Monday, January 13, 2014

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (Warner Bros, 1993)

For the next few weeks, we’re going to be shuffling around the calendar to take a look at Warner’s feature film output prior to the creation of their own studio. While they’d had some success distributing the work of independent studios - and we’ll be looking at those in a bit - their in-studio films had largely been just compilations of old Looney Tunes, with maybe 10 minutes of linking animation as far as new material. The movie we’re looking at today was the first feature-length animated movie made entirely by Warner Bros, but it wasn’t intended to be. See, shortly after the release of the terrible yet successful movie Batman Returns, TV cartoon creators Paul Dini and Bruce Timm were tasked with making a new Batman cartoon for TV. The result, “Batman: the Animated Series”, was massively successful with children and adults, fans and critics, and spawned the DC Animated Universe, which lasted for 15 years across 8 TV series, 4 films, and numerous shorts. Urged by the show’s early success, Warner quickly commissioned a direct-to-video movie, but the executives were so excited by what they saw in early development that they decided on giving it a full theatrical release - and then increasing the budget and expectations while not giving the creators any more time, resulting in a grueling eight-month production schedule and a small release with no promotion. Oops.





First off, I’m issuing a rare spoiler warning here. Even though this movie is 20 years old, and that generally falls well past the spoiler statute of limitations, it’s a noir mystery with plenty of good twists, and I always feel that a mystery is deserving of more spoiler consideration than most stuff.

Welcome back. Let’s talk about superhero origin movies. Do we really need them? Is there a person on earth who doesn’t know the origin of Superman? Hell, Grant Morrison was able to tell it in just nine words, and you could probably do the same with Batman. Spider-Man’s probably the only other hero where the general public is that familiar with it, but for a lot of heroes, you just don’t need to spend time on it. And yet they just keep on making them. And the most annoying part is that they tend to be very good. Batman’s an interesting case, as his “origin” takes only a few seconds in a dark alley, and the stories built around that moment give it a lot of variety.

"Would you find me more terrifying with bat ears? Be honest, now."

See, with those others, there’s a structure. Superman’s parents raise him right, he feels a bit out of place with his powers, so he creates a superhero identity to allow him to embrace all sides of himself, and to protect the adopted planet he loves while still remaining true to himself as Clark Kent. Spider-Man’s a bullied geek who gets overly cocky when given super-powers in an accident, and that cockiness and lack of care kills the person he loves most, causing him to never lose sight of the Great Responsibility that comes with his Great Power. Their personalities are similarly well-established. Superman is a friendly Midwesterner, always seeking out the good in the world. In both his normal life and his superhero life, he protects and seeks justice for people who can’t defend themselves. Spider-Man is extremely intelligent and has a rapid sense of humor, he talks and jokes constantly, especially when fighting, in order to distract his enemies from their attacks and himself from his fear.

Batman, on the other hand, doesn’t have much of a personality. He’s usually angry, he’s cold, driven, and analytical. He doesn’t have a job, he has only a few close friends. His public persona as Bruce Wayne is a bit of a put-on, but doesn’t have any steady traits, either. So when an origin movie is made, it’s interesting to see what kind of story they build the origin on, and how they present the Bruce Wayne persona. Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” showcased Batman’s introduction to Gotham, as an urban legend terrorizing the crime world, and portrayed Wayne as a flighty, kind of creepy weirdo. In 2005, “Batman Begins” focused the story on his training and the development of his crime fighting style, and portrayed Bruce as a flightly, disinterested socialite. 2011’s “Year One”, based on the comic that largely inspired Begins, focused entirely on his development of Batman as a persona and decision to target the Falcone crime family, with the Bruce persona as easygoing and friendly, but something of a recluse and a drunk.

I'm not crying... It's just been raining... on my face.

