Sunday, 21 August 2016

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Directors: Eric Radomski and Bruce W. Timm
Screenplay: Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko and Michael Reaves
(Voice) Cast: Kevin Conroy (as Batman/Bruce Wayne); Dana Delany (Andrea Beaumont); Hart Bochner (Arthur Reeves); Stacy Keach (Carl Beaumont); Abe Vigoda (as Salvatore Valestra); Mark Hamill (The Joker)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #21

Because of what the horror genre tackles - notions of dread, death, decay, the prevailing sense of the ethereal and haunted but also the emotional baggage left behind by it - it's possible for other genres to blur into it or entirely take tropes and moods from it. Batman is a particularly great example of this as a franchise. While I have a growing interest in superheroes, I still prefer Japanese manga and anime in many cases and, when it comes to DC Comics1, Batman is only one of two franchises I've any interest in, the other not even Superman2.Batman is arguably the best superhero ever to be created, and I argue it's as much how flexible to character and world is to various genres as it is that world and its characters. The original character created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger is openly based on the detective films of the period it was created in and pulp characters that existed before, horror found in aspects such as the bat costume to strike fear into criminals and the Joker being inspired by the film The Man Who Laughs (1928). Almost every risk with the world has been successful in keeping it relevant - pure camp with Adam West became as iconic as the serious version of the character; rundown science fiction succeeded through Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (1986); realism through Christopher Nolan's trilogy; even unexpected takes like adding Cthulhu -like mythos in The Doom That Came To Gotham (2000-1), a one-off comic I've recently read penned by Mike "Hellboy" Mignola, work because the characters allow it. (Only full blown sci-fi in Batman Beyond is still sketchy for myself unless I find a great story set in the world. Ironically it's The Big O (2001-3), a two series anime show made by people who worked on the nineties Batman animated series who wanted to pay tribute to it, that shows how Batman in the future could work with noir tropes next to giant robots.)

Horror naturally fits Batman like a hand in a velvet glove, be it Batman himself or villains like the Scarecrow, and while Mask of the Phantasm is a superhero genre film rather than full horror cinema, it gladly seeped a PG child friendly animation with gloom and darkness as a grim reaper figure known as the Phantasm targets gangsters for punishment, Batman blamed for the crimes when the figure disappears into mist and bodies are left. A large part of my love for Batman is nostalgia for the critically acclaimed animated series from the early nineties I grew up with; while I need to return to it, I still at an impressionable age realised the drastic bar in quality the show had, and how adult it was in tone, next to the cartoons I was also watching back then. Revisiting Mask of the Phantasm as an adult, it's a deeply melancholic tale where the Phantasm figure interconnects with the tale of the one woman in Bruce Wayne's life who vanished and broke his heart, the remaining heartache it causes relevant to the current plot. Starting with images of Gotham's skyscrapers and composer Shirley Walker going for the most operatic opening theme possible, one of the only animated theatrical released for a DC Comics franchise is still stupendous and feels like a proper, adult film with emotion to it.

It is strange realise though, when I grew up believing the nineties animated series was set in a contemporary day of the show's own logic, that this version in Mask of the Phantasm is technically a period piece set in the forties, one of the big factors to why the show had such an effect on me being its period aesthetic, an art deco tone of forties noir films and grand architecture that would explain how I became obsessed with aesthetics in cinema and popular media as I did as an adult. With this film some fifties diesel punk aesthetic is added for its own narrative, a retro ray gun tone found in a World of Tomorrow exhibition that plays an important part of Bruce Wayne's (Kevin Conroy) relationship with Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany), a character who returns to his life, and the place the Joker (Mark Hamil) occupies in its desolated form years after. The general style of the Batman franchise, how important the city of Gotham was, helped ground the story and make the character accessible whilst also giving carte blanche for broad, expressionist stylisation; even Joel Schumacher's films, even if you think he vomited neon onto everything, had a sense of style to them that had character even if the rest of the films horrified other viewers.

In terms of covering this film under the scope of horror, its surprisingly dark for a family friendly film, as an adult amazed that in less than eighty minutes that it manages to create such an emotional deep, macabre tale of lost love. Against showing the early beginnings of Bruce Wayne as a vigilante and the creation of Batman, it emphasises the emotional sacrifice of the position against the tragedy of Andrea's life. The figure of Phantasm is straight out of horror cinema, terrorising targets including an extended scene in a graveyard which emphasises death even if in a way suitable for a young audience. Like with the original animated series from the nineties, going only from memory, it's surprising how much Mask of the Phantasm and this version of Batman got away with in terms of adult concepts such as death, managing like old forties cinema to convey grim content without explicitly dealing with it, more so when you also have a figure like the Joker that is both a comedic figure but, through Hamil's incredible vocal performance, absolutely terrifying even in this more comedic version. Stuff in this film, even implied, with Joker is still gruesome to even consider next to when the late Heath Ledger played the character and did his magic trick with a pencil.

The flashback heavy tale itself really has a deep emotional level to it, Andrea only a character connected to this one story but weaved carefully into it that she could easily have been canonical to the franchise, having an immense effect on the mythology in this plot. The danger that this type of pulp character, like any superhero, is that it can become predictable if little changes, negated by how this is, balanced between moments of comedy and drama, takes a successful risk in having a drama in the midst of the plot.

1. Vertical comics are an entirely different case I separate from DC Comics.

2. The other is Green Lantern. All my knowledge is Wikipedia and that awful Ryan Reynolds film, but the premise's potential for weird cosmic stories is appealing alongside with the world. Only the terrible sounding villains outside of the mythos of various colour spectrums of lantern rings sounds like it's going to be off-putting. With Superman, it's not only how too invulnerable the character is but how unappealing any of his nemeses are outside of Lex Luthor are that I have little interesting, and I was someone who grew up enjoying Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-7)

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