Saturday, July 7, 2012

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993 Review, 4th of 9)

     Batman was certainly making an icon of himself, the Batman show of the 60’s, coupled with “Batman The Movie” introduced him to pop culture and the two Tim Burton movies turned him into the dark and haunting character that he was meant to be, then in the 1990’s there was the animated Batman TV series and this is where his true modern age legacy began. This show became a huge part of the character and many different animated Batman TV shows that followed including the “Batman/Superman” show and “Batman Beyond”.  This show has also been widely regarded as one of the greatest animated TV shows ever. It was such a big hit that in 1993, a full year after “Batman Returns”, there was the first and only theatrical animated Batman movie titled “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm”.

    This is the second entry in the Batman movie series to be directly adapted from a TV show and in all honesty, it's one of the absolute best Batman movies. Now when it comes to great movies, there are classic’s that are given a lot of attention and then there are underrated classics that aren't looked at enough. “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” is simply one of the most underrated classics ever, one of my favorite's in the Batman series, one of my favorite 2D animated movies and maybe even one of the best superhero movies I've ever seen. The plot revolves around a new masked vigilante in Gotham that's going on a killing spree, and Batman gets falsely accused for the murderess. Before he can clear his name and discover the identity of this new threat, an old love interest from Bruce Wayne's past returns and sends our hero through a loop. The movie then dives into Batman's past through a a series of flashbacks that are intertwined with the present day story. We don’t see the usual flashback of Bruce’s parents getting killed, instead we see the early years of him being an average vigilante in an average mask, then practicing and evolving into the dark knight. Of cores this is something that will be used again in the latter film “Batman Begins”, but this came first and personally, I think this film did it much better. The movie then rolls into a two way battle as Bruce struggles through keeping his promise to his parents and maintaining peace in Gotham City or living a normal life with the woman he loves.  

      There are a lot of tough decisions to make, big consequences and in the end this film does everything the previous Batman movies failed to do and that’s give us a story focused on Batman himself. I was sick of Batman just waiting around for someone to fight or someone to rescue while all character development and attention was given to the villains, this movie was the answer to all of my prayers. Finally, a Batman movie that makes Batman a character and a great one at that. Batman is voiced by Kevin Conroy and while Michael Keaton is still the best of the live action actors, Conroy is the overall best actor to play Batman by far. That’s not to bash all the others, Conroy is just my favorite. He has an incredible voice and he brings so much life and dimension to the character that you forget he’s animated.  One of my favorite moments in the film is when we see Bruce put on his mask for the first time, it’s a powerful little scene that easily stands as one of my favorite little moments in the series.

     The story is very rich, it's easy to get wrapped up in and in return you genuinely care about the characters and the many different situations that take place. The movie begins with one of my favorite opening credit sequence ever and it really gets things started on a good note. We get a cool little trip through the cool looking 3D animated Gotham City and the music just sends chills down my spine every time I hear it. Actually, one of the films biggest highlights is the score composed by Shirley Walker. Now just about every Batman movie has an awesome score that fits the movie perfectly. This ranges from Hans Zimmer energizing score in the latter “Dark Knight” movies and the classic Danny Elfmen score from the Tim Burton films. Personally, I think Shirley Walker’s score is the best by far. Both Shirley Walker and Danny Elfmen often worked together on the music in the animated TV show but for some reason Danny Elfmen wasn’t involved with this movie. I do still like Elfmen’s classic score a lot but Shirley Walkers keeps you entranced throughout the whole movie, right to the last scene. I always feel that movies need the right music playing throughout the film to enhance the mood or atmosphere and this movie dose a solid job of that. The animation is also very stylish, giving the movie a cool and artistic feel. Every time I watch it I find something new, there’s one moment when Batman is walking around a model of Gotham city and you can see the “Warner Bros. Logo”. It's hard to explain why by Gotham city just feels so much grander and bigger when it's animated. There’s also a strong cast of popular actors in this film including Dick Miller from the “Gremlins” movies and Abe Vigoda from “The Godfather” movies.

    The movies primary focuses is a tragic lover’s story between Bruce Wane and a new female lead named Andrea Belmont, voiced by Dana Delany, who’s best known for providing the voice of Lois Lane from the 90’s animated “Superman” TV series. It’s not the cliché kind of relationship you usually see in superhero movies, this was a complex relationship that mixed the hopes and dreams of a beautiful life with the darkness of reality. Andrea is definitely my favorite of Batman’s lovers because she isn’t just a pretty girl that’s just there to be captured and rescued. She’s a surprisingly three dimensional character for an animated movie, she can be strong, put up a good fight while still keeping her femininity in check and she adds a lot of substance to the story. 

    To top things off, we get a terrific new villain called The Phantasm voiced by Stacy Keach, Jr. This is another villain that was created for the movie alone but he’s become a cult favorite Batman villain and for good reason. This is another character that’s completely devoid of common Villain clichés, he doesn’t try to gain wealth, power or take over the world, instead he’s a tortured animal that has been set lose and is now killing off an old circle of crime bosses that he holds responsible for destroying his life. He's has no plans against Gotham city and he dosn't even have a grudge against Batman, in fact, he even respects Batman on some level. The Phantasm has a great design, with a sharp blade on his arm and is equipped with a teleporting device that he triggers with a puff of smoke, that’s pretty cool. I especially love how he greets his targets by saying the chilling words, “Your angel of death awaits.” Despite being the main antagonist of the movie, he really isn't seen that often, but he's in the movie enough to leave an impact, which is great because most villains ware out there welcome.  

