Saturday, September 27, 2014

Film Review: Batman - Mask of the Phantasm

"Batman: Mask of the Phantasm"  *** (out of ****)

Warner Brothers gives Batman the animated treatment with their feature length film release, "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" (1993).

After the critical acclaim and box-office success of the first two live action Tim Burton Batman pictures; "Batman" (1989) and "Batman Returns" (1992) a renewed interest emerged in all things Batman. Warner Brothers, seizing the opportunity to capitalize on this success, created "Batman: The Animated Series", which aired from 1992 - 1995. The show was an instant hit and after the first season a feature length movie was designed. Originally it was set to be a direct-to-video movie but late in 1993 the movie was theatrically distributed. Initially critics avoided or neglected to review the movie (Siskel & Ebert included) but after its release on VHS (remember those?) the movie found a new audience. An audience which greatly appreciated it. Even Siskel & Ebert, two years later, would review the movie on their show and give it two thumbs up.

It is not hard to see why the movie has enjoyed success all these years later. There are some who feel the movie is the best Batman movie made, surpassing the original Tim Burton films and the two Joel Schumacher pictures which followed. I've even read some say it is better or equal to the Christopher Nolan "Batman Trilogy".  A lot of that is just audience enthusiasm and appreciation but don't thumb your nose at "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm".

Yes, this is a Batman movie and yes it is animated but one shouldn't automatically equate that as meaning this is a slight children's picture. I am here to tell you this is an adult picture. The writers; Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko and Michael Reeves have given us a picture which deals with adults working their way through emotionally complex issues. It handles its material in a mature fashion. It does not, let me repeat that, it does not dumb its ideas down to the kiddie level. It treats these characters as real people.

You don't normally find that in American animation. Animation is perfectly capable of dealing with adult issues, you see it in the work of Hayao Miyazaki and films like "Spirited Away" (2002) and "The Wind Rises" (2014). You see it in the amazing Israeli film "Waltz with Bashir" (2009) about the Lebanon-Israeli conflict in the 1980s (pretty heavy material for an animated film, right?). It just isn't often American animation is willing to tackle adult issues. We still think of animation as for children. Even, what some consider the best American animation, still plays to children.

In "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" someone in a cape (though never directly referred to as "The Phantasm") is going around killing members of a local mob. A city councilman; Arthur Reeves (voiced by Hart Bochner) wants to put the blame on Batman, even while Commissioner Gordon (voiced by Bob Hastings) protest, knowing full well Batman would not behave that way. Now, Batman must clear his name and figure out who is behind these murders.

As the murders pile on, Batman / Bruce Wayne (voiced by Kevin Conroy) finds himself distracted when an old fame, Andrea Beaumont (voiced by Dana Delany) returns to Gotham City. She may have been "the one". Through a series of flashbacks we learn Bruce Wayne was going to marry her and give up his alter-ego Batman. With her return, Bruce Wayne is now faced with those same feelings.

With the gangsters being killed off one by one, the mob boss, Salvatore Valestra (voiced by Abe Vigoda) begins to worry it is a matter of time until Batman finds him. Not sure where to turn he seeks the help of the only man he believes can stop Batman, his old friend, The Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill).

The aspect that I enjoyed most about "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" is the way it deals with this inner conflict within Bruce Wayne. I actually believe this animated movie does a better job illustrating the emotional toll this life has on Bruce Wayne than the other live action movies. It shows Wayne's struggle and desire to lead a normal life but feels conflicted because of a vow he made after the death of his parents to pursue a life of crime fighting and stop injustice when it is found in Gotham City.

The movie also does a wonderful job describing the Batman origins: showing us how the batman costume came to be and what Bruce Wayne was thinking when he chose it. In fact, once again I must make a comparison to the two original Tim Burton Batman movies and say, this movie does a better job explaining the origins of Batman. Tim Burton's movies focused a little too much on the villains. This time around Batman is given his screen time. His story is allowed to be told. The villains may be interesting here but so is Batman.

As I watched "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" I also began to think Bruce Wayne is really no longer a man. Bruce Wayne is now the alter-ego and Batman is his true identity. Bruce Wayne sees himself as a crime fighter first, average man second. He cannot give up the Batman character. It has become too much a part of his life. I can't say I had the same feeling watching any of the original Batman movies.

To give some examples of how this movie is not a typical "children's movie", one scene involves a gangster being killed in a cemetery. The animators create a lot of suspense, put the characters in shadows and aren't shy about being direct in showing the gangster get killed. We also have an opening scene, again, not bashful about showing violence. This time the character is driving in their car, loses control and flies out of a parking garage window, dying in the crash.

There are also the scenes between Bruce Wayne and Andrea. The movie treats their story-line just as it would a live action romance. We know how these people feel towards each other. We know they love each other and understand their past demons. Just as in showing Bruce Wayne's personality conflict, here, with this relationship, the movie is working on a psychological level. As in the live action Batman movies, there is always one character presented as being similar to Bruce Wayne. Andrea is that character this time around and it adds a whole new dimension to the story. And the fact that it is an animated movie makes it even more impressive.

Finally I have to mention the animation itself. The movie is wonderfully drawn. It has a visual style clearly inspired by noir films of the 1940s. Gotham City draws some visual references to "Metropolis" (1927) and looks most closely like the Gotham City of Burton's first Batman movie. Also, keep your eye out for a Marlon Brando reference from the movie "The Wild One" (1953).

"Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" is an impressive piece of animation. It is a mature, complex, psychological take on the batman character. It does some wonderful things that even the live action movies didn't do. The only fault I find with the movie is its final showdown which I feel goes on too long. They could have used this added time to give a bit more character development or end the picture 15 minutes earlier. Either way, I strongly recommend "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm".