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.

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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.

Flashback: ‘ Batman Returns’

The summer of 1992 saw Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight faced with two iconic foes in Tim Burton’s second (and final) Batman film…

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The superb Michael Keaton dons the cape and cowl once more in ‘Batman Returns’ (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Year:  1992

Starring:  Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle

Directed by:  Tim Burton / written by:  Daniel Waters (story by Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm)

What’s it about?

Batman faces a new challenge when a corrupt businessman plots with the villainous Penguin to seize control of Gotham City, with matters further complicated by the appearance of the mysterious ‘Catwoman’…

Retrospective/review

Given the blockbuster success of Batman in the summer of 1989, Warner Bros. Pictures were naturally keen on producing a sequel.  Released in June of 1992, Batman Returns, whilst not as good as its landmark predecessor (although for some the reverse applies) easily qualifies as a strong second outing for Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight.  Although there’s slightly less focus on Bruce Wayne/Batman, Batman Returns is still very much a Batman film lovingly produced through the dark gothic imaginings of Tim Burton.  It’s clear that Burton was given more creative freedom as Batman Returns has even more of an idiosyncratic and fantastical touch that makes it unmistakably a Tim Burton film, but still feels appropriate for a major Batman feature born in the era of seminal comics works The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns and would also serve to inspire the exemplary Batman: The Animated Series.

Having formerly taken on Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Batman Returns doubles the jeopardy with two main antagonists – the Penguin and Catwoman, who are reinvented for this iteration.  Danny DeVito lives and breathes the role of Oswald Cobblepot – otherwise known as ‘the Penguin’ – his podgy, diminutive build, pointed nose and flipper-like hands giving him somewhat of a grotesque and literally penguin-like appearance, effectively evoked via the brilliant make-up design.  Much like the ‘monsters’ of the classic Universal horrors, his villainy is driven by tragedy – specifically, abandonment by his parents as an infant – and a desire for acceptance.  Michelle Pfeiffer is a similar revelation as Selina Kyle, starting out as the meek underdog before the fateful incident that leads to her ‘rebirth’ as the sultry and formidable Catwoman who, like Bruce Wayne, finds herself grappling with dual personas.

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The Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfieffer) provide double the trouble for Batman (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

Colluding with DeVito’s Penguin is the excellent Christopher Walken (who previously proved his worth as a villain in James Bond outing A View to a Kill) as devious Gotham businessman Max Schreck – named after the actor who portrayed Count Orlock in the classic German horror Nosferatu – who brings further weight to the threat Batman must face.  As for Michael Keaton he continues to impress, deftly straddling the line between his two identities bringing emotional complexity to Bruce Wayne, aided greatly by the chemistry he shares with Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle, whilst applying a confident measure of brooding and intensity once he dons the iconic cape and cowl of the Batman.

Batman Returns is a very atmospheric film (benefitting from another great Danny Elfman music score), the Christmas holiday setting and frequent snowfall adding a feeling of wintry crispness to the gothic chill evoked by Bo Welch’s wonderful sets which build upon Anton Furst’s Academy Award winning work on the previous film.  A gentle increase in humour provides an element of quirkiness and levity (especially in the exchanges between Bruce and Michael Gough’s Alfred) without undermining the darker and more dramatic themes of the story.  As with Batman, the stunts and choreography in the fight sequences are top-notch and coupled with superbly staged action set-pieces (bolstered by some deftly executed pyrotechnics) provide plenty of visual excitement.  It all makes for a fun and artfully crafted comic book blockbuster at a time when such a thing wasn’t so common.

Read the classics review of Batman (1989) right here.

Geek fact!

Batman Returns features an early screen appearance from Hellboy and Star Trek: Discovery star Doug Jones as one of Penguin’s circus clown goons.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

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’.