It’s a Classic: ‘Batman: Mask of the Phantasm’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce”

Batman - MotP Batman

Batman faces a new threat to Gotham City in ‘Batman: Mask of the Phantasm’ (image credit: Warner Bros.)

Year:  1993

Starring the voices of:  Kevin Conroy, Dana Delany, Hart Bochner, Stacy Keach, Abe Vigoda, Mark Hamill

Directed by:  Eric Radomski and Bruce W. Timm / written by:  Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko & Michael Reaves (story by Alan Burnett)

What’s it about?

Wrongly accused of the murders of several Gotham mobsters, Batman investigates the appearance of a reaper-like figure…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Spinning off from the immensely popular Batman: The Animated Series, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is an exciting, fun and emotionally resonant adventure for the Dark Knight that provides a fresh and compelling insight into the origins of Bruce Wayne’s crime-fighting alter ego, the heartbreak of a lost chance for happiness and the enduring tragedy of the murder of his parents.

Enlisting the voice artists of Batman: The Animated Series with a script (the plot inspired by Mike W. Barr’s Batman: Year Two comics storyline) written by regular writers of the series and directed by creators Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (originally intended as a straight to video release but ultimately receiving a theatrical release during Christmas of 1993) sees Bruce Wayne reconnect with the love of his past, Andrea Beaumont, who returns to Gotham City after disappearing some years prior.  It evokes bittersweet memories for Bruce who is still trying to understand why Andrea left so abruptly just as the pair planned to marry.

Batman - MotP Phantasm

The mysterious Phantasm (image credit: Warner Bros.)

Flashbacks facilitate a glimpse into Bruce’s earlier days in his career as a vigilante but also shows a brief point in that period when he considers a happier and more hopeful path that would see him unburdened by his vow to avenge his parents’ murders and keep Gotham safe.  Meanwhile, in the present, Bruce continues his war against crime and as the Batman, investigates the deaths of some of Gotham’s top mob bosses for which the Dark Knight is wrongly accused and must uncover the identity of the real perpetrator – a mysterious cloaked reaper-like figure who stalks the city at night.  In order to tackle this new threat, Bruce must face unexpected revelations from the past and how it relates to Andrea and her father, a financier entangled in the affairs of crime lord Salvatore Valestra.

Kevin Conroy is the definitive voice artist for the lead role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, bringing a vulnerability and humanity to the former and skilfully infusing the latter with the right amount of intensity and confidence.  Dana Delany is sublimely cast as Andrea with an appropriately strong and heartfelt performance that enhances the love story element of the film.  Filling out the cast is Efrem Zimbalist Jr. who brings his warm, dutiful tones to the role of Alfred (the familial bond between Bruce and his faithful butler is an obvious highlight), Bob Hastings as Jim Gordon, Gotham’s tireless Police Commissioner, Hart Bochner as corrupt City Councilman Arthur Reeves, Stacy Keach as Andrea’s father, Carl, Abe Vigoda as Valestra and Robert Constanza as Detective Harvey Bullock.

Batman - MotP Joker

The incomparable Mark Hamill returns to voice the Joker (image credit: Warner Bros.)

Naturally, any Batman story is made all the greater when it features the Joker and thankfully Mark Hamill reprises the role for Mask of the Phantasm.  Like Kevin Conroy, Hamill is perfect casting and he engages with the part passionately, bringing, assuredly, all the expected maniacal, deranged and playful qualities that define the Dark Knight’s greatest adversary.  The script ensures that the Clown Prince of Crime’s inclusion has important ties to the narrative so as not to simply throw the ever-popular comic villain into the mix merely for the sake of it – leading to a climactic showdown between Batman, the Joker and the Phantasm at the derelict remains of Gotham’s The World of the Future Fair.

Unfortunately, there’s no place for Dick Grayson/Robin in the story but this is very much a Bruce/Batman-focused narrative so whilst the inclusion of Loren Lester may have been welcome, it makes sense not to just shoehorn Robin into the plot – and there’s always the excellent “Robin’s Reckoning” two-parter from TAS.

The animation and design of Mask of the Phantasm is iconic, evoking the dark, retro-modern and gothic style of the series that displays influences of Tim Burton’s Batman.  The character designs are classic and strike the perfect balance between realism and caricature and the visuals flow beautifully with some great action scenes that are deftly executed under the guidance of co-directors Radomski and Timm.  Completing the package is Shirley Walker’s wonderfully atmospheric score which builds on the exemplary work she produced for Batman: TAS.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is essential viewing for older and newer fans alike and stands proudly alongside Tim Burton’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy as a classic screen iteration of a beloved comic book character.

Standout moment

In the darkened caves deep below Wayne Manor, Alfred stands aghast as Bruce emerges from the shadows, donning for the first time the cape and cowl of the Batman…

Geek fact!

Impressing the producers with her work on Mask of the Phantasm, Dana Delany would be cast as the voice of Lois Lane for Superman: The Animated Series.

