Tuesday, 10 September 2013

1993 Retrospective: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (d. Eric Radomski and Bruce W. Timm)

A/N: Why, yes, I am in fact still slogging through those 1993 releases and because I'm still in sluggish mode I'm actually republishing a review I published elsewhere (with some changes). Both because it's time for a new review to go up, and because I do appreciate this underrated film of the 1993. Check out the Oscar races that Walter has parsed through on his blog.

Also, this baby gets long - so, take a breath.

I have often had the argument with myself, and with others, about what should be expected from purported “genres” of films. I say purported because two of the most problematic “genres” of films for me are musicals and animation. Because, unlike, for example, comedy as a genre where the genre necessitates certain strictures in the film (i.e. humour as a propellant of the plot) animation and musicals emerge more as film styles more than actual elements in a film’s story. Visually (or aurally, if it’s a musical) similarities exists – always, but any number of stories could be told through animation or music. And, as much as strides have been made in developing the animation style from this narrow perspective audiences still have a limited concept of what an animated film should be.

I begin with this preface because 20 years ago when Batman: Mask of the Phantasm I suspect that the expectations of the animation “genre” was one of the bugbears preventing it from achieving commercial success. There were mitigating circumstances, of course: a serious of unfortunate events – poor marketing, a rushed pre-release ad campaign, competition from more conventionally themes animated films, but ultimately I wonder if the strident lack of potent appeal to the children is what prevented the film for enduring as successfully as it should have.

With only 76 minutes at its disposal the film opens with immediate tension which is immediately something I love about it, because how lovely to see a film not wasting time on exposition. A conference of criminals is underway. And, of course, nefarious things are afoot. Batman interrupts and a brawl ensues. A similarly (but not quite the same) cloaked figure appears and forces the chief gangster – Chuckie Sol – to his death. Over time as the eponymous phantasm strikes again Batman becomes the target of the blame eliciting in our steely hero a vague sense of self-doubt as he begins to evaluate the wisdom of his job as the Caped Crusader. This self-doubt is augmented by the return of Andrea Beaumont – the one that got away – to Gotham City. If that preamble sounds generally pedestrian, and it well might, it’s important to remember that as far as superhero themed films go the most basic of narrative elements are often familiar – a mysterious antagonist must be found, the hero’s goodness is called into question, self-doubt pervades and a woman is caught up in the shenanigans. What makes Batman: Mask of the Phantasm notable as a significant film in the canon of Batman films is – well, inter alia – the meticulousness with which the tale is presented.

Oftentimes there is a, sometimes unnecessary, demand for filmmakers to display a perceptible streak of levity in their films. This levity must be two fold for anything from the comic or superhero genre and then double times that if it happens to be animated. I suspect that historically Batman: Mask of the Phantasm might have been something of an odd duck for audience members presented with a meticulously grim Gotham City intent on the examination of a myriad of serious issues. One of the most effective things that the film does – something which 75% of films are not able to do as adeptly – is incorporate the flashback technique without becoming extraneous or frustrating. This is particularly admirable considering that about half of the film is told in flashback.

For, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is an origins story. And it, curiously, does not use the origin as the main hook of the story instead presenting it as the secondary element of the already very concise film. This achieves two significant things. For one, it allows for a movie which does not exist – at least not obtrusively – as a “prologue”. What we have here is a film that’s more than (just) a “how Batman became Batman” exercise, and one of the critical dangers of presenting origin stories is eliciting the audience’s interest in the superhero before anything or superlative or heroic has happened. The second and more important thing the parsimoniously distributed flashbacks achieve is allowing for a precise symbiotic relationship with the main thrust of the film – the revelation of that deadly Phantasm. The way the flashbacks allow for a smooth integration of Batman’s origin with the film’s main “antagonist” exists a paradigm for the way that all the elements of film’s first act becomes significant, and key contributors to the film’s final dénouement.

Ahoy, there be spoilers. Sort of. If you squint.

...more on Phantasm...and my top ten comic book to film adaptations below the jump....

