The Batman Project: Batman Gets Animated, 1993
1 Comment »Jul 5, 2012
I have to admit I was wary at the prospect of covering 1993′s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. That sense of “meeehhhh?” came from a couple of places. First off, it didn’t matter what came next on my list – in many ways, having to part ways with Michael Keaton (my personal
JesusBatman) was going to be painful. Secondly, no matter the caliber of the film – and in many ways, Phantasm is as good as they get, I was concerned that my passion for Batman Returns would color my coverage. So what we’ve established is that the whole concept of “rebound” is not something I subscribe to, inevitably finding that what comes next after a great love to be little more than a miserable, lackluster replacement who will be punished not for any real failing on their part, but because my heart was just too raw to give the relationship the real college try it deserved. The concept of a palate cleanser? Doesn’t compute. Because people are not sorbet. Which is good, because that would get sticky.
More than any of this, I was uneasy at the prospect of covering a cartoon. Which is deplorable. And I know better! Some of the films that have had the great impact on me, (The Last Unicorn, Howl’s Moving Castle, Paprika, Up) have all been animated (apparently I have a weakness for Studio Ghibli?) To be honest, while I know full well the other-worldly power of storytelling that an animated joint is free to pursue, I am less likely to dive in – I usually take some cajoling. Point of reference for just how deep this dysfunction goes – I still haven’t seen Porco Rosso – AND MICHAEL KEATON IS THE STAR YOU GUYS.
One of the greatest things about my friendship with our Editor-in-Chief is that I very often am the recipient of her all-consuming fervor for films and television. So it is very often the case that a television show comes along that I might stubbornly neglect (stubbornness kind of being, you know, my jam) and her delight it in will be so great that I will be forced into viewing it and then in the course of so doing become converted. That was how I came to watch and adore Full Metal Panic. (Someday we will do another podcast, and in that podcast I will do my infamous “KANAMEEEEEE!” yell. Also the dance I choreographed to the end credits, best when performed while chanting “CHA CHA CHA” throughout the duration, though that factoid is neither here nor there.)
There were of course, other factors that made the proposition of reviewing said film strangely alluring – one was Alex’s insistence. In the past, and with no exception other than Once Upon A Time WHICH I WILL NEVER WATCH, every recommendation she’s made that I’ve eventually harkened to has led to great fulfillment, and it’s happened often enough now that I knew she wouldn’t insist I review Phantasm out of some sort of sadistic pleasure driven center of her brain. But Alex’s recommendation was only part of my curiosity. You see, Joss Whedon adores Phantasm as well, and even a cursory glance at the cast of vocal talent will inspire moderate enthusiasm from even the most disinterested would-be viewer.
In 1993 the time was ripe for Batman. With the relative success of 1992′s Batman Returns, and the critical acclaimed and Emmy Award winning animated series having more than found its groove, it’s only natural that Warner Brothers would do all they could to squeeze out another lucrative studio venture. If that sounds cynical, it’s meant to be. See, Warner’s made kind of a critical error in their thinking. “It takes a long time to make a live action flick – but cartoons are easy, we’ll just whip our TV Show animators into giving us a finished project – that will save time.” Thus demonstrating a fundamental disrespect for the medium AND lack of understanding of how the film’s they are green-lighting are, in fact, made.
The story that would go on to become Phantasm was meant to be a straight to video release, a stand-alone story that could be used as the season finale of the show. But Warner’s seized the day and gave filmmakers an 8-month period to turn over product, which not only put them all under tremendous strain, but left the entire concept of film marketing standing alone without a dance partner. Phantasm should be a well-respected, well-recognized film, but audiences of the time barely knew about it, and so of course, hardly went to see the thing in droves. Over time, the ridiculously strong critical reception of the film, as well as word of mouth, had given the thing a bit of a second half-life, which I hope only continues to grow. (I AM YOUR SOMBER UNCLE TALKING ABOUT WORLD WAR TWO TODAY I GUESS?) Excuse me now while I go blast the score. Seriously, join me in this. Shirley Walker is like Wagner but with a sense of humor and also less Nazis.
The strength of Phantasm does not lie in its storytelling – though its plotting is deft, it’s true, you can’t really find fault with it. Writer-producer Alan Burnett wanted to tell a Bruce Wayne love story, mentioning how that wasn’t something that had ever been done on television. That may be true, but the idea of Bruce Wayne in love is hardly revolutionary. Bruce Wayne is perpetually falling in love, looking for someone who can replace his dead parents as the commanding moral compass which guides his life. We see it in Batman, we see it in Batman Returns. We haven’t seen it on television because the version of Batman and the Bruces that made it to the littlest screen was of the Adam West variety – all wearing turtlenecks with Robin and sexing all of the woman, a 60s take on the Playboy Bruce character which made up so much of Bruce Wayne’s story in the early serials.
