over Gotham’s favourite son. “I’d watch out for Brucie if I were you, girls,” she advises them. “He makes you think you’re the only woman he’s ever been interested in. And just when you’re wondering where to register the china… he forgets your phone number. That’s Bruce Wayne’s style.” It’s hard not to feel that the glass of wine thrown in Bruce’s face isn’t entirely justified.

In fact, I’ve always found it interesting that Bruce never really had a long-term female love interest like most other superheroes. Clark Kent has Lois Lane, Hal Jordan has Carol Ferris, Barry Allen has Iris West. In contrast, Bruce has a long string of female lovers who seem to appear and disappear rather quickly, with minimum fuss. (That is, after all, one of the reasons Batman came in for an especially tough time in Seduction of the Innocent.) Mask of the Phantasm is actually interested in this facet of Batman, one that is often ignored or overlooked, seeking to explain why Bruce has never really sought female companionship.

Some men just want to watch the world burn…

It would be easy to dismiss Bruce’s lack of interest in the opposite sex as a result of his fundamental devotion to his mission, but Mask of the Phantasm dares to explore the roots of that internal conflict. It suggests that there was a time when Bruce could have fallen in love, and could have lived something close to a normal life, but fate intervened and his subsequent decision to steer clear of such romantic entanglements can be seen as an attempt to validate that original choice.

I’ve always felt that Batman worked best as a tragedy. Whether it’s a tragedy about Batman himself, the city of Gotham or even his foes, I always felt that what distinguished Batman from other superheroes was the sense that it was a zero sum game. While the gadgets and gizmos are cool, there’s something inherently tragic about the billionaire who lives in a mostly empty mansion, fighting to avenge the loss of his parents. The thought that it didn’t have to be that way, that there was a moment where Bruce could have been happy, is especially fascinating.

He loves the knight life…

In playing the story as a tragedy, it’s worth mentioning the fantastic sequence in the middle of the film where Batman first dons the iconic cowl. It’s framed like something out of a classic monster movie. Bruce even extends his hand for the cowl in much the same manner the Joker reached for a mirror in Tim Burton’s Batman. The eternal bystander, Alfred seems genuinely shocked by what he sees. “Oh God,” the butler mutters as he watches his young ward make a fateful decision.

I always liked that the show was willing to acknowledge that Bruce Wayne might not be the healthiest individual. Despite the fact that it was an animated show aimed at families, there was a sense that being Batman might not be an especially sane thing to do. Here, for example, we get a rather powerful exploration hos just how deeply and thoroughly Bruce is messed up. On falling in love, he visits his parents’ graves and begs to be set free of the vow he made on their deaths:

It doesn’t mean I don’t care anymore. I don’t want to let you down, honest, but… but it just doesn’t hurt so bad anymore. You can understand that, can’t you? Look, I can give money to the city – they can hire more cops. Let someone else take the risk, but it’s different now! Please! I need it to be different now. I know I made a promise, but I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t count on being happy. Please… tell me that it’s okay.

Smoke and mirrors…

Conroy, as ever, perfectly nails that moment, capturing the anguish in the billionaire’s life as he seeks to be released from a childhood promise he made. The irony, of course, is that it’s up to Bruce himself to make that decision, even though he seems unable to. The truly heart-breaking moment comes as Bruce seeks validation that he will never receive. “Please… tell me that it’s okay,” he begs, knowing that he’ll never get the confirmation he seeks.

This is a version of Bruce who is emotionally immature and insecure. In a way, he feels like the half-way point between the “fundamentally different” Batman of the Burton and Keaton films and the “fanatically devoted” Batman of the Nolan and Bale films. There’s a sense that Bruce never really grew up after the loss of his parents – that he’s really just a child playing dress-up rather than an adult dealing with his own feelings.

Joke’s on you, eh?

For example, consider how immature he is when Andrea jokes with him about the fighting style he’s practising. When Bruce explains that it is Jujitsu, Andrea responds, “Gesundheit.” Bruce doesn’t laugh, and in fact looks quite insulted, prompting Andrea to clarify, “That was a joke.” Rather than apologising, or chuckling, this version Bruce acts like a child who has just been made fun of and stubbornly lectures Andrea, “Jujitsu is no joke. It takes years to master.”

Even years later, Bruce still acts like a child towards Alfred. The two have a disagreement about the situation, Bruce challenges Alfred like an angry teenager, “You think you know everything about me, don’t you?” Alfred doesn’t seem to have time for any of this lip, and affirms his position as a father-figure to Bruce, stating. “I diapered your bottom, I bloody well ought to, ‘sir’.” Batman proceeds to sulk away from the disagreement like a spoilt and upset child. “Well, you’re wrong!”