Burnett’s script manages to make a complete whole of Bruce’s decision to become Batman, his ill-fated romance (and said love-interest’s family drama), the trials of living for your parents whilst all the while playing with familiar relationships like Alfred and Bruce and Batman and The Joker. Shakespeare once said that brevity is the soul of wit, which doesn’t quite translate to smaller things being more effective but instead points to the goodness that can be found in compression. It’s not so much that I praise Radomski and Timm for directing a film with so many nuances and making it so short. Instead, I’m impressed with their ability to examine so many aspects of drama on such a small tableau without resulting in incomplete chaos.

In case you have not already surmised, this is my favourite incarnation of the Caped Crusader, by a mile. When The Film Experience had their contributors' poll for best comic book adaptations, this is what my top 10 looked like:

1. Scott Pilgrim vs the World
2. History of Violence
3. Spider Man


4. Dick Tracy
5. Persepolis
6. Spider Man 2
7. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

8. The Mask
9. Batman Returns
10. Batman Begins
An in compiling the list it made me think of one of the more intriguing aspects of the onslaught of comic to film adaptations of over the last three summers. The purported need for levity. The Chris Nolan Batman films, which I'm mostly cool on, have been given the title of bringing a brooding nature to comic book films which many consider unnecessary. I've often frowned in the face of the need for levity, though. I'm no comic book aficionado but the question of whether focused seriousness is necessary in a superhero film seems more of a nonstarter. And, more than a decade pre-Nolan Phantasm succeeds at a gloomy but not claustrophobic assessment of the superhero world that does not lose any of its panache for its seriousness. Most significantly, though, I wonder if the animated style which deliberately de-emphasises star turns is a reason the film works so well. There's no real inclination to wonder about the star making the roles when you cannot see them.

And, can I just applaud the deft handling of the film’s principal female character Andrea Beaumont? Love interest, she may be, but for a 76 film with so much to do Andrea is a beautifully constructed, and complex, character. I hate that 20 years after its release this fact is still something that needs to be so resoundingly cheered but it’s still one of the many things to truly appreciate about this film. If I spend so much time sending-up the narrative of the film at the expense of its literal animation, it’s not without reason because Mask of Phantasm is not the prettiest animated film of the decade. Of that year even. Tim, in his review, speaks more to its animation pitfalls which are not overwhelming but visually it is, perhaps, only good and not excellently. Which makes it only too lucky that it lands so well on the story aspect.

This is not to say that the film wraps up every question is asks with a tidy bow. Before the credits roll I found myself asking – why couldn’t those two crazy kids work it out? Or – better yet, why isn’t vengeance a noble road to take? Or, most significant, isn’t Bruce’s ultimate dilemma his own doing? I realise, though, that the questions which I’m left with are not owing to structural or narrative flaws in the film but instead betray the significant moral issues which this animated film provokes. What does one hope to find in the animated genre? Slowly, we’re growing towards awareness that it is more a style than a genre and an eclectic number of different stories can be told using the medium – not a single one. The sensitivity and seriousness with which Batman: Mask of the Phantasm espies its heroes makes me think that perhaps it is that same lack of levity which made it unpopular to audiences in 1993. Conversely, it’s that same lack of levity which – I believe – makes it such an intriguing film for adults. For – animated or live action – it’s good when a 76 minute piece of art can leave us asking questions about our ethics.

Grade: I’ll eternally flip-flop about this one, but settle on….A-? Maybe.

PS. That grade for The Piano was supposed to be an A and not an A-, not that grades matter yada yada ya.


Joel Bocko said...

Totally agreed on this, which is also my favorite Batman movie. It's not just the lack of forced levity, but also the humanism (something that is distinctly lacking from the - ironically - less three-dimensional Nolan films). This is the only Batman film where I feel truly invested in him as a character. And Andrea is certainly the most well-developed female character to appear in a Batman movie.

Increasingly I notice some of my favorite animated films are seemingly "minor" ones that nonetheless have more heart and imagination than dozens of more high-profile classics (though I like some of those two). Another example to my mind would be The Brave Little Toaster.

Excellent review, btw.

Jerry E Beuterbaugh said...

"Encore's World of Film & TV" has been included in the A Sunday Drive for this week. Be assured that I hope this helps to even more new visitors in your direction.


Andrew K. said...

thanks joel. you raise some excellent points about the film's lack of FORCED levity. i've heard more than a few say that intrinsically superhero films are silly and should be presented as such, but this film is a sound argument against that claim.

jerry thanks much for the link.