The Phantasm’s Looming Shadow Over All Animated Batmen

We’ve been singing the praises of the 2010 animated Batman feature Under The Red Hood this month for giving viewers something they’re not used to from most Caped Crusader cinema. Forgoing the obligatory origin story opening that weighs down every other Batman reboot and skipping far enough ahead into the lore that it can support two! Robins the Boys Wonder, Under the Red Hood feels remarkably unique in the modern comic book adaptation zeitgeist for its confidence in viewers’ familiarity with its central characters, allowing it a larger freedom in storytelling. The film feels much less unique, however, when you consider the obvious debt it owes to Batman: The Animated Series, particularly the show’s feature film debut Mask of the Phantasm. I’ve written previously about how Kevin Conroy’s voice work as the Caped Crusader on The Animated Series has been the defining standard for all animated Batmen, leaving Under the Red Hood/Gotham By Gaslight voice actor Bruce Greenwood very little room to leave a distinct mark. (The same could probably be said for Mark Hamill’s deranged voice work for The Joker as well). That’s not where The Animated Series’ looming influence stops, though. For all of Under the Red Hood’s narrative details that feel unique to cinematic Batman storytelling, the broader picture of what it accomplishes more than vaguely resembles Mask of the Phantasm. In fact, it follows Phantasm’s template so closely that you wouldn’t have to change many character details around for it to function as a remake.

To be fair, Under the Red Hood’s story about superhero vigilantism gone too far is a fairly common one within comic book lore. In our initial conversation on Under the Red Hood, I wrote, “Now that there are roughly a dozen major superhero releases annually, the stories are more varied, but for a while it felt as if the majority of them were hinged on the moral conflict of what, exactly, separates the masked vigilantes from the masked criminals.” However, the details of how that story is told onscreen in these two films are similar enough to push Under the Red Hood’s parallels to Mask of the Phantasm beyond general adherence to storytelling cliché. Both the titular Red Hood & Phantasm vigilantes challenge Batman’s moral code by pushing their dedication to crimefighting too far, specifically by assassinating mob bosses that control Gotham’s crime rings. The identities of the mysterious people from Batman’s past who mask as these vigilante personae in both films are also presented as impossibilities, as they are both dead. In Under the Red Hood, we see (the second, younger) Robin murdered brutally at the hands of the Joker in the first scene, but presume that The Red Hood could only be him in disguise, somehow resurrected. Similarly, recognizable voice actor Stacy Keach is obviously voicing The Phantasm in the earlier film, but the character he plays is shown to be dead long before The Phantasm arrives, making it an impossibility. The strange circumstances that make these transformations possible are doled out in staggered flashbacks in both films, one to a story of an early romance and one to Robin’s pre-crimefighting youth. The stories also reach their respective climaxes by deploying The Joker as an outside element of chaos in a last-ditch effort to save mobsters’ lives, creating total chaos that reveals the mysteries of the two vigilantes’ secret identities. Some of the individual characters have been swapped out and the animation style of these productions has changed drastically from the 90s to the 2010s, but in narrative terms The Mask of the Phantasm & Under the Red Hood are practically the same movie.

What’s left to distinguish them, then, is a question of aesthetic, for which I’ll always be biased to affording Mask of the Phantasm the upper hand. The action sequences of Under the Red Hood are an impressively complex mix of traditional and computer animation, but they have nothing on the tactile mat painting backdrops and Art Deco designs of The Animated Series, which is about as gorgeous as crime detective noir ever got. Mask of the Phantasm also drives to a much more distinctive climax than Under the Red Hood, staging the final showdown between Batman and The Joker in a sprawling miniature of Gotham at an abandoned, Atomic Age World’s Fair exhibit. The play with scale in that climactic battle makes the two forever-foes appear to be kaiju-size, which is an absurd effect unmatched by anything mustered in Under the Red Hood (or most live-action Batman flicks for that matter). Mask of the Phantasm is the definitive animated Batman move, its influence looming over every one of its successors. Story-wise, the only notable improvement Under the Red Hood holds over it is in skipping the origin story plotlines for Batman & The Joker, which are told uniquely in Mask of the Phantasm, but likely don’t need to be told at all. Otherwise, it follows a very faithful pattern established by that Animated Series offshoot, which becomes blatantly apparent if you ever watch the two films back to back. I don’t intend to point out these similarities to diminish Under the Red Hood’s significance; I was impressed by the film in a way that’s exceedingly rare for DC animated features. I just continually marvel at how influential The Animated Series and, by extension, Mask of the Phantasm were on the entirety of the animated Batman canon. Even one of the most uniquely independent entries into the franchise is still very closely tied to that series, both structurally and tonally, speaking to its staying power as a foundational work.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the animated superhero thriller Batman: Under the Red Hood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this profile of its Caped Crusader voice actor, Bruce Greenwood, and last week’s look at how it uses the voice talents of Neil Patrick Harris.

