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‘Batman: Mask of the Phantasm’ (1993)

— by CHAS BLANKENSHIP —

When a mysterious cloaked figure murders Gotham gangsters, Batman is labeled the prime suspect. Now, not only must Wayne fight to clear his name…but the return of a lost love links the murderer to Bruce’s past…and the revelation of why he truly became a vigilante.

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Following the release of 1992’s “Batman Returns,” parents were outraged (unfairly) and let their concerns be known through the halls of Warner Brothers. But while the caped crusader’s live action exploits were about to take a full-on dive into territory of the neon and nipple persuasion, our hero appeared on the silver screen yet again in 1993…but this time in ink and paint form.

“Mask of the Phantasm” plays like a classic noir, weaving a story of murder, mystery and romance that will force audiences to get caught up in the intrigue.

Much like “Batman: The Animated Series,” “Mask” doesn’t fall prey to the fact that it is animated and the filmmakers rightfully treat the material with the proper respect…thus creating one of the most beautiful cinematic triumphs for the Batman character I’ve ever seen.

The film takes place with Batman fully integrated into the running of Gotham City. His tacit agreement with Commissioner Gordon allows him to track and bring in criminals with impunity.

However, a new costumed avenger starts to brutally murder mob bosses, leading the public, spurred on by ambitious city councilman Arthur Reeves, to view the Batman as the culprit. Hounded by the police as he tries to unravel the identity of the enigmatic crusader, Bruce Wayne’s life is turned around by the reappearance of the love of his life…Andrea Beaumont. Andrea’s return to Gotham causes Wayne to reminisce about his past and in doing so we’re given an insight into the birth of Batman.

The film switches between the present and the past and as such we’re given a glimpse into Wayne as a fledgling crime fighter, fully trained but lacking the iconography which would make him famous. We see him dressed in dark clothes and a balaclava, combating crime but failing to make a psychological impact. We even see Bruce swayed from his quest by his blossoming affections for Andrea. It’s a fascinating insight into the character and it marks the first feature in the series to look at this period, pre-dating “Batman Begins” by 12 years. While “Begins” would be a full-blown origin story, the four previous live action Batman films focused on a character that had found and made peace with his identity, a vigilante who had already perfected his craft.

Like “Begins,” “Mask of the Phantasm” takes its inspiration from Frank Miller’s “Batman: Year One,” a one-shot comic book which depicted Batman’s fledgling year. While “Year One” was a far grittier and nastier take on Batman’s first forays into crime fighting, its influence can be felt in the way Bruce Wayne interacts with his parents and criminals in the picture. Whereas earlier films would show Bruce Wayne being spurred on by his parents’ murder, “Mask of the Phantasm” created the notion that Bruce’s mission was in servitude to them. Certainly his desperate pleas for another option when he finds happiness suggest that this Bruce Wayne could have exorcised his demons without donning the mantle of the bat.

And therein lies what truly makes “Phantasm” so incredible. Much like the “Smallville” television series, the history of the main character isn’t broken by any means, but it’s bent and contorted in a fresh way that adds a wrinkle of luster to the mythos — that it wasn’t just the deaths of Bruce’s parents that sent him over the edge into becoming Batman…but it was also the tragic loss of the one woman that could have kept him from a life of crime fighting. It’s really romantic stuff here and spins a new dimension on Wayne as a character that people just might identify with as much as, if not more so, then the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne.

What makes these earlier scenes work (and really the film as a whole) is Kevin Conroy’s fantastic voice performance as both Bruce Wayne and Batman. Conroy’s voice work was one of the lynchpins of the animated series and his magnetic and divergent turns as Bruce Wayne and Batman would help to create a sympathetic core to a character who could have easily been a silent and unlikable loner.

Surrounding Conroy for “Phantasm” is a large ensemble of fantastic voice actors such as Bob Hastings as Commissioner James Gordon, the ever loyal Alfred Pennyworth voiced by Efrem Zimbalist Jr, Stacy Keach (“Escape from LA”) as Andrea’s father Carl Beaumont and “Desperate Housewives” star Dana Delany voicing Andrea herself. Each actor and actress has a wonderful textual quality to their voice and it’s truly no wonder who, between DC and Marvel, gets the best casts for animation pieces.

But the stand-out supporting performer proves to be Mark Hamill and his instantly recognizable take on the Joker. Despite being best known for his heroic turns as Luke Skywalker in the “Star Wars” trilogy, Hamill established a career in his later life as a remarkably talented voice actor, his focus being on characters of the more villainous persuasions. With voice work in everything from “Spider-Man: The Animated Series” to Miyazaki’s “Laputa: Castle in the Sky,” Hamill would bring a unique blend of humor and darkness to each of his roles.

