Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

For my first proper post I thought I'd start on one of the first stories to really make an impact on me in my life. And what better place to start than with Batman, one of the most famous superheroes of all-time? In an age of Michael Keaton and two fairly boring films that were more about the villains than Batman himself, there was one story that nailed it better than any director that had attempted the character before.

That movie was the 1993 animated film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

It was suspenseful, it was well written, it was well-acted, and it was probably the best Batman movie of the whole decade. . . in fact, some still argue that it's still the best Batman movie. They certainly have a case, as it is a phenomenal piece of work.

There's drama, high action, romance, suspense, mystery, and it's Batman. What more could a fan of good storytelling want? Mask of the Phantasm has it all and is well worth watching for anyone who enjoys a good film.

So why haven't you heard of this movie before? Well, there's a very simple reason why. It was an animated movie in 1993 not made by Disney and was barely advertised when released to theater. Audiences missed out on its original release, and its only through word of mouth that the film has grown so much in popularity in the twenty years since its original theatrical release. In fact, Siskel & Ebert went back and reviewed this one after it was released on home video because they also missed the boat.

The review:

Roger Ebert's point about animation not being limited to kids is one that has always stuck with me over the years, because we're finding it true more and more every day. It's a medium of film and television that can offer quite a bit more than live action can in some instances. Not to say they should stop making family of children's films, but the medium does not need to be locked to them. It's capable of much as one viewing of "Akira", "Princess Mononoke", or this film, shows.

It might have been a hard concept to realize for some audiences of the era since theatrical animation of the 1990s was in a very strange place. Disney had good family fare like "The Lion King", "Aladdin", and "The Emperor's New Groove", and about everything else was fairly lopsided or controversial to audiences. You had Don Bluth's movies, some one-shots like "Cat's Don't Dance", and not much variety outside of them. Meanwhile, on TV you had series like "Batman: The Animated Series" becoming not only one of the best animated shows, but one of the most influential. It dealt with good versus evil themes but on a more personable level and with some very smart writing. It was quite ahead of its time and influenced much the came later, including live action TV shows and movies.

Here's a list of superhero films. Take a look at the superhero movies made before 1993 and after up until the release of the first X-Men movie. Do you see the difference? It's quite out of place in its time and era among the other superhero works. Until X-Men, there wasn't really anything that attempted to even better the original two Superman movies. Until Christopher Nolan came around, there was nothing to really compare this film to.

So why was it influential? It was high quality storytelling and was the first comic book superhero show, animated or not, to really attempt it. Sure, I suppose you could use the first two Superman movies for your argument, but considering how much they messed around with Clark Kent's origins and powers, I can't call them equal on that level. On an entertainment level, sure, but not as a serious film. There's a reason why Mask of the Phantasm is still considered one of the best, and it goes beyond just the entertainment value.

Mask of the Phantasm is a story about Bruce Wayne, Batman, and the Phantasm. Simultaneously a story about how Batman came to be, how he started, and why he stays, as well as a character study of Bruce Wayne and why he has to be the caped crusader, why he just can't walk away from it all (none of the Batman movies cover this aspect), and why he so desperately wants to. Meanwhile, a new threat arises in Gotham: that of the Phantasm, a masked villain who has taken it upon himself to be the judge, jury, and executioner of some of the city's seedier criminals.

The police (outside of Commissioner Gordon) all believe Batman is to blame because of the similarity between the murderer and our hero. They both stalk the night, they both use extreme measures to stop villains the cops otherwise can't, and they are both well-trained in fighting. The difference is that the chillingly-voiced Phantasm is interested in nothing but murder which is the one thing Batman can't stoop to doing. What follows is a battle of wits as Batman fights to stop the Phantasm before the vigilante has offed the whole criminal underworld and more. I won't lie, some of the deaths might make you squirm, but they're all bloodless affairs. It's what you don't see that will make you jump.

At the same time this is going on, Bruce Wayne meets an old flame named Andrea Beaumont who had at one time rejected his offer of marriage to run away with her father from his debtors. Now she's in a relationship with someone important in Bruce Wayne's circle. She was the one that got away and was at one time his one escape from becoming Batman. Now he has serious choices to make. Maybe he has been given a second chance at a real life? After all, what good can he do with his name tarnished by a murderer? Meanwhile, there are certain people in high places going out of their way to smash Batman into the dirt and get him to take the fall for the Phantasm. . . or do they have motives of their own?

