[Review for Toon Zone News: October 13th 2003]
To mark the release of Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman Toon Zone is reviewing four animated movies that preceded the new film to DVD release, starting with the grand-daddy of them all, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
When settling down to review this film (batcup of coffee sitting faithfully at my side), I suddenly realised the profound difficulty in assessing this product. What can be said about Batman: Mask of the Phantasm that has not been said before? Following on from the success of Batman: The Animated Series, the film is easily the most acclaimed product of the animated franchise. The film sits like a gothic beast at the top of many complied TV surveys and film charts.
To put it simply, everyone likes it. Unless I decided to play the part of the unwelcome protagonist, I can personally understand why. So let's start off by pointing out the film has very few faults. I love this film and once again I’ll break that unwritten rule and tell you what I think about this film now rather than later—it’s fantastic. If you are looking for a damning review, you may as well stop here.
Originally conceived as merely a direct-to-video product Mask of the Phantasm was actually given a theatrical release in 1993. The story primarily recounts the origin of Batman—a subject that the animated series from which the film was spawned—had avoided. It also helped give the animated Batman a sense of identity away from the Tim Burton movies. Many Batman fans (with good reason) declare this Batman origin to be far superior to Burton's interpretation.
There is a new shadow in Gotham and it's killing off the cities crime bosses. This selective homicidal spree is mistakenly linked to the Batman. To make things worse Wayne's lost love Andrea Beaumont, has returned. And if things couldn't get much more complicated, there is always a certain psychopathic clown just waiting to throw a little anarchy into the mix. The film weaves past and present together as Bruce Wayne is forced to confront the demons and angels which have shaped his destiny.
From the start, the film showers the viewer with quality sound and visuals, beginning with a bats-eye flight through mighty Gotham City as an epic and a truly gothic version of the series’ musical theme is rendered with a full choir. I don’t think there is one Batman fan out there who could honestly say that the opening didn't draw them into the film.
The film has the opportunity to be a little grittier than the series. Death and tragedy are at the forefront—the film does not shy away from these concepts and retains a distinctly adult flavour. Unlike most cartoons, its interest remains firmly with the story and pacing rather than action and fight scenes. It doesn't rely on thrills to entice the viewer and there maybe less direct action scenes than the Burton movie. For an animated cartoon, whose intent is to appeal to a theatrical audience as well as a fan base, this film retains its integrity. Story first, action later.
There are strong voice performances from Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill—no surprise; you know you're in safe hands when you have these guys on the frontline—the visuals are well employed, and the animation, unsurprisingly for a film release, is of top quality. None of the pseudo-1940’s ambience from the TV series is lost in this project. If anything, it’s enhanced.
But what makes this film so pivotal to Batman fans?
As with Frank Miller's graphic novel Batman: Year One, we get to see a younger Bruce take on the criminal element before he finds his niche as the Batman. Far from looking like a hero, Bruce seems like a meddler. He's not Gotham's protector yet. He's a boy in training, fighting criminals to quantify his skills and objectives. Without his skills being finely tuned, he could be as much a danger to the innocent as the people he fights. What we therefore see in the younger Bruce is his obsession in full swing. It's these emotional qualities that make Mask of the Phantasm such a powerful film.
Promises, honour and obsession—the film focuses on these elements and the fine line that separates them. We watch a younger Bruce battle against his own promise to his parents. His obsession—his calling—to do what others can't or won't. But we also see Andrea's life wrecked by the same kind of obsession and attachment to family and promises. All in all we get a film which burrows deep into that area which makes Batman what he is. Thus, it is not just an inquiry into his origins, but into his psychology. It also leads us to the key aspect of this film and all that is Batman.
What sort of life is Batman's? It isn't a life. To be Batman, Bruce sacrifices all he has so that he can fulfill his promise to honour his parents’ memory in the only way he believes he can. It's an obsession which has no end. Likewise, we have Andrea Beaumont, who also suffers from her family’s past. Doe the film's events offer Bruce and Andrea their final chance for happiness? Is Andrea Bruce's last hope to break from his promise to his dead parents and escape the curse of Batman? Looked at this way, Bruce is as trapped by his family and his past as Norman Bates, someone who looks to a dead family for guidance rather than taking control himself. The hold his dead parents have over their son—no matter that they never sought to exercise it—is both tragic and chilling.
My only grumbles are that the action scenes cannot live up to the strength of the story, and despite their above average execution, you just find yourself wishing them to pass so you can get back to more character exposition and dialogue. Another slight weakness is a revelation at the end that is less shocking than it pretends to be. The end battle with Joker and the Phantasm is also a little drawn out. That said, none of these really detract from the film.
Mask of the Phantasm is a feast. It has atmosphere, subtlety and—a real break from animation stereotype—maturity. Any film that can hit such three disparate bull's-eyes with one dart deserves the adjective "great."
Review Copyright: James McLean