    Then in a nice little twist, we learn that the last surviving member of this old circle of mob bosses went on to become none other than The Joker, who's brought to life by the always terrific “Mark Hamill”. That’s the actor who played Luck Skywalker in the “Star Wars” movies and would latter play The Hobgoblin in the 90’s animated “Spider-Man” show. This is just the icing on the cake because the movie is worth watching just for his performance alone. He’s so funny yet so creepy at the same time, you just can’t take your eyes off him. He comes late into the film but he completely steals the show. My favorite parts with him are when he’s just talking out loud to himself in his hide out, it’s like an improve game, just see how many random and entertaining things he can do. Another one of my favorite moments is at the end of the film when the climax comes to it’s exciting conclusion, everything is blowing up and the Joker gives the most epic evil laugh ever. Now every actor who’s played the Joker has always done something special, Cesar Romero from “Batman: The Movie” was the first, Jack Nicholson from the 1989 movie “Batman” was the funniest and Heath Ledger from “The Dark Knight” was the most bad ass but Mark Hamill is the most classic. He’s always the first one that comes to mind whenever I think of the Joker. Once again, that’s not to put down the other three actors, Mark Hamill is just the most memorable Joker with the right voice and perfect laugh, easily one of the all time greatest animated villains.

   The action scenes are amazing, it’s not big time impressive with lots of stunts but you get so wrapped up in the story and situations at hand that it feels more exciting. For example, there’s a scene when Batman is being chased by the cops and he loses his mask, this made it all the more exciting and riveting without giving us any big explosions. The climax takes place in this theme park dedicated to the future of Gotham city and honestly, I think this is one of the best finally's in the whole series. We get a thrilling three way confrontation between the main characters, they cover a lot of ground, even fly through the air on jet packs, the future city offers several obstacles for our hero to over come and there's plenty explosions, it’s just a sheer spectacle. 

    Surprisingly, the movie doesn’t have your traditional triumphant ending, instead it ends on a powerful and emotional note, we get a beautiful speech from Alfred and an excellent final shot of Batman swinging off a building. It’s not a flat out depressing ending and it doesn’t leave me feeling empty the same way “Batman Returns” did, instead it just leaves you with the realism that not every great story ends with happily ever after. During the credits we get a terrific song called “I Never Even Told You”, it has such a romantic yet jazzy feel, I love it. The song was written and sung by “Tia Carrere”, who you may remember as Cassandra from the outstanding “Wayne’s World” movies.

    The movies received positive reviews over the years, Jean Siscal and Roger Ebert both gave the movie big thumbs up, IGN labeled it one of the 20 greatest animated movie of all time and Rotten Tomatoes gave it a very fresh 87%. However, while this film was critically successful, it was an unfortunate bomb at the box office. Not too many adults or teenagers wanted to go see it because it was a cartoon. Plus, this was not a movie directed to kids. The film is very dark, involving parents getting murdered, guns fire bullets instead of lasers, there's lot's of killings and the characters actually bleed. So not too many parents took their kids out to see it, funny considering they were perfectly okay taking their kids out to see the last two movies. The idea the writer’s had in mind was an animated Batman movie that felt like a real movie, not just something for young viewers, I think they did a very good job and I’m glad they didn’t go over the top in promoting it for children. Also the story is too complex for kids, I remember seeing it at a young age not having a clue as to what was going on.   

    As a result of poor reception, Hollywood studios restricted anymore animated Batman movies like this to be in the theater and to just focus on live action movies instead, that way they will get the right reception and audiences. The irony in this is that the next two live action Batman movies, “Batman Forever” and “Batman and Robin” are far more for kids and targeted toured kids then this film was. In fact after the disappointment of “Batman and Robin” this film was re-discovered and had a very successful seconded airing, now its life on DVD is thankfully growing. There were several other really good animated Batman movies to fallow like “Batman and Mr. Freeze: Subzero”, “Batman Mystery of the Batwoman”, “The Batman VS Dracula”, “Batman: Under the Red Hood” and my favorite “Batman Beyond Return of the Joker”. These were all terrific movies but were all released straight to video, I highly recommend renting these because there simply better than they even needed to be.

   Final words, “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” is one of my favorite entrees in the series and is full of great action, emotion, style, music and subtle character development. Now there are some flaws but there so minor that they don’t ruin the movie at all and for a run time of 76 minutes it’s just as riveting and solidly constructed as any of the recent live action Batman movies.  If you’re a big Batman fan, then this movie is mandatory. I give “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” a very strong 4 ½ stars, it’s great. 

    Stay tuned for part 5, where dropping the dark stories, complex character development and heading to the bright, colorful world of Joel Schumacher’s “Batman Forever”!   

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