Now, I am going to focus on spoilers, so if you want to see this film before reading, you should definitely go do that. The movie is on DVD for about five bucks and is worth far more than that. I will mark the end of my spoiler discussion in bold and you can continue reading from there, so you have been warned!


The film is incredibly tight, yet within the very brief running time we are introduced to the love that Bruce Wayne can never have, the job he can not walk away from, and the darkness that will always be floating over the path he has chosen to take.

The Joker's appearance in this film has always been controversial, but, in my opinion, he works far better here than in the Tim Burton movie. Mark Hamil gives him a dangerous, seedy edge with a punchline that's as unpredictable as he is, and when he kills an associate for the sole reason of trapping Batman, you get chills. This villain does not joke around, despite his jokes. He's not really the villain of the movie, but a reminder of the reality of being Batman and why the hero needs to exist, just as Andrea and her father are a reminder of who Bruce Wayne is and why he needs that human connection to stay grounded or else he will fall into the same despair that the Phantasm and all in the murderer's wake have.

When the Phantasm is revealed to be Andrea, you aren't all too surprised, until you are told how it could not be her father. He couldn't, because Andrea never told Bruce the whole story. Jack Napier (The Joker, before he became The Joker) murdered the old man long ago to complete their contract and showed no remorse for doing so. When she rejected his proposal, it was because her father made them both targets, and her life was no longer safefor Bruce or for the two of them. Her happy and safe life was no longer what it was and left her overflowing in despair. She left any chance at a future behind to hone her skills and crush those who ruined her life. And now The Joker is the only target on her hit list left.

This makes Bruce and Andrea two sides of the same coin, both suffered at the hands of evil and both had to make a choice to respond to it. Bruce does the best he can with the resources he has to stop evil without succumbing to it, Andrea uses evil as a weapon that ends up in the end cutting both her victims and herself deep when she realizes that she has thrown away the only things that mattered to her for revenge. Despite everything she has done and continues to do, until the last moment when she is ready to strike The Joker dead, Bruce never stops to try and save both her as well as The Joker. It says a lot about Batman that even though he has been manipulated both by his former love and by his greatest enemy that he is willing to still save them both from each other and themselves.

In the end she is left alone and drifting in the despair that she has let swallow her while Bruce is left alone to don the cape and cowl and continue his endless quest against an evil that he can never fully conquer. It's Batman and Bruce Wayne in a nutshell, and probably the best example as to what it really is to be a hero and what separates them from the villain.

It's not about superpowers, political connections, or brute strength, but about choices. Doing the right thing, and looking beyond yourself to find that the world is bigger and about much more than your own problems. Bruce rises above them, while his former love lets herself be crushed by them. By films end, things are back to normal, as that is the way the world is. The world marches on, and we can either let ourselves be set adrift from it, or we can continue on as our hero does. fighting against the darkness, without losing yourself to it, one step at a time.


At the end of the film, you're left with what is still the best portrayal of Bruce Wayne there has been, thanks to Kevin Conroy's excellent performance, and the most human Batman film yet to be made. And it was all only really possible through the medium of animation. There are few other ways to achieve the balance between the impossible and mundane to make them one and the same, but the team at Warner Bros. achieved it just fine.

Because, let's be fair, Tim Burton didn't understand Bruce Wayne and barely understood Batman himself. Making The Joker the killer of Batman's parents showed that easily enough. Joel Schumacher didn't understand the serious side or, really, anything beyond the (great) 1960s show. They're more cartoon-ish than this film is by far. Christopher Nolan's films are the closest to this one, but they still seem to miss really getting into Bruce Wayne and why he needs Batman. They do a lot right, but they still don't quite get Bruce Wayne. This is the only film to both show him and nail the portrayal at the same time.

Bruce Timm and his team at Warner Bros. did a lot with the superhero genre in animation on their time on television from Batman, to Superman, to the Justice League, and odd excursions in between, over the time they had run of the franchise between 1992 and 2006. They did a lot for animation in the television realm, influencing such great shows as "Gargoyles", "The Spectacular Spider-Man", and the recent "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes" based on the popular film series, as well as the creators of popular live action shows, comics, movies, and books.

It's been over eight years since their universe of work came to an end and yet it still projects discussions and influence now even with so many new options for superhero stories floating around out there (I personally recommend "Batman: The Brave & The Bold" for being a successful mix of the old 1960s Batman and the more modern, serious take) vying for viewer attention.

Here's hoping that one day their films can enjoy the same level of influence. It would be attention more than due. Mask of the Phantasm is still the greatest Batman movie to many and might be for a long time to come.

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