Monday, April 9, 2018

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) (3rd Movie Review of 9)



     Over the years, Batman has gone through many peaks and vales in the form of comic books or movies, and one of his greatest peaks was in the early 90’s with “Batman: The Animated Series”. Despite being an animated program, this series shaped itself into one of the iconic turning points in Batman’s legacy and is still looked back fondly as a classic TV series. In 1993, at the height of this shows popularity was the very first animated theatrical Batman movie titled “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm”. This is the second entry in the Batman franchise to be directly adapted from a TV show, and truthfully, it’s one of the very first theatrical comic movies I ever saw. While initially a box office bomb, it’s gradually earned the status of an underground cult classic. Personally, had it not been for Christopher Nolan’s 2008 movie “The Dark Knight”, this would still be my absolute favorite Batman movie by a mile. Still to this day, “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” is one of my favorite animated movies, and I’d also go so far as to rank it among my top 10 all-time favorite comic books films.


    Set some time during the present-day course of the animated series, a new masked vigilante called the Phantasm has emerged from the shadows of Gotham and is slowly killing off an old circle of mob bosses. Batman meanwhile is being accused of the murderess, putting pressure on him to not only solve the mystery behind this new threat, but to also clear his name in the prosses. Caught in the middle is the return of an old flame from Bruce Wayne’s past named Andrea Beaumont, who may also have some connection to the gangsters. Then in a nice twist, we learn that the last surviving member of this old circle of mob bosses went on to become none other than The Joker, which only adds another level of danger to the situation. As the present-day mystery unfolds, the movie also dives into Batman's past, and we learn that crucial events from his very origin directly shaped this current situation with the Phantasm, the mob, the joker and his girlfriend. Long before “Batman Begins”, this was the very first Batman movie that really explored his backstory and focused on details we don’t normally explore in his origin. For example, I love seeing him as an average vigilante in a cheap ski mask before he adorns his iconic cape and cowl. Also, instead of seeing the now cliched flashback of Bruce’s parents getting killed, the film centers on a time where he almost had a normal life, almost escaped the shadows, but it all tragically slipped through his fingers.   
   

    Truthfully, despite being an animated movie, I think this is the most multilayered the hero has ever been represented on film. Everything that is Batman is on full display here. We see his humanity, his heroism, as well as his dark side, his pathos, his regrets, and finally we see him as a detective, slowly putting together a larger puzzle. Being a detective is actually one of Batman’s defining character traits, but it’s barely seen in the live action movies. In this film, it’s thrilling to see Batman as a crime fighter, but it’s equally engaging to see him solve a relatively challenging mystery, one that we the audience have to solve along with him. It’s also great to finally see the more tragic side of what it means to be Batman. 

There’s a powerful moment during an early flashback in which Bruce is happy about his current relationship and debates weather he really wants to be a crime fighter. Then he goes to his parents grave and begins to grieve, thinking that maybe his current happiness and new direction is betraying their memories. It’s an interesting exploration on what his life might have been like if he found happiness, and it adds another layer of tragedy to his eventual transformation into Batman. This is also the first time in which I felt that Batman and Bruce Wayne were one and the same. There are moments in which we feel Bruce’s compassion under Batman’s imposing look, and in reverse we have scenes with Bruce out of costume, yet he still leaps into action without hesitation to protect someone from being mugged. Our hero by the way is voiced by Kevin Conroy, and in my opinion, he’s all around the best actor to ever portray the character. He has an incredible voice that carries so much wait, yet he also sounds both intimidating and heroic all at once. I don’t mean to bash the other great talents that have played Batman in the past, as they all have their own strengths they bring to the character. It’s just that for me, Kevin Conroy is so memorized in the role that it’s impossible for me to separate the actor from the character. 


    Let’s finally talk about the film’s title villain … The Phantasm, who’s voiced by Stacy Keach, Jr. This was a villain created for the movie alone, but he’s become a fan favorite from Batman’s rouges gallery. This is a great example of how originality can go a long way when adapting a comic book. By creating an original villain, the writers can do whatever they want without upsetting a devoted fan base. It also adds an interesting mystique to the film as The Phantasms identity is completely shrouded in mystery, which only gets us more excited to discover more about him. This is also a rare case in which we have a villain that isn’t attacking Gotham city itself, nor does he have a vendetta against Batman. He’s actually a representation of Batman himself if he ever crossed the line and brutally killed in order to seek some form of justice. The Phantasm also has a great design, miring a death like image, with a skull face, a sharp blade on his arm and he's equipped with a teleportation device that he triggers with a puff of smoke … which is all together awesome! I especially love how he greets his prey with those chilling words, “Your angel of death awaits.” Now despite being the main antagonist of the movie, he really isn't on screen that often, but for me, that only makes it more exciting whenever he appears.


