Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Movie review: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

O.G. readers of this blog might remember me blogging about Batman: The Animated Series over a year ago. I said at the time that I would eventually review Batman: Mask of the Phantasm - the feature film that was based on the series. Well, that day has finally come.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. I’ve already reviewed this movie twice previously. The first time around was all the way back in 1994 when I posted movie reviews on a newsgroup bulletin board (which is still archived on the Internet Movie Database to this day here). The second time was much more recent; in November of 2013 I did a vlog review with Robert Walker (he’s the brother of Doug Walker aka “The Nostalgia Critic” and he co-writes nearly all the material). I think Rob and I did a very thorough job of analyzing, critiquing and reminiscing on the film, which you can watch here:
So there isn’t anything more I can say to “review” this film that I haven’t already said. But in the spirit of these Batman movie reviews I’ve been posting thus far, I would like to list the Top 10 Reasons Why Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is Awesome!

hqdefault#10 The opening

Actually, this opening has always kind of baffled me. It’s just a slow fly-through of Gotham City (in reverse) while some ominous music plays. I’m pretty sure it’s Russian, but I have no idea what the lyrics are or why in the world the movie makers decided to use this to open the film. So, it definitely is strange; however, it gives me chills every time I hear it. This is a cartoon superhero movie after all, so the fact they would take this route – which would seem to foreshadow something serious – leads me to believe the film is intended to be somewhat earnest… or at least not just another silly tights-n-fights adventure.

NOTE: I’m pretty sure this is the same song used at the beginning of The Hunt For Red October.

#9 It was released in theaters

I actually remember seeing this at Crossgates Mall shortly before Christmas of 1993. I was in 12th grade at the time and I was, of course, a big fan of B:TAS. I saw it with my friend Matt who was also big into comics and the show. I remember us leaving the theater raving about how impressed we were.

I would’ve been satisfied with a direct-to-video movie, but the fact this was intended for a theatrical release always amazed me. Taking that route indicated that the studio really believed in the movie. It also meant the animation was larger in scope at the 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Or maybe it was just the fun of seeing it on a big screen in a darkened theater. That’s something that not even today’s home technology can completely emulate.

Batman Mask of the Phantasm Bruce holding Andrea#8 A romantic subplot that’s not silly

Romance is not something you tend to associate with Batman, superheroes or animation in general. Sure, Superman has Lois Lane, Peter Parker has Mary Jane, etcetera, but you never really see those relationships truly develop. It’s just taken for granted that the characters are a couple and that’s all that’s necessary (except for maybe meet-cute moments and/or anything that’s done for jokes and gags). In this film we see Bruce Wayne have a truly romantic relationship with Andrea Beaumont over a significant amount of time (first, in his pre-Batman days and then in the present). He even considers hanging up the cape and cowl because, as he tells his parents at their grave, “I never counted on being happy.”

I will, however, give the film a demerit for making Andrea the villain all along. It would’ve been much more interesting and dynamic if her father had been the “Phantasm.” Imagine the emotional toil of having to fight the father of the woman you love.

Also, it’s nice to see someone other than Catwoman as a romantic interest for once (though they have essentially the same hero/villain relationship, so who knows).

0054981_43706_MC_Tx360#7 Flashbacks that actually further the plot

Rob and I discussed this at some length in our vlog, so watch that for more detail. But just to quickly recap: when most movies use flashbacks they tend to be arbitrary, or focus on a specific detail. In this film, it not only furthers the story, but develops the characters as well. Compare the use of the flashbacks here with Batman Begins and you’ll see this film actually uses the technique better.

batman-mask-of-the-phantasm#6 It was never marketed as Batman vs. The Joker

I’d imagine that when this film was being made, the temptation to market it as a “Batman vs. The Joker adventure” was very strong. After all, The Joker is an easily recognizable character; put the two of them on a movie poster and you’ll probably sell more tickets. You have to give the producers credit for not taking the easy route on that one, additionally…

#5 The Joker can be used as a secondary character

intaragationAs I said in my blog about B:TAS, the episodes with The Joker (and Harley Quinn) were usually the most fun to watch. It’s clear this iteration of the character was heavily inspired by Jack Nicholson’s character in the 1989 Batman movie. The Joker plays second fiddle to no one… except here. Though the main plot revolves around the assassination of the gangsters by the “Angel of Death,” it’s The Joker who actually determines the resolution of the conflict. When I first saw this movie I was genuinely surprised when he appeared; it did not seem forced. His presence does give the film some comic relief, but it also keeps with the dark tone as this Joker is much more twisted and violent than he is in the animated series. He actually does kill people, and probably accounts for the film’s PG rating (rather than the squeaky-clean G rating).

#4 It looks and sounds great

This comes as no surprise since B:TAS always looked and sounded great for a cartoon show, but somehow B:MOTP looked and sounded even better! This is likely due to the fact it was a feature film, so it was probably given special treatment and higher priority than the series. It’s a shame this film hasn’t been given the Blu-Ray treatment yet, but if and when it does I will definitely be buying a copy.

#3 The action sequences are so much fun

It’s just a given that a superhero movie will contain a lot of action, but so often the sequences are arbitrary relative to the story or contain such over-the-top, ridiculous events that they come across as silly rather than thrilling. Not that this movie is 100% completely realistic, but all the thrills, chills and spills are genuinely fun and exciting to watch and they hold up every time.
My only complaint would be that Batman never actually throws down with the Phantasm. Considering how merciless and powerful that villain had been, it would’ve been an epic battle to say the least.

#2 “This madness ends NOW!”

Best line in the movie. It almost chokes me up every time I hear it. Maybe it’s corny to some, but to me it’s always been awesome.

NOTE: I’ve always thought the “I am darkness, I am the night, I am Batman!” from the animated series was rather silly, but that’s a line that moves certain viewers. This is my equivalent of that moment.

#1 The faithfulness to the comics

1387214412_reaper

Batman_Full_CircleAs I said in my reviews of the Tim Burton Batman movies, I don’t “penalize” a movie for not being an exact replica of the comics. But when comic book movies do stay faithful to the source material, well, that’s usually a good thing. In the case of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, not only does it keep in the spirit of the comics, it does so using both a beloved storyline and an obscure reference. First and foremost: Frank Miller’s Year One story arc in which the origin of Batman is updated for modern times (there’s just too many similarities to list). Secondly, the Phantasm or “Angel of Death” character is clearly based on the “Reaper” character from Batman: Year Two as well as its overlooked follow-up Full Circle. I remember the first time I saw this movie, my friend and I were geeking out because we noticed the parallels and were impressed they were able to adapt them to fit in the context of this movie.
 
I think this goes to show the difference between live action and animated Batman films as a whole. The live action movies are made by Hollywood; they’re produced by people who have little to no interest in the comics – they just want to make a movie that will make a lot of money. In the case of the animated films, they are movies intended for comic book fans because they’re made by comic book fans. You don’t have to be familiar with the source material to follow the story, but if you are a fan you’ll see subtle details and references intended just for you. That’s probably why this movie is one of my personal favorites.

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