Mask of the Phantasm, as you’ve no doubt guessed from my writing so far, is an origin movie. But it takes an approach that I’ve never seen in any Batman-related media before. It focuses on Bruce Wayne. The approach taken to Wayne in The Animated Series has always been my favorite, which is that as intense and driven and angry as Batman is, in his life as Bruce Wayne, he tries to be the son his parents would have wanted to have. He’s pleasant and generous, he’s reasonably social, he takes a fairly active role in running the company. This has always been the most satisfying version of Bruce for me because while the playboy versions are great for removing suspicion, I prefer the idea that Batman would want his civilian identity to be as good for Gotham as possible. And yeah, it’s still an act. He plays it a little more well-meaning than intelligent, and kind of goofy, and when no one’s looking, he drops it right away.

But what if it wasn’t an act? What if the Bruce he secretly wished he could be was brought to the surface and came into conflict with his drive to avenge his parents? That’s the conflict at the center of Mask of the Phantasm, making it the only Batman movie I’ve ever seen where Bruce is fully as important as Batman. The film deals with Bruce’s return to Gotham after training abroad, as he sets in motion his vigilante plans. But a wrench is thrown into the works when he meets a woman named Andrea Beaumont at the cemetery. With Andrea, he finds love, acceptance, the promise of a real life. He is deeply conflicted and undergoes great distress over his newfound urge to settle down with Andrea. Bolstered in no small part by his disastrous attempts to enact vigilante justice wearing a ski mask and leather jacket, he decides to try to build a new life with Andrea at his side. But she rejects him and, along with her father, leaves town, and the pain of this pushes Bruce down forever, leading him to become Batman.

Admittedly, this is not the most practical of weapons.

Several years later, Andrea’s back in town, and while this doesn’t for a second make Batman think of quitting, it does give him flashbacks to a time when that was a real possibility. But he’s got bigger problems, because there’s also a new vigilante in town. He’s called the Phantasm, he’s got a suit that lets him mimic a ghost, and he’s out to murder the enforcers of the Valestra crime family. Worst of all, he wears a shaggy black cape and skulks around in shadows, so people assume Batman’s the one taking the mobsters out. When law-and-order city councilman (and Bruce’s former romantic rival) Arthur Reeves starts an anti-Batman task force, things get real. Investigating the Phantasm’s murders, Batman discovers financial links - serious ones - between Valestra and Andrea’s father. Mr. Beaumont was in deep, and the reason he and his daughter flew the coop was to avoid them. With this new knowledge, Batman starts to believe Mr. Beaumont is the Phantasm. Plus, they’re both voiced by Stacy Keach. But Reeves reveals that in exchange for campaign donations, he gave up the Beaumonts‘ location, and Valestra had the man killed. Speaking of which, Valestra’s getting extremely nervous as the Phantasm hacks his way through the caporegimes, and turns to the only person he can think of for help. The psychotic former employee who pulled the trigger on Carl Beaumont. But he’s gone through some changes since then…

Hello, dum-dums!

Yes, they just couldn’t resist adding the Joker into the mix, and can you blame them? When you make your big-budget Batman movie, you’re going to want the Joker in there. The film’s vision of the Joker is very much in line with Tim Burton’s. Before he became the Joker, he was already mad, bad, and dangerous to know, and now even the other mobsters are afraid of him. Unlike Burton’s though, he’s removed himself from the mob hierarchy and now lives on his own in an abandoned World’s Fair expo, in the decrepit “house of the future”. It’s a great twist on the Joker’s old carnival hideouts, and even allows for a monorail fight, which I’ve always thought movies should have more of.

I admit I was a bit leery, knowing that the Joker was in the movie. I feared it would be one of those cases where the villain they set up for the movie is sidelined by a more popular villain that gets shoehorned into the story. Think Venom in Spider-Man 3 or Lex Luthor and Brainiac being the ones behind Cadmus, or Ultron in… well everything he’s ever been in. But they really do a good job justifying his presence and making it work. A mere Batman vs. Phantasm match would have made for a good movie, but throwing the Joker in adds an extra element of chaos that keeps both vigilantes off balance. Particularly in that the Joker is the only one who knows who the Phantasm is the entire time, because he killed her dad.

