Movie Review: Batman – Mask of the Phantasm

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

This is by far one of the most iconic movies in the Batman franchise, as well as easily being the best animated Batman film. I was also greeted by a heartwarming wave of nostalgia thanks to the Warner Bros Logo flashing at me during the intro credits. Also it is comforting to note that by extension of the logo that Bugs Bunny and the whole Looney Tunes gang exist in the same universe as the Dark Knight, as does Michael Jordan. Perhaps they should all get together and play basketball? Oh wait, wrong movie. Oops!

The thing that first struck me about this movie, and that always impresses me when I watch it is the art style, so crisp and well defined. I’m usually a fan of Batman in general so it hurts me to call out some of the live action material, but Gotham, the TV Series and the Nolan Batman movies both portray the city of Gotham, as gritty and shitty, no rhyming intended. This movie strikes a nicer balance, just a more solid, subtle aesthetic, and it doesn’t go too far the other way, because you don’t want to end up with the over the top absurdity or overkill of Joel Schumacher’s Gotham. But yeah this specific animation style is recognisable and impressive and was a mainstay of early DC animations. In just the introductory sequence the audience are taken on a sweeping Journey through Gotham all the while propelled forward by a powerful and epic score which prepares you for the action ahead.

Another thing I liked about Mask of the Phantasm that other animated movies released around the same time and some even today could quite get right was the fight scenes. Sure, they could make a fight scene look impressive (and for anyone interested my personal favourite animated Batman fight scene is the finale battle between an aged Batman and the powerful mutant leader in the movie, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) but this movie took it a step further, not just capturing the visuals, but gave the scene something more as well. What I mean is that when Batman hits someone in this movie it feels real, there seems to be weight and consequence to it. Even better still, Batman manages to kick ass and still seem human, and fallible, something which seems to be ignored in favour of just saying, yeah he can do it, he can do anything, because…sigh…he’s Batman.

One last thing on the animating style for now, firstly, considering how old the movie is by this point, it still holds up tremendously well. But what I like most is that while still managing to be in keeping with the general style of animating for the studio at that time, is still managed to capture the early noir origins of the Batman comics perfectly.

Another thing this movie did well was give Batman a sense of humour, admittedly not a great one, but it’s far better than the mirthless Batman we’ve seen in other shows and movies. To address that point very quickly, I totally understand that trauma is at the root of his character but I’m actually not a fan of the whole neutral mask trope, and people contain multitudes and even someone with the well documented willpower of Batman can’t filter out every impulse or emotion, for the sake of stone-faced stoicism. So I enjoy the balance this film managed to find, and the fact he can laugh while still showing the weight of his obligation to his parents, it’s more believable and more human. They also avoid going overboard the other way and load up on camp and cheer like a certain Adam West’s Batman.

Oh and romance, and not just in the typical damsel in distress way, some love interest to be killed off or replaced. This romance felt more real and complicated, it made Batman doubt his purpose. She was a chink in the Dark Knights armour, she had become as much his kryptonite, as the death of his parents was his sole drive, as well as the albatross around his neck. For an animated movie especially, this one is just soo real, he has someone who can offer him love and happiness, but at the cost, he must give up his crusade.

Something else I found really impressive was that it doesn’t rely too heavily upon Batman’s rogues gallery. Sure, the Joker is in the movie, but in reality he’s just playing second fiddle to Batman’s own self doubts, and of course the titular Phantasm. It’s good in fact that we don’t need Riddler, for Batman to be asked the hard questions.

I mentioned briefly that it’s good to see Batman as more fallible, we need to be able to see our heroes struggle and even fail, it makes them that little bit more real and relatable. We have other characters if we want someone who can accomplish any feat, but what I personally want is someone who is as physically weak and vulnerable as any human, but still goes toe to toe with gods, demons and Kryptonians, and maybe even comes out victorious.

There was a scene where Bruce sketches out ideas for his costume, It gave me flashbacks to Sam Raimi’s Spiderman movies, which just made me want to watch them next. I think I like this a lot more than what Arrow and other shows in the Arrowverse franchise do, where they either don’t address it or they just produce a suit from thin air. I mean at least in the Nolan Batman universe we know he was embezzling funds from his company, to acquire military grade equipment and bulk order bat ears to disguise it as a business expense (although why that in and of itself didn’t raise any alarm bells is beyond me). But yeah, in general, a lot of these types of movie, tend to handwave away where they get these outfits, so this scene for me was enjoyable, and necessary.

Despite my overall appreciation for this era, and this style of Batman, something that I never quite took to as much was this version of the Joker. Arguably, he is either the, or among the most iconic portrayals of The Joker but he just doesn’t seem threatening, sure madness is intimidating, but he’s up against, hardened, heartless thugs and just can’t take seriously, a villain who I could beat in a fist fight. It’s just a matter of how serious an antagonist he seems to be, and he just doesn’t do it for me, sure he’s entertaining, befitting a clown I think, but all it takes is for him to annoy one mid level gangster and get a bullet in the brain, and that’s the end of the Clown Prince of Crime.

Batman has faced off against many opponents over his various incarnations and versions, and has literally walked through fire more than his fair share of times, but nothing compared to the burn he received from Andrea, which is as follows: “The way I see it, the only one in this room controlled by his parents is you”, that is a burn so bad that he should apply some of his patented Bat-Ointment three times a day.

The finale fight was also something to behold, there were obvious moments from this movie later borrowed by The Killing Joke, and the fight amongst the model city, at least for me felt symbolic, because here we have these two larger than life characters fighting it out for the fate of Gotham. The climactic scene wasn’t just action packed, it felt genuinely real and tense. It felt like there was actually something on the line, a bold feat for an animated movie. The epic musical score rising, as The Joker cackles and he and Andrea disappear. Of cours Batman also escapes the danger, just like he always does, but at the cost of the woman he loves. He has lost her in his need for vengeance. Finally, and perhaps best of all, especially for such a small thing, I loved Batman’s cape obscuring the screen in a sheet of black, as it cuts to the credit roll. Overall I think this film is great, and I’m going to give it a rating of 8/10.

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