Monday, April 26, 2010

Movie Monday - Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, 1993

Yeah, I know. More Batman.

Actually, while I was in the thick of the Batman series a few weeks ago, Sargon the Terrible mentioned this one other Batman theatrical feature I had skipped. I blew it off at the time because number one, I only had this movie on VHS, and number two, it's part of the vast DC/Warner animated universe that I couldn't do any justice to in a single post, and number three, well, I was already up to my neck in Batman and didn't want to get any deeper in the weeds.

But Sargon had the DVD, and I've had a few weeks away from Batman movies (though not from Batman, if you've been reading Out of the Vault on Saturdays) , so here goes--"Batman:Mask of the Phantasm."

The movie was an outgrowth of the Batman animated series produced by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski. The series was immediately embraced by fans because of its darker, more mature feel, truer to the character than either the sunny Hanna-Barbera Super Friends-style Batman cartoons of earlier generations or Burton's dramatic, but odd interpretations. The animated Batman had all of moodiness of Burton's films without the weirdness. Timm and Radomski's Batman was a modern-day noir hero, Sam Spade with a cape.

The movie opens with a typical shot of Gotham City. One of the innovations used to enhance the moody feel of the series was to airbrush the backgrounds on black paper, giving everything a dark, gritty feel.

Some crooks are meeting to discuss the distribution of counterfeit bills, when Batman swoops in to break up the meeting.

You can see that though the animated series took a lot of inspiration from Burton's Batman, they still stuck with the classic comic book version of the tights, rather than the movie's body armor approach to the costume. There's a fight and gangster Chuckie Sol flees. But in the parking garage, Sol runs into this mysterious apparition.

And here you see the real secret to the success of Timm and Radomski. They were thieves. They stole shamelessly, from everywhere. For instance, compare the Phantasm above with the Reaper, from the comic book storyline Batman: Year Two, below.

Okay, you say, so they took inspiration for this storyline from the comic of the main character. That's not exactly stealing. Dude, we haven't even gotten started yet.

So the Phantasm kills Chuckie Sol (though in true kid-movie style, the "murder" of Sol turns out to be more like "avoids being killed by Sol, whose murder attempt backfires and kills himself instead"), and witnesses think Batman did it.

But before Batman can track down the mysterious phantom killer, old flame Andrea Beaumont shows up in town.

Andrea was a girl that Bruce fell for back in his pre-Batman days, leading to a sequence that helped answer a question that's been nagging at me for a while. When I was writing up Batman: Year One, I mentioned how the scene in "Batman Begins," where Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne wears a ski mask in his first outing, was inspired by the comic. But the pictures didn't really back up my assertion, and I couldn't figure out what had brought me to make that linkage.

That's because I had forgotten that "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" filled in the missing links. In the movie, Bruce Wayne's first battle with criminals starts with him in a stocking cap, just like Year One...

But then he pulls it down to form a ski mask as in "Batman Begins."

Though he eventually wins the altercation (after an action sequence that steals from such sources as "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark"), the crooks aren't very impressed. "They weren't afraid of me," Bruce growls later. "I've gotta' strike fear into them from the start."

Which will eventually lead to the creation of the Batman. But first, Bruce falls in love with Andrea, taking her to the Gotham World's Fair (which looks an awful lot like the 1939 World's Fair in New York City) before getting into an altercation with some street thugs on motorcycles, which leads to this stunt...

stolen quite shamelessly from a certain other influential animated film...

In the modern day, the mysterious Phantasm continues to kill off criminals, and we learn through flashbacks that the gangsters were all affiliated with Andrea's father.

Leading the film to take a rather sharp turn halfway through, as we learn that the sharp-nosed young thug in the upper right of the photo above grew up to become this guy...

Possibly the best all-around interpretation of the Joker on screen, ever (not speaking necessarily of this particular film, just the animated series version of the Joker in general). Between the sharp writing and Hamill's voice work, we're given a character who manages to walk the line between loony and genuinely frightening, making for a memorably entertaining murderer. Ledger's Joker was a work of art, but in some ways, you could argue that he was almost a brand new character in a familiar costume, while the cartoon Joker manages to capture the best versions of the comics character and bring them to life.

As the Joker is killing off the last of the gangsters and seeking to lure the Phantasm into a trap, the police continue to hunt down the Batman, in a scene that seems suspiciously reminiscent of a certain other confrontation in a certain Miller comic.

Oh yeah, and you can't have a comic book adaptation nowadays without the obligatory shout-out to the comics creators...

Anyway, it all leads to a final confrontation between Batman, the Phantasm, and the Joker that is downright operatic in its combination of over-the-top emotion and fiery destruction. Oh, and in a lot of ways, it steals shamelessly from "Batman Returns," (released the year before this film came out) what with the exploding park and the woman Bruce loves who seemingly dies while exacting vengeance, leaving Batman broken-hearted while barely escaping with his life.

And yeah, I'm being a bit tongue-in-cheek about the thievery bit. All creative people steal, or take inspiration from, the things they like. I haven't even mentioned the scene stolen straight from the Bible. What made the animated Batman so successful was that it wasn't just a regurgitation of stale tropes from here and everywhere. The makers of the series stole a lot, from everywhere, but they gave everything their own spin and made their work into its own coherent whole. It can be argued that "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" was the best big-screen adaptation of the character ever, at least before "Batman Begins" (and some who bear no love for Nolan's film might even end the sentence before the qualifier).

I don't know if I'd go that far. While the film is pretty well-written, with a sophisticated noirish mystery plot that spans years, the animation ranges from passable to crude. The budget was limited (it was originally supposed to be a simple direct-to-video release, actually), with bits of the animation being farmed out to different studios, and the schedule appears to have been pretty tight. The animation is nowhere near as smooth and dynamic as, say, your usual Disney feature or the best Japanese releases. I'd love to see the guys with the dramatic chops of folks like Timm and Dini get hooked up with a really big budget and a studio with Disney's animation expertise.

Then again, I sort of did once. It was called "The Incredibles." But that's a completely different subject.

No comments: