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”

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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.

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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.

Film Review: ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’

Starring (voices):  Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise

Directed by:  Sam Liu / Written by:  Brian Azzarrello / 76 minutes

What’s it about?

Hunting for an escaped Joker, Batman finds himself in a race against time to rescue Commissioner Gordon form the clutches of the deranged Clown Prince of Crime…

In review

Having already adapted Frank Miller’s seminal Batman: Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, it was always inevitable that Warner Brothers Animation would turn to tackling that other celebrated DC Comics work of the 1980s, writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke.  A dark and psychologically complex tale that’s equally unnerving, The Killing Joke adapted as an adult-rated animated feature would surely be a ready-made success?  Though enjoyable in many areas, Batman: The Killing Joke also proves flawed and never manages to hit the heights of the two-part adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns (which in all fairness is an entirely different story and set on a much larger scale).  The main issue lies with the source material, though Moore and Bolland’s graphic novel is an undisputed and flawless classic, it’s relatively short length would have resulted in too brief a running time had it been adapted ‘as is’.  As a result screenwriter (and fan favourite DC Comics scribe) Brian Azzarello has produced a wholly original 30-minute opening act focusing on Barbara Gordon/Batgirl that ultimately offers less to the overall story than it would hope to add.

There is a positive point to the opening act of The Killing Joke in that it provides Barbara Gordon with a larger role and resultantly a richer character arc in the story as Azzarello draws a complex and controversial relationship between Batman and Batgirl, set against her obsessive quest to bring down gangster Paris Franz (Maury Sterling).  It certainly helps the viewer to establish a deeper connection with Barbara adding some emotional weight to events later on yet it’s the almost jarring transition from this new material to the familiar where things falter, as nothing from the Franz sub-plot and very little from the Batman/Batgirl dynamic carries over into the rest of the film.  It’s appreciated that this would cause further deviation from Moore and Bolland’s original story and thus might have resulted in a messier final product but it’s a shame that even a small attempt to tie the two elements together couldn’t have been made.

The opening Batgirl story aside, the actual adaptation of The Killing Joke works relatively well.  It’s pleasingly faithful, the adult rating ensuring that director Sam Liu is able to depict every gut twisting moment uncensored, with some beautiful animation work utilising a style that sits somewhere between the realistic look of the Batman: Year One (also helmed by Liu) adaptation and the slightly more caricature visuals of The Dark Knight Returns.  Wisely, some of Brian Bolland’s most memorable and evocative panels are replicated perfectly at several key moments in the film which will give many a reason to pull out their copies of the graphic novel.

Of course, one of the greatest joys of The Killing Joke is that it features the return of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill in their respective and much loved Batman: The Animated Series roles as Bruce Wayne/Batman and the Joker.  They’re as great as they’ve ever been, Hamill in particular as he deftly straddles a fine line between serious and outright manic, his evermore gravelly tones delivering a reliably unsettling yet still silly Joker (aided by an odd but nifty musical number).  Tara Strong also reprises her Batgirl role from The New Batman Adventures and makes a decent job of conveying the more layered approach to the character featured here, whereas Robocop’s Ray Wise is a little flat as Commissioner Gordon which is slightly disappointing given what happens to him in the story.

Sweetening the deal are a number of nice little easter eggs for fans to lap up including visual references to Jokers from Tim Burton’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (both of which were heavily influenced by The Killing Joke) and a twist on that iconic cover image from Detective Comics #27.

Despite some positive points, there’s an overriding sense that the animated adaptation of The Killing Joke comes off feeling a little slight and at times lacking the impact of the graphic novel (especially in the often dissected and endlessly debated finale) and the additional material would have arguably been better served expanded into its own feature.  Still, with Conroy and Hamill on hand and some striking visuals and a respectful adherence to the work by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland there’s still enough reason for fans to check out this latest DC Comics venture from Warner Brothers Animation.

The bottom line:  Though flawed, the animated adaptation of The Killing Joke still makes for an enjoyable watch that will ultimately lead fans yearning to revisit Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s original graphic novel.

Batman: The Killing Joke is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download now.

Batman (Kevin Conroy) and the Joker (Mark Hamill) face off in the Warner Brothers Animation adaptation of seminal DC Comics graphic novel 'Batman: The Killing Joke'.

Batman (Kevin Conroy) and the Joker (Mark Hamill) face off in the Warner Brothers Animation adaptation of seminal DC Comics graphic novel ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’.

GBUK Film Classics: ‘Batman’ (1989)

Looking at some all-time favourites…

“Have you ever danced with the devil by the pale moonlight?”

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Batman (Michael Keaton) and the Joker (Jack Nicholson) face off in Tim Burton’s seminal big sceeen adaptation of the DC Comics character (credit: DC/Warner Bros).

Year:  1989

Starring:  Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Pat Hingle, Jack Palance, Michael Gough

Director:  Tim Burton / Written by:  Sam Hamm & Warren Skaaren

What’s it about?

Protected by the mysterious ‘Batman’, the innocent of the corrupt and crime-ridden Gotham City soon find themselves facing a new and deadly threat…a homicidal criminal known only as ‘the Joker’!

In review

Amongst the many screen iterations of Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s comic book creation, for many Tim Burton’s Batman is perhaps the most perfect.

The highest grossing box office success (and merchandising behemoth) of 1989, Batman succeeds on numerous levels.  Whilst taking the iconic character and his world back to the roots of Kane and Finger’s vision and mirroring the darker and more adult comic book interpretations of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Tim Burton’s gothic fantasy also retains an element of the camp wit and charm of the hit 1960s Batman television series starring Adam West.

Michael Keaton makes for a perfect Bruce Wayne.  Effectively dark and brooding with just the right hint of angst, Keaton proved the naysayers of the time wrong and allayed the fears of millions of Bat-maniacs (here’s hoping the same will be true of Ben Affleck in the forthcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).  Beyond a flashback to the tragic murder of Wayne’s parents, the origin of Batman is not explored in too much detail yet provides the crux of Bruce Wayne’s story and the subtleties of Keaton’s performance are a key element.

Synonymous with the film’s tone, Jack Nicholson (who receives top-billing above Keaton) infuses the role of Jack Napier/Joker with a multi-faceted performance.  As gangster Napier, he exudes a steely calm but once reborn as the Joker we are treated to an electrifying and manic portrayal that melds the psychotic elements of Nicholson’s iconic turn in The Shining with a homicidal twist on the camp clowning of Cesar Romero’s portrayal of ‘the Clown Prince of Crime’ in the Adam West TV series.

The cast is rounded out by a list of noteworthy names including Kim Basinger, who brings a touch of sparkle and elegance to proceedings as love interest Vicki Vale, Michael Gough as Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler, Alfred, Pat Hingle as police commissioner Gordon and Jack Palance as crime boss Carl Grissom.

Beyond the performances of the principal stars, Anton Furst’s Academy Award Winning production design brings the decaying, crime infested streets of Gotham City breathlessly to life (all the more impressive considering it all comprises of sets constructed at Pinewood Studios) and the exhilarating action is elevated by neat stunt work, scintillating pyrotechnics and exemplary special effects and miniatures by the legendary Derek Meddings.  The costume design is also inspired, from the jet black armour of the Dark Knight himself to Vicki Vale’s elegant clothing and the pin stripe suits, hats and trench coats – all lending themselves to the otherworldly ‘pulp’ feel of Batman.  It would also be remiss to not mention Batman’s “wonderful toys” the highlight of which is the sleek and formidable Batmobile, complete with machine guns, armour shields and that iconic flame exhaust!

Equally important to the piece are the dynamic themes of Danny Elfman’s exciting and atmospheric score, complemented by specially produced songs written and performed by Prince.

Tim Burton’s Batman transports the viewer into the panels of the comic book world, brought to life by incredible sets and outstanding cast performances – a true classic of the genre.

Standout moment

Having thwarted the raid on the Axis Chemicals plant, Batman escapes the pursuing Gotham City police in a shroud of smoke – yet the damage has been done, from a vat of acid a white hand rises.  The Joker is born…

Three reasons it’s a classic…

  1. It presents a dark and moody interpretation of Bob Kane’s creation that’s still fun and retains an element of comic book camp without the silliness of later sequels.
  1. It features one of Jack Nicholson’s greatest and most intense performances, providing the definitive screen Joker.
  1. It boasts impressive production design, bringing the ‘character’ of Gotham City to life.

Did you know?

Batman co-creator Bob Kane was originally due to cameo in the film but fell ill, leading to the proposed scene being scrapped.

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Batman Begins : the opening chapter to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy presents a more grounded version of Batman and Gotham City that’s breathtakingly realised and benefits greatly from stellar casting with Christian Bale proving the perfect fit as a grieving Bruce Wayne who seeks to reinvent himself as a symbol for justice…

Batman Returns : although veering a little too far into the realm of gothic fantasy, Tim Burton’s sequel to Batman is still an impressively designed and action-packed affair with a confident return from Michael Keaton and memorable performances from Danny DeVito (the Penguin) and Michelle Pfeiffer (Catwoman).