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.

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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: Hush’

Warner Bros. Animation adapt another popular Batman story for the latest DC Universe animated film… 

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The Dark Knight Detective returns in the Warner Bros. Animation release ‘Batman: Hush’ (image credit Warner Bros/DC Entertainment).

Spoiler-free review

Starring (voices):  Jason O’Mara, Jennifer Morrison, Jerry O’Connell, Rebecca Romijn, Peyton List, Geoffrey Arend, Maury Sterling, Rainn Wilson

Directed by:  Justin Copeland / written by:  Ernie Altbacker / 81 minutes

What’s it about?

Pitted against some of his oldest and most dangerous foes, Batman soon finds himself facing a new enemy – the mysterious ‘Hush’…

In review

Batman: Hush is the latest DC animated film from Warner Bros. Animation, based upon the popular 12-issue story arc (written by Jeph Loeb, with art by Jim Lee) from 2002.  “Hush” is rightfully considered as one of the greatest modern era Batman stories in which Bruce Wayne faces a gauntlet of villains and a mysterious new nemesis – a manipulative, bandage-faced foe known as ‘Hush’ – whilst grappling with stark revelations from his past and the complications of a burgeoning romance with Selina Kyle/Catwoman.

This direct-to-video animated adaptation is an enjoyable one, doing a reasonably solid job of translating the source material to the screen and neatly condensing its elaborate plot into a relatively short running time of 81 minutes (around average for the DC animated films).  Certain elements of the original story are either trimmed or cut entirely but Hush generally feels cohesive and flows steadily without rushing through the narrative or unnecessarily dragging its heels.  Certain changes are made in order to service the adaptation or for creative reasons (mainly to fit Hush within the mainline ‘DC Universe Movie’ continuity) but for the most part they add a freshness to the story for those who have read the comics.  There is, however, one particular alteration that is likely to prove divisive and although it works for the film it arguably robs it of some of the emotional power of the original comic book story – leading to a fairly satisfying but less weighty finale that doesn’t quite measure up to the source material.

As with the comics, Hush places significant focus on the Batman/Catwoman relationship and that plays out as expected, as do several key moments fans will expect – the highlights undoubtedly being that iconic Bat/Cat rooftop embrace, Batman’s ‘tussle’ with Superman – the closest we’ve ever come to the epic conflict in previous DC animation Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part II – and of course, the Batman’s ragingly brutal and bloody encounter with the Joker (pushing the film’s PG13/15 certificate rating).  The inclusion of Bane adds to the drama and adrenaline, although it’s a shame he’s not much beyond a dumb, musclebound brute here, although we are provided with a narrative reason for the character acting less “eloquent” than fans may be accustomed to.

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The Bat and Cat in ‘Batman: Hush’ (image credit: Warner Bros/DC Entertainment).

The voice acting performances are fine, if a tad unexceptional.  Whilst no Kevin Conroy, Jason O’Mara (in his fourth solo outing as the Batman, following Son of Batman, Batman vs Robin and Batman: Bad Blood) is non-the-less reliable in the central role of Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jennifer Morrison is equally adept at delivering the requisite slinky, feline quality to Selina Kyle/Catwoman and the chemistry between the pair is adequate if unremarkable.  Peyton List does well handling two completely different roles – Poison Ivy and Batgirl, Jason Spisak eerily channels Mark Hamill as the Joker, alas Bruce Thomas isn’t the greatest fit for Commissioner Gordon, nor is James Garrett as Alfred (to be fair we have been spoilt by some real star casting in those roles previously).  On the plus side, Hynden Walch is superb as Harley Quinn as is Sean Maher as Nightwing and Geoffrey Arend delivers a pleasingly menacing Riddler whilst Maury Stirling proves a good choice for Bruce’s childhood friend, Thomas Elliott.  There’s also the welcome return of Jerry O’Connell as Clark Kent/Superman as well as Rebecca Romijn as Lois Lane and Rainn Wilson is once again suitably devious as Lex Luthor.

The style of Hush continues the pseudo-anime design of prior DC animation releases which may not be to everyone’s liking but gives an established and consistent look to the universe, although it lacks the detail and craft of Jim Lee’s comic book pencils.  Director Justin Copeland keeps everything tight and focused and delivers some strong and well-staged action scenes which is no small wonder given his experience as a storyboard artist on previous DC animation projects including Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, The Death of Superman and most recently, Reign of the Supermen.

The bottom line:  Batman: Hush is another entertaining Warner Bros/DC animation release that, despite a controversial alteration, does a good job of adapting the iconic comic book story.

Batman: Hush is available digitally now with Blu-ray and DVD releases to follow in August.

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

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’.