-Brandon Ledet

Bruce Greenwood is (One of Many) Batman(s)

There has only been a handful of actors who’ve played Batman on the big screen over the decades (unless you want to be a stickler and include the 1940s serials), a role that seems like it’s been passed around more from actor to actor than it has. Within that elite club of cinematic Caped Crusaders, there’s a lot of wiggle room in how to interpret the character. Ben Affleck & Christian Bale play him as a gloomy Gus; Adam West & George Clooney lean into his Saturday morning cartoon camp potential; Michael Keaton turned the Bat into a Horned-up weirdo; Val Kilmer played him comatose. It’s a range of variation that’s befitting of Batman’s journey in the comic books, which has taken many different tonal directions over a near-century of different writers & illustrators tasked to continue his legacy as The World’s Greatest Detective. Oddly, that freedom of interpretation is largely missing from the animated versions of Batman, despite their proximity in medium to his comic book form. Kevin Conroy, who voiced the titular vigilante through 85 episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, has become the defining standard of what Batman sounds like as an animated cartoon character. He’s a universally beloved fan-favorite, a status any one of the more divisive live-action performers have yet to achieve. As a result, almost all subsequent interpretations of animated Batmen, no matter who’s writing the text, have felt like faithful imitations of Conroy’s voice work for the character, leaving little room for creative variation. Bruce Greenwood, who voiced Batman in our current Movie of the Month, is just one of these many dutiful imitators, even if a competent one.

Less than halfway into 2018, there have already been three entirely new animated Batman films released, each with a wildly different tone and a different actor voicing the Caped Crusader. As there are now dozens of animated DC movies exploring the usual dynamics of the comic book brand’s more well-known characters, this year’s offerings each rely heavily on a high-concept gimmick to keep their interpretations of Batman relatively fresh. One film explores the possibilities of Batman’s ninja training by translating the character through the anime medium. Another teams up the fearless goth detective with Scooby-Doo in the classic Hanna-Berbera crossover tradition. The gimmick in Bruce Greenwood’s latest Batman project isn’t nearly as interesting as either of those movies sound; it sticks much closer to the Kevin Conroy template than the deviations in either premise. Greenwood reprises his role as Batman for the first time since he played the character in 2010’s Under the Red Hood, our current Movie of the Month, in an animated feature titled Batman: Gotham by Gaslight. Like Batman Ninja and Scooby-Doo! & Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Gotham by Gaslight attempts to keep Batman fresh by viewing him though a gimmicky contextual lens, this time a Gothic murder mystery. The problem is that the gimmick isn’t exactly a deviation at all, but rather a reinforcement of what was already in the forefront in the Kevin Conroy era. Much of the appeal of Batman: The Animated Series was its Gothic literature overtones, which created nice tension with the show’s modern urban crime thriller narratives (borrowing a page from Tim Burton’s book). DC’s animated movies have been chasing that creative high ever since, but Gotham by Gaslight takes the faithful diligence even further than most projects by transporting its narrative to an actual Gothic literature setting, robbing it of all its aesthetic tension.

19th Century Batman is the same philanthropist sleuth as he is in any other timeline, this time dedicated to solving the case of Jack the Ripper. Familiar faces like Harvey Dent, “Constable” Gordon, Selina Kyle, and Poison Ivy (an erotic dancer stage name in this context) populate a From Hell -style story about a mysterious serial killer who targets female sex workers in dank London alleyways. In a way, Batman’s crimefighting presence makes more sense in this world than it does in a modern one. It’s almost expected that a local wealthy eccentric would have the bizarre nighttime hobby of dressing up like a humanoid bat to beat up the local peasants for petty crimes. Many people even suspect him of being Jack the Ripper, recalling the same parallels between masked criminal & masked vigilante that drove Under the Red Hood. Even Batman’s cape & utility belt make more sense in this context, though he is outfitted with a more traditional trench coat collar for flair. The problem is that Batman makes too much sense in this context, especially after the Gothic literature foundation laid about by The Animated Series. Outside a few strong details like a zeppelin-set knife fight and a steampunk motorcycle, Gotham by Gaslight does little to exploit the possibilities of its gimmick and instead plays its material straight. The film occasionally pretends it has larger gender equality issues on its mind (mostly through the crossdressing, sex work-championing exploits of Selina Kyle), but it’s mostly a straightforward murder mystery styled after the literary trappings that define its setting. Batman: The Animated Series made that aesthetic interesting by clashing it against a modern(ish) urban setting. Gotham by Gaslight isn’t sure what to do without their central juxtaposition. Once the enticing gimmick of its Batman vs Jack the Ripper premise settles into a comfortable narrative groove, the film leaves very little room for novelty or surprise.

