I am so glad that I did see this animated feature in theatres twenty years ago. Being a major fan of the animated series, there was no way I couldn’t be excited for it, and it has become a very respected high mark in the DC Animated Universe. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm does tend to get lost in the mix when discussing the best Batman or even best superhero movies because it was an animated feature. The film didn’t perform well in theatres, likely do to a less than aggressive marketing campaign. Even professional film critics Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert did not see it in its theatrical run, but when they did eventually watch it, they indeed loved it. So, with this preface, I think it’s easy to deduce that this is a definite favorite of mine.
When Gotham City’s most feared gangsters are systematically eliminated, the Cape Crusader is blamed, but prowling the night is a shadowy new villain, the Phantasm, a sinister figure with a vengeful agenda. Meanwhile, Andrea Beaumont, the one time love of Bruce Wayne’s life, returns to Gotham City stirring up memories including those of how he almost didn’t become Batman. As all of this unfolds, and the Phantasm becomes a more imminent, lethal threat, the Joker is brought into the fold as a major wild card. Now, can the Dark Knight elude the police, capture the Phantasm and clear his name?
If you’re unfamiliar with the 1990’s animated series, you need not worry. This film works entirely as a standalone feature, but for those who were serious fans, there’s a great sense of expansion and increased depth that this film offers. This is a great story interweaving all threads into an excellent Batman origin, romance, and superhero action movie. The heart of it is the romantic and heartbreaking story between Bruce and Andrea. It starts with so much hope and passion, but as with many of Bruce’s loves, it ends in despair and some tragedy. It’s a beautifully crafted tale that does touch an audience’s heart, and truly shows the emotional depth and humanity of Bruce before and after he becomes Batman.
This film shows us the events leading directly up to Bruce Wayne actually becoming Batman. I love seeing his first outing as a crime-fighter. It’s just him in black street attire and a ski mask. He has the skills, but not the persona, yet. Batman hasn’t been born, and thus, the key essentially elements of intimidation and mystique aren’t in play. He’s not the haunting creature of the night that will frighten the criminal element, and afterwards, Bruce realizes that is what he’s missing. It’s a thrilling action scene as Bruce takes down a group of thieves, and then, hangs off the back of an open van during a police chase. Yet, the very moment where Bruce Wayne dons the cowl and becomes Batman for the first time is a quintessential moment in my Batman fandom. No other film has ever matched this moment for me. Done wholly in shadows, it is a purely simple scene, but perfectly effective and iconic in my eyes. When he turns to reveal himself to Alfred, the reaction from Bruce’s loyal and lifelong butler is pure shock and fear. That still sends chills all over my body.
Now, I absolutely love how the stories of Bruce and Andrea intertwine. The flashbacks to their hot and fast romance are beautiful and classy. You can see that Bruce is ready to give up the vigilante nightlife to be happy with Andrea forever, but the shady elements of her father, Carl Beaumont’s business dealings forge an inevitable wedge between Bruce and Andrea. Smartly, these elements are the core of the present day story between Batman and the Phantasm. It’s also a great turn that the Phantasm’s murders are framed on Batman simply by misidentification. This forces the Gotham Police to begin a manhunt against Batman, but strongly true to his character, Commissioner Gordon refuses to be apart of it. He knows that Batman doesn’t kill, and that little moment shows the bond of trust between Gordon and the Dark Knight. It’s only a shame that that is Gordon’s only scene in the film. Every aspect of this story flows organically and tightly. With a 76 minute runtime, it could move at no other or better pace.
By no doubt, Kevin Conroy has been the definitive voice of Batman for over two decades now for legions of fans. Whenever I read a Batman comic book, it is his voice that I hear as Bruce Wayne and Batman. Conroy reflects all the best qualities of the character from the upbeat playboy, the serious businessman, the dark, brooding man in the shadows, and the powerfully imposing Dark Knight. The most important thing is he brings life, depth, and intelligence to Batman. Producer Bruce Timm and co-writer Paul Dini perfectly understood the character, and throughout this DCAU from Batman: The Animated Series to Batman Beyond to Justice League Unlimited, they stayed true to the core of Batman. The ideals of justice, humanity, and undying determination have always thrived in this animated interpretation. Beyond anything else, we see the world’s greatest detective at work, which is something none of the live action films have ever fully embraced. Batman unravels the mystery of the Phantasm and these crime bosses with cunning and perceptive intelligence. Conroy embodies all of these subtle, inspiring, and engaging qualities of Batman with a lot of heart and care. It might only be voice work, but this still stands as the best adaptation of the character to date.
And I couldn’t discount Mark Hamill’s Joker. Much like with Conroy, he has been a definitive voice for the character to many fans for so long, but has had real competition from great actors in this role. I am a fan of all versions from Ceasar Romero to Jack Nicholson and beyond. With the Joker, there’s almost no wrong way to go with him because he is such a radically unpredictable character that he could be very Romero one day and very Ledger the next. What Hamill does is make the Joker this insane clown who will do whatever hits the biggest punchline in his own twisted mind. He will still likely kill you, but he’s going to laugh his ass off doing it. Hamill brings the jovial zaniness meshed with a lethal intimidation that forges a colorful maniac that is endlessly fun and entertaining while still being a major threat.
