Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Bat-Extravaganza Part 2: Mask of The Phantasm

This post must begin with an acknowledgement of the terrible news of the shooting at the cinema in Colorado on Friday. This was a senseless, shocking and unfathomable act of violence, and my thoughts and sincerest condolences go to the victims and their families. Christopher Nolan has responded to the tragedy in a far more sensitive, articulate and poignant way than I could, so I have left a link to his statement here.

After weeks of intense anticipation I saw The Dark Knight Rises on Saturday, and have just returned from seeing it a second time. There are plenty of reviews already available, ranging from the exultant to the disappointed, but on this occasion I'd like to add my own voice to the mix. A nice, full review of The Dark Knight Rises will be forthcoming sometime in the next week, hopefully before the end of the week. Most reviewers have been careful to avoid spoilers but there are a few issues I'd really like to discuss where spoilers can't be avoided, so consider this an early and very major spoiler warning for the next post. If you want to know whether I liked it or whether you should see it, then my initial reaction was that I loved it, and it was a great end to the series, though I had one or two minor issues with it. And yes of course you should see it: it's Batman 3 for Chrissakes!

So, on to the subject of today's post: Batman: Mask of The Phantasm, the all-but-forgotten but quietly brilliant 1993 animated feature. Mask of the Phantasm was released in cinemas following the success of the 1990s TV show, Batman: The Animated Series, which ran for two seasons in its original incarnation from 1992 - 1995. The show itself won many critical plaudits and awards, and is widely regarded as one of the best adaptations of Batman ever produced. The Animated Series is easily one of my favourite TV series, animated or otherwise, combining a beautiful, art deco-influenced aesthetic, mature storylines, a great central performance from Kevin Conroy as Batman, and a terrific supporting cast which includes Mark Hammill as the Joker. Mask of the Phantasm continues the style and mature storylines of the series as a feature, and boy, does it deliver as a full-blown Batman film. The plot revolves around a masked, seemingly invincible spectre that arrives in Gotham and who starts systematically killing mob bosses. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is confronted by the reappearance after many years of his lost love, Andrea Beaumont. The action jumps back and forth between Batman's investigation of the mysterious Phantasm as he offs more mobsters, and the flashback scenes in which Bruce's romance with Andrea blossoms. In these scenes, we are presented with a young Wayne, preparing himself to take up the mantle of the crimefighter  that will eventually become Batman. However, he meets Andrea, and in the most emotional scene of the film, questions whether he really wants to fight crime any more. The bare skeleton of the plot of Phantasm seems like pretty standard superhero stuff, particularly with the conflict-from-romantic-entanglement angle, but it's in the execution of these well-worn tropes that Phantasm truly shines, and succeeds in offering emotional maturity and focus that few live-action superhero films have achieved. Audiences familiar with Nolan's superb Batman Begins may find many similar story beats in Phantasm: Bruce's early fights with crooks before he dons the batsuit, for example, and his reasoning behind using a bat as a symbol of fear are prevalent in both Phantasm and Begins: both films are heavily and explicitly influenced by the superlative Frank Miller / David Mazzucchelli Batman: Year One, often regarded as the greatest Batman graphic novel ever written. 

In my view, Mask of the Phantasm is second only to Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy as the best feature-length Batman film. The Animated Series and Phantasm both took their visual aesthetic cues (as well as their music theme) from Tim Burton's stylised and visually striking Batman and Batman Returns, both of which are very good Batman films in their own rights. But where Burton's films sacrificed emotional depth and narrative coherence (particularly in Returns) for visual splendour and spectacle, Mask of the Phantasm gives us all the stylistic trappings of Batman, and an emotionally compelling and focussed narrative to boot. All the familiar visual cues remain; as well as the suit, the Batcave, and the Burton-era Batmobile, we see Bruce lay the iconic red roses at his parent's grave, complemented by the sky that burns red as a perpetual reminder both of Bruce's anger and of the darkness that he inhabits. Indeed, the depth that the visuals convey is frequently disarming and quite beautiful. For example, the first scene that we see Bruce Wayne (as opposed to Batman), he has slunk off from a party, and his humorous, sociable facade has dropped. In his study he looks up mournfully at a portrait of his parents, tears brimming in his eyes. In a moment of silent reminiscence and grief, Alfred walks in on Bruce as he stands with his back to the door:

