Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

I really liked Batman: The Animated Series when I was growing up.  It was a cartoon that dealt with some very weighty subjects, was not often played for simple laughs, and pushed the limits of what could be seen on afternoon network TV in terms of violence and thematic material.  But woe to the concerned parent who confuses violence with bloodiness, as the animated bullets were rarely the cause of death, and Batman himself was never one to go around shooting people or even killing his enemies.  In fact, the show was more of a morality play than anything else, and certainly dealt with mature life-and-death themes than anything else on TV at the time (think Power Rangers and Animaniacs).  But despite my affinity for the Animated Series, I never got around to watching the bigscreen incarnation of the show until just this past week.

From what I could tell before watching Phantasm, it was set to offer more of what made the Animated Series so great:  weighty subjects, conflicted heroes, and a world that was far more grey than black-and-white in terms of the good guy/bad guy vignettes that played out in similar TV shows and movies.  And while the movie does have these elements, it is also lacking in the sort of grandiose presentation and storyline that I had hoped from a cinematic adaptation of such rich source material.

The story purports to be multi-layered, and in some ways it is, but again, not as much as I suspected it might be.  Batman is once again fighting villains, both internal and external, and faces off against one of his longest-running foes as well as a new one, the Phantasm referenced in the title.  Local underworld bosses and masters of organized crime leaders are being offed by the Phantasm, a shadowy ghostlike figure impervious to bullets with the ability to appear and disappear at will.

The Phantasm.  Has Batman met his match?  Tune in next week...same bat-time, same bat-channel!

The Phantasm. Has Batman met his match? Tune in next week...same bat-time, same bat-channel!

Trouble is, the public is led to believe that Batman is the one doing the killings, and even good ol’ Commissioner Gordon finally turns on our intrepid hero.  Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, is reintroduced to his old flame Andrea, the woman to whom he was once engaged before beginning his days of crimefighting.  This type of relationship, the genesis of which is told through a series of flashbacks, is endemic to the series as a whole, as it presents serious themes of desire, longing, and the chasm between reality and the carrot that is perpetually just out of reach not only for Bruce Wayne but for many of us as well.  The one thing that will bring the most happiness to Wayne is the one thing he can’t have, and this realization is what leads him to ultimately shut himself off from the real world, and real relationships, and take on a secret identity of reclusive crimefighter.

Origin stories are nothing new to theatrical adaptations like this, and I appreciate that instead of seeing another recap of how Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered, we see what is essentially the cliffs notes version of Batman: The Teenage Angst Years.  Seeing Andrea again brings all these long-buried questions back to the surface for Wayne, and it casts Batman in a different light that I find particularly refreshing and altogether human.

However, the creators bring the ever-present Joker into the mix, at which point the storyline devolves into a more-or-less typical after school Batman episode.  Joker is once again running amok in the city but this time the mysterious Phantasm is also trying to thwart his criminal exploits.

Bruce Waynes old flame, Andrea Beaumont.  But is there more to her than meets the eye?  Hmm...

Bruce Wayne's old flame, Andrea Beaumont. But is there more to her than meets the eye? Hmm...

The identity of the Phantasm is thus another layer to the plot, but it’s not too hard to figure out and the reveal is somewhat of a predictable letdown.  In fact, the climax of the movie has a girl in distress whose only hope is to be saved by Batman.  Holy déjà vu!

While I appreciate the effort to flesh out some of the Bruce Wayne/Batman persona, I wish this movie wouldn’t have fallen back on some of the tried-and-true tricks of the trade.  I also find the (forgive the expression) cartoonish lack of explanations for various elements frustrating.  The Phantasm is, of course, a real person and not a ghost (anyone who’s ever seen an episode of Scooby Doo will know this immediately) but their (and I use the improper plural pronoun on purpose) ability to absorb bullets and disappear in a puff of smoke is never explained.  The ending chase/rescue is a bit much to take even by cartoon standards.  On a side note, however, it was nice to hear Mark Hamill back at his blood-curdling evil-villain-laughter best once again.  :)  All in all the movie is decent entertainment, but not as good as it could have been given its wonderfully brilliant pedigree.

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Last 5 posts by Simon R.

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