By The Crazy 88
I’m not the most well-versed person to be reviewing Batman canon, but I do love animation.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
is a 1993 animated movie that was originally intended to be the final episode of the Batman
animated series — part a Batman origin story, part a tragic love story, the movie begins when a series of gangsters are murdered one by one by a mysterious caped entity that’s mistaken for Batman.
Taking it as an opportunity, councilman Arthur Reeves initiates another anti-Batman campaign, as he puts the moves on the feisty Andrea Beaumont (voiced by Dana Delany), who’s back in town after disappearing from Bruce Wayne’s life years ago.
Though the story’s predictability is obvious, Mask of the Phantasm
does an able job at interweaving a remarkable amount of storylines packed into a very tight 70 minutes and a little bit more. As a result, we do rush through some of the most emotional aspects of the characters’ stories — especially the building relationship of a younger Wayne and Beaumont, as well as her relationship with her father.
Due to its packed timeline, there isn’t a filler scene in the movie. Each one of them has a purpose to give us pieces of information and move the story forward, until the climatic scene in Future City, which features a very special appearance by The Joker (spectacularly voiced by Mark Hamill) and includes a prelude fight with a bologna whack. Pure genius.
The script is as tight as you could’ve hoped from a “cartoon” back in the 90s, complete with a mood-setting score that starts Mask of the Phantasm
accompanying a minimalistic precisionism 3D walkthrough of Gotham City. Some of those layouts and general shots — as well as their use of perspective — are stunning, however, there’s one aspect from the movie that nearly killed the experience of watching it.
Character animation. Now, I’m aware of the lacking qualities of what used to be (or is) “cartoon” animation on American television — budget constraints, as well as animation outsourcing — it all plays a part. In Mask of the Phantasm
, the lifelessness in Andrea Beaumont’s eyes highlighted a wooden tone in Dana Delany’s voice that I had never noticed when seeing her act.
I have been moved by animation before, many times before, I’ve bawled watching animated films, but this time around, it failed to engage me. Maybe it’s because I don’t follow Batman canon like I should, maybe if I were a huge fan, I would’ve seen the finer aspects of Phantasm
As it is, Mask of the Phantasm
is just another movie in my list of movies. I doubt I’ll ever rewatch this ever again, despite its better qualities.
By Macaulay Connor
I have often had the argument with myself, and with others, about what should be expected from purported “genres” of films. I say purported because two of the most problematic “genres” of films for me are musicals and animation. Because, unlike, for example, comedy as a genre where the genre necessitates certain strictures in the film (i.e. humour as a propellant of the plot) animation and musicals emerge more as film styles more than actual elements in a film’s story. Visually (or aurally, if it’s a musical) similarities exists – always, but any number of stories could be told through animation or music. And, as much as strides have been made in developing the animation style from this narrow perspective audiences still have a limited concept of what an animated film should be.
I begin with this preface because 19 years ago when Batman: Mask of the Phantasm I suspect that the expectations of the animation “genre” was one of the bugbears preventing it from achieving commercial success. There were mitigating circumstances, of course: a serious of unfortunate events – poor marketing, a rushed pre-release ad campaign, competition from more conventionally themes animated films, but ultimately I wonder if the strident lack of potent appeal to the children is what prevented the film for enduring as successfully as it should have.
With only 76 minutes at its disposal the film opens with immediate tension. A conference of criminals is underway. And, of course, nefarious things are afoot. Batman interrupts and a brawl ensues. A similarly (but not quite the same) cloaked figure appears and forces the chief gangster – Chuckie Sol – to his death. Over time as the eponymous phantasm strikes again Batman becomes the target of the blame eliciting in our steely hero a vague sense of self-doubt as he begins to evaluate the wisdom of his job as the Caped Crusader. This self-doubt is augmented by the return of Andrea Beaumont – the one that got away – to Gotham City. If that preamble sounds generally pedestrian, and it well might, it’s important to remember that as far as superhero themed films go the most basic of narrative elements are often familiar – a mysterious antagonist must be found, the hero’s goodness is called into question, self doubt pervades and a woman is caught up in the shenanigans. What makes Batman: Mask of the Phantasm notable as a significant film in the canon of Batman films is – well, inter alia – the meticulousness with which the tale is presented.
Oftentimes there is a, sometimes unnecessary, demand for filmmakers to display a perceptible streak of levity in their films. This levity must be two fold for anything from the comic or superhero genre and then double times that if it happens to be animated. I suspect that historically Batman: Mask of the Phantasm might have been something of an odd duck for audience members presented with a meticulously grim Gotham City intent on the examination of a myriad of serious issues. One of the most effective things that the film does – something which 75% of films are not able to do as adeptly – is incorporate the flashback technique without becoming extraneous or frustrating. This is particularly admirable considering that about half of the film is told in flashback.
For, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is an origins story. And it, curiously, does not use the origin as the main hook of the story instead presenting it as the secondary element of the already very concise film. This achieves two significant things. For one, it allows for a movie which does not exist – at least not obtrusively – as a “prologue”. What we have here is a film that’s more than (just) a “how Batman became Batman” exercise, and one of the critical dangers of presenting origin stories is eliciting the audience’s interest in the superhero before anything or superlative or heroic has happened. The second and more important thing the parsimoniously distributed flashbacks achieve is allowing for a precise symbiotic relationship with the main thrust of the film – the revelation of that deadly Phantasm. The way the flashbacks allow for a smooth integration of Batman’s origin with the film’s main “antagonist” exists a paradigm for the way that all the elements of film’s first act becomes significant, and key contributors to the film’s final dénouement.
Spoilers in such a mystery based film as this would be especially gauche but there are some key things to discern in the film. Burnett’s script manages to make a complete whole of Bruce’s decision to become Batman, his ill-fated romance (and her family drama), the trials of living for your parents whilst all the while playing with familiar relationships like Alfred and Bruce and Batman and The Joker. Shakespeare once said that brevity is the soul of wit, which doesn’t quite translate to smaller things being more effective but instead points to the goodness that can be found in compression. It’s not so much that I praise Radomski and Timm for directing a film with so many nuances and making it so short. Instead, I’m impressed with their ability to examine so many aspects of drama on such a small tableau without resulting in incomplete chaos.
This is not to say that the film wraps up every question is asks with a tidy bow. Before the credits roll I found myself asking – why couldn’t those two crazy kids work it out? Or – better yet, why isn’t vengeance a noble road to take? Or, most significant, isn’t Bruce’s ultimate dilemma his own doing? I realise, though, that the questions which I’m left with are not owing to structural or narrative flaws in the film but instead betray the significant moral issues which this animated film provokes. What does one hope to find in the animated genre? Slowly, we’re growing towards awareness that it is more a style than a genre and an eclectic number of different stories can be told using the medium – not a single one. The sensitivity and seriousness with which Batman: Mask of the Phantasm espies its heroes makes me think that perhaps it is that same lack of levity which made it unpopular to audiences in 1993. Conversely, it’s that same lack of levity which – I believe – makes it such an intriguing film for adults. For – animated or live action – it’s good when a 76 minute piece of art can leave us asking questions about our ethics.