Saturday, June 23, 2012

Batman Movie Batdown Week 4 - Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

"Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" is only film of dozens of Batman cartoon movies to actually receive a theatrical release, which qualifies it for consideration in the Batdown.  However, "Mask of the Phantasm" is such a wonderful movie that I would have bent the rules to get it in.  I like "SubZero", I think "Return of the Joker" is excellent, "The Batman vs. Dracula" is just... yeah, and I'm sure one of the three dozen DC animated straight-to-VHS/DVD films that get made every day about Batman is decent, even though I haven't seen all of them.  But this is "Mask of the Phantasm", this is a cut above.  A serious cut above, really.  Even after "The Dark Knight" set movie screens on fire in 2008, there are still people out there who maintain that "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" is the best Batman movie ever made.  And I can see why, I love the heck out of this movie.

"Batman: The Animated Series" first came on the Fox Kids Saturday morning cartoon block in September 1992, as a cartoon tie-in to that Tim Burton Batman movies, specifically "Batman Returns".  Usually cartoon tie-ins are, frankly, godawful, but there was something magical about that 90s "Batman" cartoon.  Just as a start, it was huge critical hit, being popular enough that it managed to hit Fox's Primetime slot, which is basically unheard of for a Saturday Morning Cartoon.  The only cartoons that have aired on a Primetime network slot are adult cartoons like "The Simpsons", and "Batman".  Yeah, "Batman" didn't last long in Primetime, but the point is worth making.  "Batman: The Animated Series" would last until 1995, then get revived in 1997 as "The New Batman Adventures"* on the now-defunct WB Network, in 1999 "The New Batman Adventures" led directly into "Batman Beyond", a sequel TV show featuring Bruce Wayne and his successor Terry McGinnis fighting crime IN THE FUTURE.  All this finally came to an in 2001, but by this point "Batman: The Animated Series" had spun-off an entire DC Animated Universe, which would continue to make shows and TV movies until 2006.  So when Kevin Conroy signed on to voice Batman in 1992, I really doubt he'd continue to be playing the same character in the same continuity for another fourteen years.  And godbless him, because these Batman cartoons are awesome.

"Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" was conceived as soon as Warner Bros saw how successful their "Batman" cartoon was doing on TV.  Originally it was designed to be just a straight-to-video short movie which would largely be a big episode of the TV show.  However, Warner Bros in a rare burst of genius from a major film studio, decided that "Batman" was so artistically relevant that it needed an entire theatrical release, and boosted the budget with a few million.  The movie was made in just a single year, which is very rare for animation, and was released on Christmas 1993... where it was a gigantic flop, not even recouping its six million dollar budget until home video.  I guess audiences were more interested in "Beethoven's 2nd".  Yeah, not all stories have a happy ending.  But anyway, even if 1993 audiences were full of Philistines, "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" has proved them all wrong, making for an excellent movie.  Far better then "Beethoven's 2nd" at least.

I'm going to make a controversial statement right now and say that early 90s superhero cartoons for the most part are all wretchedly terrible to merely mediocre.  Even shows I really liked as a kid, like "Spiderman" or "X-Men" have not aged well, at all.  Their animation seems cheap and dirty, like the color print on a Sunday newspaper comic.  And for some reason, animators back in the early 90s seem desperately afraid of ever letting the characters stop talking, so the twenty-two minutes are just rapid fire conversation with no sense of pacing or momentum.  The episodes barrel along as quickly as they possibly can, because nobody knows how to budget their times, or even seems to give a crap what the shows finally look like.  The only cartoons of my early childhood I can watch without cringing in horror is "Batman" and "Gargoyles", and even "Gargoyles" is nothing compared to "Batman".

"I am vengeance, I am the night, I am BATMAN!!!"

There's a reason that any 90s kid will tell you without a doubt that "Batman: The Animated Series" isn't just the best Batman cartoon, but actually is THE Batman*.  When we imagine Batman, it isn't Adam West, it isn't Michael Keaton, it isn't Christian Bale, its a cartoon figure in tights voiced by Kevin Conroy.  Gotham City is a black metropolis with sleek art deco buildings and all the writing is in thin white font with the dignity of 1930s New York.  Batman travels the night, dodging police blimps, driving a long luxury car for his Batmobile.  The women are all gorgeous with puffed-up movie starlet haircuts and fine dresses.  But the underworld is full of thugs and psychopaths.  For once the Gotham Police isn't entirely incompetent, Batman works directly with Commissioner Gordon.  Of course, their conversations always end the same way: with Batman disappearing into the night while Gordon is in mid-sentence.  And of course, Gordon will quip, "I hate when he does that."  Yeah, Robin is there, two of them in fact, and so is Batgirl, and really, the episodes with Batman's sidekicks are always less cool than the ones without, but they don't ruin the show.  Christopher Nolan might have his realistic Batman, but I'll always prefer the one that comes right out of a dark 30s detective comic book, with just the perfect blend of limited human abilities, stylized artwork, and excellent colorful villains.