But his most famous voice work would be playing Batman’s white faced arch-nemesis. Clearly enjoying himself immensely, Hamill created a Joker that wasn’t just good for a children’s show but which actually threatened to be one of the most interesting and bravura interpretations of the character. Perfectly capturing the Joker’s conflicted and psychotic nature, Hamill was able to be both funny and terrifying at the drop of a hat.

“That’s it…that’s what I want to see…a nice big smile…”

On paper, the Joker’s appearance halfway through “Mask of the Phantasm” should really spell doom for a production already juggling two comprehensive plotlines, but somehow Timm, Radomski and company manage to handle the flashbacks, the Phantasm and Batman’s most iconic animated showdown with his greatest enemy incredibly well. Considering its lean, economic 77 minute runtime and exuberance of Hamill’s performance, there was a danger that the Joker would once again dominate proceedings, but while the character is exceptionally memorable, he’s reined in enough to serve as a suitable heavy without completely detracting the focus of the story from Batman or Bruce’s relationship with Andrea, which is the main priority of the story.

In fact, despite a somewhat episodic nature, “Mask of the Phantasm” manages to have one of best stories in all of the Batman films. Part of this is due to the fact that all three plotlines serve to flesh out one larger story which ties together all of the major and minor characters. In fact, one criticism to be leveled against the film is that everything is wrapped up a little too tightly, even right down to the point where the final climatic showdown occurs in the same “World of Tomorrow” museum and exhibit that Bruce and Andrea visited when they were first dating. Simply having the Joker make his hideout at a random museum would have been fine, but by establishing an emotional connection for the other characters makes everything seem a little trite.

But it really is a minor criticism and the museum provides a fantastic backdrop for one of Batman’s most explosive encounters with the Joker. With Jetpacks, robotic knife wielding housewives, toy biplanes and a fistfight within a miniature city thrown into the mix, the final 10 minutes is a suitably cathartic climax to a film that had avoided the usual Batman super heroics. So by the time we finally get to Batman and the Joker’s brawl, we’re ready for it. But that’s not to say the film is completely without action…specifically the wonderful chase scene between Batman and the police during the second act, which is perfect in its staging and pacing.

With a sumptuous score from Shirley Walker (including a lovely and memorable lyrical theme titled “I Never Even Told You” and performed by Tia Carrere) and some dazzling animation that was ahead of its time, “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” is a perfect showcase of the style and intelligence that made “Batman: The Animated Series” so fantastic.

If you can rightfully look past the fact that it’s animated, the film is a compelling drama that will suck you in with its emotional story and developed take on the characters…easily one of the greatest Batman movies of all time.

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“Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” (Bruce Timm & Eric Radomski, 1993)

Directed by … Bruce W. Timm and Eric Radomski
Sequences Directed by … Kevin Altieri, Boyd Kirkland, Frank Paur and Dan Riba
Story by … Alan Burnett
Written by … Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko and Michael Reaves
Based on the DC Comics Character Created by … Bob Kane and Bill Finger

Executive Produced by … Michael E. Uslan and Tom Ruegger
Produced by … Benjamin Melniker, Bruce W. Timm, Eric Radomski and Alan Burnett
Storyboards Designed by … Troy Adomitis, Kevin Altieri, Gregg Davidson, Ronaldo Del Carmen, Joe Denton, Curt Geda, Michael Goguen, Boyd Kirkland, Butch Lukic, Doug Murphy, Frank Paur, Brad Rader, Dan Riba, Jeff Snow, Mark Wallace and Bruce W. Timm
Backgrounds Designed by … Eric Radomski
Editing by … Al Breitenbach
Original Motion Picture Score Composed by … Shirley Walker

Kevin Conroy … Bruce Wayne/Batman (voice)
Dana Delany … Andrea “Andi” Beaumont (voice)
Mark Hamill … The Joker (voice)
Hart Bochner … City Councilman Arthur Reeves (voice)
Stacy Keach … Carl Beaumont/The Phantasm (voice)
Abe Vigoda … Salvatore ‘Sal the Wheezer’ Valestra (voice)
Dick Miller … Charles ‘Chuckie’ Sol (voice)
John P. Ryan … ‘Buzz’ Bronski (voice)
Efrem Zimbalist Jr. … Alfred Pennyworth (voice)
Bob Hastings … Commissioner Jim Gordon (voice)
Robert Costanzo … Detective Harvey Bullock (voice)
Marilu Henner … Veronica Vreeland (voice)

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2 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1

    this was a very good animated film.

  2. Pep #
    2

    great flick!



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