Beyond the fact that I do really adore Dana Delany, I believe she was a perfect choice to voice Andrea. She brings a touching beauty of heart and soul to the character. As the younger Andrea, she’s very optimistic and vibrant. She’s a young woman with everything to love and embrace in life. In the present day, she’s a little more heartbroken and tender. There’s a great emotional complexity to her by the end which is very sad and sympathetic. Delaney is a wonderful, charming actress, and she does a remarkable job voicing Andrea Beaumont.
The animation style of this feature film is definitely a solid step upwards from the series with more dramatic shading, and a bit more dynamic action sequences. The opening title sequence even features a beautiful CGI fly through of the Gotham City skyline. The entire series was heavily inspired by the classic Max Fleisher Superman cartoons, and that is very evident, especially with the great art deco designs. Adapting this style to Batman pushed everything into a great film noir realm that works stunningly for him.
The main theme from Danny Elfman for Tim Burton’s Batman movies lived on in this DC Animated Universe. They were reworked by the great, and now late, Shirley Walker. For this feature, she makes it even more gothic and haunting with a beautiful chorus. Yet, that’s only just the start of her stunning work. It’s a fantastic score that rouses an audience, and nails all over the wonderful emotional beats.
And there is plenty of thrilling action throughout this movie. The Phantasm’s stalking of mob bosses are dark, shadowy, and even a little scary. They have a looming, ominous presence. The film unfolds some rousing and even explosive moments at a regular interval, but they entirely flow from the progression of the plot. Nothing’s extraneous, and it really wastes no time crashing you headlong into the action and story. The climax with Batman and the Joker at the abandoned World’s Fair is pretty fun. It shows the Joker’s dangerous playfulness, and creates an escalating sense of peril as he has rigged the whole place to explode. Yet, the movie ends on the appropriate emotional beats remembering that the story is paramount, and it treats its character with due respect.
Unlike many live action movies, this animated feature was given a lot of creative freedom to its production team, and they were able to deliver a very well fleshed out, wonderfully balanced story. This is entirely reflective of the quality that was consistently on display with the animated series and its spin-offs and follow-ups. If you’ve never seen Batman: The Animated Series, this is a great introduction to it, and if you’ve watched and loved it, this is a gem that will satisfy your fandom. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a delightful and amazing animated Batman adventure that is well worth your time.
This is one of those rare sequels which does measure up to the original. Superman II does have some peculiar history, though. In short, the producers didn’t care to continue working with director Richard Donner very much, and sought to replace him after he had shot part of this film. Thus, Richard Lester was hired to complete the film, and to gain proper directing credit, he had to re-shoot several sequences himself. What was released to theatres was Lester’s version, and that is what I am reviewing here. I do intend on doing a review of the 2006 Richard Donner cut of the film, but one thing at a time. Let’s delve into what many consider the best film of this franchise, so far.
When a group of terrorists threaten to eradicate Paris with a nuclear bomb, Superman (Christopher Reeve) races to the rescue. However, after he hurls the bomb into space, the explosion unexpectedly and unknowingly releases the Kryptonian criminals – led by General Zod (Terence Stamp) – from the Phantom Zone who begin to forge a path of destruction towards Earth. Meanwhile, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) escapes from his own prison, and journeys to discover Superman’s secrets at the arctic Fortress of Solitude in hopes to harness that knowledge as a weapon. As this all happens, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) begins to piece together Superman’s secret identity which leads to a romance between Lois and Clark Kent, but the sacrifices the Man of Steel will make for the woman he loves may leave the entire planet in dire circumstances under the tyranny of General Zod.
The film has a nice montage recap of the first film over the opening credits. Back when this was released there was no home video market for people to re-watch these films whenever they liked, and so, adding this at the start helped audiences get the first Superman adventure freshly back into their minds. Even for me as a child it was rather important since we had Superman II recorded on VHS well before the first film. However, one obvious omission is the absence of Jor-El during the trial of Zod, Ursa, and Non. This was because the producers did not want to pay Marlon Brando his salary again for using his footage in a second film. So, the scene was reworked and re-cut to eliminate Jor-El completely, and much was the same with the Fortress of Solitude scenes later on. Moving past that, I really like the opening to this film with the Paris terrorist action sequence. It gives the film its action packed jump start, and shows that Superman as established himself as a global superhero. Overall, it’s an excellently well done sequence that launches the narrative forward.
This sequel gives us more depth into Superman as he has to deal with a number of emotional choices. He clearly loves Lois, but having to maintain the disguise of the bumbling Clark Kent becomes increasingly difficult. When the truth is undeniably revealed, the romantic fire is fully lit between them, and it creates some wonderful moments that bring warmth and heart into the movie. This is excellently juxtaposed with Zod’s reign of terror that gradually begins to loom over all of humanity starting from the moon to a rural town to Washington, D.C. As Clark’s world is getting brighter with dramatic changes being made, the world is facing a terrible threat that only he can combat, yet is entirely aware of. This is an excellent piece of storytelling dynamics. When the two stories finally cross paths, it creates a crushing reality check for Clark that I think is one of the best scenes of the film that shows us the character at his most vulnerable state.
