This Month's Featured Equipment Reviews
Batman - Mask of the Phantasm
Written by Bill Warren
Tuesday, 21 December 1999
|Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm
|Warner Bros. Home Video
||(Voices) Kevin Conway, Dana Delany, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Mark Hamill, Stacy Keach, Abe Vigoda, Dick Miller, Bob Hastings
When the "Batman" animated cartoon series began -- well, the latest
about the original Batman, anyway -- it was greeted with cheers from
Batmaniacs the world over. THIS is the way Batman SHOULD be done! they
thundered, few having been satisfied with the two Tim Burton movies.
(They didn't yet know what horrors awaited, once Joel Schumacher took
BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM is a feature cartoon from the TV-cartoon
team; in fact, it was originally intended to be a straight-to-video
release, but in the middle of a gap between live-action Batman movies,
Warner Bros. decided to release it theatrically. And again, though it
died at the boxoffice, those same Batmaniacs greeted the film with loud
Of course, by almost any standard other than those of die-hard,
inflexible comic book fans, the Tim Burton movies are outstanding --
but it's also hard to argue against the idea that the "Batman" cartoon
series, and this movie, also fulfill their goals with style and
panache. True, one has to already be disposed toward superheroes to
take a step into this world, but if that applies to you, the chances
are good you'll like BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM.
The series (and this movie) took their cue from the great Fleischer
Studios "Superman" cartoons of the 1940s, but adjusted for the
day-and-night differences between the characters of Superman and
Batman. The visual style is very strong, the animation poses are
dynamic, the color styling is dark and brooding -- even a sunset scene
looks like it's taking place during an orange-lit night -- and the
character designs are simple but striking.
All this wouldn't really work as a comic book (even though DC
eventually did publish a Batman comic drawn in the same style as the
series); it is a cartoon show. The stories, too, were more suited for a
serious cartoon show than a comic book, and certainly the dialog is.
The animation is limited, moving quickly from one strong, dynamic pose
to another; when characters pause to talk, their expressions are
extremely broad, and the lips only vaguely in synch with the words.
(Making the line where heroine Andrea tells Bruce Wayne to "read my
lips" unintentionally comic.)
The laws of physics are more those of a comic book than a live-action
feature: Batman leaps gracefully from atop a three-story building to
the pavement below without even a grunt. The mysterious
gangster-killing "Phantasm" (a name never spoken in the film) is about
to be run down by a car going at least a hundred, but leaps directly
onto the oncoming car. You buy it in a cartoon, but you wouldn't in
live action. This, however, is a cartoon, and you automatically adjust
for this kind of thing.
In rapid succession, two of Gotham City's biggest gang bosses are
confronted by a skull-masked figure with a scythe for a hand; "your
angel of death awaits" the figure intones (in Stacy Keach's voice, no
clue). After a struggle, the gang leaders are killed -- and the gangs,
and the cops, think Batman is responsible. (At the end of the film, in
fact, there's still no reason for anyone to think Batman ISN'T
Batman (Kevin Conroy) can't catch the elusive figure, and has other
things to worry about. In the flashbacks to Wayne's youth, during the
end of and just after his college days, we learn he had fallen in love
with Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany), daughter of a wealthy lawyer who
had ties to the mob. Although ever since the death of his parents (not
shown), Bruce has trained himself to be a crime fighter, he "didn't
count on being happy," as he laments to his parents' grave. He wants to
marry Andrea, but realizes he'll have to give up his crime-fighting
ambitions. But when she unexpectedly sends his ring back and leaves
America with her father, he becomes Batman anyway.
Meanwhile, a third gang boss goes -- unwisely, as it turns out -- to
none other than the Joker (Mark Hamill) for help in dealing with
Batman. The Joker's pride is wounded and his fear roused (how dare
anyone thing of taking on Batman without him? and maybe Batman will
come after HIM next), so he becomes involved, and becomes the principal
opponent of the second half of the movie.
The movie moves so swiftly and looks so great that it's easy to
overlook its awkward structure: there's not enough about Phantasm, the
murders of the gang lords are swept aside, the police pursuit of Batman
is simply dropped, and the climax is a fight between the Joker and
Batman, without Phantasm (whose identity is easy to deduce) being
involved in most of it. You might also notice that everyone ages a
great deal between the flashbacks and the present -- except
Bruce/Batman and Andrea .
Some of the more cartoony ideas seem intrusive; although Mark Hamill's
vocal rendition of the Joker is excellent, the character is broader
than Jack Nicholson played him, and even broader than in the comic
books. (When he comes to a halt, he vibrates like a plank, complete
with sound effects.) Because of this extreme depiction, a little of
this Joker goes a long way; even in cartoon terms, it's hard to accept
him as a real menace.
The big Batman-Joker fight takes place amidst the crumbling ruins of
what had been the Gotham City World's Fair (City of the Future!); some
elements of this are silly (the big fan), some badly used (the robot
wife), but others work very well, particularly the battle among the
six-foot skyscrapers of a miniature Gotham City. This is one of the few
elements of the film that really would work well in a live-action
This well-produced DVD lacks any notable extras, though it does provide
both a letterboxed and "standard" format version. Because the movie was
really made for showing on TV screens, this is one of the few instances
in which the "standard" format is preferable to the letterboxed image.
Sound and other technical aspects are standard.
Those who think that the Batman cartoon series is a template for
live-action Batman movies aren't thinking things through very clearly,
but the show was exceptionally well done for its market. BATMAN: MASK
OF THE PHANTASM is a good sample of the show at very nearly its best.
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