The Batman Animated Adventures are 30 this year! The animated films have always embraced variety. Recent releases feature a version of the Elseworlds one-shot Gotham By Gaslight; two films adopting
the visible-eyes costuming of the 1966 TV show with the voice of Adam West; and an adaptation of The Killing Joke in which writer Brian Azzarello expanded the arc of Batgirl in the story and incurred the vocal unhappiness of some fans of the character.
The original root of this thriving tree was the DC Animated Universe, a fourteen year cycle of TV series, animated movies and spin-offs inaugurated in 1992 by Batman The Animated Series, all bearing the fingerprints of animator Bruce Timm, producer Eric Radomski, and writer Paul Dini. It was the DCAU that birthed the first full-length Batman animated movie, a film deemed worthy of a big-screen release once the studio saw what it had on its hands, Mask of the Phantasm.
The story goes that Phantasm was promoted from an intended destination on the small screen thanks to the strength of the title sequence alone. The opening is still an effective scene-setter: a sombre computer-assisted swoop around and through the Gotham City skyline, which might look vintage to modern CGI-jaded eyes but none the less takes the film noir atmosphere of the animated series and spices it with looming Art Deco mystery. The titles also foreground the contribution of composer Shirley Walker, just as much of a performer in Phantasm as any of the voice actors, who opens the film with a dark operatic hymn. Walker had already designed a distinctive musical identity for the animated series by borrowing Danny Elfman’s themes from two Tim Burton films, but for Phantasm the score is grander, mythic and melodramatic— and partly performed by Hans Zimmer.
The end credits reveal the presence of Zimmer on synthesizers, more than a decade before his own booming musical style was hardwired into Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films.
Phantasm’s story is relatively modest. The animated TV show was still in its early stages after all, with some of its grander flights of baroque fancy still to come in later seasons. But Phantasm’s deceptively narrow narrative focuses on Bruce Wayne rather more than his alter ego, and elegantly skirts around the restriction imposed on writers of The Animated Series that they should steer clear of Batman’s origin.
Phantasm bends this rule, to accommodate flashbacks of Wayne’s first nighttime misadventures in balaclava and combat trousers, and to insert a past romance with a woman named Andrea Beaumont.
The Joker is involved, but kept on the sidelines until the halfway point in favour of the Phantasm, a fresh villain with a vendetta against Gotham’s mob bosses. Wayne, smitten with Beaumont, is tempted to renounce his secret life, but forced back to it—or rescued from giving it up—by the sins and sacrifices of others.
All this ground is covered in 76 minutes of brisk 2D cartoon storytelling. Not that this made it a hit. Box-office takings of $5.6 million failed to cover the $6 million the film cost to make, and fingers were pointed at the marketing department, given the studio’s relative unfamiliarity with animated movies at the time.
The animation has some rough edges too, thanks to a finite budget and available technology. Even that opening sequence, responsible for a big-screen release in the first place, makes an uncomfortable jag straight through a ceiling, the virtual camera breaking its own rules.
Its flaws don’t matter. Mask of the Phantasm flies on its leather wings, as lean as any classic Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams comic, and like them it understands the place of melodrama in a Batman story.
The gothic mood crests at the point an adult Bruce Wayne convulses tearfully at his parents’ graveside, agonised at the thought he might be content enough with life to leave Batman behind, while Walker’s score seethes with dire religiosity, fate peering over Bruce’s shoulders. It’s strong stuff, deeply understanding of the character’s roots in male powerlessness, and as poignant as anything a live-action Batman film has yet made of the younger Bruce entering his personal purgatory while wandering
down Crime Alley.
Mask of the Phantasm is a period piece now, a quarter-century out of step with current animation styles, as well as with today’s habitual splicing of different genres and compulsory irony. But it understands Batman very well, and knows his place in his own city. It knows that when Andrea Beaumont cautiously
turns on a table lamp in her pitch black nighttime apartment, the animated frame will snap from black to white and Batman will be revealed where he has been all along, closer than a flesh and blood actor could hide without giving an audience the giggles, roughly six inches from her face.
Right where he should be.
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