Christopher Reeve puts in an amazing performance here giving us great depth in this far more vulnerable and emotional story. The romance with Lois is touchingly played out with charm, heart, and genuine tenderness with both Reeve and Kidder. They have a heartwarming chemistry that resonates through the screen. What Clark is willing to give up to be with Lois is powerful, but it’s the little bit that happens afterwards that I love. Unlike many super-powered heroes, Superman is one who doesn’t just give up when he’s lost his powers. When he sees that the world direly needs him, he will go to any length, brave any danger, and face even the slimmest odds to set things right once again. This film perfectly portrays that inspiring strength, and Reeve does a magnificent job reflecting the emotional turmoil over Clark’s decisions. Yet, when Clark becomes Superman once again, he stands tall ready to live up to his responsibilities to the world in grand fashion.
Terence Stamp, of course, has become iconic as General Zod. His Zod can be cool, calm, and confident when things are going his way. He knows that his destructive powers make all the emphatic statements necessary for him, and so, when confronting the army or even the President, Stamp allows for Zod’s ominous presence to settle in and take over. However, when circumstances turn against him, when the control begins to slip away, he becomes heated and commanding. He speaks in a louder, more authoritative voice such as when Superman confronts him, and he yells the classic line of, “Kneel before ZOD!” Overall, Zod is intelligent and cunning, but it’s his ego that works against him in those excitable situations. Stamp is a stellar, powerhouse actor who knows when intensity is needed, but is able to excel in the quieter moments of villainy where Zod’s confidence shows through.
Sarah Douglas puts in a graceful performance as Ursa that maintains her as feminine, but also, sadistic and venomous. It’s perfectly femme fatale without showing a sliver of weakness. She has a great presence that really complements Terence Stamp as Zod. She’s also sexy without having to flaunt anything. It’s all about Ursa’s attitude and how she carries herself that makes her alluring. One can easily see why Zod would want her at his side as she enjoys destruction and violence as well as being a beautiful, dangerous woman.
I also love how Gene Hackman’s Luthor is used in this film. They expand his character and show more of his intellectual savvy. Sure, he can still come off as comical here and there as he boasts his ego, but he’s just a bit smarter than anyone else around him. How he discovers the Fortress of Solitude and learns about the history of Superman is great stuff. Hackman has great chemistry with everyone, and I’m glad Otis and Miss Teschmacher are ultimately left behind after the first act. This allows Lex to be unhindered by their foolishness when he confronts the Kryptonian villains. Zod becomes so desperate for a challenge he’s ready to charge headlong into it. However, Luthor uses his cunning and leverage to manipulate them so that he can benefit from their conquests. I really like Hackman’s work here, and working opposite Terence Stamp’s more militaristic presence allows him to shine more. It’s a nice balance of a serious, powerful threat and an intellectual one with a sense of levity to him.
Now, the major detriment that Richard Lester brought to this film is its sense of silly humor. We see this mostly in Non who is given many quirky high pitched grunts, and moments where he seems like an overgrown child. This was entirely unnecessary as Non being a dumb brute would be far more intimidating and remain consistent with the tone of these villains. Still, there are moments peppered throughout the movie where little gags appear that were simply not needed, and they work against the dramatic integrity of the movie. Those comedic grunts from Non were entirely done in post. Jack O’Holloran has an imposing, sort of scary presence as Non, and in general, what he does in his performance is very effective, aside from the overgrown child ideas which were obviously not of his creation. At the time, I imagine much of the camp humor was fine with audiences, and for years, it wasn’t a bother to me. However, time allows you to crave a more consistently dramatic tone. That’s the film’s strength, but Richard Lester apparently wanted more laughs for whatever reason.
Now, what has most come to bother me about the reign of terror from Zod and company is that they tear apart some remote rural town. I would have preferred seeing them tear apart a major city. Something that makes a grander sized statement to the world, and lays waste on a larger scale. The small rural town, to me, just feels like something that would be done a cheap budget. I get the feeling that those scenes were directed by Richard Lester as much of the comedic qualities seen within them were excised in the Richard Donner version. While the Kryptonian villains eventually battle Superman throughout Metropolis, I feel setting their initial assault on humanity in a place of larger importance would have been more effective. In the least, the rural town has no scope and is shot rather blandly. It would have been great to see a return to the sweeping cinematic visuals in Smallville of the first film to amp-up this section of the movie.
The score by Ken Thorne, a regular collaborator of Richard Lester, does reuse John Williams’ themes and cues, but in the film itself, the score sounds kind of thin. However, there was apparently a remastered soundtrack release done in recent years that reflected a much richer and more lush mixing job. Thorne doesn’t do a bad job, but it is really all built on the strength of Williams’ compositions, which have always been exceptional. It really comes down to a weaker sound mix this time out, but regardless, the score does add a lot of life to the emotional qualities of the film.
