Comic Book Movies
In one corner, the small-time passion projects. In the other, the big-shot blockbusters. This is Cult vs. Mainstream.
This week, we compare two different takes on one of the most popular American characters, released within a year of each other. One is a sequel to a smash-hit, with the director out to really put his own spin on the franchise. The other is the grace note of a television show, both created by the same people, which sought to take the character and his story to new heights.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Since Tim Burton brought the superhero back to the big screen with his movie Batman (1989), there have been eight theatrical releases about the character. Four were made in Burtonâ€™s (and later Joel Schumacherâ€™s) series, and three are the entries in Christopher Nolanâ€™s Dark Knight trilogy. Of those seven, the money made ranges from just under $240 million to well over one billion. The eighth is Mask of the Phantasm, an animated adaptation released right in the middle of the Burton/Schumacher series, which couldnâ€™t even recover its $6 million dollar budget, attracting, at most, the fans of the popular cartoon series that inspired it. It is, to date, the only adaptation of the character to fail. It also may have been the first to truly treat its audience like adults.
Billionaire and tortured soul Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) is in the middle of his double life as the vigilante Batman, capturing Gotham Cityâ€™s worst criminals every night, when his old romance, Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany) â€“ who left Gotham suddenly and without explanation just prior to his start as Batman â€“ returns and deduces his secret identity, linking their fates once again. Meanwhile, a mysterious figure in a bat cape appears and begins picking off criminals in Gotham, leading the police to suspect Batman and quickly drop their tolerance for him. But as he tails the assassin, the mysterious â€œPhantasm,â€ he begins to realize that the targets are all connected to the conspiracy that made Andrea and her wealthy father flee Gotham. The stakes are raised when the last member of the group on Phantasmâ€™s hit list is revealed: The Joker (Mark Hamill).
It would have been easy to use Andrea as a stock character, made simply to move the plot forward, but her romance with Bruce Wayne is perhaps the movieâ€™s greatest accomplishment. In flashback, we learn that the optimistic and eccentric Andrea, Bruceâ€™s equal in mind and athleticism, was the one person to slip through his detachment, almost ending his plans to become Batman. Torn by indecision when he realized he hadnâ€™t counted on finding happiness, Bruce fled to his parentsâ€™ grave and begged to be released from his promise, where he found an answer he didnâ€™t expect. In the end, he decided to forgo his plans and marry Andrea, but just before this turn could become reality, she called off their engagement and fled the country (against her will, as he discovers in the present).
In some ways, animation is best suited to tell Batmanâ€™s stories. Never in another movie have the rooftops of Gotham city been more clearly defined, allowing Batman to leap and swing across them in his battle with the Phantasm, whoâ€™s difficult to keep up with. The noir look and style that Burton attempted in his adaptations is perfected here with nothing left obscured, and the action is quick and fluid without the constraints of reality. And the voice cast speaks for itself (no pun intended), as Conroy and Hamill demonstrate why some fans still consider them the best Batman and Joker, respectively. The former may be the most darkly and naturally masculine tone ever given to the character, and the latter, still best known for his role as Luke Skywalker, falls somewhere in between Jack Nicholson and Eric Idle, oozing with a sense of wicked joy and sadism.
In a time where Batman was only just starting to recover the image he has today, still linked with the silly 1960s TV series starring Adam West, directors Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski made a bold artistic move in trying to push the mature side of the character. Some of the choices they made were sheer gambles against what was popular. More than anything, their series, and this film that followed it, made audiences believe that Wayne dressed as Batman to scare. Batman never seemed to enjoy what he did. He didnâ€™t want to play superhero; he needed to know that nobody else could be harmed by crime as he was. Mask of the Phantasm, which should have been their moment to share their creation with the public, instead became merely the crown jewel for fans paying close enough attention to hear about it. But it still maintains a decent cult following that continues to spread the word.
Time has passed since Batmanâ€™s defeat of the Joker, and new menaces are rising in the Christmas season. Most prominent on the radar is Max Shreck, throwing the infamous Christopher Walken into the mix as a wealthy megalomaniac who has managed to purchase a favorable public image. But the city faces a more immediate threat from the mysterious Red Triangle Circus gang, a violent anarchist group of gun-toting clowns and exotic freaks wielding exotic weapons. And when Shreck is driven into the sewers during one of the gangâ€™s attacks, they part to reveal the jealous, wisecracking Penguin (Danny DeVito), a grotesque mutant with an even more grotesque disposition, who blackmails Shreck into an allegiance that enables both to ascend.