     The supporting cast is also very strong, as each character has something to contribute to the story, and there’s some talent behind the voices. We have both Dick Miller and even Abe Vigoda of “The Godfather” fame supplying the voices of the lead mob bosses, which is just ideal casting. Let’s cut to the chase, Bruce’s love interest Andrea Beaumont is in my opinion the absolute best female lead from any Batman movie. She’s fearlessly independent, can fight for herself, but is also brimming with personality and still keeps her femininity in check when acting tuff. Her voice is supplied by the exceptionally talented Dana Delany, who’s best known for voicing Lois Lane in the 90’s animated “Superman” TV series. Her relationship with Batman is naturally one of the films strengths, as it plays with our emotions by mixing the hopes and dreams of a beautiful life with the darkness of reality. I’ll admit, I don’t know if such polar opposite people as Bruce and Andrea would actually get together, but their on-screen chemistry still works, and I genuinely wanted to see them get together. Surprisingly, as the film goes on, we discover that Andrea has quiet the tragic backstory herself, and even makes Batman’s complexities look tame by comparison.  


     At last, rounding up the cast is the always outstanding Mark Hamill as the voice of The Joker. Seriously, who would ever think that Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars” would pass for a great Joker, but he’s so perfect in the role. His evil joker laugh is amazing, and his voice fits the character seamlessly. This is just the icing on the cake, because honestly, the movie is worth watching just for Mark Hamill’s incredible Joker performance. He masters the dual nature of the character, coming off as both funny and terrifying in equal measure.  His vocal talents are also perfectly matched with the energy in the animation, and I just can’t take my eyes off the character when he’s on screen. Despite coming late into the film, he still completely steals the show. My favorite parts with the Joker are when he’s just talking out loud to himself in his hide out. It’s almost like an improve game, just see how many random and entertaining things he can do. Now it goes without saying, but every actor that’s played the Joker has always shined and brought something iconic to the role. However, for my money, Mark Hamill is the most classic. He’s always the first talent that comes to mind whenever I think of the Joker. Again, that’s not to put down any of the other talents, as they’ve all been great. It’s just that Mark Hamill’s performance has always stuck with me the most, and he’s easily one of the all-time greatest animated villains.


     Among the films many highlights is the music score, which was composed by the late Shirley Walker. Holly cow, her musical talents are sensational, and she really should have won an Oscar for her craft. Now every Batman movie has their musical strengths that come from talented composers, but once again, if I was forced to pick a favorite … it’s Shirley Walker. This score just makes the size and scope of Batman leap off the screen. Shirley Walker worked with Danny Elfmen on composing the music for the animated series, so she had the best guidance. Also, with the films bigger budget, she was able to bring in a full on Latin Quire to enhance the scope of the films atmosphere and mood. There’s actually a number of scenes that play out with little dialogue, yet the music pared with the animation convey so much. My favorite scene of the whole film, and possibly one of the best scenes from any Batman film is this brief flashback showing when Bruce Wayne puts on his Batman mask for the very first time. It’s a powerful little scene with no spoken lines, and everything visually is kept in heavy shadows, yet what we do see, along with the music, indicates that this is a major turning point in the hero’s journey. What makes this scene especially effective is the reaction from the butler Alfred, who’s horrified of Bruce in the mask. It’s as if he knows that the boy he helped raise is gone forever, and now Batman is his true identity.  


     Another one of my favorite scenes is actually the opening credit sequence. To call this my favorite opening of the Batman franchise is an understatement, as I’d honestly rank this opening credit sequence among my top 10 absolute favorites. The camera travels through a digital Gotham City, while a Latin Quire sings into the night, and it just sends chills down my spine every time I watch this. Granted the CG animation in this opening is dated by today’s standards, but it’s still a unique visual design, and the red-tint lighting is awesome. The animation in general is excellent all around and remains traditionally hand drawn after the opening credits. It’s all very stylish and lends to a visual aesthetic that would be hard to pull off in live action. There’s harsh shadows, grim colors and some beautiful lighting, which only enhances the films comic book flavor. Every time I watch this, I find something new in the details. There’s one moment when Batman is walking around a city model, and you can see the “Warner Bros. Logo”. It's hard to explain why, but Gotham city just feels so much grander and epic when it's brought to life in animation. There’s also a perfect mix here of a very comic book word, but it also feels a little grounded in some form of reality. It can bring up serious issues, raise hard questions, and have mature themes, but it also has death traps, and characters in colorful costumes running around.  