Honestly, if you haven't seen "Batman: The Animated Series" yet, stop reading this review and watch all of those episodes - including "Batman Beyond" because "Batman Beyond" is amazing.  I'll wait.



Okay, now that we're all on the same page, back to "Mask of the Phantasm".

Essentially "Mask of the Phantasm" tells the story of how Batman became Batman, a subject that no previous movie had covered.  Tim Burton's "Batman" just opened with Bruce Wayne already being Batman, well into his career of fighting crime.  "Mask of the Phantasm" uses flashbacks to show Bruce Wayne's last chance at a normal life, and then his final submission to the darkness, all while a ghost from his past returns to Gotham.  Speaking of ghosts, there's a whole new supervillain in town, the Phantasm, a masked monster with a scythe for a hand who travels in smoke, killing off mafia bosses.  The Phantasm calls itself "the angel of death", an avenging demon out to settle a very old score.  Everybody immediately assumes this theatrical vigilante is Batman, because really, what are the odds that there would be two theatrical vigilantes in one city?  In the mob's desperation, they turned to a man they didn't fully understand, the Joker.  We all know the Joker, he just wants to watch the world burn, and by the end of this movie, he actually does.

Back in the past, Bruce Wayne meets this hot redhead named Andrea Beaumont, who much like Selina Kyle from "Batman Returns", is a female foil for Batman.  But Andrea is a lot more explicit, being a rich heiress in mourning over a dead parent, and she even knows kung-fu!  Its kismet!  Usually finding your soul mate would be a good thing, but not so for Bruce Wayne, since his life was already well-committed to the bachelor existence of fighting crime.  Wayne doesn't know how to react to being happy in life, and clearly Batman cannot be a happy family man.  He needs to be out there every night punching themed supervillains, you can't have anybody waiting for you at home.

This leads to my personal favorite scene of the movie, where Bruce Wayne has to tearfully confront his past at his parents' grave, begging forgiveness for giving up on his superhero path.  "I don't want to let you down... but it just doesn't hurt so bad anymore."  That's amazing right there, Kevin Conroy sells this scene brilliantly.  Bruce Wayne does take on two amateur attempts at being a vigilante, and you can see his skills slowly developing but neither attempt quite works.  The first fails because simply being a masked vigilante isn't scary enough, you need to fill your foe's hears with fear.  And the second fails being Andrea is watching, Bruce realizes he can't sacrifice his life when his life actually matters.

For a moment, even though I'm always the guy who wants Batman to just get to the real business and fight crime already, I was with Bruce Wayne staying human.  But obviously, that didn't work out, because everything I've described takes place in flashback while Bruce is wearing the Batman cowl.  Andrea's father is hustled by the mafia, forcing them to flee for their lives out of Gotham City.  Abandoned by his only tether to a normal life, Bruce Wayne makes the final step to becoming Batman:  putting on the mask.  This scene is incredible as well, since Alfred totally sells it by pissing his pants at the first sight of Batman.  "My God!"

Meanwhile in the present, the mafia is tired of having their members slaughtered one by one, so they turn to the Joker.  This turns out to be a terrible idea, since he immediately kills his employers and--  I still haven't gushed about Mark Hamell's Joker yet, have I?  Mark Hamell's performance as the Joker in the "Batman" cartoon is nothing short of legendary.  It has to be seen to be believed, this may be the finest voice acting performance I've heard in my entire life.  The Joker is hysterical in this movie, but he's so much more.  Even with the restrictions of making a movie for kids, the directors of "Mask of the Phantasm" managed to make the Joker a properly scary character.  His laughing gas straight up kills one character, and leaves another character in the hospital, where he presumably laughed himself to either death or insanity, since that guy never comes back.  Plus there's the Joker laugh, its infectious.  "Mask of the Phantasm" was already a good movie full of likable characters, but the Joker steals the show in the last act.

Harley Quinn sadly is not in this movie, since she wasn't yet invented in the cartoons.  However, there is an unseen character named Bambi who dances on a piano who is played by the same voice actress.  I guess you could pretend that Harley Quinn is in this movie.

The central mystery of the movie is who is wearing that the Phantasm's mask.  You're led to believe its Andrea's father, since he and the Phantasm sound exactly the same.  However, Andrea's foils with Bruce Wayne run even further than you think, because she's a theatrical vigilante herself, yup, she's the Phantasm.  Interestingly, its the Joker who first figures this out, not the World's Greatest Detective.  (Then again, there really were only three suspects.)  Now its time for the final confrontation, the Joker vs Andrea and Batman in the Joker's lair, an abandoned amusement park that once hosted the Gotham World's Fair.  Honestly, Batman never thought to look for the Joker in the one place that so perfectly fits his criminal theme?  Then again, Gotham is full of such abandoned places where supervillains can hang out.  The Joker came prepared for a home invasion, he's got wacky traps everywhere including a robot wife with a hatchet, a fleet of tiny robot controlled planes with buzz saws, and the biggest joke of all, twenty miles of high explosives underneath the park.