The other strange quality of the movie is all the additional new powers that are given to Superman, Zod, and the rest. This is most prominently on display in the climax at the Fortress of Solitude with the energy beams shot out from their fingers, and all the teleportation and illusionary powers shown. Yet, earlier on, Zod and company demonstrate telekinetic type powers. These are also detriments to the film that are more apparent in Lester’s cut, and possibly sprung from his involvement. It shows an unfamiliarity with the source material. There was indeed a time where Superman gained all kinds of crazy powers in the comics, but his core, classic set of powers have long been easily defined in many forms of media. Anyone with a decent knowledge of the character would know that none of these powers are Superman’s.
Regardless, the vast majority of the effects here are great. As with the first movie, there are a few lesser grade moments of visual effects work, but on the whole, we are treated to some exciting and visually satisfying stuff. The entire battle in Metropolis is quite ambitious with a number of large set pieces involved. The transition from location shooting in New York to soundstages is quite good. The lighting is consistent with some very good backdrops, and some rear screen projection work done in the more dynamic flying moments. Surely, it’s not as impressive by today’s standards, but for 1980, the year I was born, this was some exciting action and movie magic. It gave us Superman actually battling a super-powered adversary, and three of them nonetheless. Yet, what I really like is that Superman ultimately puts the safety of the civilians foremost, and chooses to end this confrontation with smarts and cunning back at the Fortress of Solitude. While some might see it as anti-climactic after such an action packed throw down, I think this sequence has some great pay-offs.
The film ends on some good notes, but also some odd ones. The memory wiping kiss that Clark uses on Lois is another bizarre inclusion by Richard Lester. Of course, having grown up with it, this is one of those things you take for granted until someone else starts criticizing it, as I have heard. However, this is a beautifully heartbreaking scene as Lois sheds tears over her crushing emotional conflicts. She understands that Superman can’t belong to one person, he has to belong to the whole world, but she loves him so dearly that she can’t just detach herself from her feelings. Clark can’t bare to see her in such pain, and so, he relieves her of that knowledge. This segues into the very good moment where Superman comes to the White House, and promises the President that he’ll never let him down again. It shows that he’s gone through an arc, and now fully understands his role in the world. He’s committed himself to the protection of humanity, and he has to be selfless in order to live up to his promise to the world. Superman does face problems on a larger scale than we can relate to, but we understand his story and what being Superman requires from him. Superman is a hero who will never shy away from his responsibilities to the world because of the burden that comes with being the greatest superhero of all time.
Superman II does have many great qualities of depth, drama, and action. It is very worthy of its reputation of being a fantastic sequel. It builds upon the characters and ideas in the first film, and breaks it open in a film with thematic material and purposeful arcs that have good pay-offs. It also far and beyond surpasses the first film in terms of action, and the effects work is a little more improved. Christopher Reeve has more room to breathe and expand, and he really shows a powerful depth and range. We get some great villains that have become iconic which transcended through pop culture. Still, the film could have done without the slapstick humor, the child-like qualities of Non, the out-of-nowhere new powers everyone has, and the visual gags that Lester slipped in here and there. The change from Marlon Brando’s Jor-El to the mother Lara in the Fortress advising Kal-El is not horrible, but those scenes don’t resonate as deeply as they could have with Brando. Regardless, this film delivers a wonderfully enjoyable, entertaining, and nicely dramatic experience with plenty of romantic warmth and emotional depth. It is unfortunate that the following two sequels sharply declined in quality, but the pleasure is in enjoying what it is you have to cherish. Superman II is definitely a fine piece of superhero cinema that deserves to be treasured despite any shortcomings it might have.
I very much love this film, and count it as an all time favorite. I saw it twice in the theatre in 2005 because I was very much enthralled by the concept of the film and the excellent execution of all its characters and ideas. It has since remained a strong favorite of the genre for me, and has driven my fandom of John Constantine further. I was not knowledgeable about him before seeing this adaptation, but in the years since then, I have become a fan. In the Hellblazer comics from DC / Vertigo, he was a blonde Englishman created by the widely revered Alan Moore and visually based off of Sting, the front man for The Police. Obviously, that does not fit the description of Keanu Reeves, who portrays the title character as a dark haired American in Los Angeles, and there are numerous other changes here that deviate from the source material. That inevitably irritated numerous hardcore Hellblazer fans, but since this was my introduction to him, I can allow both versions to co-exist in my fandom. There are many reasons why I highly love this film including its gorgeous visual style, the world it showcases, and the potential of the characters.