This, of course, is more fantastical than the first Batman, in which the Joker led a gang of typical thugs, instead of acrobats and actual penguins, and his backstory didnâ€™t drop all concern for plausibility. In fact, Tim Burton, whose feelings on the first film were mixed, did a lot his own way this time around. Batman (Michael Keaton) and his alter-ego Bruce Wayne donâ€™t appear much in the first half of the movie, which, being a sequel, pulls this off under the pretense of setting up his new challenge. In fact, at first, heâ€™s played more as the antagonist of the antiheroic Penguin and his quest to reclaim what he lost the day his parents cast him into the sewers. It barely even pertains to Batman until the arrival of Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), once Maxâ€™s shy and grudgingly meek assistant, whose dark side breaks loose after Maxâ€™s attempt to silence her by pushing her out a window.
While all three villains are given strong performances â€“ Devito is brilliantly eccentric and menacing, and Walken carries himself fine with his shtick â€“ itâ€™s Pfeifferâ€™s Catwoman sequences that hold up the best. While the Penguinâ€™s bits make him seem a little unfocused and underdeveloped (is he craving acceptance? Is he vengeful? Is he just using the excuse as a cover for his greed and self-entitlement?), Catwomanâ€™s scenes are bursting with glee at her newfound power. In a movie thatâ€™s strange in alternately head-scratching and intriguing ways, her sequences always fall into the latter, starting with a rebirth that pushes the series into supernatural territory. And her would-be love story with the titular protagonist is an interesting arc on both counts, even if the romance between them is a little underdeveloped.
But what Burton offers with this sequel is not an improvement, nor is it a downgrade per se. Itâ€™s a tradeoff. In severing ties to plausibility, he moves the story from pulp noir to the realms in which he is most at home, giving it the weightier tone of a gothic fantasy, right down to the superior visuals. But in exchange, he weakens its impact as an action movie, providing cheap Saturday morning cartoon gimmicks in attempt to fit both bills. After enough time with rocket-launching penguins, trapdoor manhole covers, and the Penguinâ€™s useless Duckmobile, which is only really there to be a set piece, it harder to view this movie as not just for kids (something superhero movies managed to avoid before and since). Some of its scenes donâ€™t even seem finished: In the circus gangâ€™s first attack, Batman plows through a few in his Batmobile, gets out and takes down a couple more as the chaos rages around him, then walks off, at which point he is thanked by Commissioner Gordon for saving the day in the now-cleared streets. Meanwhile, Max Shreck, who is supposed to be fleeing for his life, looks more like heâ€™s weaving through a parade. If thereâ€™s a scale-tipper between the first Batman and this one, itâ€™s that Returns doesnâ€™t age as well. And thatâ€™s doubly a shame after its darker tone made audiences also hesitate to embrace it the same way when it first came out.
Are Burtonâ€™s Batman films among the greatest superhero movies of all time? Come on now, I grew up while this series was still finishing its run, when the Superman films were the only real contenders to the crown, and even then, nobody really called them that. (No one I knew, anyway). But they are engaging, and they do manage to be their own distinct creations, enabling them to continue striking a chord with several fans today, even as superior films enter the genre. They deserve to be respected as successful efforts from Burton to put his stamp on the character, which is even more distinct in Returns than it was the first time around.
The Better Movie:
Mask of the Phantasm â€“
– Story is more focused and layered
– Central romance is stronger
– Action is more fully realized
– Central character is more developed and probably better realized
– Unless youâ€™ve seen the show, youâ€™re technically starting in the middle of the story
– Batman in animated form might take some getting used to
Batman Returns â€“
– Visuals are at least as good and in live action, even with the constraints of such
– Longer list of exotic and memorable characters
– Sometimes itâ€™s just plain sillier
– Blocking and choreography is stagier and less fluid
– Story can be harder to follow
While Burtonâ€™s version has its share of strengths, and his typical style and themes do lend themselves to Batman pretty well, Mask of the Phantasm was clearly more interested in the mythos of the character and what it is that makes him so interesting. Itâ€™s the stronger vision with the stronger execution and one of the best takes on the character to date.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm: 8.5/10
Batman Returns: 7.5/10
â€œCultâ€ takes round 2 with a staggering effort, proving the value of sheer passion and reverence for the subject matter. Next time, weâ€™ll be going in a different direction, with a look at how each side handles a subject that doesnâ€™t have such widespread appeal.