By Jonathan Lawrence
CALGARY — Following the success of the Tim Burton-directed live-action Batman (1989), Batman: The Animated Series premiered in 1992 and took the comic-book and animated world by surprise. It was dark and brooding with a jaw-dropping art style dripping with 1940s noir influences, superb voice casting (Kevin Conroy is the best Batman, just saying) and an enthralling musical score by the master of heroic themes, Danny Elfman.
The show earned four Emmy Awards during its three-year run, including Outstanding Animated Program, and for good reason. Anyone not captivated by the Bat in Tim Burton’s versions surely found themselves renewed fans as a result of the cartoon, practising their best, “I am the night, I am Batman!” impressions when they were (assumingly) alone. A full-length film held to the same high standards was released in 1993 dubbed Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and it does not disappoint.
From the first frame, we are pulled right into Batman’s world. The opening shot of Gotham City looks how every film noir wished their corrupt metropolis did. The visuals immediately suggest this isn’t your typical Saturday morning cartoon; people smoke, drink, bleed and carry handguns. As the credits roll, the camera pans over an amazing Art Deco city under a blood red sky. Every other building in Gotham looks as sharp and bold as the Chrysler Building or the Empire State. Add to the mix a newly orchestrated rendition of Elfman’s classic Batman theme from the animated series and you’ve got something that sets the mood for the adventure ahead, and it’s beautiful.
Things get complicated when Batman becomes mistaken for a cloaked figure known as the Phantasm (eerily voiced by Stacy Keach) who is whacking prominent mobsters across town. Not taking too kindly to vigilantes, the police begin a full-on pursuit for Batman – and although the Phantasm resembles a grim reaper much more than Bruce Wayne’s alter ego, Batman’s never really been one to catch a break.
Throughout the film, we see numerous flashbacks to Bruce as a young, idealistic man who meets and falls in love with femme fatale Andrea Beaumont, and the promise of a bright future together with her makes Bruce reconsider his crime-fighting ambitions. However, Bruce knows it’s not easy, and he feels guilt for wanting a normal life. He swears to his parents’ grave that he’ll donate money to the Gotham Police Department, hoping they’ll ease his conscience. “Please,” he begs, “I didn’t count on being happy.” It’s an emotional gut punch and arguably shows Bruce Wayne at his most vulnerable in any Batman flick.
The flashback sequences used throughout the film not only explain Batman’s origins, but also how Gotham City used to be. Everything in Bruce’s past hints toward the grand possibilities of the future both for him and the city. This was a time when Gotham’s now blackened sky was once blue and Bruce and Andrea began blissfully envisioning their lives together. At one point, they visit the Gotham World’s Fair, which an enthusiastic public service announcement calls, “A bright tomorrow filled with hope and promise for all mankind.” The contrast between what could have been and what eventually became of both Bruce and Gotham is emblematic of the film’s bleak tone, and makes you wonder whether there would have been a Batman if Gotham turned out the way it was promised to be.
In true Caped Crusader fashion, for all the bleakness, there is a positive through line, notably when Bruce Wayne is reminded by his loyal butler Alfred that “vengeance blackens the soul.” Understandingly, Bruce has his doubts – Gotham is not a place where justice prevails and only the good roam free. He learns throughout the film that vengeance can make you lose sight of who you are, and thus, sets the precedent for who the Dark Knight would eventually become. It’s a different origin story than Batman Begins, but no less powerful.
The greatest aspect of the film, however, is not the story, but the style. The vehicles, cityscape and character designs are all taken straight from film noirs of past and it’s absolutely stunning to look at. The Art Deco style of the 1920s, with its bold lines and symmetrical designs, make Gotham look larger-than-life; like a great, unstoppable city. Even the snappy dialogue serves as throwback to classic noirs like Double Indemnity (1944) or The Big Sleep (1946). Today, the action sequences look slightly stilted but they are still exciting, especially with the incredibly dramatic score that also harkens back to Hollywood’s heyday.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm plays at Theatre Junction GRAND on March 11 at 8:30 p.m., courtesy of Calgary Cinematheque. This is an awesome opportunity to see not only one of the best animated films ever made, but one of the best Batman films on the big screen.
General tickets are $12, while tickets for members, seniors and students are $10, and can be purchased at www.calgarycinema.org. This film is part of Calgary Cinematheque’s Salon Cinema series, which invites members of the film community to make film selections for screenings. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is presented by Peter Hemminger, executive director of the Quickdraw Animation Society.AB, Alberta, Batman, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Calgary Cinematheque, Quickdraw Animation Society, Theatre Junction GRAND