It is said that whoever possesses the Spear of Destiny holds the fate of the world in their hands, and the Spear of Destiny has just been found and put into the hands of evil influences. In Los Angeles, exorcist and occult detective John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) begins to see foreboding signs of something big and unfriendly coming with demons forcing their way into our world, but at the same time, the anti-social chain smoker is diagnosed with lung cancer. It’s not so much the diagnosis that troubles him as the knowledge of where he’s going. John was born with a gift he didn’t want, the ability to clearly recognize the half-breed angels and demons that walk the earth in human skin, and Constantine was driven to take his own life to escape the tormenting clarity of his vision, but he failed. Now, marked as an attempted suicide with a temporary lease on life, the bitter hard-drinking, hard-living Constantine seeks a reprieve from his Hellbound fate. He patrols the earthly border between heaven and hell, hoping in vain to earn his way to salvation by sending the devil’s foot soldiers back to the depths. Unfortunately, he gains no absolution from the half-breed angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton), and no consolation from strenuous allies such as the ominous former witch doctor Papa Midnite (Djimon Hounsou). They all adhere to “The Balance” which keeps half-breeds from directly interfering in human affairs in order to settle a wager between God and the Devil for the souls of all mankind. When desperate but skeptical LAPD Detective Angela Dodson (Rachel Weisz) enlists his help in solving the mysterious death of her beloved psychic twin sister, their investigation pushes them deep into a subversive plot to use the Spear of Destiny to bring forth an evil that threatens to destroy humanity. Caught in a catastrophic series of otherworldly events, the two become inextricably involved, and seek to find their own peace at whatever cost.
Director Francis Lawrence came from a music video background, and that can be hit or miss when moving to feature films. However, Lawrence’s background was clearly a benefit as he injects a very powerful and epic visual style into this film. Director of Photography Philippe Rousselot realizes that immersive vision brilliantly. His composition is rock solid creating very engaging visuals that pull an audience into the story and characters. There is depth to spare in his frames, and plenty of grace and integrity in how he shoots everything. There’s never any handheld camera work. It’s all fluid movement that contributes to the overall enveloping otherworldly tone of the picture. The use of color temperatures is very key to the atmosphere as it accentuates the dramatic tones throughout with a vibrant palette. This is a gracefully shot film with great attention to creating a unique atmosphere and tone in its visuals.
The overall quality of the visual effects are stunning. They are exceptionally consistent and of an amazing high quality. From subtle effects like the fiery glint in the eyes of demons to the enveloping landscape of the Hell version of Los Angeles, they create a complete, rich, textured, and full world for John Constantine to exist within that is truly convincing. The fearsome demonic creatures seen throughout are designed with consistency and originality. This feels like a world with its own weathered history, and attention is paid to every detail to present it as such. The entire “into the light” effect in the climax is awesome as the shadows are literally pulled away to force the evil presence into view. There is never just one effect used over and over again as a crutch. The film is full of vibrant effects that give the film its fantastical flare. Overall, every effect is just executed and presented with amazing artistry complementing Francis Lawrence’s vision beautifully.
I also very highly enjoy the score to Constantine. It has a great atmospheric, haunting electronic style that further fleshes out the otherworldly quality of the film, but still incorporates plenty of traditional score elements that punctuate the rousing, dramatic sequences as well as the softer, more intimate emotions of the film. Composers Klaus Badelt & Brian Tyler put together one hell of a unique musical accomplishment with this. I’ve never heard a score quite like this before, and it works so amazingly well. There is a great use of melody all throughout which enhances the emotional depth that this film is truly rich with. This is definitely a film that takes a different approach to things to give an audience a very distinctive identity for an all encompassing experience. The addition of the song “Passive” from A Perfect Circle is wicked cool in my opinion. It truly set a great tone entering into Papa Midnite’s club.
These enveloping elements wrap together to create a very rich story with a tone full of integrity and gravity. It can be a very haunting and scary film that uses horror elements at times, but is best categorized as a supernatural dark fantasy action film. The action in the film are not big set pieces with spectacular stunts. John’s not some bad ass action hero who can slug it out with a demon. Instead, he uses his occult and demonic knowledge as well as his skills as a con artist to help him win battles. He fights smart using the tools he has acquired which exploit the weaknesses of his enemies such as holy water, Moses’ shroud, a pair of Holy Cross brass knuckles, dragon’s breath, and various eclectic items provided to him by his allies.
This story is partially inspired by the Dangerous Habits comics storyline, which I have read. There’s little directly adapted from that story, and is more just taking the premise of Constantine being diagnosed with lung cancer and having to cope with that. How he deals with it and the resolutions of the comic and the film are very different, but both greatly show off John’s cunning skill as a con artist to varying degrees.
Constantine himself is very fascinating, and I think this version of him is well portrayed by Keanu Reeves. I am quite a big fan of his work ranking Point Break as one of my absolute favorite films ever. I find his work quite enjoyable, and he has some highly impressive acting ability. I think his approach tends to be more subtle, and with Constantine, he really drives home a very diverse character. Reeves showcases Constantine’s jaded personality with depth and purpose. He brings out that worn down, weathered texture that makes the character so intriguing and surprising. He can be an outright asshole because he’s been both plagued by the knowledge he has about the world around him, and that he’s destined to spend eternity in Hell, regardless of what he does. He’s tired and frustrated by these rules that these so-called “higher beings” have imposed upon humanity for their own sport, and he knows there’s little he can do to combat that. Keanu gives the character enough edge while still maintaining an underlying sense of humanity which evolves through the film. As the story goes along, he becomes more and more invested in Angela as a person instead of just her being a cog in a larger plot. You gradually see the bond form between the characters, and how that starts to drive John’s actions. There’s a pivotal shift in there where he stops sulking in his own pain and starts seeing Angela’s. He sees her regret and how far she’s willing to go to mend it. John can still be an asshole, but ultimately, it’s just to those that deserve it. Reeves portrays these subtle and strong emotional beats powerfully showing that there’s more to Constantine beyond that spiteful, embittered exterior.
