Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm (1993)

Untitled-1Few superheroes are as conflicted as Batman. Think of the popular ones–Spiderman, Superman, the X-Men, Green Lantern, Iron Man. None of them are really at war with themselves. They have embraced their gifts and have decided to publicize their heroism to the world, becoming icons of safety and deliverance. Sure, the X-Men are hated and feared by the general public, but their war lies with the public–and Magneto–instead of with themselves.

And then there’s Batman. Not so much a superhero as he is a wealthy orphan who chooses to put his free time and money to good use. He is despised by his people, the very people he is trying to save. He is misunderstood, outcast, frowned upon. He is an icon of Gotham City, yes, but beneath that, no one really appreciates who he is, or what he does. He operates in the darkness, using shadows to conceal his identity. Where other superheroes present themselves as guardians in broad daylight, Batman strikes fear into the hearts of his enemies at night.

It’s probably fitting, then, that Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm–based on the highly acclaimed animated TV series–adopts the aesthetic and thematic traits of film noir. In this dark and dangerous Gotham, Batman, more so than before, embraces his “fallen hero” persona, a persona very strongly seen in noir classics. He is flawed, alone, and at the mercy of the femme fatale, Andrea Beaumont (voiced by Dana Delany). He has no rise, only a decline. He starts the movie alone, and ends it alone.

But at its essence, the movie isn’t about Batman; it’s about Bruce Wayne. Andrea is a new character to the series, and she enters the story here as a former love interest of Bruce’s. They meet before he becomes the caped crusader, so she’s around when he eventually makes the transformation. She knows his secret, but more importantly, she accepts it. This story is told through a series of flashbacks, triggered by events happening in the present, and they sort of formulate Batman’s origin story.

We see him practicing martial arts, busting a drug trade, unsuccessfully attacking thugs, and telling his trusty butler, Alfred, that he needs to be scarier and more menacing. I wouldn’t be surprised if Christopher Nolan was inspired by this when he made Batman Begins some 12 years later.

Anyway, Batman is called into action when a mysterious entity, known as the Phantasm, begins terrorizing the local mob and killing a couple of its key henchmen. The movie then picks up another gear and becomes a mystery thriller, as Batman seeks to uncover the Phantasm’s secret identity, while at the same time trying to figure out what connection it has to the mob.

This is the part of the movie that troubles me. Yes, the story is engaging, and it develops superbly to include Batman’s arch-nemesis, The Joker (Mark Hamill), but when I sit back and think about it, it all just seems like a very stylish–and much cleverer–version of a Scooby Doo mystery, but without Scooby Doo and the whole gang. Masked ghostly being kills people. Hero begins investigation. There is misdirection. And there is the eventual unmasking of the villain that usually includes some sort of twist. All that’s missing is a grand chase to some really cheesy music.

This isn’t a stab at Scooby Doo–I much enjoyed the old Scooby cartoons when I was young–but being a self-contained Batman movie, I expected a story more rooted in the vein of Batman’s usual escapades. It’s a movie that has inspired the franchise that follows it, and it has also been inspired by movies that have come before: There is a shot that directly references Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 classic, Akira. It’s decent in its storytelling, but is great in its character building. Had these two aspects merged seamlessly, Mask Of The Phantasm could have become something special.

Best Moment | Nope.

Worst Moment | The scene where Batman confronts a poisoned Arthur Reeves in hospital. I honestly had no idea if this scene was taking place in the past or present, and I had no idea who the man laughing hysterically on the bed was. He looked nothing like Arthur. The whole thing just seemed awkward.

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