Thursday, July 19, 2012

Film Review - Batman Retrospective - Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Hey all!

Still excited about The Dark Knight Rises?! Damn right you are!

As such, Ranticular will be running a fortnight retrospective of all the Batman films that have received theatrical release ever! Because my love of my fans is only exceeded by my love for Batman...

 Batman: Mask of The Phantasm (1993)

Plot: The story describes the origins of Batman as it follows the Dark Knight's attempts to capture the elusive, deadly Phantasm, who is killing old crime lords and making it look as if Batman did it, causing a media smear campaign against the Caped Crusader. At the same time, an old flame of Bruce Wayne reappears, leading to Bruce exploring his past, the evolution of Batman and all that Bruce has had to give up along the way.

Director: Eric Radomski, Bruce W. Timm

Actors: (voice only) Kevin Conroy (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Mark Hamill (The Joker), Dana Delany (Andrea Beaumont), Abe Vigoda (Salvatore Velestra), Hart Bochner (Arthur Reeves), Stacey Keach (Carl Beaumont & The Phantasm)

The Film Itself:

Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm (also known as Batman: The Animated Movie) is, to date, the lowest grossing Batman film ever. It received only a limited theatrical release at a time when animated films only made money if they had Disney or Don Bluth somewhere in the title. It was also unusual in that it was a dark, violent, oppressive cartoon which featured murder, torture and sometimes shockingly violent images. Many have never even heard of it and to this day it is considered the forgotten member of the Batman film family.

It is also not only my favourite Batman film but also one of my favourite animated films of all time.

Strangely, this would be the only Batman film until Nolan's Batman Begins twelve years later to tackle Batman's origin as the central story. Much like Frank Miller's excellent Batman: Year One comic (which Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm references more then once), here the focus is on Bruce in his early 20's, still trying to figure out exactly how he will go about fighting crime in Gotham. All seems to be progressing nicely until a lady comes along to complicate things and challenge his plans.

Of Course, Unwanted Sexual Attention Is Hardly New For Batman...

This tale is told through a series of flash-backs, all closely linked to the second story of the film, which is the arrival of a new villain in Gotham (called the Phantasm in the film's title, but never in the film itself). The Phantasm appears to be killing off older criminals tied to the Gotham underworld. Now on the run from the police, Batman must apprehend the killer, clear his name, and deal with the lingering romance between himself and Andrea...

Since the creative team for this film were also central to the Batman animated adventures, it should come as no suprise that the story of Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm is excellent. The look and sound of the film are infused with everything that made the cartoon great, from the art-deco look to the fluid and smooth animation. This film even has it's own kick-ass intro, as a Latin choir sings part of the cartoon's theme while the camera flies through a CGI-rended Gotham. Every time I watch it I get goosebumps, it's just so epic and huge, as Frank Miller might say it makes Batman feel so much... "bigger then any one man". Even the music is great, but then of course it is as it is mostly re-used segments from the animated series. (Seriously, go watch the series. Like right now.)

This is possibly the only Batman film I can credit with an utterly perfect grasp of pacing and story structure. Unlike Tim Burton's very broken scripts, Joel Schumacher's neon-lit 1960's Batman tributes or Nolan's heavy, plodding, epic narratives (I love the films but you know it's true), Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm has a fast-moving, busy but easy to follow story. It manages to be by turns moving, shocking, epic and intimate. It's also a story that contains almost no filler. Every scene features something important to the story occuring, there are no dead plot threads or unresolved issues and the characters and their motivations actually MAKE SENSE, which is frankly mind-blowing for me at this point in the retrospective. 

I mean if there is one thing Batman classically isn't very good at, it's logic.

Your Honour, Exhibit A

The story is a character-based one, focusing mostly on Bruce Wayne as a young man trying to decide how to wage his crusade against crime in Gotham. He's not as experienced as he needs to be, the bat-costume consists of a balaclava and he is still unsure if crime-fighting is the best way to honour his parents. Kevin Conroy gives Bruce Wayne an edge that he had been missing in all the other Batman films up to now. Michael Keaton's Bruce was a wierd and removed figure, here we get a warmer, more open Bruce Wayne who is thus far more venerable. He is complex without being clunky, a charming ladies man who recognises how isolated and removed he has to be if he wants to be an effective Batman. Aside from Alfred (who is less crazy-grandfather here and more incredibly dry wise-crack machine) Bruce doesn't have anyone close to him who he can confide in and his loneliness hangs around him like a fog at times. Or a cape if you will.

The most interesting angle of this Bruce (and the film) is his relationship with his dead parents. Having made a promise to try prevent what happened to his parents ever happening again, Bruce is more or less obligated to become Batman. As such, he sees his parents memory almost as a curse, a horrible oath he is not even sure he wants to fulfill at times. Watching Bruce Wayne weep at his parents grave, telling them he doesn't know if he can be Batman because he never expected to be happy is the one of the most powerful scene in any Batman film. 