Another subtle part of John that’s retained from the comics is how his friends constantly pay the price for his battles. In the comics, John is haunted by the ghosts of his dead friends, and the screenwriters slipped a brief line in here about John not needing another ghost following him around. So, it’s no wonder that he’s as cynical and jaded as he is, but it’s also these circumstances which drive him to fight. He challenges everyone on their egotistical or hypocritical behavior, and allows no one to slide.
However, the arc for the character takes him from being a self-serving person who fights evil for his own sake to someone that does the right thing for the sake of others. It takes nothing away from the hardened core of the character, it just makes him an actual hero by the end. That is helped immensely by Rachel Weisz’s emotionally impactful performance. Reeves and Weisz had previously worked together on the 1996 film Chain Reaction as love interests, and perhaps that added a stronger chemistry between them. In this film, their chemistry is exceptionally solid and tight. They have great back-and-forth dialogue with sharp timing and rich character dynamics. Angela is also easily able to stand up to John’s abrasive attitude which is a welcomed quality. Weisz strongly portrays the more emotionally and psychologically vulnerable counter-balance of the story. This allows an audience to have a relatable conduit into the character of John Constantine and his supernatural world. Rachel Weisz is an incredible actress showcasing a wide range of abilities here. She is remarkably powerful bringing out the emotional pain that Angela has deep within. However, while Angela is vulnerable, she is a police detective, and thus, Weisz never makes her appear helpless or incapable of defending herself. She has a definite strong will and confidence about her mixed in with a grounded, engaging charm. It’s simply that the character been impacted by tragic events, and is thrust into a potentially frightening scenario which brings out those fearful or unstable elements in her. Weisz handles it all with dramatic weight and grace.
It is also immensely impressive how strong the supporting cast is in Constantine. Djimon Hounsou has such an awesome presence as the witch doctor turned night club owner Papa Midnite. His deep voice and subtle charisma give weight and gravity to his performance. He can be greatly imposing and intimidating without even standing up in his initial scene. Hounsou and Reeves spark a fascinating chemistry. They play the characters with a sense of shared history which has its turbulent areas which causes friction and some antagonism between them. The screenwriters had a good philosophy of the best way to convey exposition about a character is to show them working. You get to know more about Midnite and Constantine through what they do and how they go about doing it than can really be conveyed through straight dialogue interactions. This is showcased beautifully in the sequence with “The Chair” which allows John to see the path the Spear of Destiny has taken recently, and to find out where Angela has been taken. It’s a manner of operating alluding to information that is necessary for them to know to do what they need to do, but is not necessary to be spelled out for the audience. This further reflects the sense that this a world with a long, textured history between characters, and it is presented in a very smart way that never bogs down the film with extraneous exposition. Midnite himself has a very pleasing arc in the story that ultimately shows Hounsou’s range and charm. He makes the character very fascinating, imposing, but ultimately, highly pleasing.
Tilda Swinton is immaculately graceful and elegant as the half-breed angel Gabriel. The filmmakers chose to go with an androgynous quality for the character, and absolutely wanted Swinton for the role. They chose incredibly well. Her performance has a gentle compassion that eventually turns into a subtle megalomaniacal mindset. She also has an ethereal aura and presence about her that is pitch perfect. It’s a nice dynamic when Constantine goes to see her with him ranting and calling out the hypocrisy at hand, but she offers up a very warm, motherly tone with him. They are both trying to make each other see things from their perspective, and neither is entirely in the right. There is a very aristocratic, snobbish mentality from Gabriel that John can’t stomach, and it works so exceptionally well for this character. It’s such a remarkable performance that the words to describe it in depth escape me.
Now, this film was before Shia LeBouf started grating on peoples’ nerves, but here, there’s enough heart and charm with him as Chas to make his performance a pleasure. Chas is spirited and driven to be given the chance to be of real assistance to Constantine instead of just his personal cab driver, but John just knows the danger of allowing him to do so. Yet, Chas is eventually given the chance to show his worth. As with everyone else, the chemistry is dead on the mark perfect. Gavin Rossdale’s turn as the demon Balthazar is oozing with charisma. He relishes being engulfed in evil, and that delicious smarmy arrogance just pours out over the screen. The tension and spite between him and John is thick as can be. You can’t help but love and hate him all at the same time. All of the actors throughout the film really inhabited their characters with exceptional commitment and nuance, and came together as a cohesive whole to deliver something diverse and marvelous.
