Monday, July 14, 2008


“Your Angel of Death awaits!” it says, floating ominously out of the fog. It’s like being in a nightmare, chased by a relentless force that seems to operate on an inhuman level. Bargaining and pleading aren’t an option, and escape is highly improbable. Its charcoal grey cloak sweeps majestically behind it, while a bladed gauntlet points perilously in your direction. An eye for an eye, it declares. It’s glowering, triangular, white eyes are the soul and mystery of Batman’s first major animated theatrical feature, a moody gothic journey into a Gotham we’ve only ever dreamed of seeing realized. It calls itself the Phantasm, the film is called Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm, and this is 7 Days Of The Bat – Day 3.

It’s amusing in retrospect to realize that, despite the many film and television adaptation of Batman prior to 1992, there had never been a proper translation of the Batman mythos outside of the colored panels. Sure, the Tim Burton films, serials, and Adam West series had gotten certain aspects correct, but none had accurately portrayed Batman, the Dark Knight... The World’s Greatest Detective. This streak ended in 1992, when producer/writers Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, and Bruce W. Timm, along with a gaggle of other talents, foisted Batman: The Animated Series onto the unsuspecting public. An immediate hit, due largely to the popularity of the Keaton Bat-films, Animated Series kept a fair deal of the dark beauty and foreboding menace of the films, but also dug deeper into what Gotham City (in brilliant art-deco design) and Batman really should be.

Gone was the neurotic, awkward Bruce Wayne, now replaced by a charming, square-jawed playboy (Voiced expertly by Kevin Conroy). Also kicked to the curb was the emphasis on colorful villains over the title character. This is BATMAN, dammit, not KILLER CROC! Arguably the greatest change, however, was the weight given to Batman’s relationship with Commissioner Jim Gordon (Bob Hastings). Oh, and Batman actually used detective skills now! The success of the afternoon show led to the creation of a theatrical feature in 1993, the film we are discussing and it ranks near the top of the Bat-canon.

Telling a deceptively simple story that blends a star-crossed love affair with a mystery tale centered around a series of brutal gangland murders by the shadowy title character, Mask Of The Phantasm makes the most of its source’s rich history. We get to delve deep into the heart of why Batman is, arguably, the richest (No pun intended) comic-book creation of all time. Rewatch the scene when Bruce Wayne, distraught and desperate, falls to his knees in front of his parents’ grave pleading for a normal life with lady-love Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delaney), free of revenge and vengeance. It’s moving and tragic, and yet also frightening as we truly get a glimpse into Bruce’s psychosis. He is a good but disturbed man who needs help, not a weird recluse with a rubber and violence fetish. The loss is so much stronger here, where Wayne has a great deal going for him, and so much to lose. He hurts because he is irreparably damaged, and, I sense, because he knows he’ll never find peace. Heavy stuff for a kid’s flick...

The contrasting of this nobler Wayne with the adventurous, beautiful Andrea is a major triumph for the production. She is his perfect mate, and yet fate is against them both. He has winged rodent problems, but her troubles are equally tragic. Her father, a good man involved with the mob, is in serious trouble. Before long they’ll have even more in common than they’d think. And could there be some link between her plight and the mysterious Phantasm?

Tossed into the mix, a frenetic time-bomb of hyper-active insanity, is Mark Hamill’s awesome take on The Joker. Lacking the disturbed gentleman artist shadings of Batman, this Joker is a flat-out nightmare, and far more frightening than the Phantasm. There are two moments in Mask Of The Phantasm that dead-on exemplify exactly what the Joker’s true nature is. The first scene, a struggle with Batman in which he is being strangled over a table, and his hand reaches out, with the option to grab either a butcher knife or a bologna sausage, chooses the sausage and smacks the Caped Crusader across the face. This is a perfect example of the Joker’s twisted humor, where joy is best derived from pain drawn through “hilarious” means. The other moment, and it’s a showstopper, is when he is finally captured and being taken to his death by the Phantasm. His hideout, the old Gotham World’s Fairground, erupts in fames around him, and the Phantasm has him down on his knees, ready to end his life, and he can’t stop laughing. So he laughs, and laughs and... Laughs. Louder and louder, his insanity manifesting itself in a brilliant display of horrific glee. Psychotic derangement has never been so compelling.