And unfortunately, just like last week, Batman cannot save his love interest from her path of deranged vengeance.  She decides instead to hold the Joker back while the entire place goes up in flames, letting him laugh his trademark hysterical laugh in defeat.  Batman goes back to the Batcave, emotionally defeated.

However, as there would still be more than a decade of Joker appearances, this obviously was not the last we'd see of the Joker.  Or the Phantasm for that matter.  When the Joker finally does meet his end, he doesn't laugh at all.

"Mask of the Phantasm" is the shortest Batman movie on this Batdown.  It does not even reach eighty minutes, when all the others are all at least a half hour longer.  That means it has far less time to get its story across, but luckily the movie is made by the usual "Batman: The Animated Series" team of Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and Eric Radomski.  They were able to tell brilliant noir detective stories and whole Batman adventures in just twenty-two minutes, and they're able to do a lot with seventy minutes.  Still, one gets a sense of a lower impact storyline from "Mask of the Phantasm" then the Tim Burton films.  The city is never in mortal peril, Batman does get very close to being captured by the police, but luckily they back off him just in time.  The villains seem less powerful, but this is fitting since Batman's skills in the cartoon are far more limited than in the movies.  Batman is just a man in tights and a few gadgets, not a walking powerhouse of ridiculous strength as Tim Burton depicted him.  In a way, that raises the tensions since Batman is made human enough to be beaten.  And really, if my main complaint about your movie is that its "too short, I wanted more", you don't have anything to worry about.

All in all, "Mask of the Phantasm" is the third best Batman film ever made in my opinion.  It has, by far, the best score of any Batman film, all thanks to the late Shirley Walker, who gave us a vocalized version of the Batman theme song.  If that's not epic, nothing is.  The animation, as you'd expect from the "Batman" cartoon, is excellent.  The movie is absolutely perfect in succeeding in what it set out to do.  Not many movies are like that.  Unfortunately, it did not succeed at the box office, so Warner Bros foolishly decided that the public did not want any more dark Batman.  Batman needed to become... more kid-friendly.  It needed to be stupider to sell more.

Which leads me directly to next week's movie, "Batman Forever".  This is when the Batdown becomes a lot less fun to write about, because "Batman Forever" is a terrible movie.  Wretched is a good word to describe it.


* Which should not be confused with "The New Adventures of Batman", a Hanna-Barbara cartoon series from 1977.  "The New Batman Adventures" (without the "of") would later get repackaged with "Superman: The Animated Series", in an hour long rerun program called "The New Batman/Superman Adventures".  This show should not be confused with the 1968 "The Batman/Superman Hour", which was a totally different rerun program which combined the 1968 "The Adventures of Batman" with a series of Superman shorts called "The New Adventures of Superman".  The aforementioned "The New Adventures of Batman" (1977) is a spiritual sequel to "The Adventures of Batman" (1968).  Oh, "The Batman/Superman Hour" should not be confused with "The Batman/Tarzan Adventure Hour", a totally different rerun program that used the same Batman cartoons but packaged them with Tarzan cartoon in 1977

Any questions?

** And I'm not referring to "The Batman", a mediocre Batman cartoon made from 2004 to 2008.  Nobody is entirely sure why "The Batman" was ever made and for who, and most of us would prefer it never existed at all.


  1. >Still doesn't get what was so bad about "The Batman"

    1. I think the main reason "The Batman" show failed so bad was:

      (A) It was boring as hell and the only episode that most people remember out of the entire series was when that guy had some power over time and he just kept screwing over Batman, Robin, & Batgirl until he killed both of them and Batman was going to save the guy, but he killed him instead.

      (B) What they did to the Joker. In all the Batman series that Joker has appeared in the Joker has no abnormal abilities outside of being a psychopath. What makes Joker a quote "Terrifying" person is because of his insanity and playing off the subconscious fear of clowns. "The Batman" Joker was some kind of anthropomorphic monkey that I think insults what the Joker is and represents.

      Another great review Blue. Can't wait for next weeks Batman Forever. Batman credit card anyone?

      BTW: Have you heard of a game called Jeanne D'arc? It's interesting game that takes place during The Hundred Years war and so far it has my attention. Plus it's developed by Level-5!

    2. I love Jeanne d'Arc. If I didn't review it on this blog, it was because I played it the week I started this thing, don't remember. It was a great little game.

  2. Blue, you should listen to Kevin Smith's new podcast Fatman on Batman on Each week Smith interviews someone who's worked on Batman in the past. First week was Paul Dini, second and third week was a two part interview with Mark Hamill, and the fourth and most recent episode had Smith talking with Tara Strong, and they wound up talking about Batman, The Powerpuff Girls, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Fairly Odd Parents, Xialoin Showdown (which is coming back apparently), and a lot more. The Dini and Strong episodes are especially entertaining.