Batman: Mask of the Phantasm: An Overlooked Classic – Netflix Review (Day 29)

I take a look at what might be the best Batman film.

SUMMARY

A group of mob bosses, including Chuckie Sol (Dick Miller), are planning to launder a bunch of fake bills through a casino. They’re ambushed by Batman (Kevin Conroy), who takes out most of the thugs as Sol escapes to his car. He’s met in the parking garage by a different figure, the Phantasm (Stacy Keach), who appears to be an embodiment of Death itself. Sol tries to kill the Phantasm, but ends up driving off of the edge of the garage and dying. People at the scene see Batman looking out over the wreck and assume he was responsible. Local politician Arthur Reeves (Hart Bochner) tells the media that Batman is a menace, despite Commissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings) saying that Batman doesn’t kill people. Later, the Phantasm murders another mob boss, Buzz Bronski (John P. Ryan), and Bronski’s goons believe Batman did it. 

Your angel of death awaits.

At the same time, Andrea Beaumont (Dana “I was Lois Lane” Delaney), one of Bruce’s oldest flames, returns. We see in flashbacks that Andrea met Bruce when he was first trying to start his career as a crimefighter. The two grew close, to the point that Bruce even asked her to marry him and thought about abandoning his quest to be a vigilante. However, Andrea left the country with her father, Carl (Keach), and broke up with Bruce via a letter. Believing that he has lost his last chance at a happy life, Bruce finally becomes Batman. While investigating Bronski’s death as Batman, Andrea sees him next to the Wayne grave, leading her to realize that Bruce is Batman. Bruce later discovers a photo linking Andrea’s father to the two dead gangsters and a third mob boss, Sal “The Weezer” Valestra (Abe Vigoda).

Yes, Abe Vigoda plays a mobster who is on Oxygen. It’s great.

Valestra sees the reports of Batman killing the mobsters and goes to seek help from the Joker (Mark Hamill). The Joker tells Valestra that he’s going to help him, but when the Phantasm arrives at Valestra’s house, Joker has killed the aged mob boss and used his body as a bomb after strapping a camera to the corpse. When the building blows up, Batman meets the Phantasm, who escapes and leaves the police to chase Batman. He narrowly evades capture with the help of Andrea, who admits that she left with her father because he stole from the three mobsters. Batman now believes that Carl is the phantasm, but also discovers that there is one more target: the man who later became the Joker was Valestra’s chauffeur. Joker, now aware that the murderer isn’t Batman, goes to confront Reeves, who used to work for Carl Beaumont, and gasses him with Joker toxin after suspecting that Reeves might be the Phantasm. Batman confronts Reeves, who reveals that he leaked Andrea and Carl’s location to the mob after they refused to fund his first campaign. 

Why would you think asking the Joker for anything would work out well?

*** MASSIVE SPOILER. THIS IS ON NETFLIX, YOU MIGHT WANT TO JUST WATCH THE MOVIE, BUT IT’S STILL GREAT EVEN IF YOU KNOW THE TWIST***

The Phantasm tracks Joker to his hideout, where the Joker reveals he’s figured out the identity of the killer: Andrea. She intends to kill all of the mobsters as vengeance for killing her father, something that the Joker apparently did personally when he was still “normal.” Batman, who has also figured out that Andrea is the Phantasm, arrives as the Joker has her on the ropes. After saving her, Batman and the Joker fight to a stalemate, with the Joker revealing that his lair is wired to blow. Andrea grabs the Joker and holds him, telling Bruce goodbye as flames erupt around her. Later, Alfred (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) consoles Bruce, saying that he walks the edge of darkness, but hasn’t fallen in, while Andrea fell long ago. Bruce finds Andrea’s locket in the cave. Meanwhile, Andrea, who survived, leaves the country on a boat. 

END SUMMARY

I picked this one as my choice for “A Film Based on a TV Show” for three reasons. First, because this movie got screwed over and it needs to get all the respect and viewership it can get. Second, because Batman: The Animated Series was amazing. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, the minds behind it, revolutionized superhero shows. Last, because most other films based on TV shows suck unless they’re comedies.  

The show gave us Harley Quinn using a bazooka against chauvinists. ‘Nuff said.

If you grew up in the 1990s, you probably remember Batman: The Animated Series. It was one of the darkest cartoons that was on TV at the time, both literally and figuratively. The animation was so dark that they frequently found it cheaper to buy black paper and draw the white parts over it. In terms of content, it frequently dealt with themes of mortality, loss, the nature of evil, and the general unfairness of life, things that children’s TV shows just flat-out didn’t address back then. It also had great action sequences, great writing, and an abundance of imagination in characters and plotlines. It still holds up as being one of the greatest animated series of all time, and I put one of the episodes on my list of the greatest television episodes of all time. This film was their attempt to bring that creativity to the big screen and it should have been the Batman movie of the decade. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite get its due, losing money at the box office.

Dark as it gets for a kids show.

When the team started making the film, it was supposed to be a direct-to-video release. Soon, Warner Brothers decided to make it a theatrical film. Moreover, they decided that it was going to be released on Christmas Day of that same year, 1993. This meant that they had eight months to make the movie. For perspective, Disney typically gives four years to make an animated film. Moreover, Warner Brothers decided, after dumping a ton of money into making the film to compensate for the short time frame, to save money by cutting the marketing budget for the film. This is generally considered a stupid, stupid move, especially when the movie already had been rushed so much that it hadn’t really had time to generate buzz. Despite the fact that it was a Batman movie based on a massive hit show right after the show’s first season ended, only a year after Batman Returns had been one of the biggest moneymakers of all time, this movie was promoted for less than two months at less than half the rate of other films. Coming from someone who was a Batman-obsessed kid at the time, I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW THIS MOVIE WAS COMING OUT. Hell, Siskel and Ebert missed it. Moreover, they rushed the toys from the film into development so fast that they accidentally released a figuring of the Phantasm in November… marketed with the secret identity on display. Yeah, they destroyed the great mystery of the movie a month before it even came out. Great job, WB. 

One of the best Batman suit-up sequences on film, and no one saw it.

The key to this movie is that it’s really the one threat that we never see Batman deal with: Happiness. Batman always is depicted as a dark, wounded soul who is trying to seek justice and vengeance upon the world as a way to deal with his pain. But, in this movie, we see him actually question his vow and whether it’s worthwhile because he actually finds himself being happy with Andrea. There’s a climactic scene in which he is at his parents’ grave, telling them that he can’t be Batman if there’s someone to go home to. He offers to help the city financially instead (gee, what an idea), but he can’t risk his life, and doesn’t want to, if he’s not miserable. It’s a great way to show that there are really layers between Bruce Wayne and Batman and that the interplay between them is part of what makes the character so strong.

She also is the only girl he dates with solid burns.

Possibly the greatest decision in the movie, though, was including the Joker. Mark Hamill’s Joker is usually considered to be the best iteration of the character, and adding him in during the second act, despite him originally seeming to be unconnected to the central conflict, was a master stroke. None of the mobsters or the Phantasm could possibly have justified the magnificent set piece of the “City of the Future” for the final fight sequences, and only the Joker could have provided the comic relief to off-set the violence. Plus, the final shot of the Joker laughing as he awaits his death by explosion is amazing, particularly since it’s accompanied by a powerful choir crescendo. 

Overall, this movie is amazing and I really wish it got the respect it’s due at the time, but you can at least relive your childhood with one of the few parts that will hold up well by watching this. 

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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