Thursday, November 7, 2013
Heath Holland On...Batman: Mask of the Phantasm 20 Years Later
Batman is my favorite superhero, which is strange when you consider that I grew up on Marvel comics, not DC. Marvel was always way more identifiable to me and those characters all had real problems like paying the rent, or missing a date because the city was being attacked by Doc Ock. Yet as much as I loved those Marvel heroes, Batman has always had the strongest hold on me.
Looking back on my childhood, I can see that Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman had an insanely big impact on me. It was that movie, along with its sequel Batman Returns in 1992, that solidified Batman as more than a member of the Justice League, more than a Super Friend, and certainly more than the spandex-clad Adam West that I’d identified him as up until that point. With Tim Burton’s films, Batman became an obsession for me. Our Fox affiliate ran commercials for the local comic book store that informed viewers to come into the shop and tell them they saw the commercial on Fox for a free Batman comic. I ended up doing this about once a week.
I wasn’t alone, as there was an entire generation of kids who felt exactly the same way. Bat-mania had swept the world. The Bat-logo was on everything, and how much Bat-paraphernalia someone owned suddenly became a mark of how cool a kid was.
A new animated series was inspired by this darker, purer vision of Batman and debuted just three months after Batman Returns opened in theaters. Batman: The Animated Series made a prime time premiere on a Sunday night in 1992, and I watched it with my whole family. They liked it because it was smartly written. I liked it because it wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before, with backgrounds drawn on black paper stock and with plots that harkened back to the classic days of Warner Brothers and film noir.
The series was a success, both with viewers and with critics, winning multiple Emmys and drawing large viewing numbers among college students. Warner Brothers decided to cash in on the success of the show by producing a direct-to-video film, which was to be released using the same crew, voice cast, and creative team behind the daily adventures of Batman: The Animated Series. Early in the process, though, Warner decided that the movie would be even more viable and lucrative as a theatrical film. The production schedule was a mere eight months.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was released on Christmas Day in 1993 and, despite being critically lauded, was a box office bomb. I saw it with my parents in an empty theater. Amazingly, they fell asleep, oblivious to the movie magic that was unfolding before them.
The film opens with the familiar, moody theme from the animated series. Only this time, a full chorus of voices has been added, chanting in Latin over the dark, musical landscape. Complementing the music, the camera soars through the Gotham City skyline, showcasing the art deco architecture and old school animation tactics employed by the Fleischer Studios on their landmark Superman film shorts during the 1940s. This establishes Gotham as a living character in this film -- perhaps our main character. It’s a city full of darkness, but still beautiful and worthy of a savior.
This is not the stuff of children’s entertainment.
Watching the movie in preparation for writing this, I kept wondering “What were they thinking?!” I don’t mean that in a negative way; I truly wonder what the creative team was thinking. The film is beautifully written, and the story is full of nuance, humor, poignancy, and even tragedy. But writers Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, and Michael Reaves were given the task of writing a feature length, animated family film to be released on Christmas Day. What they delivered was a tale of political corruption, the on-screen murder of no less than three characters, and a tragic romance with a femme fatale. As amazing as the script is, this surely was not what Warner Brothers had in mind.
That’s not the only mind-boggling aspect to this film. The action and the violence that is displayed on screen not only wouldn’t fly in children’s entertainment today, but seems shocking even for 1993. Characters smoke (both cigars and cigarettes), bleed, lose teeth in fistfights, and ultimately die, all on screen before an audience of children.
I referenced Batman: Mask of the Phantasm earlier as a masterpiece, and it definitely is. It feels like the writers and the directors (Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, the two co-creators of the animated series) were aiming well beyond the limits of traditional family fare and at something that would be timeless. They succeeded in both.
The film is full of symbolism and metaphor. As this new vigilante in Gotham City starts killing criminals, Batman (voiced, as in the series, by Kevin Conroy) must discover the identity of the Phantasm and bring him to justice. The movie asks some difficult questions. What makes the Phantasm any more of a criminal than Batman? Batman doesn’t kill and lives by a code, but Phantasm lives by a code as well. What is it that makes Batman’s code more acceptable? Batman: Mask of the Phantasm portrays Batman as a man driven by his own form of madness. For all the good he does for the city, he walks the thin line of sanity.
Batman’s investigation into the Phantasm murders is complicated by the arrival of Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany), an old flame from Bruce Wayne’s past. A significant portion of the film takes place in flashback, as we see a young Bruce struggle with his new obsession with fighting crime as Batman while trying to maintain a romantic relationship with Andrea. We know things didn’t work out, but the film slowly unveils why. It’s heartbreaking, and fits perfectly within Batman’s neuroses. Bruce Wayne is haunted by the death of his parents and can never allow himself to deviate from the path he feels fate has chosen for him, not even for his own happiness. That neurosis won’t allow him to have peace.
I don’t think any film version of Batman has gotten the motivations and psyches of Batman and the inhabitants of Gotham as right as Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Tim Burton didn’t, and Joel Schumacher wasn’t even interested. Christopher Nolan seemed to be on the right path, but threw it all away in The Dark Knight Rises with the odd things he had his characters do which went directly counter to what had come before.
This film has clear motivations for every single character in it. Those motivations aren’t pointless. They’re completely believable and understandable. And the film understands the duality of Batman and the Joker as two sides of the same coin of madness. They represent light and dark as two natural forces, which can’t exist without the presence of the other.
The themes of decay are present in the movie as well. We see a flashback of Bruce Wayne and Andrea Beaumont going to Gotham’s World’s Fair. It’s a mirror of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933. The future is bright and optimistic; technology is friendly and will enhance the lives of the citizens of Gotham. A brighter world is just around the corner.
Like many episodes of the series that spawned it, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm comes to a bittersweet end. Gotham has been saved from the schemes of those who seek to exploit it once again, but for the men and women who live within it, there are no happy endings. If Batman has won, it’s been a hollow victory that has come with sacrifice and a reminder that his destiny is already laid out for him. The best victory Batman can achieve is to survive and fight another day. The fight against corruption will never end. There will never be relief.
There is no way that I understood all of this twenty years ago when I sat in that empty theater with my snoozing family. I knew I liked what I was seeing and I knew that I appreciated that Batman was dark and didn’t smile and wink at the camera. He didn’t make jokes, and he took his work seriously. I appreciated that his criminals had layers and were truly dangerous. I also understood that they felt like real people.
But through the crystallizing lens of time, it’s clear that Batman: Mask of the Phantasm caught lightning in a bottle. It tells the most personal Batman story to ever grace a movie screen and understands what makes its characters tick more than any Batman movie before or after it. It’s timeless, and could just as easily have been released fifty years ago without any changes. I love it for what it is, but more importantly, I love it for what it isn’t.