In case you missed it, a couple of weeks ago I made a post on what I considered to be the definitive Batman film. I ran thru just about all of the movies, be they theatrically released, direct to video, live-action, animated, whatever. There was no real criteria, just that it had to be feature-length (admittedly arbitrary, since most of the animated flicks run just over an hour) and they had to be about Batman. Surprising (to me), it was only my second post on Batman films in general, my first being a review of the first Burton film. That just seemed funny to me, as in general I think Batman is the super hero who has made the best transition from comic to film. Since Batman is about to become a very big topic with a new video game just released and a new movie on the way, it’s probably a safe bet he’s about to receive more love from me in the coming months.
If you didn’t read my post on the definitive Batman film, then spoiler-alert, I decided on 1993’s Mask of the Phantasm and it seems only appropriate that I dedicate a full post to its greatness. It seems like a kind of contrarian take these days, but it wasn’t that long ago when most die-hard fans considered MOTP the best Batman film. Nolan’s Batman Begins and its sequel, The Dark Knight, have kind of tempered the adoration once directed at MOTP, but why is that? Obviously, it’s because as a culture we tend to value live-action over animation. And while I love animation there is a very good reason for this. Animated features tend to run around 85 minutes or so, as the process is both time-consuming and expensive and probably harder to direct. A more fully realized plot is accommodated by live-action where a feature can run over 2 hours. MOTP is no exception as its run time is a tidy 76 minutes. It was also done with a very modest budget. The animation really isn’t much of an improvement over the television show it’s based on. There was a choir added to the main Batman theme, and some brief CG effects, but that’s it. It does appear that the animation is better, but it could be my eyes deceiving me.
That said, those are among the few complaints I can levy against MOTP. The animation may not be on par with the Disney features from the same period, but it still has style and is unquestionably “Batman” in its approach. The animators were fond of using black paper for backgrounds which adds to the film’s overall dark visual tone. Since almost all of the scenes take place at night, this makes a lot of sense. The only really new character is the one the title alludes to, the Phantasm. Though the character is actually never referred to by that name during the film, we can assume that’s its name. The character resembles the grim reaper, though I prefer the Joker’s observation comparing it to the Ghost of Christmas Future. The character generates a cloud of smoke and sports a cape and cowl, causing it to be confused with Batman which serves as the basis for the plot.
The plot being, some mob guys are being targeted and killed by a new vigilante. We, the viewing audience, are cued into the fact that it’s a new vigilante in town that is responsible but the general public of Gotham are lead to believe that Batman is behind this. No one is mourning the loss of these guys, but councilman Arthur Reeves (Hart Bochner) pleads to Commissioner Gordon that they can’t allow Batman to operate in this fashion. Gordon, of course, sides with Batman and knows he can’t be behind this. Meanwhile, Batman is left to deduce who this new vigilante is and what is the motivation for this latest attack.
Along the way we get to see more executions, my particular favorite occurs in a cemetery, and an old flame of Bruce Wayne’s resurfaces in Gotham. Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany) has come to Gotham to settler some financial matters with Reeves and has a chance encounter with Batman at the cemetery where her mother (and Bruce’s parents) are buried. As the plot of the film advances we’re treated to flashbacks of a young Bruce before he became Batman and how Andrea came into his life. The two met at that same cemetery, and though Andrea had to play the role of aggressor, the two end up falling in love. This caused the young Bruce much inner turmoil as after Andrea witnesses him take on some thugs and put his life on the line he realizes he can’t have it both ways. He has to choose, be the vigilante anti-hero he thinks he needs to be to avenge his parents, or be Andrea’s beloved.
This leads to the film’s best scene. A desperate Bruce on his knees before the headstone of his parents in the rain begging them for a sign. He tells them he doesn’t know what to do, that their death no longer hurts as much as it used to, and that he never could have expected to be happy again. It’s a rather poignant and heart-felt moment that gives great insight to the Bruce Wayne character. Kevin Conroy, the voice actor of Bruce Wayne/Batman, gives a convincing performance and cements himself as the definitive voice of Batman that all future actors will be weighed against. We, as the audience, also get a glimpse of just how misguided Bruce is. He wants to avenge the deaths of his parents by cleaning up Gotham, but as human beings we know there’s no way a parent would wish that kind of life for their child. A promise is a promise though, and Bruce is loathe to break his until Andrea strolls up behind him. He takes that as his sign, and we’re left to wonder how this could have come to an end.
Those questions are answered when we’re introduced to Andrea’s father, Carl (Stacy Keach), a money manager of some regard who has become involved with Salvatore Valestra (Abe Vigoda). Things seem fine, though we know Valestra to be a crime boss, until Beaumont becomes indebted to the thug. Things get ugly, and the Beaumonts are forced to flee Gotham leaving Bruce behind with lots of questions and more heart ache.
Now the Phantasm is after an old and sickly Valestra and the crime boss is forced to make a proverbial deal with the devil; enter the Joker. The Joker’s (Mark Hamill) portrayal is consistent with that of the animated series only with a touch more malice to suit the feature film’s tone. He has some connections with the Valestra crew from his past, and loves to put his nose in Batman’s plans anyways. What could have felt like the writers just tossing in the Joker for star power, turns out to work exceedingly well.
I’ll spare you the rest of the plot details, and say that they include Batman’s detective work to find out who is under the mask of the Phantasm and a reunion with Andrea. The film culminates in a showdown between the major players of the film in a most satisfying way. There’s also an electric chase sequence between Batman and the Gotham PD that’s a joy to behold. The mature tone and emphasis on plot makes this film incredibly engrossing, so much so that kids are not likely to enjoy it as much as adults. And even though it received a PG rating, it’s actually fairly graphic as we see liberal amounts of blood and even a tooth sent flying after a well-placed Batman punch. The film is not afraid to kill off characters, like the animated series probably would be, and Batman is even allowed to ditch that dorky helmet he had to wear for television when riding his bat-cycle.
All in all, Mask of the Phantasm is an excellent character study for our favorite caped crusader. We’re not bogged down with the nitty gritty of his well-told origin and instead are shown a portion of Bruce’s life that is sometimes glossed over. It’s really introspective to see just what Bruce was giving up when he fully committed himself to the Batman character. And even though we feel bad for him, it’s riveting to see tragedy dumped on him. And while the mystery isn’t too difficult to figure out, it’s still rewarding and comes across as logical. This is just a really well made movie with more depth than a lot of the other Batman films put together. If you never saw it, do yourself a favor and check it out.