Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Phantasm’ll gore ya. “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.”

Directed by Eric Radomski, Bruce W. Timm; with additional sequences directed by Kevin Altieri, Boyd Kirkland, Frank Paur, Dan Riba. Screenplay by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, Michael Reaves; story by Alan Burnett; based upon characters created by Bob Kane and published by D.C. Comics. Produced by Benjamin Melniker. Music by Shirley Walker. Edited by Al Breitenbach. Starring the voices of Kevin Conroy, Dana Delany, Hart Bochner, Stacy Keach, Abe Vigoda, Dick Miller, John P. Ryan, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Bob Hastings, Robert Costanzo, Mark Hamill.

For many fans, the definitive filmed take on the Batman legend remains not Tim Burton’s gothic fantasy or Chris Nolan’s urban crime epic, but instead a little television show called Batman: The Animated Series, which aired on Fox (and later, The WB) from 1992-1995. The series, which drew heavily from the comics and were inspired (aesthetically) by the stunningly-animated Max Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940’s, were exceptional cartoons that transcended their afterschool kiddie-show positioning. They were smart, sophisticated, well-told stories about one of the most popular of comic book characters, delivered with care and affection by a talented team of artists that weren’t afraid to push the boundaries of television cartoons (in interviews, the creators now chuckle at stories of how, by animating their backgrounds on black paper, they approached the legal limit of visual darkness for television). And any Batman stories play with the trappings of film noir, but Phantasm just plain is one, and a good one.

Produced at the height of the animated series’ tenure, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm serves as a respectable filmic representative of the series as a whole, even though it was born out of compromise. Originally envisioned as a direct-to-video small-scale affair, Phantasm was subjected to a late-in-the-game reconsideration, quickly reformatted into a widescreen theatrical motion picture, the only non-live-action Batman movie project to date. Normally, a business decision like that would result in inferior product, but Phantasm is an exception: a well-crafted, exciting animated thriller that for many is just plain the definitive Batman film, even in the wake of the Nolan movies. I’m not sure I’m exactly in that camp, but I concede the case can be made.

Like many movies based on television shows, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is essentially a bigger-budget reworking of things that demonstrably paid off on TV. You have Batman, voiced by the invaluable Kevin Conroy, his design shucking the then-popular body armor of Burton’s vision in favor of gray tights and a cape that looks improbably cool. And Alfred (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr), who is the model of support for put-upon Bruce Wayne…not just physically, but emotionally and morally. And there’s a supreme test of Batman’s values. Here, a lookalike begins taking out mobsters, effectively framing Batman for murder, and making him the center of a police manhunt led by the slimy Arthur Reeves (Hart Bochner), much to the chagrin of Comissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings). All of these elements were poked at in the TV series, and here they are given a broad canvas to breathe and play. There’s a threat on another front, too, as Batman once again tangoes with The Joker (Mark Hamill), who was the breakout villain of the series, that status heavily indebted to Hamill’s hilariously chilling portrayal.

The film intercuts between Batman’s attempt to unmask Phantasm, the police’s attempts to ensnare the Bat, run-ins with The Joker and flashbacks that detail Batman’s early days as he targets thieves, refines the Batcave, and makes himself a costume that will strike fear into his enemies (many of these beats are reverently duplicated in Christopher Nolan’s origin film, Batman Begins). One would think such plot points would fall under the curse of “prequelitis,” which is a movie malady where scenes set in the past can do little of interest other than inform of us things we already know. But there is a method to Phantasm’s expansive scope: the proto-Batman sequences lend insight not just in one direction of the plot threads, but multiple.

I’ll be careful to preserve plot secrets. Astonishingly for a Batman cartoon movie, there are some. This is a tightly-plotted film (scripted by series veterans Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko and Michael Reaves) that doesn’t waste a breath, probably because it can’t afford to. Aanimation, after all, despite being ghettoized by some as a form of entertainment, is exhorbidantly expensive, so every second counts.  After seeing Nolan’s near-three hour epic finale The Dark Knight Rises (which I quite liked), the brevity on display–and the confidence therein–is a breath of fresh air.