The late eighties and nineties were characterized by a newly piqued interest in Bruce Wayne’s psychological makeup. This makes a lot of sense – Batman is the only character with no truly super-human abilities (His intellect and strength while considerable are undeniably human). As a superhero, Batman is driven by the pathos born of the murder of his parents. Therefore, in order to understand the Bat, you’ve got to understand the man – and what a broken man he is. The crux of Wayne’s emotional turmoil makes itself visible in the way he relates to women – this is why Batman Returns was so successful. This is also why Burnett, no matter what other explanation he used, chose to write a script whose central story was that of a woman Bruce Wayne loved. Hey – if it worked for Burton and company, why couldn’t it work for Burnett? For no reason! Because it did work! And while I feel it isn’t fair to praise the storyline as being innovative, it does digs down deep into the brain and heart of the Wayne, and moves simply, steadily onward like a slow-moving but never-stopping train.
The story begins with corruption in Gotham City – as the best Batman story’s do. In this instance, some gangsters are interrupted by two shadowy masked figures, one there to do good, and the other, there to kill. While Batman breaks up the gangsters’ meeting, the other shadowy figure completes the mission he came to complete as well – murdering the gangster Chuckie Sol. The murders are on everyone’s mind, and so, of course, are discussed at a party at Wayne Manor. In this case, the Bat is played by Kevin Conroy who is irrefutably awesome because he’s been playing Batman FOR TOO MANY YEARS. He is growly, deliberate, and perfect – provided you do not spend too much time Google image searching for him, thus ruining all the work he has done to conjure a faultless Bruce and Bat. Bruce – when not surrounded by a bevy of multi cultural bimbos – learns of the return of his one time paramour, Andrea Beamount. If the man, and all his fellows, where not comprised of such strong, rigid rectangular bodies, you’d almost believe the news of her arrival has unmoored him completely. But since the design of the figures by able if very particularly minded animators allowed for no visible weakness in form, we had the good fortune of watching Bruce sigh in front of a painting of his parents – as Bruce Wayne is ever wont to do – in order to fully understand the level of his sadness. He’s like, dead-parents levels of sad about this broad, okay?
Through flashbacks, we learn about Bruce and Andrea’s first meeting. Making it perfectly clear that nothing is ever going to move Bruce away from his promise to his parents’ memory no matter how much he hopes otherwise – they meet while mourning their respective parents. Bruce is quiet, newly devastated even over twenty years later, his visit less moved by the traditional need to visit a grave-site and more driven by the rigor of the routine he has constructed for himself to keep him from madness. Andrea’s visit is an effin’ light-hearted romp by comparison. She goes to visit, and speak -loudly – to her deceased mother. Bruce is charmed by her parental devotion, their shared interest in dead parents, and her rocking bod. Plus, she is sassy! And thus he is smitten. So it only goes to follow that when Andrea goes to visit her mother’s grave upon returning to Gotham city and spies Batman lurking near the Wayne crypt, she deduces that Bruce Wayne is the caped crusader. She essentially goes, “IT IS INCREDIBLY OBVIOUS THAT YOU ARE BATMAN!” in the way you hoped Lois Lane always would, but still this is maybe even more satisfying because it is Batman not Superman and also Dana Delaney is playing Andrea which rules my very soul you guys.
The plot itself would have you believe that Bruce’s first forays into Batdom occur as his relationship with Andrea is also beginning to bloom. But the obvious must be stated here: Bruce Wayne was always going to pick Batman over the girl. No doubt. Sure, there would be a learning curve wherein he hopped around in ski mask, demanding approval from Alfred as he did Kung Fu (ADORABLE) but these were design flaws – the engine of Batman was already purring, and even a red-haired babe with eyes for years and a killer rack (…) wasn’t going to put him off course. But this being, at its center, a romance, we are willing to accept the idea that Bruce might be feeling some conflict – especially when writers and animators put Bruce HUGGING HIS PARENTS GRAVE IN A NIGHTTIME RAINSTORM AND SOBBING DEMANDING TO BE RELEASED FROM HIS PROMISE. Dude. It was awwwwwkward. And daaaaark.
So little of what Bruce faces comes down to him having to make any sort of choice – he’s made one choice already and it was massive enough to render all others obsolete. To that end, while he may have agonized over giving up the mask for the girl, Andrea does the work for him – leaving him a dear John letter, effectively ending their engagement. But of course there is more to this – her remaining parent, her father, has gotten in deep with the mob, and as a result is fleeing the country. Rather than make things shittier for Bruce, Andrea leaves him a note claiming that she’s too young to get married, and departs, confident SHE WILL NEVER SEE HIM AGAIN. Now, Bruce Wayne of today would have immediately smelled a rat after reading that note, but Bruce Wayne then, all full of penis-feelings and grave-hugging was just like “IT IS FOR THE BEST”.