That’s right, the Phantasm is none other than Andrea Beaumont, who has gone a little bit bonkers after her dad was killed, and devoted her life to training, wearing a scary costume, and taking down criminals -HEY, WAIT A MINUTE. The movie hits the emotional point really well, and “Oh hey, you’re just like me, only way worse” would have been an easy point to mess up. But the movie seems to take the view that even considering all the murder, the Phantasm isn’t really all that more messed up than Batman. Before her secret, sorcret identity is revealed, he accuses her of stonewalling him on orders from her father, and she points out that the only one of them that’s controlled by their parents is him. Alfred also gets some scenes where he expresses serious concern for Bruce’s sanity, including a wonderful scene where he drops his butlery façade and recoils in terror upon seeing Batman for the first time. In the end, though, Andrea’s murderous vengeance takes her too far, and she follows the Joker to their apparent death by explosives. It seems that in this film, Batman’s unwillingness to kill saves his own life, too.

"Just... Just give me a second, I'm trying to work out how you're standing."

The voice work is amazing. Andrea Romano is one of the finest voice directors in history, and though all her work for Warner Bros, has cast and directed her performers BRILLIANTLY. Kevin Conroy as Batman is probably the greatest success of her career. He’s scary and intimidating without succumbing to the Christian Bale Monster Voice, but his Batman is still distinct from his Bruce. It’s not for nothing that he’s considered by nearly all to be the greatest Batman of all time. Mark Hamill’s Joker is equally, if not even more iconic. With clear influence from Cesar Romero, Hamill creates a layered performance of wildly varying laughs and energy levels, which has not been matched yet. While I’d give Conroy the narrow win for pure quality of performance, there have been other Batman voices that have succeeded on their own merits. No subsequent Joker, though, has ever even come close to Hamill. Joining them from the TV series are Efrem Zimbalist, Bob Hastings, and Robert Costanzo as Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, and Harvey Bullock respectively, all of whom do admirably, and get some good character work. And though the prequel nature of the movie means the Joker hasn’t yet met Harley Quinn, Arleen Sorkin still gets a cameo as a woman flirting with Bruce at a party.

As for the new voices, they are also excellent. Dana Delany plays Andrea, which at the time was something of a surprise celebrity voice. Delany took so well to voice acting, though, that Andrea Romano called her again a year later to play Lois Lane on Superman. Her performance was excellent, though as a DCAU fan, I kept expecting her to call Bruce “Smallville”. Valestra was played by mob movie legend Abe Vigoda, and the Phantasm’s first victim, Chuckie Sol, was character actor and Joe Dante mainstay Dick Miller. Stacy Keach, as mentioned above, was both Carl Beaumont and the Phantasm, the latter being revealed to be a voice modulator in Andrea’s mask. As Beaumont, he gets to play friendly and scared, which he doesn’t often get to do in live action, due to his terrifying face. As the Phantasm, he’s nice and creepy, and his voice gets a little bit of an electronic deepening tweak that doesn’t make it too obvious that it’s the same guy.

The animation… Okay, if there’s one problem in the movie, it’s the animation, and I don’t remotely blame the animators for that. The style and character design is excellent. Far from Anton Furst’s creeptacular Gotham in the contemporary Tim Burton films, Timm’s Gotham is all Art Deco skycrapers, 1940s-styled cars, and red skies at any time of day. It’s intimidating, and it looks great. The character animation, though, can get really shaky. With the limited production time and the fact that they had to largely work in their TV style, there can be some real clunky movement and awkward faces. It’s rarely an issue, though, and the action scenes - particularly Batman’s close call with the police -look good. I’d also like to call out the score, which I don’t often do here. Pioneering composer Shirley Walker, who also did the music for the TV series, really ran with her increased budget and created a truly epic, and well-paced score. Her Batman theme, modified from Danny Elfman’s movie theme - Walker collaborated with Elfman on the Flash TV series, and conducted for him on several films - is particularly stirring.

All the latest technology here, folks.

