Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Gorgeous. When was Batman art like this?

4 stars out of 4. As of yet the definitive Batman on film.

Please! I need it to be different now. I know I made a promise, but I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t count on being happy.”

These words pour from the soul as a painful confession by Bruce Wayne kneeling before his parents’ tombstone in a moment of absolute despair. He has been presented with a never before glimpsed chance of happiness and it has become a torment to his vengeful spirit.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: “a 76 minute animated movie? How can this be a Batman film? How can it display realized drama and scope?” It does still feature numerous issues from it’s original direct-to-video format, but as an experience this is the truest representation of The Batman in cinema.

Often overlooked as an extended episode of the brilliant-beyond-description animated series, Mask of the Phantasm is told in the form of a classical noir, relying heavily on the use of extended flashbacks and deep rooted character perils. This alone sets it apart from all other Batman films for this is a bold departure from the accepted format. Th e entire film has a overtone of tragedy and loss and this was intended for children. Imagine what they could have done with a full scale motion picture.

The acting utilizes the cast from the series with a few additions. This means of course that Kevin Conroy is Batman and Mark Hamill is the Joker. Notice that I use the word “is” instead of “portrays”. These two actors so embody the characters that they literally are Batman and The Joker. They’ve done it for so long by this point in time (20 years now) that they could play these two in their sleep, but never can any of the live-action actors come close to showcasing these vocal powerhouses. Conroy has always been able to present the Bruce/Batman dynamic and like the actual comic character is able to slip in and out of both at a moment’s notice. His Bruce is a tortured crusader who must present a slightly clumsy and absent-minded mask to the public. Yet inside that head you can feel the power of the world’s greatest detective. His Batman is iconic, and can aptly play all aspects of the Batman character right down to Bats’ sense of humor.

Just as there are two sides of Bruce/Batman, there are two sides of the Joker. One is the comic clown as seen in the comics of the 50’s and Caesar Romero’s TV series Joker, and the other is a ingenious psychopath with a theatrical flair. Hardly is there ever a incarnation that incorporates both sides together as one individual who is both whimsically goofy and frightening. Hamill is the one actor who does this and is capable of taking dear old Mr. J in any direction possible. Story wise, Joker isn’t even the main villain and is only incorporated into events because of previous Mob associations. But his chilly clowning adds a certain amount of sparkle in the gleaming toothy smile.

The main plot set in the present day sees a new masked figure appear in Gotham, known as the Phantasm. This individual begins bumping off old Mob heads with seemingly no given intent. Due to a cape and mask he is mistakenly identified as Batman, thus straining the relationship between vigilante and city and setting a police task force on the tails of the Bat. Batman begins an investigation into this mysterious new figure and begins detective work-Gasp! Batman actually being a detective on film? What is this tomfoolery?

“There appears to be some chemical residue on the lawn. Could match the traces on the glass. Not much, but it’s been that kind of day.”

Then MOTP resurrects a figure from Bruce’s past, the beautiful Andrea Beaumont, or the one that got away. Through a series of long and delicate flashbacks their relationship begins and blossoms against the backdrop of Bruce becoming the Batman. He begins to wrestle between this incredible new found possibility of happiness and his solemn vow of vengeance. This culminates in a confused rejection of both paths until he makes up his own mind. And then it is decided for him…and The Batman lives.

It is unfortunate that MOTP was always intended as a video release for children. In fact it was only at the late insistence of Warner Bros. that the film was pushed to theaters. This very late rush resulted in little publicity and a quick death at the box office. The main problem is that the 78 minute canvas is too constrictive for this story. The big plot reveal becomes too apparent too quickly because there is not enough room for more development. This is the film’s major flaw, but it is not one that can really be attributed to the filmmakers. They were attempting to tell a more adult Batman story in keeping with the comics but in a smaller animated video format. This considered, all of the right elements are in place to fully realize the dark and corrupt Gotham City

“I can read lips.”

Let’s get down to it. The design and look if MOTP is gorgeous. Even if it’s just the animated series on the big screen. The big upside to MOTP getting a theatrical release was being printed on 35mm and projected on mammoth screens to obliterate the small  rounded TV’s of the day. And Technicolor handled the printing process, giving colors and tones never before seen in the animated universe. There are deep orange hues during the flashbacks and skin tones that give this warm feeling amidst the black coldness of Gotham and the present. Even the animation choices show a remarkable camera intent, with animated cinematography that rivals the live-action films.

This was my first theatrical Batman experience (I was one of the ones lucky enough to see this on the big screen) and although I was only three at the time it was unbelievably powerful. It was shown in a darkened huge auditorium, THX certified and designed, that was both empty and quite chilly. A perfect environment for this as it felt like being in the Batcave. I don’t think my mom knew how adult MOTP was but it was a defining Batman moment for me. Never have I felt the same after any of the later films (though as a kid I cherished Forever for being different) and like Returns is a film I never want to end.

I wrote that “Batman Returns is a haunted dream come to life”. MOTP is a haunted noir dream. This is the heart and soul of The Dark Knight on film. It doesn’t matter that it’s animated, for in fantasy animation you can do far more than with live-action. In fact, I still fully believe that the only true comic book adaptations that work on every level and actively create and elevate the hero portrayed are the Batman animated series works and the Fleischer Superman theatrical cartoons. Mask of the Phantasm deserves to be better known and widely seen by all Bat-fans if only to remember just who Batman is.

I am vengeance. I am the night. I AM BATMAN!”

EDITIONS: MOTP was released theatrically framed at 1.85:1 with Dolby Stereo surround audio. It was almost immediately released on VHS and Laserdisc. The DVD release is an earlier WB one, on a flipper disc featuring the theatrical 1.85:1 and a fullscreen presentation on the flipside. Sound is the Dolby surround represented in standard DVD quality Dolby 2.0 surround. The image is overly grainy and noisy, evidence that this is literally the old video master ported to DVD. The full screen version actually appears to be open-matte providing more information on the top and bottom of the frame but losing a bit on the sides. Either presentation is worthy, but it was re-framed for 1.85 so this is the preferred image. (Though noticeably a bit too tightly framed on a few shots.)

This open-matte version was re-released packaged with Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero.

This film deserves a new release, preferably a special edition with features and commentary. With some of the other DC animated films leaking out into Blu-ray hopefully we can see a new HD scan of a interpositive in the near future.

If only this would happen!

1 Comment

Filed under 4 stars, Batman, Film Review

One response to “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

  1. jackjack

    With Batman we just can’t get anything better than “Returns” in terms of “live-action” and than “Phantasm” in terms of Cinema as a whole. This is a movie that fully devotes itself to the exploration of grief, false accusation, venegance, pain and I always find it astounding how boldy it turns away from (easily chosen) expansiveness in favor of rigidly holden introspection. What people got in “TDK” and “TDKR” they’ve already got it many years before in Timm’s/Radomski’s work: hiring Joker to kill the Bat, Bats responsible for a murder or two [TDK/TDKR], “my love looks for revenge for her daddy’s death” with TDKR… In Nolanverse this plot-points have nothing to do with coherence or understandable characterization, but in “MOTP” everything falls into place… It’s truly a miracle, that something like “Phantasm” was made under the studio system and being conscious of the decline of the american cinema, it’s safe to asume that this is the most compelling batman movie that will ever be made…

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