Film Reviews:

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

(Eric Radomski, Bruce W. Timm, US, 1993)

A mysterious phantom is on the streets of Gotham City and killing top crime figures. With a mask and a cloak, The Phantasm is mistaken for Batman and pressure is put on the police to stop the Dark Knight's supposed vigilante antics. But Commissioner Gordon doesn't believe The Batman is responsible for the murders despite the growing evidence. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne's private life is turned upside down when a woman from his distant past reappears in Gotham. She disappeared suddenly years earlier despite being engaged to Bruce...

Although this feature follows in the steps of the brilliant Animated Adventures television series (which itself owes more to the Gothic interpretations of the Batman legend than to the more sanitised of the comic incarnations or 60s Batman TV show), it builds on that sound base and darkens the Dark Knight hero further still. This is indeed closer to the darkest moments of the Tim Burton epics than to traditional animated children's fare. No compromises have been made for younger viewers, in fact, the on-screen violence is more brutal and realistic than seen anywhere in it's TV counterpart. Admittedly, it isn't 18-rated gore were talking about here, but there is a clear vindictive streak to Batman's encounters with crooks and villains - characters actually die here (quite gruesomely too) - something that is never shown in the television series.

The opening credits, set against a stunning, evocative and expressionistic computer graphic Gotham City, are breathtaking. After such an introduction, it's impossible not to feel let down by the quality of the main feature animation. But once drawn into the story and terrific characterisation of the male and female leads (Wayne and his estranged lover), this no longer remains a concern. The actual quality of animation is the same as seen in the TV series: functional, but it is the directors' familiar flair for striking visuals and composition that lifts the animation above the ordinary. Sweeping, operatic music opens and closes the film and the action in between is kept moving briskly along. The flashback device is used throughout to provide a number of great set pieces (a young Bruce Wayne battles a motorcycle gang lead by a character bearing a remarkable resemblance to Marlon Brando's Johnny in The Wild One!) and actually adds flesh to the bones of the main storyline without resorting to padding. Mask of The Phantasm is a fitting tribute to a superb television series and proof that there are still many great ways to re-interpret a legend.

Rob Dyer