If you like this then check out…

Batman (1989) : perhaps the defining big screen presentation of the Dark Knight (at least for a particular generation) Tim Burton’s gothic fantasy approach to the source material provided a clear reference point for the makers of Batman: The Animated Series.

Comic Review: ‘Justice League’ #40

Writer Robert Venditti takes on DC’s premier superhero team… 

Justice League #40

Cover art by Bryan Hitch & Jeremiah Skipper (image credit: DC Comics).

Written by:  Robert Venditti / pencils by:  Doug Mahnke / inks by:  Richard Friend / colours by:  David Baron

What’s it about?

“Impact” Part 1 : crashing to Earth, ex-Green Lantern Corps member Sodam Yat delivers a stark warning of an incoming invasion to the Justice League, lead by an old foe of Superman’s…

In review

Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps and Hawkman writer Robert Venditti takes the reigns of DC’s leading team-up title Justice League as issue #40 presents a fresh start with the first chapter of a new story arc, “Impact”.  Venditti’s tenure follows a largely enjoyable run written by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV and with Justice League #40, necessarily scales things back a little and neatly streamlines the superhero group’s roster to a core line-up of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash and John Stewart’s Green Lantern.  It seems that Snyder’s close to issue #39 may not have been what readers may have expected – a cliffhanger of sorts (that in hindsight maybe wasn’t?) – as it isn’t addressed by Venditti who instead favours a clean break whilst acknowledging recent events in the wider DC Universe, such as Superman’s reveal of his true identity to the world (in last December’s Superman #18 by Brian Michael Bendis and Ivan Reis).  After the mind-bending plethora of ideas infused into the book by Messrs Snyder and Tynion it’s an appropriate reset that allows ongoing readers to re-orientate themselves and provide an access point for new fans to jump onboard – and it generally works (there is of course a lot going on in the DC canon of late), making for a solid first issue for the new Justice League writer.

Robert Venditti builds an entertaining and appealing opening instalment of “Impact”, quickly demonstrating his knowledge of the DCU and the characters he utilises for Justice League – with an effective grasp of the familiar dynamics between the various heroes (the conflicted but brotherly Batman/Superman interplay providing some small but key moments).  It may be quite a wordy narrative, and a great deal of the issue is merely setting the stage, but there’s still a decent helping of action to accompany the drama, tension and the high stakes (dialling things back to the more manageable and comprehensive playing field of a single universe) established, wasting no time in introducing a new threat for the League to face: the return of the Eradicator – the cold and ruthless Superman clone who debuted during “Reign of the Supermen” in the 1990s.  Receiving warning from former Green Lantern, Daxam’s Sodam Yat, who crashes to Earth, the Justice League learns the news that the Eradicator has engineered an army of Daxamites free from their Kryptonian vulnerabilities and plans to decimate the planet, beginning a campaign of conquest across the universe.  The Eradicator can often be overlooked and perhaps underrated as a Superman villain and Venditti affirms that in the right hands he can be a powerful (both literally and figuratively) antagonist, without violating the known traits of the character and is bound to provide a significant challenge for our heroes to unite against.

The art by penciller Doug Mahnke (with inks by Richard Friend and colours by David Baron) is very good and although there are some rough and sketchy spots here and there, it’s a great looking comic that’s visually epic and exciting in all the right instances with the more confined, character-focused scenes being equally well-defined and together with Venditti’s script it all keeps the reader engaged and provides plenty of anticipation for what’s to come.

The bottom line:  Robert Venditti takes up writing duties on Justice League and with penciller Doug Mahnke delivers a solid first chapter of a new story arc that promises high stakes for DC’s core heroes.

Justice League #40 is published by DC and is available in print and digital formats now.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

It’s a Classic: ‘Star Trek: First Contact’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“And you people, you’re all astronauts on some kind of star trek”

First Contact - Picard

Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) must face his most lethal enemy in ‘Star Trek: First Contact’ (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

Year:  1996

Starring:  Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner, James Cromwell, Alfre Woodard, Alice Krige

Director:  Jonathan Frakes / written by:  Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga (story by Rick Berman, Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga.  Based upon Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry)

What’s it about?

Captain Picard and his crew pursue the Borg back in time to stop them from changing the future by preventing Earth’s pioneering warp-flight and historic first contact with an alien race…

In review:  why it’s a classic

The finest big screen outing for the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation and one of the overall best Star Trek films, Star Trek: First Contact is an exciting science fiction action adventure that proved a hit with fans and critics as well as general audiences, becoming one of the most financially successful Star Trek features – surpassing previous champion Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

Star Trek: First Contact sees Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-E once again faced with their cybernetic foes, the Borg, who travel back in time to the year 2063 – a decade after Earth’s devastating Third World War – to avert the first flight by warp drive inventor Zefram Cochrane and contact with visitors from Vulcan – an event that unites humanity and sparks a more hopeful future that will lead to the formation of Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets.  Pursuing the Borg back to the 21st Century, the Borg vessel is destroyed by the Enterprise but not before its complement of drones transport into the bowels of Picard’s ship and begin taking control.  As Commander Riker and his away team work to ensure Cochrane’s warp flight occurs as scheduled, Picard must fight to prevent the Borg’s seizure of the Enterprise and their plans to destroy the future.  Star Trek: First Contact ties back to The Next Generation’s classic two-parter “The Best of Both Worlds” (read the review here) in which Picard was abducted and assimilated by the Borg and informs the character’s arc, although it isn’t necessary for casual viewers to have seen it as it’s all explained via Picard’s opening nightmare sequence and some neatly placed exposition.

