DCAU #70: Mask of the Phantasm

IN THIS ONE... A ghostly vigilante is in Gotham killing mobsters and Bruce Wayne is forced to recall his early days as a vigilante and the love affair that almost prevented the Batman's birth.

CREDITS: Written by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko and Michael Reaves; directed by Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm.

REVIEW: It goes without saying that on the big screen (and I was lucky enough to see it in theaters during its brief 1993 run), the DCAU is bigger and bolder. The scope is larger, there are more locations and better use of painted mattes. The sound design is richer and the music more operatic, a chorus singing the opening theme. The explosions more violent, the shadows more detailed, and everything the show's usually done well, done perfectly. And without TV's strict content requirements, people are finally allowed to die, smoke, bleed and have sex in a BTAS story! Nothing untoward - they cut away from anything objectionable - but it gives everything a more a adult sheen anyway. (We still don't see the Waynes gunned down, however.) I remember being a little disappointed that the film only ran 75 minutes back in the day, but seen in as part of these daily reviews, it's actually amazing that the format stretches from 22 to 75 minutes without feeling padded.

That's of course the result of telling two stories, or the same story across two time frames, if you prefer. In the present day, a phantasmic vigilante is giving Batman a bad name and making this viewer wonder how he/she does those vanishing tricks. The movie is actually quite good at hiding the fact that the Phantasm (never actually named in the film) is Batman's old flame Andrea Beaumont acting as her dead father's avatar - especially for readers of Batman: Year Two (see below) - but seeing as she has a macabre relationship with dead relatives (perhaps more than Bruce does, though they are definitely both people defined by their dead parents), it's not unearned. Her deadly quest to kill the men who murdered her father eventually takes her to the Joker who pulled the trigger in the days before the purple suit, a Joker more terrifying still for actually making his victims die of laughter. He shows up past the halfway point to give the movie an extra shot in the arm; not necessary, but it's good to have an iconic enemy of this caliber as part of the proceedings, I think.

In the past, we see how Bruce Wayne started fighting crime, and only slowly came to the realization that he needed to strike fear in the hearts of men. But his mission isn't without its "last temptation". The happiness he finds with Andrea forces him to admit "it doesn't hurt as much", and there's a terrific scene where he begs his parents' grave to release him from his promise. He's basically bargaining with himself, since they never asked anything of him. He chooses Andrea, in the end, but circumstances split them apart on the night of their engagement (hundreds of bats interrupting their moment should have been a sign), which I think is weaker than if he'd made the sacrifice voluntarily. In the present, this will happen again, because Andrea lost her soul. In addition to his trademark dry wit, the film makes great use of Alfred (as opposed to Gordon who hardly appears), giving him a speech that makes the Batcave's gaping chasm a symbol of the despair Bruce never fell prey to; Andrea, meanwhile, fell into that pit and was lost. And you may well feel sad about it because they really were a good match, Andrea all the more sexy for having Dana Delany's voice; she was my first celebrity crush, I have to admit.

So it's one of Batman's more emotional stories, but it's also filled with action worthy of the big screen. The footchase between a desperate Batman and the GCPD is full of suspense. Bruce Wayne's unmasked fight with bikers in which he gets a wooden bat broken on his chest - wow! The Joker's lair at the World's Fair provides lots of great opportunities for original action beats (including a jet pack battle) in addition to representing well the way the story straddled different time frames. Things blow up real well, and the stunts would look great in live action.

IN THE COMICS: The Phantasm is heavily based on the Reaper, a vigilante Batman crossed paths with in Mike Barr's Year Two storyline. Though this Reaper did not turn out to be a woman (Andrea Beaumont does not appear per se in mainstream continuity comics), he WAS  a socialite, named Judson Caspian. This Reaper patrolled Gotham in the 1950s and had made a return in the story, and his daughter Rachel almost married Bruce Wayne. She becomes a nun after her father dies. So Mask is very much a remix of that story, with some elements of Batman's origin in Year One (and more recently, adapted into Year Zero) like the discovery of the Batcave, the attempts at fighting crime in a simple ski mask, etc. There are several Easter eggs (happy Easter, by the way) in the film using the names of the show's staffers, but the comic book creators get some too, most notably businesses named after (Dennis) O'Neil and (Neil) Adams.

The comic book adaptation of Mask of the Phantasm (which will not be reviewed separately) has a few tweaks. It omits the bubble-headed Asian girl hanging on Bruce's arm. And there's no room for the long foot chase between an unmasked Batman and the cops, not most of the fight in the miniature city. A later comic book appearance by the Phantasm will reveal that Andrea took the Joker to the sewers where they continued fighting until an explosion from above blew him into the water and away with the current.

SOUNDS LIKE: As mentioned, Andrea Beaumont is played by Dana Delaney, who became a star with China Beach and would soon play Lois Lane on the Superman Animated Series. Her father and the Phantasm's voice are played by Stacy "Mike Hammer" Keach. Abe Vigoda voices the mobster Salvatore Valestra; he is best known as Salvatore Tessio in The Godfather and Phil Fish in Barney Miller. Dick Miller plays Chuckie Sol; a Corman, Cameron and Dante regular, he is best immortalized as the chauvinistic handyman in the Gremlins movies. The song at the end, "Never Even Told You", is sung by the Relic Hunter herself, Tia Carrere.

REWATCHABILITY: High - Some call it the best Batman film ever put on the big screen; it's definitely in the top 2 or 3.


CalvinPitt said...

I also got to see Mask of the Phantasm in the theaters (my dad went to see Gettysburg instead, which I should really give him crap about sometime. "You went to see both Joel Schumacher Batman movies me, but not an actual good Batman movie?!"

I think this is my favorite Batman film, probably because Animated series Batman is basically my version of Batman. But I love the Phantasm's look here (I've never read Year Two, but based on pages I've seen, that Phantasm's outfit is too busy. Shocking, coming from todd MacFarlane, I know), and the Joker's just great. The way he shifts between cheerful and furious is terrifying.

JeffJedi said...

I thought this was great and having read Year Two i was surprised when the daughter turned out to be the villain. A+

Carlos Rodriguez said...

OK, now I want to see what your Top 3 Batman movie list is.

Siskoid said...

Oh I think I'd probably have '66 and The Dark Knight in there with Mask. Makes for a nice distribution of possible interpretations too!

LiamKav said...

I do love this movie. The only real thing that bugs me is the giving Joker an origin (sort of). I much prefer it when we don't know anything about him, but if I'm forced to pick a backstory I prefer the "one bad day" version.

Also, I think this might be the forth or fifth "It's a g...g...g...girl!" revelation that we've had. Stop being shocked by boobs, BTAS! (It also means that going in to a toy store at the time would have had the Phantasm's identity thoroughly spoiled. http://www.amazon.com/BATMAN-ANIMATED-MOVIE-PHANTASM-ACTION/dp/B000EB3TOO )

In terms of time placement, I always felt that even the modern day stuff takes places fairly early in the series timeline. The GCPD are much more hostile to Batman than they are usually, even Bullock. What made you place this review here, Siskoid? Are we between seasons?

Siskoid said...

This is exactly where it came out, during the Holidays, in the middle of Season 2.


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