Tuesday 11 October 2011

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)


Thanks to the success of Tim Burton’s first Batman film in 1989, an animated TV series was put into development and began airing in 1992. Lasting almost exactly three years in its original run, the series became one of the most respected TV shows of the time, animated or not, and praised for its maturity and faithfulness to the source material. A year into the show, a feature episode that was originally meant as a straight-to-video release was given a theatrical run instead. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was not a success on its release, largely because of the last minute nature of the theatrical release, but it at least found its feet on home video and DVD, now regarded as one of the best Batman films to be released.

A ghostly new figure, the Phantasm, has begun killing off some of Gotham’s mob leaders, vanishing without a trace in a manner that has people believing that Batman (Kevin Conroy) has snapped. Now hunted by the authorities, Batman must solve the mystery of the murders and regain his reputation. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is distracted by the return of Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany), the woman whom Bruce Wayne nearly married before becoming the Dark Knight. Bruce may now have the chance to give up his vigilantism and return to a normal life.

Although I did watch it when I was younger, Batman: The Animated Series was never a huge part of my childhood watching. As such, it took me a long time before I got round to seeing Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. And it received a fair amount of build-up. I know a few people who are affirmed Bat-fans and said that this film is the best Batman movie of them all, beating out all efforts from Burton, Nolan or Schumacher, though that last one wouldn’t be difficult. And some of this was from people whose opinion I do hold with some respect. Many people on the internet have expressed that same view. Even the Nostalgia Critic, who is a huge Bat-fan, called this film one of the best and most underrated classics going. I’m generally quite good at flattening my own susceptibility to hype, but it certainly seemed like this was something worth catching. That I was able to get it on DVD for pretty cheap sealed the deal. I bought the film and, on arrival, sat down to watch it… and I hated it. Violently.

I could not even begin to see how people could like it, let alone love it. I thought that some of the animation was terrible and that the overall story made absolutely no sense and it was all just a bit dull as a result. Upon voicing my opinion, I was then met with several people who agreed, with a couple saying that, of all the animated Batman features, Mask of the Phantasm was actually the worst. Suffice to say that, since I was really unimpressed with the film, it went back on my shelf and stayed there. However, much like Baise-moi, it was one of the films I actually rather looked forward to re-watching and re-evaluating for this blog. So, here we are now.

One of the things that automatically set me off the first time round was the opening credit sequence, with the title and names being cast over a CG rendering of Gotham, a black city under a red sky. I like the idea, and the attempt to create a thoroughly noir-ish tone right from the off. However, I just can’t past how clumsy it actually is. As the camera slowly moves back, between and through the buildings, there are moments when bits of these buildings will appear or disappear. This is a small criticism in the grand scheme, but it just makes it look so untidy that it put me on a bad foot immediately. If it was smoother, I wouldn’t have noticed, but the fact is that I did. On the second viewing, it still annoys me, but I can deal with it better the second time around.

Overall, the animation that I once believed to be rather poor in places is… well, still rather poor in places. Now, I will say that when it’s good, it’s really very good. There is a real smoothness to it that makes it flow very nicely. Also, the manner in which they have evoked a genuinely atmospheric and gothic sensibility throughout is absolutely wonderful. However, I can still spot what are, again, relatively minor problems here and there that just irked me more and more. For example, there are a few occasions when character shadows are missing. Yes, I know that this is actually being rather pedantic. It’s a small issue generally, and I did say it was on only a few occasions. However, in an animated film that seeks to establish a gothic mood in the visuals, shadows are kind of important, particularly in a Batman story.

Now, there is an explanation for some of these animation problems. As I said earlier, Mask of the Phantasm was only meant to be a straight-to-video release, so was not rendered for a big screen showing. However, when Warner Bros. saw the quality of the project, they decided, late in the production, to put the film out in theatres. They increased the budget so that it could be reformatted for a cinema release, but it still left less than a year to convert the film’s aspect ratio and such. Also, the opening CG city sequence was originally constructed for the TV series, replacing the more time-consuming hand-drawn backgrounds with a more flexible virtual set for characters to use. This idea was abandoned, though some of the work was clearly still there and they thought that it could be used as the opening for Mask of the Phantasm.

I’m not really sure why I find it so difficult to get over these things, especially since so many of them are of a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ variety, but they still jump out at me. It should also be much easier to overlook these flaws with a good story and good performances. But then we hit another snag.

Not the performances, I’ll say that now. There’s a reason Kevin Conroy is regarded as the Official Voice of Batman. Conroy alternates between two voices, depending on whether he’s Batman or Bruce Wayne. Though still clearly the same person, Wayne is lighter, warmer, with more humour; whereas Batman is deeper, colder, more threatening. The rest of cast do a great job, too. Dana Delaney does a great job, as does Hart Bochner as Councilman Reeves, Mark Hamill as the Joker and Stacy Keach as the Phantasm. Really, there’s not a bad show in the voice talent. So that only leaves…

I was never convinced by the story. Whilst I rather liked the attention given to Bruce Wayne’s initial attempts at vigilantism, his guilt over his parents’ death and how generally haunted he was, at no point did I buy into the rest of it, i.e. the Phantasm storyline. I’m honestly still not sure if the film was trying to keep the identity of the ghostly assassin a secret or not, but all I can say for myself is that there was no surprise or tension at all. I knew who it was from the beginning and was only waiting to be told why. I don’t particularly like it when I have to spend almost an entire film waiting for it to catch up with me. That tends to make me bored, and when a film bores me I end up looking at things much harder than necessary, hence seeing flaws in animation.

Also, there are things within the logic of the film that I never bought into, either. For example, the way in which Andrea discovers Batman’s true identity is a leap that’s just too big to accept. When visiting her mother’s grave, she notices Batman watching her. When she turns to him, he leaves. She runs to the spot he was standing, which happened to be the spot next to the grave of Bruce Wayne’s parents, where she then says, “Bruce?” From then, she knows and they both know she knows. Any memories she would have of seeing Bruce in vaguely the same spot, as shown in a flashback, happened over ten years ago, so it’s a bit much to use that as a basis for the connection.

One thing that is nice about Mask of the Phantasm is that it puts a great emphasis on Batman as a detective, which was an aspect of his personality that was never really given much attention in the films. But again, it rather drags out because the final solution is so damn obvious that watching the World’s Greatest Detective plod through the motions, with almost every other character figuring things out before him, is just a bit tedious.

If I’m honest, I still don’t like Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, though my disdain for it is greatly reduced from that first viewing. Much of the problem was allowing the huge amount of hype to affect me, which was my fault and not that of the film. Having my expectations greatly reduced, I can appreciate the film in a much clearer way, like the vocal work, the grim atmosphere and the attempt to treat the audience with a greater sense of maturity, which is ironic considering the direction of the subsequent live-action films (it’s rather strange that the animated film has more respect for the audience than the live-action successors). However, leaving aside my points about the animation, I still don’t like the story, it having only a vague relationship with logic and being as transparent as a really really transparent thing. If you do like it, that’s fine, but I cannot agree that it’s the best Batman film. Better than Schumacher’s? Yes, certainly. Better than Burton’s or Nolan’s? Not even close.

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