Monday, April 16, 2012

"Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" (Bruce W. Timm and 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 Characters 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 James Gordon (voice)
Robert Costanzo ... Detective Harvey Bullock (voice)
Marilu Henner ... Veronica Vreeland (voice)

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.


Following the release of 1992’s “Batman Returns,” parents were outraged (unfairly) over the tone of the film 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.

Only this time, it was in ink and paint form.

“Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” plays like a classic noir, weaving a story of murder, mystery and romance that not only demands its audience get swept up in the intrigue. It outright forces it. Much like “Batman: The Animated Series,” “Mask” doesn’t fall prey to the fact that it’s animated and the filmmakers rightfully treat the material with the proper respect, thusly 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 begins a brutal murder spree, slaughtering mob bosses. Cloaked in black with criminals as targets, this mystery figure leads the public, spurred on by ambitious city councilman Arthur Reeves, to view the Batman as a prime suspect.

Hounded by the police as he tries to unravel the identity of the enigmatic crusader, Bruce Wayne’s priorities are 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 (the psychological reckoning of "Batman Forever" notwithstanding), a vigilante who had already perfected his craft.

Like “Begins,” “Mask of the Phantasm” takes its inspirations from Frank Miller’s 'Batman: Year One;' a four issue story arc-turned-graphic novel which depicted Batman’s fledgling year. Whilst Year One was a far grittier and nastier take on Batman’s debut into crime fighting, its influence can be felt in the way Bruce Wayne interacts with the memory of his parents and criminals in the picture.
Whereas earlier films would show Bruce Wayne being driven on to his crusade by his parents' murder, “Mask of the Phantasm” created a beautifully poetic notion that Bruce’s mission was in servitude to them. Certainly his desperate pleas for another option when he finds happiness suggest that this 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 core history and spirit of the main character isn’t broken by any means, but it’s bent and contorted in a way that adds a wrinkle of luster to the mythos.


The fact 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’ve 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.
I love the timelessness of "Phantasm" and it's even more so than "The Animated Series."

What I mean is that the film takes great care not to inform us when it's occuring within the timeline of the show. We don't know how many of Batman's villains have appeared in Gotham or are currently incarcerated at Arkham Asylum. Robin is nowhere to be found. In the end it's all for the better, creating a mood and tone of simplicity that chooses to provide a dynamic and self-contained story uncompromised by the pressures of series contiunity. Later on, fragments from "Phantasm" would tie back into the continuation of the DC Animated Universe with "The New Batman Adventures" and specifically "Justice League: Unlimited."

What makes the earlier scenes of the film 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.
For a character created by pencil drawings on paper, there's incredible emotional range and depth going on here and Conroy is the key to it all.

I especially love the scene where he confronts the grave of his parents, pleaing that he be relinquished of the oath he'd sworn himself to. There's conviction and genuine sadness in his tone of voice that's immediately striking.


"I know I made a promise. But I didn't see this coming. I didn't count on being happy."

This of course ties into the fan-favorite moment for a lot of viewers as Bruce's chances for happiness are supposedly shattered with Andrea's refusal to marry him.

The animation for this iconic sequence is just spectacularly somber and iconic without uttering a single word, much like the opening to the series. That singular, defining moment when Bruce stares into the cowl...the symbol that changes his life so impactful, so powerful and yet it only lasts the span of two to three seconds.
Some of the most operatic two to three seconds I have EVER witnessed.
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. Delany would go on to greater heights within the DC Animated Universe by providing the voice of Lois Lane on "Superman: The Animated Series."

Each actor and actress has a wonderful textual quality to their voice and it’s truly no wonder that, between DC and Marvel, the former is afforded the best casts for animation pieces.


The stand out supporting performer obviously proves to be Mark Hamill and his instantly recognizable interpretation of the Joker. Despite being best known for his heroic turn as Jedi 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 of 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, with the help of some truly fantastic scripts, created a Joker that was a balanced blend of the comical clown and the crazed killer. The reigns had to be pulled back on the character for broadcasting purposes, but I think that actually worked wonders for Hamill's portrayal. Sometimes just killing someone isn't theatrical or menacing in and of itself.


The scene where Joker poisons Arthur Reeves is a prime example of this.