And this is where the Joker enters. If this is a love story, the Joker is a perfect study in opposition. he is the bringer of chaos, deriving delight from the pain and horror of others, he is love’s true foil, and he is voiced by Mark Hamil WHICH I LOVE MORE THAN ANYTHING. To my way of thinking, there have been only two truly great, comic book faithful, Jokers – Ledger and Hamil. For all my initial knocking of the form, an animated Joker attains a level of surreal mania all the more fitting for the role – the joke within a joke(r) being that the Joker is already a perverted cartoon image. This concept – which I have not made terribly clear, but whatever, you’re smart, you get what I mean – is employed to masterful effect throughout the film. By the time Joker makes his entrance, we need him. His well-known if not still completely horrific M.O. (cool, he just cut that guy apart, and is now dry humping a lady robot, okay, fine, awesome) is a breath of evil, evil, fresh air (Terry Gross would not approve) after the wallowing of Wayne and the angst of his affair with Andrea.
Joker is introduced as being the one-time member of the same gang that the shadowy Phantasm (never actually named throughout the film) is systematically killing off. (My favorite kill involved a gangster stumbling into an open grave where a weeping, marble angel crushed him to death. Stone cold. PUN ABSOLUTELY INTENDED.) Bruce Wayne has deduced that it’s the same gang that wronged Andrea’s dad, and so assumes that it’s her dad taking his revenge. Which makes sense since both the shadow and Mr. Beaumont are voiced by the talented Stacy Keach whose name is rivaled in being a pleasure to say repeatedly only by Benedict Cumberbatch and the daughter of the former mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, Nancy Anne Cianci.
In a way, it is deeply satisfying to have Joker’s origins remain unaddressed in this flick – in the same way that finding out the ultimate TRUTH regarding Mr. Ledger’s Mr. J would have been disappointing. There is something much more unsettling about a danger whose foundation is inexplicable but definitive. Batman, the Phantasm, and the Joker’s climactic battle takes place on the abandoned fairgrounds of the Gotham World’s Fair – an art deco scene of former grandeur which first appeared as the background to Andrea and Bruce’s courtship and whose decay and ultimate destruction is emblematic of the eventual outcome of their relationship. The Phantasm has tracked Joker, the last member of the gang, to the fair, and Batman, putting together the pieces like a sexier Dragnet, has followed in turn.
Throughout the course of the battle, the Phantasm is revealed to be not Carl Beaumont, but Andrea herself. She reveals that the Joker, on orders from his boss, had found and killed Andrea’s father, and acting as the Phantasm has been taking her revenge on the evil men who took away her remaining parent. While this is something Bruce can, in a sense, understand, it’s not the path he’s taken. While I often make light of Bruce’s pathos, Andrea’s is the more dysfunctional. I mean, guys – she dressed up like a harbinger of death and killed people…while using her father’s voice? It’s. It’s weird. It’s unsettling. In many ways, it’s more unsettling than Burton’s Catwoman, who ultimately makes a feminist decision. Andrea is no Selina – there is no confusion in her motives, there is no sublimation of deeply rooted emotional pain – there is cause and effect. You killed my father, I kill you, you ruin my life, I ruin yours. While Bruce’s goal is to make sure no one ever feels the way he feels, Andrea wants to be sure the entire planet feels the way she feels.
Alfred, in a piece of wisdom only matched by the trailer for the Dark Knight Rises where in Caine’s Alfred confesses his self-perceived failure to protect Bruce (WHICH SLAYS ME YOU GUYS) tells Bruce that it isn’t up to him to save Andrea, that nobody could, and he is absolutely right in this. Though I think he mistakes Bruce’s rediscovery of the broken pieces of his heart as genuine loss. After all, Bruce lost Andrea years ago, and I can’t help thinking that he knows that. The film ends with Bruce discovering Andrea’s locket in the Batcave, holding an image of her and him inside. While this could be read as a Catwoman-esque reassurance that Andrea is okay and continues to live, I see it more a reminder that they share a past and will always share a past. I think Andrea, as a killer, knows Batman’s one weakness, and it isn’t his love for her or for anyone, it’s for his old life, when there was a still a possibility of living a life with a semblance of normalcy. Whatever their future may hold, Andrea will always be able to barter her freedom with Bruce because of how prominently she figures into his emotional memory, which ultimately is his true Achilles’s Heel. Catwoman makes no promise of return to Bruce, Andrea dangles the carrot of her continued existence to keep herself safe – in a way, she manipulates Bruce like no one we have yet seen.