I can’t recommend this movie enough. One of my favorite things I’ve read about it  is that Siskel and Ebert didn’t review it when it first came out. They had assumed it was a compilation of scenes from the TV show like the old Looney Tunes movies, and since the distribution was so bad, they didn’t bother seeing it. A few years later, they both gave it a shot on the recommendation of other critics, and devoted an entire segment of their show to apologizing for their failure to review it later. Ebert in particular praised it for having a better story than any of the live action films. So when a movie can get two film critics,  one of whom was famously lukewarm on superheroes, to devote a segment of their TV show to apologizing for selling it short two years prior, that’s a movie with something truly special.

Siskel and Ebert’s experience was not unique. This movie flopped pretty hard, despite a surprising lack of family fare in winter 1993. On a budget of a mere 6 million dollars, it only made about 5.5 in theaters. (By comparison, the previous year’s Aladdin had 28 million in budget, and earned 500.)  But the positive critical response and creative success led Warner to decide it was high time to start making their own films. But before they got around to Quest for Camelot, they decided to pair with a studio that already had two flops, and throw a ludicrous pile of money at them to make another miserable failure. Jesus, when am I going to get to write about a successful movie that isn’t fricking Space Jam?


* That nine word Superman origin I alluded to went as follows: “Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple. Superman.” That’s all he had to say, and then he could get on with the damn story.


* Re: “Batman has only a few close friends.“ Comics-wise, Batman’s only consistent “inside” friends, that is to say, close friends that know his identity, are Alfred and Superman, and that’s really it. Maybe Wonder Woman. To a certain extent, Oracle and the various Robins and Batgirls, but they’re more co-workers, as are the rest of the Justice League. Bruce Wayne’s only friend is Lucius Fox, and Batman’s only “outside” friend is Commissioner Gordon. Harvey Dent was an interesting case, as he was friends with Bruce and Batman separately.

* Non-sequel superhero movies that weren’t an origin story: The Incredible Hulk, Dredd, Punisher: War Zone… That’s honestly all I can think of right now. Besides, two of them are continuity reboots of characters with recent origin movies, and Dredd is technically about a police officer, not a superhero. And even that was an origin of sorts for Judge Anderson.

Just think. If that bat hadn't flown in, he'd have gone out in this mess.

* As far as thoughts actually about the movie, minor mob guy Buzz Bronski has an almost identical character design to Rupert Thorne, the major recurring mob villain on the series. And every time I watch the movie, I think, “Oh, it’s Thorne.” It never is.

* The Joker’s writing is really on point. “Oh, Sal, why so formal? Mi casa nostra es su casa nostra.” He’s not an easy character to write well, but Paul Dini does it better than most. Frankly, the only people who should be allowed to write Joker stories are Dini and Grant Morrison. Though I’d settle for a lifetime Joker-ban on Kevin Smith and Brian Azzarello.

Oh, yes, Azzarello, have the Joker rape someone. That's how we'll all know you're writing a grown-ups book. It's very impressive. You didn't at all just take a leftover 100 Bullets script and scribble in different character names.

* One minor quibble: The Phantasm has super-strength, speed, and agility, is bulletproof, and is able to teleport. How? It’s never explained. Her appearance is always accompanied by a heavy layer of smoke/fog, so it’s easy to surmise that has something to do with it, but still, you know, one line about her robbing a science lab or something would be nice.

* The opening credits are a slow tour through the film’s wonderful Art Deco-style Gotham City, in early 90s CGI that actually looks really gorgeous.

* Siskel’s review of Batman Forever contains the great line “I liked it while I was watching it and as soon as it was over, it didn't mean anything to me and as the days have gone on it's meant even less.” I’ve felt that emotion a lot over the course of these cartoon reviews.

"Is this forwards or backwards? Atmosphere be damned, I'm not getting dressed in the dark anymore."


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Forget the other movies. You should just review episodes of Batman: The Animated Series.

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  4. I think the scene with Bruce at his parents' grave may be one of my favorite Batman scenes in any medium.

    I like that his desire to quit is based on starting to successfully move past the tragic event and get on with his life. I love how conflicted he is about that; this thing that has literally defined him since childhood suddenly might not be the most important thing in his life anymore. It's a layer of nuance, which is something both sides of the character often lack.