Batman: Mask of the Phantasm [retro review]

“Such rot, sir! Why, you’re the very model of sanity. Oh, by the way, I pressed your tights and put away your exploding gas balls.”

The Scoop: 1993 PG, directed by Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm and starring the voices of Kevin Conroy, Dana Delany and Mark Hamill

Tagline: The Dark Knight fights to save Gotham City from its deadliest enemy

Summary Capsule: A new vigilante is slaying mobsters, with Batman taking the blame… and he’s not happy. But when an old flame reenters Bruce Wayne’s life, will there even still be a Batman?

Drew’s Rating: The reason Batman Begins is only the best live-action Batman movie…

Drew’s Review: Most of you reading this probably remember the Batman cartoon that aired on Fox back in the ’90s. What you may or may not know is that in many (nerd) circles, it’s considered the definitive Batman, the most iconic representation of the character… well, ever. As a nerd who’s read one hell of a lot of Batman stories over the years, I have to agree — the show’s producers did an outstanding job of weeding through the character’s 55-odd years of publication, showing neither slavish devotion nor disregard for the comic book source material. They simply kept all of the stuff that worked, added a fair amount to it, and junked the rest, exactly the right approach to take.

Which leads us to Mask of the Phantasm, a film spinning out of the animated series and by the same creative team. That kind of talent at the helm fosters high expectations, and fortunately, Phantasm lives up to them in nearly every way. It sees a new vigilante coming to Gotham, doling out lethal justice to local mobsters. But the Phantasm’s cloaked appearance and Batman’s presence at crime scenes lead police to the wrong conclusions, and soon the manhunt is on for the Caped Crusader. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne’s ex-fiancee Andrea Beaumont arrives back in town. The only woman to ever make him consider abandoning his war on criminals, Andrea’s return sparks flashbacks to happier, simpler times, before Bruce’s obsession for vengeance had fully consumed his life. But will the two lovers reconcile, can Batman stop the Phantasm’s rampage, and where does the Joker fit in? Only one way to find out…

There are a lot of things that make Phantasm work, but one of the most critical is that it doesn’t tone itself down to be a traditional “kids’ movie.” The producers know full well that the best Batman stories are at their core tragedies, and to downplay that in favor of happy endings or snappy quips is to rob the story of its gravitas… so they don’t. Make no mistake, this is weighty stuff. How many cartoons show the protagonist on his knees at his parents’ gravesite in a raging thunderstorm, wracked with guilt and begging to be freed of his vow, to be allowed a simple chance at happiness? Even the scenery plays along — a flashback shows Bruce and Andrea enjoying Gotham’s shiny, ultra-modern World’s Fair, while a present-day confrontation between Batman, the Joker, and the Phantasm plays out in the rundown, dilapidated fairgrounds, as if to reflect the darkness that has since consumed Bruce Wayne.

Of course, many other elements contribute toward making a great Batman story, and Phantasmhas them in abundance. Batman himself, not an actor in tights spouting cheesy lines at slumming guest stars, but a brooding, gothic figure of justice. A love interest, quirky and intelligent, and unpredictable enough to keep Bruce Wayne on his toes. Alfred, pulling double duty as an impeccably-mannered British butler, but also a surrogate father. Batman on the wrong side of the law, battling police officers with Jim Gordon his only ally. A genuine mystery, complete with secret revelations, misdirection, and real detective work on the part of Batman. And of course the Joker, large as life and twice as manic, tossing out quips and merrily cackling his way through wholesale mayhem.

As for the technical elements, the animation is solid (if a bit dated) and flows smoothly, though the film showcases some noticeable scratches and dust. The music is used wonderfully to evoke mood, but where things really shine is in the voice acting. The Batman animated series had one of the most talented vocal casts in cartoon history, and that continues here. Viewers of Batman Begins might have noticed that Christian Bale uses a different voice as Bruce Wayne and Batman, but that tradition was begun by Kevin Conroy, in my mind THE definitive voice of Batman. But even Conroy finds it hard to top the inestimable Mark Hamill as the Joker. Yes, Hamill will always be best known as Luke Skywalker, and rightly so; but his branching out into voice acting was not only a wise career move but a windfall for those who’ve thrilled to his chilling cackles as the Joker over the years, and his ability to switch from uproariously amused to coldly psychotic with the flip of a switch.

