BLOG: The best Batman movie you’ve (probably) never seen.

| June 1, 2014 | 0 Comments


Last week a photograph emerged from the set of the new Batman vs. Superman movie featuring Ben Affleck in the new Batman suit – not a scene, merely a photograph. Unless I missed my guess I think there was more reactive energy that came from that photograph than from the bemoaning news that Affeck had been cast in the role. It wasn’t the suit that amazed me but the deep and pseudo-profound conversations that I heard going on surrounding it.

Personally, I am less interested in Batman’s outfit then I am the competency of the actor inside the outfit. Ben Affleck has recently shown that he has grown into a very competent actor far and away from the tabloid pretty boy from a decade ago. If you don’t believe me, check out his recent pictures Argo, Gone Baby Gone or in his best performance as 50s Superman actor George Reeves in Hollywoodland.

Affleck’s talent has certainly grown, and I am looking forward to seeing it applied to The Caped Crusader. Recently, the Batman property itself has gone through an upswing via Christopher Nolan’s trilogy (I thought the last one was underrated) and now that it’s finished, I look forward to seeing where another filmmaker will take it. I might have only been reactive about Batman v Superman if news came down that Affleck was writing it. Now THAT would be worth getting excited about.

I was never a fan of the earlier Batman pictures, either by Tim Burton, or most definitely by Joel Schumacher. It seems strange that in the 1990s, Batman on television went right where the features films went so wrong. In four films, neither Burton nor Schumacher ever managed to come close the core of what Batman was supposed to be about. Of the two, Burton came the closest, but his films were marred by gloomy self-indulgence and a Caped Crusader that was hard to care anything about. Schumacher, meanwhile, just made feature-length toy commercials

It all comes down to writing. The features were about action and violence while TV’s “Batman: The Animated Series” got down to the serious business of exploring what made the characters tick. The writing team of the show figured out the basic truth about The Caped Crusader, that Batman and his adversaries have never been simply pawns to move around a plot. There is always a method to their madness, some dark and haunted demons that make them do what they do. That applies, most aptly, to Batman himself whose persona is a personal prison. He’s haunted by what happened as a child and burns with the urge to avenge the parents that were taken from him. The Animated Series consistently explored this haunted soul in a way that the features never did, at least until Christopher Nolan came around.
In the midst of the Batman feature film hysteria of the 1990s, a came a Batman film that you’ve probably never seen, but none-the-less shouldn’t miss. “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” is the large-screen version of their vision. Released on Christmas Day in 1993, it arrived with little notice and was a box office disaster, mostly due to poor advertising. It was released to glowing critical acclaim and only found an audience when it was released on video. It remains a cult classic, a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered. For all the fuss and bother with the other features, this one gets Batman absolutely right.

“Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” actually tells two intricately written stories. The main story has Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) being framed for murder by a cloaked figure calling himself The Phantasm who is killing off Gotham City’s crime bosses.

The other story involves Bruce Wayne’s rekindling with an old love, Andrea Beaumont (voiced by Dana Delaney), whom he almost married before becoming Batman. The film periodically flashes back to show Bruce, during his college years, standing at a crossroads in his life, haunted by the murder of his mother and father while his soul burns to avenge their deaths. Yet, he also sees a light for his path, a method by which he can escape from his demons and into a life of marriage and children. They are conflicted. Andrea, too, has lost a parent and she is just as heartbroken as Bruce. It is a tragic love story, but it is made all the more palatable by the fact that Bruce and Andrea are presented as flesh and blood people who care deeply about one another. And remember . . . this is a cartoon.

Written smartly by series writers Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko and Michael Reaves, the story is molded very much by the character’s personalities. The action scenes (which are exciting) have more resonance because we’ve come to care about those involved. The animation here is crisp and beautifully drawn in an art-deco style reminiscent of Max Fleisher’s Superman cartoon. The images are simplistic but not simple-minded. The colors, the shading, the light and shadow that reflect the inner turmoil of both Bruce Wayne and Batman give the character a special resonance. It’s easy to get absorbed in these images just as much with scenes of Batman beating up criminals as it does a heartbreaking scene of Bruce agonizing over his decision to put on the cape and cowl for the first time. It isn’t posturing, he actually has to think about it.

The city of Gotham is presented with more clarity and depth than it is in the live action films. Through the light and dark imagery, it becomes a real place. It is strange that such an intricately woven story would take place in an animated movie. In most cases, the love and devotion goes into creating beautiful images than into creating a story that we can care about. “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” is both, made by people who care about what they are putting on screen. They understand the demons that haunt Bruce Wayne and the machinations that place him in his personal prison. The suit here is much more than a photo op, it’s a personal prison.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.