Bat Movies Part 3: Batman & Mask of the Phantasm

by | July 19, 2012 | Comments

Let’s stop here, this is Bat Movies: a five part article series exploring the films and cultural impact of Bruce Wayne and his night moves as justice-dispensing vigilante. In this third installment: Batman: The Movie and Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

So at this point I’ve seen all of the Batman films and, um, wow, I guess enjoy all of them. That’s the happy result of having eight fairly distinct Batmans, they all have something of value on some level — even Batman & Robin. (Now I’m wondering if Warner Bros will reimburse me on the booze it took for me to get through it.)

So, Batman: The Movie. This is the 1966 adaptation starring Adam West as The Caped Crusader and Burt Ward as plucky Robin. My experience with this version of Batman is fairly limited. I always hated it when the show popped up on Saturday mornings since the weird colors and all the old people made me lose my appetite to eat cereal. After that, I only knew of this Batman (as I suspect many of us) from the myriad of references in pop culture. The Simpsons especially was instrumental, e.g. Adam West’s hilariously bizarre guest spot, or the episode where they film the Radioactive Man movie in Springfield. Those references are barely even spoofs, as the movie really is that knowingly twisted and stupid, and I was surprised at how contemporary some of the jokes are. The part where a porpoise randomly sacrifices itself to save Batman and Robin from torpedo death had me do a double take. And Robin’s anti-alcohol screed is so brazen and blatant that I suspect it’s dripping in sarcasm, which is interesting as I thought sarcasm wasn’t manufactured until 1991.

So, yeah, Batman: The Movie‘s camp and not particularly thrilling, not that it even tries to be. But then it’s also entertaining all the way through and it was clearly an influence on my favorite show, The Venture Bros, so there’s an extra level of amusement.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was unchallenged as my favorite Batman for 15 years, up until 2008’s The Dark Knight. Phantasm defined everything I wanted to see out of a Batman joint — complex cast of characters, great villains, action, drama, and maybe even a little romance. The origin story, almost always a bit tedious, is one of the movie’s highlights. Seeing Bruce Wayne go out on his first vigilante run, sans costume, was such an illuminating character moment for me. It humanized Batman and demonstrated the sheer commitment and insanity of his quest.

Mask of the Phantasm introduces a new villain, a mysterious cloaked figured draped in smoke, with a long blade attached to the right hand. The Phantasm is cruising around Gotham City at night, executing gangsters and members of the mob, which also has the inadvertent side effect of framing Batman for the crimes. Not that I fetishize the stuff, but I love how violent the movie is. Though it was a cartoon, it respected the audience’s capabilities to understand murder and death. If you grew up in the 90s, you know how rare it was to get that sort of trust. It felt like the stakes were truly high and no other American animated film bothered trying to do something like this until The Incredibles. It’s no surprise then that in-between the two films, I really got into anime.

This is probably the only Batman film that could be categorized as a mystery. Who is the Phantasm? One asks along with Bruce Wayne, “What is the Phantasm?s goal, purpose, and motive?” which makes the scenes of detective work very engaging. As the film drives deeper towards the truth, it also does something interesting: it introduces The Joker as secondary antagonist. There’s almost a sense of relief when he shows up. Joker’s there to ratchet up the action into the explosive final act, but he’s a familiar face who’s also predictably unpredictable, a good foil to the Phantasm’s monotone vengeance.

The movie is only 76 minutes long, which I think is a sweet spot for action cartoons. It was no problem watching this movie over and over as a kid, and was instrumental in developing my curiosity in pop culture.

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