Of course, there is Peter Stormare’s magnificent performance as Lucifer himself. There have been so many portrayals of the Devil over the years in cinema from some massively talented actors, and each portrayal has been unique. Stormare takes unique to a whole new level here. The physicality alone is unsettling as if he’s trying to uncomfortably fit back into a human form like it’s an old out of shape body suit, and it results in some peculiar and tense nervous energy. The look is striking enough without devolving into shock. The shaved eyebrows and shorn haircut along with the tattoos really present a standout visual that separates Lucifer from everyone else in the film. Stormare takes all of this to forge a weirdly eccentric Devil that doesn’t need to flaunt an ego or boast of his power. His creepy, chilling presence sells everything. The addition of the pure white suit and bare feet was a nice touch, and it really fits the visual aesthetics of the film.
While I have nothing against a well done origin, it is very commendable that this is not an origin story spending a large percentage of the film showing how Constantine became the man he is today. His back story is not even revealed until well into the second act as we get to know it alongside Angela, and allusions to other shared histories are sprinkled throughout. The film treats its audience as intelligent by not having to explain every little thing. It presents a world, gradually lays out the general parameters of how it works, and then, allows it to envelop the audience. I like this approach for the character because there is a lot of John Constantine history that is very relevant to the character, but it would be nigh impossible to hit all the poignant marks to develop him fully in a two hour film. Starting a film series here is very interesting because it takes John from the jaded, weathered depths to someone more purposeful and formidable. It is a greatly executed arc wrapped up in a strong plotline backed by some excellent talents in front of and behind the camera.
It seems hard to judge where this movie stands in terms of general consensus. It’s not one of those comic book movies everyone talks about, or includes on the list of the best or worst adaptations. I seem to perceive this as a film that had good commercial success, but tends to get overlooked for no apparent reason. Professional critics were divided on it, but the thing with critics is that they get paid to go see movies they are not always pre-disposed to enjoy. This was a movie that appealed to my tastes via its marketing, and it did blow me away. Again, the hardcore fans of Hellblazer likely had their passionate gripes with all the changes made to the established elements of the property, but it’s not a bad film at all. It’s exceptionally well made from a filmmaker with great vision and artistry, and features an amazing cast that put their all into it. From an objective point of view, it’s a greatly entertaining and satisfying film. It has plenty of interesting action, an excellently crafted world, fantastic, stunning visual effects, a unique and fascinating score, and is just generally well written all the way around. I really love this film, and I love what I’ve read in the Hellblazer trade paperbacks. Both offer me something different but equally satisfying to my tastes for supernatural horror and dark fantasy. If you’re unfamiliar with the property, this film can ease you into the heavier subject matter and grittier feel of the comics, but they are two unmistakably different presentations on the characters and the world they inhabit. Taking the film on its own merits, it’s a highly imaginative, excellent piece of work that is worth investing your time and interest in.
This is the first Batman movie I saw theatrically, and at twelve years old, I loved it. I think it’s a much more polished movie than Tim Burton’s 1989 film with a number of charismatic, excellent performances. I’ve never perceived the film as weird or strange like many do. I just see it as a damn good movie that I highly enjoy. I think Batman Returns is far more of a Tim Burton style movie than the first, but in my opinion, that doesn’t make it a lesser Batman movie.
Gotham City calls upon its greatest hero, Batman, to combat its newest threats. From the sewers, the deformed and hideous Penguin (Danny DeVito), head of the criminal Red Triangle Circus Gang, forges a fiendish alliance with the corrupt business mogul Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). Penguin is discovered to be Oswald Cobblepot, the outcast son of a wealthy Gotham couple, and Shreck looks to set him up as the city’s Mayor to force his deceptive power plant upon the city. However, the Penguin has his own schemes to wreak havoc upon Gotham. Meanwhile, Max Shreck attempts to murder his frumpy secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) after poking around too deeply into his shady business plans, but she is resurrected as the dangerous and sexy Catwoman who seeks revenge on him. Batman races into action to combat these villains, but as the caped crusader begins to put a dent in their plans, Penguin and Catwoman plot to discredit Batman, making him a criminal in the eyes of Gotham’s citizens. While the Bat and Cat are at odds, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle quickly become romantically involved which further strains Selina’s already fractured psyche. Batman must battle to stave off the treacherous, twisted plans of these eccentric villains before rampant destruction is inflicted upon Gotham City.
This is truly one of the very few superhero films that is able to balance out having multiple villains. The plotlines are all interconnected smartly through the Max Shreck character. The Penguin is the main villain while Catwoman is more of a subversive wild card, as she should be. Her motives are more passionate while his are particularly methodical, but do later delve into the maniacal. This film seems more character driven than the first, and has some stronger emotional context. Selina has a wild ride that takes her through a slew of emotional states. She is very conflicted between her vengeful psychotic side, and the one that is gradually falling in love with Bruce Wayne. Michelle Pfeiffer just does a stunning job in this role ultimately making Selina grossly sympathetic. The Penguin is fueled by spite for society for being rejected by it all his life, and goes through a character arc himself. First, wanting to be accepted as man instead of a monster, but later, embraces the monster he has become to wreak havoc upon Gotham City.