The frame presents us with a remarkable amount of characterisation. Firstly, the camera is up high and away from Bruce, giving us full access to the room. Bruce is a tiny figure, away from the centre of the frame and dwarfed by the room he is in, appearing small and vulnerable. The walls are practically bare, save for the portrait of his parents: a constant reminder of their murder when he was a child. The window frame casts shadows in harsh, chiaroscuro lines that are reminiscent the black and white lines of film noir, and refer both to the shadow of murder and grief that forever hangs on Bruce, as well as to the comic-book origins of the Batman, when Bruce Wayne originally saw a bat at his window, vowing to adopt its image as a symbol of fear against 'cowardly, superstitious' criminals. Alfred stands at the doorway, light flooding in from the party as his shadow is cast on the floor. This sudden influx of warm orangey light contrasts with the cold blue dimness of the rest of the frame, and emphasises not only Bruce's emotional and physical location in the dark, but also that he is there alone, isolated from the external world. Bruce's mentor Alfred remains at the door's threshold, and even the audience's viewpoint is kept away up in the ceiling, reminding us of that separation. Later, in a flashback scene, Bruce proposes to Andrea, and she accepts. Bruce knows that if he is going to have a life with her he will have to give up his career as Batman before it has begun, and he has already chosen to do so. Because the scene is in flashback, we know ultimately how this is going to end for Bruce and Andrea, but in that moment it seems as is if there should be no reason that it won't work out for them. Just as they embrace in the sunset, a mass of bats erupts out of a crack in the rock, swirls around them and flies into the twilight sky reminding us of the inevitability of Bruce's fate and his doomed relationship with Andrea. Not only is this is a visual callback to Batman: Year One  Mask of the Phantasm packed with this kind of rich, visual sensibility, augmented by a very good script that, especially in the flashback scenes, gives Bruce gravitas and depth.

A title page from Batman: Year One

A visual nod to Year One in Mask of the Phantasm

In the scene where Bruce chooses Andrea over a life of fighting crime, he visits his parents' grave to beg forgiveness for the promise he's about to break. Framed by gothic thunder and lightning, and a huge stone gravestone, the most effective part of the scene is where Bruce tries to explain that 'it just doesn't hurt so bad any more'. It's a succinct, emotive line than really humanises Bruce as a young man, beset by a terrible tragedy, who simply wants to get on with his life. For all the nuanced character analysis in Nolan's Bat-series, this scene in Phantasm really encapsulates the ongoing tragedy at the centre of Bruce's life in a way that no other Batman film has achieved. It's all the more sad because we know, at some point, he does become the Batman, and ultimately leave behind any semblance of a normal life. 

Bruce's fate is sealed when Andrea absconds, leaving him her engagement ring. This is what finally convinces Wayne to don the suit and become the Batman, and it's nice to see a new take Batman's origins, complicating the story by having Bruce Wayne's life getting in the way of a promise he made as a child. Back in in the present, the police believe that Batman is behind the mob killings, and before long his old enemy the Joker becomes involved in the fray. Here, the Joker plays as a secondary, though key, villain to the Phantasm, and although you'll probably spot the identity of the Phantasm a mile off, it doesn't diminish the impact when he is finally unmasked. The finale takes place in an abandoned museum of the future, which Joker has made his hideout, which not only makes a great location for some great pyrotechnics, but also provides an ironic setting in which to explore Bruce's inability to escape the past, tortured both by his parents' murders and his lost love. Just like the empty study, Bruce can't leave the decayed, traumatic world of the past to join the living world of the present. It's no surprise then, that he adopts an image of the night, of death, as his symbol. The batsuit, tied as it is to Andrea leaving him, becomes emblematic of Bruce's inertia. What is brilliant about Mask of the Phantasm is that, Nolan's films aside, this really is the most complex presentation of the Bruce Wayne / Batman dual identity we have ever had on screen. Moreover, despite being primarily aimed at a young audience, the emphasis is on nuanced character analysis, not on action. The violence that the film does have is there in service of the story, and while never graphic, is often quite gritty and never feels hamstrung by the film's target family audience. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm really is one of the best Batman films, and offers a unique, compelling and emotive take on the character. With the release of Nolan's final Batman film, it's a great time to find a copy (you can get it on the 'net for a couple of quid) and check out what is in many ways the most faithful, and even definitive cinematic adaptation of Batman.

Next time it's the review you've all been waiting for: The Dark Knight Rises, with plenty of spoilers, so watch this space!

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