A grave matter…

The tragic relationship between Bruce and Andrea is mirrored in the decay of the Gotham World’s Fair, clearly meant to reference the World’s Fair in New York. It’s a bright and beautiful future that somehow never came to pass, and instead became this festering and corrupting mess, home to freaks like the Joker. Setting the story as a flashback adds to the sense of tragedy, as we already know that this love affair must end tragically. As much as the characters might contemplate the future, their fates are set in stone – and both Bruce and Andrea will end up focused on the past rather than looking towards the future.

“I’ve always dreamed I might have some time alone with you,” Reeves remarks to Andrea at one point. She responds, “Who knows what the future might bring?”It’s a beautiful little moment, because it effectively captures all the squandered potential that existed between Andrea and Bruce. They had the opportunity to escape their traumatic backgrounds, but were unable to do so, and thus wind up trapped within a vicious cycle.

Tearing the city apart…

The Joker plays a pretty major role in the film, and it’s always a pleasure to see Mark Hamill voicing the fiend. Dini and Timm (and the other creators involved) stick pretty closely to the origin of the character as articulated in Tim Burton’s Batman. Rather than portraying the Joker as a fundamentally decent person broken by one bad day, the team instead present the villain as a psychotic who uses his change to justify his psychotic tendencies. (It’s a portrayal that Dini would later use in his comic book work – suggesting that the Joker hides behind his insanity and the change only really affected his skin and hair.)

However, the script also makes a point to insert the Joker into a love story featuring Batman – perhaps to play up the fact that the pair really are meant for each other in a way that no potential love interest could hope to be. It’s no coincidence that the climax sees Batman forced to choose between Andrea and the Joker. The Joker, for his part, actually seems quite jealous of the new masked vigilante in Gotham, describing the Phantasm as “nowhere near as cute as Bat-boy.” (I also love that the Joker seems excited at the prospect that he broke Batman, and is delighted that Batman might now be a murderous vigilante.)

It’s a funny world…

The writers pepper the movie with affectionate, but non-intrusive, references to the Batman canon. It’s very much constructed as a love letter to those classic Batman stories. There’s a clear shoutout to O’Neil and Adams, the writer and artist who really defined the modern Batman. There’s a sequence involving the police which feels like a shout out to Frank Miller’s Year One. The Phantasm is a conscious homage to Mike Barr’s much-maligned Batman: Year Two. The climax even sees Bataman and the Joker fighting with giant props in what is probably a reference to Dick Sprang’s work on Batman. None of these elements feel forced, but there’s a sense that Dini and Timm are crafting the film as an affectionate reference to many of the takes on Batman that inspired them throughout the years.

The production work on the movie is great. It doesn’t feel too much more advanced than a regular episode of the show, but that’s not a bad thing. I adore the wonderful noir aesthetic of the show and the film. (That said, the CGI opening sequence has aged rather poorly, but the rest of the film looks as stylish as ever.) Shirley Walker’s musical score, however, is amazing. It feels like a much more fitting tribute to Elfman’s musical landscape than anything Elliot Goldenthal did on Batman Forever. It’s a bit of a shame that Walker wasn’t asked to provide the music for any of the subsequent live action films.

Batman’s enjoying some time in the spotlight…

The casting is, as ever with the show, perfect. When I read Batman, I can’t help but hear Conroy’s voice in my head. (With due respect to Keaton and the Bale, who also do a fantastic job with the character.) Hamill is brilliant as the Joker. However, Dana Delaney deserves special mention in the role of Bruce’s love interest, Andrea. Delaney is great here, and apparently it was this performance that landed her the role of Lois Lane onSuperman: The Animated Series.

I still can’t believe that this movie has never got the deluxe re-release that it deserves. With the twentieth anniversary of the series approaching, and Batman at the peak of popularity, I would have hoped that Warners might have seen fit to produce a celebratory blu ray of the film. As it stands, there’s only really this vanilla DVD edition available, and that’s a little bit disappointing. Particularly as I imagine that the animation would look even better with a bit of a clean-up and a new sound mix would serve the film well. Warners, my money is here, waiting, for whenever you reconsider.

Two old jokers just hanging out…

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is one of the best Batman films ever produced, even after all these years. It certainly stands as one of the best things to come from the DC Animated Universe and – given the typical calibre of the work involved – that’s really something. There is a reason that I am a massive Batman fan, and this take on Batman is a fairly significant part of that reason.

2 Responses

  1. Great review and nice to see Shirley Walker’s fantastic score get some love. The choral main title music is one of the best Batman tracks out there. In terms of quality Batman has been more consistent in the animated genre. I’m quite fond of Under the Red Hood too. I’m sure you’re going to review that in your build-up to The Dark Knight Rises.

  2. I have always loved this film and when I first saw it as a kid, I desperately hoped they would remake this as a live-action film. I really hope they do a full Blu-ray release of the whole Animated Series because it was brilliant.

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