Just forget the words and sing along

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

Here we are again on Fishing in the Discount Bin, where I blog about a movie I own and recently re-watched.  Well, re-watched about six months ago, because that seems to be how far ahead I work on this thing.  I'm currently making my way through every theatrically-released Batman film, and that means I get to do Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.  This is originally in my notes at April 23, 2016.

Well, I said I'm doing every theatrically-released Batman movie, so that means, in between Batman Returns and Batman Forever, I get the lovely little palette-cleanser that is Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.  Bless that Warner Brothers executive who saw the preliminary work and decided it was worthy of theatrical release!

Spring-boarding off the success of the Tim Burton movies, Batman: The Animated Series premiered in the fall of 1992.  It was a critical and commercial success, and many fans quickly branded it one of the most faithful interpretations of the Batman mythology.  It even left its own indelible mark on the comics.  The episode Heart of Ice, which re-invented the villain of Mr. Freeze, was quickly declared cannon and proclaimed to be Mr. Freeze's new, official origin.  Originally introduced as a one-off character because the Joker in drag for a scene was though to be too ridiculous, Harley Quinn quickly became a fan favourite, introduced into the comics proper, and today, one of the most popular villains in Batman's rogues gallery. 

The last time Warner Brothers TV Animation had such a hit was with Tiny Toons, and they quickly ordered a straight-to-video animated movie to capitalize on that success.  They figured they could duplicate that success with Batman, and commissioned a straight-to-video animated movie.  As mentioned before, after seeing some preliminary work, the studio brass was so impressed, they figured it was worthy of a theatrical release, and a December 1993 release date was quickly penciled in.  This was decided in early 1993, by the way, so they creative team had to scramble to get the film movie-theatre-ready.  A typical animated film gets two years....they had nine months!  Shots were frantically re-designed and re-animated to allow for a movie screen's 16x9 aspect ratio.  But, they pulled it together, and made their December 17, 1993 release date.

Despite the confidence of the studio brass, the marketing department didn't feel the same way, and the film got very little in the way of a marketing push.  The Joker himself, Mark Hamill, has recounted the tale in many interviews about how he and his family went to see it on opening day, and the only ones in the theatre besides his family were a half-a-dozen or so die-hard Batman fans.  About a month later, it was already out of theatres.  But, that's OK.  It got a much bigger marketing push on home video, where it was a best seller.  The famed film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert missed it in its brief theatrical run, but when it hit home video, it was their "Video Pick of the Week."  When Batman Forever hit theatres, they went back and gave it a proper review, where it was the only Batman film to receive the coveted "Two Thumbs Up!" 

The spring of 1994 was when I finally saw it.  Batman: The Animated Series was when I first embraced the concept of binge-watching.  I didn't get Batman back home in Entwistle, but my grandmother down in Red Deer did.  She was kind enough to tape it for me, and couple of months, she would send me two or three VHS tapes full of Batman: The Animated Series, and I'd spend a weekend binging.  When Mask of the Phantasm hit video and was my local video store, I quickly rented it.  Popped it in the VCR, hit play, and my brother -- who got me on this Batman kick because of his passionate love for the first film -- just rolled his eyes and said, "I can't believe you've been dying to see this." 

Yeah...when we hit high school, my brother went through a phase of constant embarrassment at his nerdy little brother.  But that's a story for my one-man show. 

In creating Mask of the Phantasm, the creators of The Animated Series wanted to do something for Batman that they couldn't do in 22 minutes on TV:  a sweeping love story.  A new masked vigilante, the Phantasm, has arrived in Gotham City, and has been brutally murdering the city's leading crime bosses.  Because the Phantasm looks like and uses tactics similar to Batman's, Batman is quickly framed for the murders and the GCPD puts together a task force to bring in Batman.  Meanwhile, things aren't going smoothly for Bruce Wayne either.  Andrea Beaumont is back in town, and it's stirred up all kinds of feeling in Bruce.  We see in a series of flashbacks that, to borrow the term from the Sherlock Holmes cannon, Andrea was "The Woman,"...the one who got under Bruce Wayne's skin like no one else did.  The one where he was the closest to giving up his war on crime, settling down, and leading a normal life.  But Andrea breaking his heart turned out to be the final straw that pushed him into being Batman. 

I mean, with Batman v Superman being in theatres while I write this, we all mock the constant re-telling of the origin story.  How many times do we need to see the pearls in slow motion?  But here, they know we already know that, so they already get into the complicated relationship Bruce has with the figurative ghosts of his parents.  I mean, you don't get more drama than Bruce Wayne, visiting the graves of his parents, pleading to be released from his vow to bring criminals to justice.  "I never planned on being happy," he shouts at the heavens, but the massive Wayne tombstone just looms over him, making him force his destiny. 

And the music in this scene!  Shirley Walker, composer for the series, does this film as well, and this music is so much more operatic than what she did for the show.  And I mean that literally.  When that choir kicks in, this really does seem like a larger than life Batman tale. 

It is a Batman movie, so that means we need to have two villains.  Turns out the Joker is also on the Phantasm's hit-list, leading to a gigantic, three-way final battle between Batman, the Joker, and the Phantasm.  That's when we get the final revelation as the Phantasm's identity.  She's Andrea.  Turns out that her father ran afoul of some mobsters, so she came back to Gotham to wreak bloody vengeance.  She truly is "The Woman," as she would up walking down a similar path as Batman.  But while she truly did let vengeance consume her, Batman just manages to dance along the razor's edge.

It's amazing how this film manages to be more a character study of Batman, rather than big cartoony action.  Hell, it only gets cartoony when the Joker appears, because that's kinda his schtick.  It does cover ground that the Batman movies didn't dare touch until the Christopher Nolan films. 

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm truly stands as one of the better Batman movies, although, as I remarked when I first saw it way back in 1994, those flashbacks do get a little annoying after a while.  And watching in on DVD tonight, it is sorely in need of a hi-def restoration.  Come on, WB!  Get this on Blu-Ray already!

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