We're not watching him shoot the man pointe-blank. Instead, the challenge of not being able to go that far forces the filmmakers to get think outside the box and find a way to depict the Joker as a terrifying threat without crossing that line.

So they paint him and Reeves in silhouette as they struggle; it's apparent that Joker's sticking him with something as Shirley Walker's score plays up the terror with a chilling piano motif. We cut to a close up of the Joker's smile as his laughter swells, eventually morphing into the laughter of Reeves himself as he finally realize he's been drugged with Joker Toxin and admitted to the hospital.

To this day, I find that exquisitely frightening and, in a lot of ways, a fate even worse than just being killed on the spot.

Perfectly capturing the Jokers 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.

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 whilst 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, we're done one better as the Joker is actually embroiled in the narrative as a small cog in the machine of the plot, playing a pivotal role as a member of Valestra's gang and the catalyst to Andrea's descent into vengeance.


The other title character of the piece, the Phantasm, is presented as a great foe for Batman and even though the wind is taken out of those sails as the context of the plot and motivation is revealed, the character still presents a terrific image.

Right out of horror and pulp mystique, like Batman himself, the Phantasm is a character I found genuinely frightening and threatening when I was a kid, especially early on in the movie when you aren't sure what the end game is. In hindsight now, I think it's safe to assume that the Phantasm persona was conceived and created with no agenda to frame Batman and therefore that being the case is serendipitous.

Visually, Phantasm always struck me with that stylized death mask and especially the weapon of choice with that hand-held miniature scythe; it's clear that the character was somewhat inspired by the Reaper from "Batman: Year Two" and I welcome the homage. I also loved that they gave the character a now-iconic tagline to declare for each of the victims. Very impending, VERY creepy.


"Your angel of death awaits."

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 perhaps wrapped up just a little too tightly, right down to having the final climatic showdown occur in the very same 'World of Tomorrow' museum and exhibit that Bruce and Andrea once 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 it makes everything seem a little trite and ever so slightly laid on thick.


But it really is a minor criticism and the museum itself provides a fantastic visual backdrop for one of Batman’s most explosive encounters with the Joker. It's a wonderfully ironic tip of the hat to early Bill Finger stories to have Batman and Joker dueling in a minaturized city.

Finger popularized the motif of Batman and his rogues fighting amongst giant over-sized props like typewriters that were, as you could imagine, on display in some world's fair. To have that idea be switched around to where the characters were larger than life was a clever play on the idea and great visual to represent the fact that even though these two men are just men, their waring philosophies loom like giants over Gotham, fighting for the soul of the city itself.

With Jetpacks, robotic knife wielding housewives, toy biplanes and their fistfight within a miniature city thrown into the mix, the final ten minutes is a suitably cathartic climax to a film that had avoided the usual Batman super heroics by in large until that point. So by the time we finally get to Batman and the Joker’s brawl, we’re hungry for it.

But that’s not to say the film is completely without action.

The flashback where Bruce tries his hand as a vigilante is excellent, especially the ending with his interactions with the eighteen wheeler; that shot where he's holding onto the grill as the truck tips onto its side is incredible.


There's a great bit in flashback as Bruce fights out a band of motorcycle riding goons and I especially love the moment where Bruce accesses the situation and runs head on into the oncoming motorcycle, leaping and punching the cyclist.

Of course he's torn between his desire to fight crime and his love for Andrea and that distracts him; it's a clever moment to have that occur and to create a scene that physically manifests Bruce's dilemma.

And then there's also the wonderful chase scene between Batman and the Police during the 2nd act, which is just so dynamic in its staging and pacing.

With an insatiably moody 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 and beloved.


“Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” is truly one of the greatest works of love made in the name of the Caped Crusader for the silver screen. Fleshed characters enact their feelings of loss and vengeance across a landscape of concrete and blackness without any real sense of camp yet never manages to lose its main star’s sense of honor and principle in the abyss. “Mask of the” Phantasm” is a worthy and welcome addition to the Batman lexicon.


If you can rightfully look past the fact that it’s animated (although I think it should be appreciated BECAUSE of its art style), the film is a compelling drama that will suck you in with its emotional story and developed take on the characters.

It might be more arguable with the live action film series, but there's no denying that "Mask of the Phantasm" is easily one of the greatest Batman movies of all time.




Chas Blankenship's Bat-Mania 2012 is Proud to Present the Making of "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" :

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