Throughout this review, I’ve compared Phantasm to Batman Begins more than once, and for good reason: they contain many of the same thematic and storytelling elements. What gives Phantasm the slight edge in my mind is the versatility of animation over live action. No matter how big your budget, there will always be things you just can’t do in a live action movie, while animation has no such restrictions. Combine that with spectacular acting and a deep, emotional script and you’ve got required viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in Batman.

"It looks good on the rack, but I *am* going to want to try it on first."

Intermission!

  • The Phantasm is never referred to by name throughout the movie.
  • Two leads Batman investigates are O’Neil Funding Corporation and Adams Tool & Die. Writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams became famous for reinventing Batman in the late ’60s, taking him away from his sci-fi ’50s and campy early ’60s adventures and back to his darker roots.
  • Phantasm was originally planned as a direct-to-video movie, but in mid-production Warner executives decided to release it to theaters. This left the producers less than a year to adjust for a theatrical release, and the movie’s marketing suffered accordingly. It ran for only a couple of weeks in most theaters and performed poorly at the box office, but was rediscovered on video and became a rather profitable cult classic.
  • The movie is loosely based on Year Two, a comic story in which the Reaper, a murderous vigilante from Gotham’s past, returns to continue slaughtering criminals, setting him against the “no killing, ever” Batman. At the same time, Bruce Wayne’s new love interest Rachel Caspian makes him consider retiring the cowl for good.
  • Dana Delany, who voices Andrea Beaumont, would go on to play Lois Lane on Superman: The Animated Series. So in a sense, Batman and Superman have dated the same woman.
  • Freed from TV network restrictions, Phantasm‘s producers took the opportunity to show people actually dying. Likewise, the Joker both gets kneed in the balls and loses a tooth to one of Batman’s kicks.
  • Tia Carrera sings “I Never Even Told You” over the end credits. The opening credits feature operatic voices singing in what sounds like another language, but they’re actually just chanting the design team’s names backwards. Heh.

Groovy Quotes

Alfred: Such rot, sir! Why, you’re the very model of sanity. Oh, by the way, I pressed your tights and put away your exploding gas balls.

Bimbo #1: Oh come on, Bruce, all alone in this big mansion… haven’t you ever thought about marriage, even once?
Bimbo #2: Oh, never say the “M” word in front of Bruce. It makes him nervous!
Bimbo #3: What about the “I” word?
Bruce: The “I” word?
Bimbo #3: Engagement!

Andrea: It’s been three days since we met and still no calls… I figured you must be dead or something.
Bruce: You expect every guy you meet to call you up?
Andrea: The ones that are smart enough to dial a phone.

[At his parents’ gravesite]
Bruce: It doesn’t mean I don’t care anymore. I don’t want to let you down, honest, but… but it just doesn’t hurt so bad anymore. You can understand that, can’t you? Look, I can give money to the city, they can hire more cops, let someone else take the risk… it’s different now! 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. Please… tell me that it’s okay.

Batman: You think you know everything about me, don’t you?
Alfred: I diapered your bottom, I bloody well ought to, sir!

Joker: Oh Sal, why so formal? Mi casa nostra es su casa nostra!

Batman: You still following your dad’s orders?
Andrea: The way I see it, the only one in this room controlled by his parents is you.

Joker: Whoops! Guess the joke’s on me — you’re not Batman after all! Looks like there’s a new face in Gotham, and soon his name will be all over town… to say nothing of his legs, and feet, and spleen, and head…

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Batman Begins
  • Batman: Year One
  • The Crow
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8 Comments

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