   Despite being animated, the movie never treats itself like a cartoon for little kids. In fact, it’s surprisingly more adult then most of the live action Batman movies that came out at this time. Back in the early 90’s, an animated PG movie for kids was considered a gamble, but it paid off and the ratting was warranted. The film gets very dark at times, there’s some disturbing violent imagery, there’s a noticeable body count, guns fire bullets instead of lasers, and the characters actually bleed. Personally, I never thought the film went too far with either the adult content or even the violence. It was only disturbing enough to bring a level of intensity to the action. No joke, the action can get quite intense at times, and you can feel every single punch and impact that’s animated on screen. One of the most riveting action set pieces of the film is a chase sequence involving Batman as he’s pursued by the police. It moves at a tense pace, we see our hero relentlessly beaten down to a point where he’s completely exposed and without a mask to hide his identity. Seeing a bare faced Batman all bruised, bloody and fleeing a large police force was one of the most pulse pounding experience I never thought I’d get from a film of this sort. My only real complaint is that Batman only has one showdown with the Phantasm in the whole film, and it ends way to abruptly. There's even some great buildup to this confrontation between the films two lead masked characters, but it all ends as quickly as it starts, which is really annoying.


     The climax takes place in a theme park dedicated to the future of Gotham city, but to avoid spoilers, I won’t go into the major details. Basically, it’s a deeply thrilling confrontation between our main characters, and the theme park setting leads to some riveting action set pieces. A stand out moment is when Batman and Joker fight their way into a room where their surrounded by giant city models. This artfully, represents how both characters are viewed as larger than life titans wagging war with each other in the city of Gotham. As the battle rages on they cover a lot of ground, even fly through the air on jet packs, explosions are erupting everywhere, and it’s just a sheer animated spectacle to behold. Another one of my favorite moments is when the climax comes to it’s exciting conclusion, everything is blowing up and the Joker gives the most epic final evil laugh ever. Now the fate of the Joker is left extremely vague, as it suggests he was killed, but he also continues to appear in the show after this … so, just what happened to him? Truthfully, putting that detail of Jokers demise to the side, I think this is one of the better finale’s in the whole Batman film series.


    The following epilogue is also a fine mix of tragedy and triumph, and this last conversation between both Alfred and Bruce is one of their best shared on screen. The final shot of the film for me is unforgettable, and when everything fades to black, I just get chills all over my body.  During the closing credits is a terrific song called “I Never Even Told You”, which has a romantic yet jazzy feel … I love it. The song was written and sung by “Tia Carrere”, who I’ll always remember best as Cassandra from the outstanding “Wayne’s World” movies. Following “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” were two more animated movies adapted from “Batman: The Animated Series” titled “Batman and Mr. Freeze: Subzero” and “Batman Mystery of the Batwoman”. Neither of them were released theatrically, but both were much better then direct to video movies needed to be. While I didn’t think either of them were quiet as great as their predecessor, they’re certainly worth watching if you’re a Batman fan, or a fan of the series. Over the years there have been countless animated direct to video Batman movies, and some of them were given limited theatrical screenings. In fact, both Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprised their respected roles of Batman and Joker in the limited theatrical animated picture titled “Batman: The Killing Joke” ... can’t say I liked that one very much.


   Final words, “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” is still to this day one of my favorite entrees in the theatrical Batman franchise, and it also has a secure place on my list of favorite superhero movies. The film also balances a very tight script, with multiple plot lines, and character arcs, yet it all fits together seamlessly in a film with a run time of only 76 minutes. Every scene is important, and it’s paced very well, allowing for a lot of atmosphere to sink in. In short, its got everything I could want from a comic book movie, It’s full of great action, drama, style, music and intriguing character complexities. It’s easy to recommend this film to fans of the animated 90’s Batman TV series, but it also isn’t required to watch the show beforehand. If you’re just a regular fan of superhero films, you can watch “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” as its own standalone movie, and it’s still highly satisfying. Dare I say that even regular film viewers can watch this and take something from it. Heck, back in the mid-90’s, the legendary film critics Jean Siscal and Roger Ebert went out of their way to devote a special review to this film, as they both regretted not seeing it during its theatrical run. While this film slipped under the radar upon its initial release, more and more viewers seem to discover it every year, which is great. It’s a movie I enjoyed as a kid, I continue to love it even more as an adult, and if you’re a big Batman fan of any sort, then this movie is mandatory to check out.


I give “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” a very strong 4 ½ stars out of 5, it’s great.  Coming up next, we drop the dark stories, complex character development and head to the bright, colorful world of Joel Schumacher’s “Batman Forever”!


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