Yup, More Powerful Then The Laundry-Karate Scene From Batman Forever!

On the other hand, Conroy's Batman is one step away from a violent psychopath himself. He's a very brutal fighter, an intelligent detective and one ruthless Dark Knight at times. Conroy not only gives his Batman more growl but also a more focused, direct way of speaking, in particular a scene where Batman and Andrea speak briefly has a lot of bite, at one stage she has to point out Batman is hurting her before he lets go of her arm. In the same scene, Batman admits unashamedly to spying, calls her out for being a liar and reduces her to screaming at him to leave before Andrea breaks down crying. Indeed, more then once we see other characters question Batman's sanity (Joker finding it especially amusing that he may have pushed Batman over the deep-end). 

This Batman is held in check by a strict moral code and unquestioning belief that he is honoring his parents. He isn't happy being Batman, he simply knows he must be Batman. This is best shown in the scene where Batman finally dons the iconic cowl. Alfred backs away in shock and utters a strangled "Good God" as the Bruce he knows and loves disappears and Batman takes his place. Man, who would have though making a Batman movie focusing on, you know, BATMAN would be so interesting?!


Not that the rest of the cast don't make themselves known. Andrea Beaumont is one of the first believable love interests for Bruce Wayne that I ever came across in the comics, on TV or on the Silver Screen. Aside from being (to again quote the Joker) "a babe", Andrea is funny, witty, tough and even able to stand up to Batman, something most thugs have trouble with. She also works as a nice foil for Bruce, she too having suffered her share of loss. Stacey Keach does his usual dramatic Orson Wells impersonation for Andrea's father Carl and also provides the deep, unsettling death-rattle that the Phantasm speaks with. In both cases, the voices suit the characters nicely but I do wish he had been given a little more lines, particularly as the Phantasm.

The various members of the mob are all voiced quite nicely and feel like individual characters, even if they only get a few minutes of screen time. In particular Abe Vigoda is pitch-perfect as the old, ill and very scared mob leader Salvatore Velestra. Hart Bochner is coated with slime as the councilman running for mayor of Gotham with some dark secrets, plus he gets one of the most sinister comeuppance's in the entire film, as an encounter with the Joker doesn't kill him but leaves him hopelessly insane and screaming with horrible, uncontrollable laughter in Arkham Asylum. Speaking of the crown prince of crime...

Quick, who is your favourite Joker?

Har Har Har... And No

Nowadays people almost always say Heath Ledger, not entirely without reason, but in my opinion it has to be Mark Hamill. If you would like to know why, watch this film. Hamill's Joker is an incredibly threatening figure, indeed one of the scariest stills of the whole film is merely a close-up of the Joker's evil grin as he declares the one thing he likes to see is a "nice... big... smile...". This Joker murders old men, laughs in the face of death (literally at the end) and is actually a credible threat to Batman. Their big final fight (in a reduced scale model of Gotham) has plenty of crunch and visceral force behind it, with blood, missing teeth and twenty miles of tunnels packed with high explosives. 

The Joker's origin is also very gently touched on but wisely not explored, leaving him with a great aura of the unknown. The script sets him up very nicely as a legendary monster, with big mafia-bosses scared to go see him and Batman prepared to die to stop him. Other then frightening, Joker is also shown as highly intelligent (working out the Phantasm's identity before anyone else) and even quite funny at times, doing such acts as charging into a fist-fight armed with an electrical whisk while shouting "made you look". It's a credit to the fantastic writing at play here that the film doesn't end up just another 'Joker & Friends' film like so much other Batman media tends to be.

Except For The 60's Comics, Which Tended To Just Be On Drugs

Lastly, the film holds you like a vice. The story makes complete sense under scrutiny and doesn't feel like a chore to watch in spite of all it's weighty themes. This is not a happy film by any stretch but it is a pleasure to behold. The film even takes considerable risks for an animated Batman feature, such as having him involved in an extended action sequence against the Gotham PD on a construction site, in a very clever homage to the comic Batman: Year One. To see Batman battle the police he is normally allies with was a bold move for a cartoon and one the animated series would visit again years later in the fantastic episode 'Over The Edge'. But that's a review for another day...

No other animated Batman film would get a wide-screen cinematic release, which is a shame as the animated films tend to be far ahead of most of the live action films. Why this film never took off the way it should was probably due to it's cinema release day (Christmas day of all times) and Warner's almost non-existant advertisement campaign. It's something of a lost gem and it deserves to be more widely seen and enjoyed.

I don't really know what else I need to say except if you haven't seen it, you owe it to yourself to fix that. About as perfect as a Batman film gets.

Rating : 5 out of 5 - For Being Everything A Batman Film Should Be.

See If You Like : Batman. At All.

Sadly, tomorrow we shall see what happens when you decide that rather then interesting character origins and growth, what Batman needs is.. neon. So much neon...

Argh, My Eyes!!!

Til next time!

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