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is billed as the 30th film of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies brand, which I don’t think even covers films like the recent animated Adam West campy reboots. That’s a whole lotta Batman content, with only two titles under Bruce Greenwood’s belt as the vigilante weirdo. Much like how Gotham by Gaslight does not do much to separate itself from the previous achievements of The Animated Series, Greenwood mostly serves as an echo of the excellent work Kevin Conroy has achieved in the vocal booth. Being that kind of placeholder in the brand can fulfill a lofty purpose, though, particularly when it anchors a well-written story. The dozens of animated DC movies have filtered through writing teams as frequently as any comic book writing stable would, so a consistency in different actors’ vocal performances as the same character is beneficial to maintaining a calm surface that covers up the movement underneath. Bruce Greenwood has voiced Batman in two animated movies, one great (Under the Red Hood) and one dull (Gotham by Gaslight). The quality disparity between these two pictures is entirely on the writers’ shoulders, as Greenwood’s performance changed very little, if at all, between them. Under the Red Hood is a self-contained narrative that brings a comic book storyline to the screen that Batman fans rarely to get to see in motion. Gotham by Gaslight, by contrast, turned the subtext of an animated show with nearly a hundred episodes into up-front text, making its aesthetic less interesting in the process. Bruce Greenwood was present for both, but had very little effect on their outcomes even as the voice of their shared central character. Live-action Batmen have found plenty of room to leave their marks on their respective franchises over the years, but the animated ones mostly come across as a copy of a copy of a copy of a . . . Bruce Greenwood is just one of many.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the animated superhero thriller Batman: Under the Red Hood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

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Batman has been lighting up the silver screen for seven decades (!!!) now if you look all the way back to the serialized episodes that played as appetizers before feature presentations in the 1940s. That means there’s several generations of kids who’ve grown up with their own personal version of Batman, a specific actor or adaptation that marks their introduction to the Dark Knight. Just think, there will be thousands of youngsters who are first introduced to the Batster through Dawn of Justice this weekend, meaning their own personal Bruce Wayne will be none other than former Bennifer member Ben Affleck. Personally, my first Batman was likely Michael Keaton (who also probably remains my favorite), but the one I remember  much, much more vividly watching as a kid is the disembodied voice of Kevin Conroy.

Kevin Conroy voiced Batman/Bruce Wayne for the excellent, long-running television show Batman: The Animated Series. I spent so much time with Conroy’s voice emanating from Batman’s mouth that it’s impossible not to think of him as the Official Batman. It’s also arguable that since Conroy has logged so many hours as the Caped Crusader through all 85 glorious episodes & two feature length movies within that series, he’s more than earned the title. As an animated work, Batman had a really easy path to mastering the comic book balance between campy humor & brooding severity that so many adaptations have failed to capture by committing too fully to one end over the other. The show’s noir, Art Deco visual design (which was achieved by drawing on black paper) is not only gorgeous; it’s true to the property’s Detective Comics roots. Similarly, Conroy’s voice work plays the show’s hero with the perfect mix of suave, dark, and humorous tones that make him such an interesting anti-hero. I like to think that the reason Batman: The Animated Series is remembered so fondly is because it really was that good.

Batman: The Animated Series spawned a couple feature film editions in its time, but the most significant of the pair by far came at the height of the series’ popularity. The show was such a hit that it earned a legitimate theatrical release in 1993’s The Mask of the Phantasm. In the film, Batman finds himself being framed for a series of murders with interconnected victims in the organized crime community. The mysterious perpetrator in these murders is a fellow masked crusader known only as The Phantasm. While being hunted by the police for The Phantasm’s crimes, described here as “vigilantism at its worst”, Wayne flashes back to an early romance that swelled & fizzled during his early days as a gimmickless vigilante grieving over the loss of his parents.This trip down memory lane proves to be more than therapeutic. It also helps the befuddled Batman solve the mystery of who’s been murdering criminals instead of simply, nobly apprehending them.

It at first seems as though The Phantasm’s identity is spoiled by the very-recognizable voice of character actor (and, in Class of 1999, salacious banana eater) Stacy Keach, but that only leads to one reveal of many. The Mask of the Phantasm feels like a standard multiple episode story arc from Batman: The Animated Series, just one uninhibited by commercial breaks & repetitive credits sequences. The series was finely crafted enough to genuinely earn this theatrical treatment, though. Even if the movie doesn’t constitute the best story arc the series had to offer, it’s still a fine, typifying glimpse into what made the show so great in general. To that point, the series’ key antagonist, the Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill in his second most significant role), drops in mostly just to remind you of how awesome he is in this specific adaptation. There’s a particular fight scene between The Joker & Batman in a small-scale Gotham miniature that makes them look Godzilla-sized by comparison that I contend ranks among the best-choreographed fight scenes in any Batman film. The Mask of the Phantasm may not be the pinnacle of what The Animated Series had to offer, but it’s a great, concise mystery & an easily digestible glimpse into what made the show special, not to mention what made Kevin Conroy’s work one of Bruce Wayne’s best manifestations.

-Brandon Ledet