Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Movies! - "I didn't count on being happy."

For the longest time, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was the best film featuring the caped crusader. Of course, the things that changed that were Batman Begins and later The Dark Knight. I suppose that some folks might be wondering why a big superhero nerd like myself hasn't written about any of the Batman movies yet with this Movie-A-Day Month, but I've already written extensive reviews for each one of them. Check it out:

Batman Returns
Batman Forever
Batman and Robin
Batman Begins
The Dark Knight - plus an addendum.

So I guess that just leaves me with MotP for this month. In all honesty though, I just consider this movie to be an extension of the excellent Batman: The Animated Series. I suppose that there are some episodes that are better than the movie - although perhaps not so much on the animation front - but the film is still pretty solid.

I remember that I actually went to see it in the theater. My good pal Kristine was cool enough to go with me. (To be fair, I didn't really have to twist her arm. She was always very catering to my nerdy tendencies.) I then got it on home video and showed it to some friends, who were impressed with it. I also remember in college that whenever I talked to people who had seen the animated series, they were always really impressed by it.

The main advantage that the animated film has over Tim Burton's two movies is that it simply has a more coherent story and a plot that's driven by the characters. Burton's films obviously have a greater budget and access to more mainstream actors. (For my money though, Kevin Conroy is the best Batman ever - if we're going simply by the voice, of course.) I suppose that you could also say that MotP gets a bit melodramatic at times, but I sort of expect that thing from a cartoon about a guy who dresses up as a bat.

This advantage is even clearer when it comes to comparing the animated endeavor to Joel Shumacher's crapfests. I know some people would argue with me about MotP being better than Burton's films, but I don't think that I'll get much argument on this score. Not only is the plot more coherent, but it doesn't insult the source material by making everything all campy. And if we're talking the animated series, try watching all the Mr. Freeze episodes and then watch Batman and Robin and tell me which one of those is aimed exclusively at adolescent minds.

There's even an advantage over the two Christopher Nolan films. No, I don't think that it's as good. I don't think that it even comes close. However, as a fan of the comics, I have to take my love for the character into account. My only gripe with Nolan's movies is that they have pretty much painted themselves into a corner. With the current movies so grounded in reality, there's a large chunk of the Batman mythology that simply won't make sense with the world that they've created with these movies. I've written about this problem here and here where I go over which villains would and would not work.

What the cartoon series managed to accomplish was a reality that allowed for all the aspects of the Batman mythology. He had down-to-earth villains; he had sci-fi foes; and he had fantasy adversaries, and they all worked just fine. Perhaps it's harder to create something like that when you only have a two hour movie to establish a world, but I'd like to see some day a new batch of Batman films where they try and get closer to that. After all, Batman is a mixture of many different genres. I understand that Nolan was trying to get as far away from what was created in the Burton/Shumacher films (which just did whatever they wanted to without establishing rules of any sort) and that was certainly the right choice. Still, I think that there's a really great Batman movie that's just waiting to be made that has a Batman that's nearly 100% like he is in the comics.

I realize that I've already written a lot without really going into the film itself. The plot revolves around a new vigilante coming to Gotham City called The Phantasm. Comics fans would note that he's somewhat similar to The Reaper from the Year Two storyline in that he resembles an angel of death and takes a decidedly more lethal approach to fighting crime. This, of course, puts him at odds with Batman who absolutely does not kill. (And one of the good things about Nolan's films is that he got this very important detail right.) Meanwhile, a former lover of Bruce Wayne comes back into town, and we get flashbacks on his early days as Batman. Turns out that the thought of living happily ever after with her almost made him hang up the cape and cowl. As he speaks to the spirits of his deceased parents, Bruce struggles with his decision to give it up:
It doesn't mean I don't care anymore. I don't want to let you down, honest, but... but it just doesn't hurt so bad anymore. You can understand that, can't you? Look, I can give money to the city - they can hire more cops. Let someone else take the risk, but it's different now! Please! I need it to be different now. I know I made a promise, but I didn't see this coming. I didn't count on being happy.
Of course, tragedy gets in the way of his relationship, and he winds up becoming the savior of Gotham as his destiny intended. When we get back to the present, Bruce tries to find out what really happened to make her leave him so long ago. Throw in a connection between his lover and The Phantasm, along with a connection to The Joker, and you've got a solid superhero story.

If you ever watched the Animated Series and enjoyed it, then you might want to give this one a try. If you're a fan of all things (or almost all things) Batman, then you definitely want to check it out. As I mentioned before, there are probably some episodes of the show with better stories, but this is a solid entry, and it even gets better on repeated viewings.

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