Monday, July 23, 2012

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

I'll admit that I almost didn't include this movie in my marathon.  I was thinking that since it was an animated film, I could skip it.  But it is a theatrical release and therefore does count, and really why miss an excuse to talk about my favorite version of Batman?

The movie begins with yet another variation on Danny Elfman's Batman theme.  In an effort to make the opening titles more epic, they included choir voices and the tall buildings we normally see animated in 2D on the show are now CGI.  Unfortunately, all it really does is make me want to watch the normal opening credits again instead.

I had another disconnect as the movie began, as the voice actor playing Chuckie Sol in the opening scene would return to the show again later to voice Boxy Bennet.  He even literally uses a line that Boxy will use in "Harley's Holiday" - "This time I've got you, you lousy stinkin'-" and then he's cut off before he can finish it.  There's no way this wasn't something they did intentionally.  They must have really loved his voice and the way he executed that line and so they brought him back.  And now I've probably revealed just how freakishly well I know this series, that I can actually recognize that.  Oh well.

I had forgotten that this movie had a bit in common with Batman Begins, in that we see Bruce preparing to fight crime before he actually takes on the Batman persona.  Given that we have already been spending time with this Batman for one season of the show, it's nice to go back and see this younger version.  I also love that in the early scene when he faces down the thugs, he's using a gruffer voice but not the Batman voice yet.  It's a credit to Kevin Conroy that he's able to use that voice in such varying degrees.

They also take advantage of the fact that they're making a movie rather than being stuck on television.  Bruce tells another character "you know where to stuff it," Batman and Joker both bleed in their final fight, and Batman even has sex.  This latter part completely flew over my head when I went to see it when I was 12.  The only way I found this out was as we were leaving the theater.

Dad: "Man, they really pushed the limits with that movie.  Batman had sex."
Me: "What?  No he didn't."
Dad: "She was wearing his shirt the next morning.  That means they did it."

Me: "Oh....."

And that's how I learned to always look for that silly trope in movies and TV.

Unfortunately the main plot of the film with the Phantasm mystery and the love story just isn't terribly interesting.  Watching it now, it's pretty obvious that Andrea is the killer, though I'll admit as a kid I was fooled by the false voice she uses and took her on her word.  It makes Batman look a little naive, but then this is a woman he was deeply in love with, so you can understand why he might ignore the obvious evidence in front of him.

But the movie is saved by the fact that Jack Napier used to work for these gangsters, and therefore we get to include the Joker in the film as well.  I love that when Salvatore Valestra (voiced by Abe Vigoda, by the way) comes to the Joker for help, Joker gleefully messes with him for a bit, then kills him but leaves the trap to try to catch Batman committing these murders.  And when he realizes it's not Batman, he knows who the killer is almost immediately.  Mark Hamil will always be my Joker, and this film shows why.  He'll laugh at anything, with a gleeful enthusiasm that is somehow both unsettling and infectious, but he's also got that temper that makes him turn into a truly frightening psychopath at any moment.  So wonderful.  I really love that final fight between him and Batman in the miniature of Gotham because the props just make the fight so much more interesting.

Remember how I said I love Michael Gough as Alfred?  I do,  but I have to say I love Efrem Zimbalist Jr. so much more.  He has such a wonderful dry sense of humor, and he also has such a great relationship with Bruce.  There's one point toward the end of the film where he calls him "sir" and then by his first name from one sentence to the next, and while it should sound awkward it doesn't.  You just really see what a complicated but also wonderful relationship these two characters have with each other.

This movie is basically a slightly longer two part Batman the Animated Series episode, with a bit of edginess thrown in to earn that PG rating.  There are better episodes of the series than this film, but this still ranks pretty high in terms of quality.  There were two direct to home release sequels made after this movie, Batman & Mr Freeze: SubZero and Mystery of the Batwoman.  I've seen both and they're of pretty decent quality.  There was also a Batman Beyond film that's technically set in the same universe, but I haven't seen it since I haven't watched that series yet.


  1. Oh, wow, you haven't seen the Batman Beyond series yet? You're really missing out! If you think this was dark and edgy, wait until you get through that series and end it with the phenomenally twisted Return of the Joker film. :)

  2. I know. I think back then my thoughts were "No Dick Grayson? Not interested." which is rather silly. I don't think it's on Netflix Instant, but one of these days I'll figure out the best way to watch it. I saw a few episodes here and there, but at the time it didn't draw me in.


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