Friday, October 1, 2010

"Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" (1993)

Starring Kevin Conroy, Dana Delaney and Mark Hamill
Written by Alan Burnett and Paul Dini
Directed by Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm

Until rather recently, "Mask of the Phantasm" was the best Batman movie.  While Tim Burton's 1989 movie starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson was hugely popular (and heavily influenced the animated series "Mask of the Phantasm" spins off from), there are aspects of it that hold it back.  "Mask of the Phantasm" shares a lot in common with Burton's film, exploring the origin of Batman through flashbacks and incorporating the Joker (pre-acid bath) into that origin.

The mobsters of Gotham City are being targeted by a mysterious assassin (Stacy Keach) who seems very much like the Batman.  One night, Chuckie Sol is killed and the murder is pinned on Batman (Kevin Conroy), who was investigating Sol's money laundering operations.  An ambitious city councilor, Arthur Reeves (Hart Bochner) uses this to further his campaign by calling out the Batman and promising voters to get rid of the dangerous vigilante once and for all.

Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne's old flame Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delaney) comes back into town after years away and reconnects with Reeves, who used to work for her father.  But she's particularly cold towards Bruce, and she knows his secret identity as Batman.  As the bodies pile up, the remaining mobsters become desperate and turn to an old acquaintance they'd rather forget: the Joker (Mark Hamill).  They unleash the homicidal madman upon Gotham to kill the Batman once and for all.  What is Andrea's connection to these dying mobsters?  Who is the mysterious assassin?  Batman faces threats and mystery from all sides as he's chased by the cops, the Joker and the mob in trying to figure it all out.

Intertwined with this is a series of flashbacks showing young Bruce Wayne meeting and falling in love with Andrea just as he's preparing to become a masked vigilante.  He almost gives it up for her, but ultimately the end of their relationship is all the push he needs.  The flashbacks also inform the present-day storyline, giving us clues to who's knocking off these mobsters and why.

"Mask of the Phantasm" handles the back and forth between present day and flashback quite well, never staying too long in either time or outstaying its welcome.  The conflict within the young Bruce about becoming Batman is explored in an entertaining fashion as he realizes that he has the means and the moves to fight crime, but that he still needs some kind of edge.  Ultimately, that edge will be dressing up as a bat and scaring the crap out of the criminals he happens upon.  The scene where he dons his Batman costume for the first time and frightens even Alfred is a great moment in the film.

The introduction of the Joker brings an added element of fun to the proceedings, since Hamill's always a blast in the role.  Here we get some neat hints into his life before he became Batman's most dangerous foe, we get to see him as a hired thug for the mob, which is tantalizingly brief.

The mysterious "Phantasm" is a fine villain, if a bit underdeveloped... That may not be accurate.  We learn quite a bit about him and his reasons, but exposure to the character is rather minimal.  We never really know how he does the things he does or where he got his gadgets and toys.

With all the new characters around, there's not much for the supporting cast of the series to do here.  Commissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings) only gets a couple of lines, while Harvey Bullock appears briefly as well.  Alfred (Efram Zimbalist Jr.) gets a couple of key moments, but is likewise not much of a presence.  But the expanded scope of the action and bigger emotional investment for Batman and the other main characters help give the movie a different feel than just a longer episode of the series.  Not as finely animated as some of the later efforts, "Mask of the Phantasm" is merely okay in that department.  It gets the job done, but is no great classic in the genre.

I do have to say that Shirley Walker's score for "Mask of the Phantasm" is by far my favorite of any Batman movie, including Danny Elfman's better-known work for Tim Burton and certainly better than Hans Zimmer's functional but bland scores for "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight."  Walker's work is bold and fun, with memorable themes and cues for characters and specific sequences.  The dramatic theme for Batman is a fine, fine piece of music that I never get tired of hearing.