18 October 2008

Movie review: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

Batman is a perfect Halloween superhero: his crime-fighting theme, the backdrop of Gotham city’s eternal night, the overtones of the Gothic courtesy of the character’s debt to The Shadow, and a grotesque gallery of villains add up to a hero at home in October’s dry winds. The Scarecrow is perhaps the perfect Halloween villain, and his episode in the graphic novel Haunted Knight is essential comic book reading for the season. Of course, there’s also The Long Halloween, my favorite graphic novel title ever. A Long Halloween sounds like a pleasant year to me.

So amidst watching horror films for October, I decided to sneak in some Batman. For your reviewing pleasure, I have turned from the live-action movies and toward the animated franchise and a film that hasn’t gotten much close examination in the recent Bat-mania brought about by the success of The Dark Knight.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Directed by Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm. Featuring the voices of Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Dana Delany, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Abe Vigoda, Stacy Keach Jr., Hart Bochner, Dick Miller

To date, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is the only film from the DC Animated Universe (DCAU in fan abbreviation) to have reached theaters. Warner Bros. initially planned to release an animated Batman film from the team responsible for the critically lauded Batman: The Animated Series in the years between the live-action films. It would help keep the brand visible and must have seemed like an excellent idea at the time. But Mask of the Phantasm arrived in theaters in December 1993 without much fanfare or marketing support, and so sank out of sight fast. The remaining feature films in the DCAU have gone direct-to-video.

It’s unfortunate that Mask of the Phantasm’s initial failure kept us from seeing further big-screen adventures, but at least we have the film itself, which is superior to the two Schumacher live-action films that followed it, and it now has a strong fan-following.

Bat-fandom in general has a high opinion of Mask of the Phantasm, but I’ll get this in the open right away: I don’t fully agree. I think it ranks below the best episodes of the animated series of which it’s an extension, and is inferior to later DCAU original animated videos like Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker and Superman: Doomsday.

Nonetheless, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a strong piece of work from the people who made the animated series such a success, and the big-screen opportunities allow them some stunning visuals—the animated Batman has never looked more ideally noir and retro-forties—as well as a chance to include more violence disallowed by daytime TV standards. The villains can actually kill people!

The events of Mask of the Phantasm combines a present-day tale of a new vigilante terrorizing Gotham’s underworld with a flashback story inspired by Frank Miller’s graphic novel Batman: Year One. The production team clearly wanted to do a Batman origin story, and found a way to work past and present together into a single story that involves a tragic romance for Bruce Wayne and role for Batman’s #1 adversary, the Joker. Some parts of Batman: Year One appear almost unchanged: Bruce Wayne’s first outing as a vigilante in a simple ski-mask, and a massive chase between Batman and the Gotham PD that concludes in a construction site.

The movie opens awesomely with a CGI pass through Gotham skyscrapers and a thundering choral rendition of Shirley Walker’s theme from the animated series. This leads into Batman busting in on Mobster Chuckie Sol’s operation and the first appearance of the mysterious Phantasm. The Phantasm is a breathtaking grim-reaper visage and one of best original contributions to the Batman mythos to come out of the DCAU.

These opening few minutes are enough to show the superb the animation and art direction. This is some of the best work to come from the Batman: The Animated Series team. The airbrushed-on-black look of the TV series appears even more impressive on the larger canvas of film. Although Mask of the Phantasm was done on a smaller budget than a major Disney picture, it still has an expansive look and creatively staged sequences that compensate for this limitation.

The overseas studios that handled the animation chores, Dong Yang Animation and Spectrum Animation Studios, do excellent work to match the best episodes in the series. There are numerous superb action scenes and layers upon layers of atmosphere. The scene in the graveyard, where another gangster meets his fate at the Phantasm’s hands (and what an awesome scene for Halloween!), is one of many impressive moments. The finale in the ruins of a Hugo Gernsbeck-esque futuristic exposition would have made an eye-popping scene in a live-action film. The filmmakers even toss in an homage to King Kong and kaiju films with Batman battling the Joker on a miniature of Gotham City and batting away killer toy planes.

The story develops that the murderous Phantasm is knocking off members of aging mobster Salvatore Velestra’s organization. Crusading Councilman Arthur Reeves blames Batman for the killings and forms a task force to take him out. Bruce Wayne’s personal life turns complicated when an old love, Andrea Beaumont, returns to Gotham, and his investigations as Batman turn up a link between Velestra and Andrea’s wealthy father. But Batman will soon have more to worry about than the Phantasm, the aggressive police, and the troubling reappearance of a lost love: a panicked Velestra has called on an unorthodox source of help against the attacks on his organization: the Joker.

Meanwhile, a parallel story unfolds in flashbacks: Bruce starts to discover his crime-fighting persona, meets Andrea and almost gives up his promise to his parents to battle injustice so he can marry her, only to lose her because of her father’s enigmatic connections to organized crime. And hey look, there’s a mob enforcer who looks sort of like the Joker!

Like many classic Batman stories, The Mask of the Phantasm is a tragedy. The hero may vanquish the villains, but at a great cost. Much is lost, and deep scars remains. The film leaves a deep residue of sorrow, which is what great Batman stories often do.

So what holds me back from giving Mask of the Phantasm the fandom full big thumbs-up? The mix I mentioned above of the past and present, the Phantasm plot-meets-Year One-meets-romance-meets-Joker, isn’t always a comfortable one. The flashbacks to Wayne’s beginnings as the Bat start too early and keep the Phantasm plot from getting properly revved up. Andrea is one of the better of Wayne’s romances, but we should get to know her more in the present before the past gets launched at us. Except for the emotional scene of Wayne begging the tombstone of his parents to release him from his pledge to fight crime so he can be with Andrea, the flashbacks are the weakest scenes in the movie. They continually unbalance the pacing whenever they cut in. The past in the film works best when it’s confronted in the present, such as Alfred’s final speech to Bruce about vengeance and how it “blackens the soul.”

The result of these intervening multiple layers is a great story with a backdrop that keeps falling down in front of the action. The structural problems keep a good movie from turning into a great one.

Also, and to some this is a minor quibble, the Phantasm’s equipment and abilities never receive a logical explanation. And the song performed by Tia Carrere over the end titles is pretty cheesy.

Aside from the solo DVD of the movie available, Warner Bros. has also packaged it in a double-feature DVD with Batman and Mr. Freeze: Sub-Zero. Don’t buy this one, since Mask of the Phantasm is only available in a cropped pan-and-scan version. Stick with the Phantasm only disc, where at least you have the choice of seeing it in the original aspect ratio and see the animators take advantage of the full canvas.