Let’s step carefully through a major chunk of the story, which involves Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delaney), a woman who, within the flashbacks, gives Bruce hope before it is cruelly dashed for mysterious reasons. In the present, Andrea returns to Gotham City, and her connection to the person behind the Phantasm is suspicious. In print, the whole enterprise sounds like a trumped-up TV episode with a disposable love interest, but the screenplay is surprisingly considering, giving Andrea weight and presence in both her romance with Bruce and her criminal connections. This is helped especially by Delaney’s really quite good performance. She’s a character we end up caring about, and since the flashbacks reveal that she is the formative woman in the depths of the Batman mythos, I am pleased to report that she earns her place, and then some.

Mask of the Phantasm is of course a comic book film, but it’s also a surprisingly reverent entry within the canon of film noir. Of course Batman, with his gothic setting and neverending fight against evil, has his roots in noir, especially pulp magazine stories and the novels of W.R. Burnett, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain. And the Gotham City of Mask of the Phantasm, with its exaggerated perspectives, long shadows and slanted angles, creates a steel wilderness inspired by German expressionism. The effect, which evokes a fractured psychology, is a constant, oppressive force that collectively creates pressure on our protagonist.

But there are more noir values here. Let’s look closely. Our hero is a loner with a dark past who has a fractured relationship with the police; despite being ostensibly on the side of the angels, he is very easily labeled a murder suspect thanks to Kafkaeske, paranoid logic. His foes are criminals who aren’t just evildoers, they represent the threat of good succumbing to their odious level. There is a central mystery, as Batman tries to discover who the Phantasm is (many noirs begin with mystery but end far from resolution). There are flashbacks buried in the narrative that supply tragic undertones, and an atmosphere of guilt, depression and shame (see Out of Past [1947]).

And like most great film noirs, there is a woman from the past, Andrea, who like her predecessors is a hard-edged femme fatale who has secrets, and is troubled. She’s warm enough to engender affection, and cold enough to spurn it. What she represents, and whether or not she can give true happiness is an open question, and like all noirs, Mask of the Phantasm has a relevatory third act that shouldn’t be spoiled, and maybe shouldn’t be nitpicked too closely, just experienced for its pure emotional wallop. If film noir can be seen as the stories of men who stand over a psychological abyss (and I think it can), then it is relevant that Phantasm with two characters standing at the edge of separate infinities. There’s also dialogue that underlines the moral ambiguities, which is essentially what film noir is all about. Phantasm, though ostensibly a children’s film, believes in its noir values, unlike Burton’s Batman films, which essentially used them as empty signifiers.

There’s a sensibility on display in Mask of the Phantasm that is refreshing for a movie like this: it treats kids’ entertainment seriously. The central conflict is between that of a vigilante who doesn’t commit murder vs. one who does, and the script explores that conflict with startling depth, not supplying easy answers while still preserving the heroism of Batman, in honest fashion. What results is a firm discussion of morality (again informed by noir dynamics). This is heady stuff for a kids movie, but it’s also nutritious content that operates on multiple levels. Plus, there’s some stuff snuck in there for the adults that aren’t just dumb jokes. Watch carefully to see how well a love scene can be suggested without being depicted.

The film earns every letter of its PG rating and steps no further, but it has a lot of fun dancing on the edge, in a manner that many toothless “family” films don’t enjoy. It isn’t afraid to be creepy, or weird, or dark. Consider the character of The Joker, who appears midway through and thoroughly takes control of the picture. He’s a cartoonish figure (there’s little of the sickness of the Heath Ledger portrayal here), but he also earns his stripes as a force of evil: his one solution to a mobster’s worries is as grotesque as it is economical. He’s a formidable villain, both physically and mentally for the Dark Knight (it’s neat that he figures out the whole mystery way before Batman does, if you go back over the narrative). And yet Batman is forced, organically, into a situation where he must protect The Joker, in an explosive finale that involves a boy, a girl, and a phantasm. Maybe more than that. Maybe less.

What I like most about Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is that it asks the fundamental questions that drive the Batman legend, and allows them full resonance. How odd for an animated movie to do more for character development and theme than several live action movies, but there it is. What’s best of all is that by the end of everything, Batman has been hurt and heartbroken, again and again, but he retains his code. The code is paramount. It’s everything. Or, as Sam Spade says in The Maltese Falcon: “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.” Indeed. At every point, a man–or a Batman–is supposed to do something. That’s noir in a nutshell. And it’s Mask of the Phantasm all over.

GRADE: A

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