First Contact - Cochrane

James Cromwell as Zefram Cochrane (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

As Picard, Patrick Stewart is as superb as ever in the role and there is a lot of range for the character in First Contact as the usually noble and disciplined Picard grapples with his traumatic history with the Borg and the Ahab-like anger towards his enemy which begins to override his judgement as a Starfleet captain.  Stewart shares great rapport with his co-stars, particularly Brent Spiner’s Data who is also given a great deal of focus, his loyalty to Picard threatened when he is captured by the Borg and manipulated by their Queen.  Played with a sultry and sinister menace by Alice Krige, the Borg Queen expands the mythology of the cyborg race, an individual voice within the singular Borg Collective whose purpose is to bring “order to chaos” within the hive mind.  James Cromwell provides a wonderfully spirited performance as Zefram Cochrane, a man worshipped as a historical figure by the Enterprise crew who they quickly learn is flawed and prone to drinking too much.  Alfre Woodard is equally great as Cochrane’s assistant, Lily, who has numerous standout scenes with Patrick Stewart – particularly her heated exchange with Picard as his fury against the Borg verges on vendetta, snapping him into realisation with a poignant reference to Moby Dick.  Given his duties as director, Jonathan Frakes’ Commander Riker has less onscreen presence in comparison to Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner but still plays an important role.  The rest of the regular TNG cast are all given their moments within the story – Marina Sirtis’ inebriated Deanna Troi serving up a dash of levity – and luckily First Contact allows for Michael Dorn’s Worf (who at this point had joined the cast of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) to rejoin his former crewmates for their adventure.

First Contact - Borg Queen & Data

Data (Brent Spiner) is manipulated by the Borg Queen (Alice Krige) (image credit: Paramount Pictures).

Star Trek: First Contact thrills with a number of notable action sequences and set-pieces, the highlights including the first act’s space battle against the Borg ship, Picard and his crew’s attempt to halt the Borg’s infiltration and assimilation of the Enterprise and Picard and Worf’s (along with Lt. Hawk, in an early screen appearance by Neal McDonough) excursion onto the ship’s hull to prevent the Borg’s conversion of the main deflector into a means of summoning reinforcements.  The film boasts a great script (from returning Star Trek Generations screenwriters Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga) that has plenty of action, drama, humour and heart and it’s easy to see why it appealed to a wide audience.  It’s a generally pacey adventure that doesn’t sacrifice an enjoyable science fiction story or memorable character moments.  The Borg are a dark threat and the stakes are high yet First Contact maintains the hope and optimism for humanity’s future envisioned by Gene Roddenberry that is the nucleus of any classic Star Trek story.

Having helmed numerous episodes of The Next Generation (as well as Deep Space Nine and Voyager), Jonathan Frakes makes a confident jump to the big screen and keeps First Contact engaging and entertaining.  The production design is excellent and gives it a pleasingly grand, blockbuster feature film look.  The new Enterprise-E is another superb, sleek starship design from illustrator John Eaves that melds the iconic Matt Jeffries concept with that of The Next Generation’s late Enterprise-D.  Likewise, Herman Zimmerman’s interior sets are an appropriate expansion of his previous work.  The new Giger-esque biomechanical look for the Borg courtesy of Michael Westmore makes them an even scarier and formidable enemy and would rightfully earn the film an Oscar nomination.  To top things off, Jerry Goldsmith (with contributions from his son, Joel) provides a classic music score, another career best for the composer that elevates all of the excitement, emotion and atmosphere of the film – the beautifully majestic main theme on par with that of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Star Trek: First Contact is simply a great big screen Star Trek entry that’s not only enjoyable for fans but for casual viewers as well and represents a high point for the franchise as an entertainment enterprise (pun fully intended).

Standout moment

Discovering that the Borg plan to use the Enterprise’s deflector to contact reinforcements, Picard leads a mission on to the starship’s hull in order to stop them…

Geek fact!

An early concept for the film had the Borg travelling back in time even further to the Renaissance period and would see Data become Leonardo DaVinci’s apprentice!

If you like this then check out…

Star Trek (2009) : J.J. Abrams directs this rousing, crowd-pleasing big screen reboot of the franchise as a young James Kirk (Chris Pine) battles to save Earth from a vengeful Romulan from the future…

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).