The bravura final Joker battle aside, in terms of spectacle, Mask Of The Phantasm, sure doesn’t disappoint. There’s a great truck chase with Batman tossed to and fro, before laying out the misbehaving driver. As well, a scene featuring the dispatch of a gang of toughs ends with a thrilling slow-motion takedown. Perhaps the greatest moment, while not an action beat, is the corrupted city Councilman Arthur Reeves’s exit. A victim of Joker’s depraved poison experiments, it begins in giggles and snorts, before erupting in a crescendo of screaming maniacal laughter, with a look of terrified desperation in his eyes. It’s easily far more disturbing than a similar scene in Burton’s Batman, and possibly the highlight of the entire film.

And that is quite a feat, considering that the whole shebang is presided over by a hooded Grim Reaper with a Jason Voorhees-like Mask. The Phantasm, whose scenes seem inspired by the great Universal horror films, is more of a force than a character. There isn’t any witty banter or conversation. It’s mostly silent, deadly and determined. Only at the conclusion, when the character’s identity is revealed, is any dimension added to this portentous antagonist.

Watching the Mask Of The Phantasm reminds us of the best Batman stories, the ones that walked the fine line between gripping and nightmarish. Its unfortunate the film is so brief (76 minutes with credits), as it robs the movie of the epic sweep it so deserves. With that said, it’s a uniformly strong effort that is a something of a buried gem. I can’t recommend enough that Bat-fans who haven’t seen it seek it out. It’s a riveting journey through the world of the Dark Knight, and superior to all the straight-to-video animated follow-ups (Although Subzero is well worth a look as well). One has to wonder if Christopher Nolan was taking notes here when he was beginning the early stages of scripting and designing Batman Begins as, like that film, Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm understands what it’s like inside the cowl... As well as outside.

Best Batman Dispatch
The Showstopper: The slow-mo blow that dismounts a biker thug from his ride.
The Throwaway: Crunching a homicidal mobster under a heavy table.

Best Villain Dispatch:
-Councilman Arthur Reeve’s cackling departure.
-Bronski’s graveyard goodbye courtesy of the Phantasm.

Best Batman/Bruce Wayne Lines:
“This madness ends NOW!”
“Is my shirt too big, or is that my flesh crawling?”

Best Villain Lines:
“Sal Valestra, your Angel of Death awaits...” – The Phantasm
“That's it. That's what I want to see, a nice big smile.” – Joker
“What a photo op: The city councilman and his wacky pal!” – Joker
“You can’t be too careful with all these weirdos around!” – Joker

Bonus Hall-Of-Fame Quote:
“Why you're the very model of sanity. Oh by the way, I pressed your tights and put away your exploding gas balls.” – Alfred

Best Iconic Bat-shot:
Batman’s silhouetted cowl upon Thomas and Martha Wayne’s tombstone.

-Joker’s jetpack is the exact same model as James Bond’s in Thunderball.
-The names “O’Neil” and “Adams” names are mentioned – Tributes to the great Batman writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neil Adams.
-Batman and Joker’s World’s Fair tussle includes a cheeky tribute to classic Godzilla films.
-A Warner Bros. logo is seen in the World’s Fair’s city model.
-When the Joker shoots the robots in the "World's Fair", the sound of them winding down is the sound of the Millennium Falcon winding down from The Empire Strikes Back.
-Bruce and Andrea’s martial arts love scene is a nod to the James Bond/Pussy Galore romantic tussle in Goldfinger.

Worst Moment:
Actress Tia Carrere’s cheese-tastic closing credit number “I Never Even Told You”.

Success As A Batman Film:
5 out of 5

Success As A Film:
4 out of 5

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