I also love the plot of the villains launching an elaborate smear campaign against Batman. They frame him for murder and more to position Cobblepot as the new face of hope for the city. It makes for a more dire and interesting circumstance for Batman to deal with, but Bruce decides turnabout is fair play. It’s all an excellently crafted story progression. Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm really conjured up a great story that takes plenty of twists and turns that maintain excitement and interest in the characters. It’s not just some colorful madman terrorizing the city, it’s more complex and involved than that. There are numerous motivations at play with the main characters that create a more personal set of conflicts. The Penguin does provide the larger scale threat near the end, but it’s still perfectly in line with his agenda. He reaches a boiling point, and decides to let loose upon this city that has turned on him. Everything builds up to him becoming that monster, and I believe it’s all greatly executed. In general, the film is amazingly well paced always keeping a consistent energetic rhythm going. At no point does the film feel like it drags. There’s always something developing because of the multiple main characters and interwoven plots. It never gets confusing either. It’s all competently and tightly strung together.
I love the subtle detective aspects in Michael Keaton’s Batman. While everyone else is very much buying the altruistic façade of the Penguin, he sees something that just doesn’t fit right. Something nags at that inquisitive mind of his, and that is extremely faithful to the psychology of Batman. He hardly needs to vocalize his intellect. What is said is conveyed very succinctly as Keaton did a lot of trimming down of dialogue to keep Batman’s words sharp and telling. The film also shows a little technical prowess with Bruce both having the forethought to record the Penguin’s rantings to cleverly use against him later, and showing Bruce attempting to repair the damaged Batmobile. They are just subtle things which show that Bruce has these diverse skills.
This time out, Michael Keaton was given a wider canvas to stretch his talent across. He still executes Batman amazingly well. He is able to convey so much just through those intense eyes, and that sells the demeanor and intimidation of Batman so powerfully. Of course, with the Catwoman dynamic, Keaton has more chemistry to strike up under the mask, and a few appropriate humorous exchanges while fighting with her. Keaton has rich chemistry with the whole cast, and is able to offer up more as Bruce Wayne as well as Batman. His relationship with Michael Gough’s Alfred is a little more light hearted and open. One has to love the little jab about Alfred letting Vicky Vale into the Batcave. Opposite Christopher Walken, Keaton holds up quite well, but Walken never makes it easy for anyone to stand up to his charisma. Still, there’s a nice contrast in Keaton’s more grounded, respectable businessman to Walken’s wheeler and dealer type who definitely has skeletons in his closet. What really shines, though, is that Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer have electric chemistry both in costume and out. The romantic relationship is perfectly complicated as Batman and Catwoman are supposed to be. There’s always some ethical or moral divide between them that cuts the pinnacle of their love short. You can feel the affection Keaton puts into the performance to have the emotions strike deep within Bruce’s soul, and create the powerful connection Bruce and Selina are meant to have. Even as Batman, Keaton shows that sparkle of fascination and intrigue for this seductive and dangerous Catwoman. She, figuratively, hits him very close to the heart, and he sees someone possibly cut from the same jagged mold that he was. There is much less of a sense of the brooding lone man in Batman Returns, but with the stronger love interest aspect and the story ties with Max Shreck, it naturally pushes Bruce Wayne out of the shadows and into a more active situation. He no longer feels like the recluse he seemed to be in the first film. He feels both like a real executive businessman and a human being here. Bruce Wayne does have that dark shadow on his soul, but he has loved many woman in the comics and has been a responsible and quite public businessman. So, it’s all perfectly in line with the source material, and Keaton, nor anyone else, could have done it better.
Danny DeVito is fantastic in this grotesque version of the Penguin. In the comics, he’s just a short, stout crime boss dressed in a tuxedo and top hat with an affinity for birds. Here, he’s made into a freakish man in both appearance and psychology. DeVito just throws all of himself into this role making Penguin a disgusting, crude villain full of gross rage and despicable deceitfulness. It seems like he purely enveloped himself in the character, and had the time of his life with it. He puts on a sinister performance of a man who revels in his own vile intentions, and it couldn’t be better. DeVito is immensely entertaining and charismatic. The make-up design of the character is equally excellent creating a look that can be effectively unsettling. Still, DeVito is easily able to show the wide range of subtle and verbose emotions of the character through the prosthetics. It’s a masterful execution all around.
However, the absolutely stunning standout in this cast is definitely Michelle Pfeiffer. She passionately embodies all phases and mental states of Selina Kyle. From the meek and mousy secretary that awkwardly blends into the background to the bolder, more aggressive and seductive woman to the playful, sultry Catwoman to the ultimately fractured person whose emotions are strained between the love she has found with Bruce and the bloodthirsty vengeance she is driven towards with Shreck. When she is that more lowly woman at the start, there is such a timid, oppressed quality about the character that you can’t help but feel bad for her. Nothing seems to go right for Selina, and she couldn’t be more undeserving of Max Shreck’s intimidating and belittling treatment of her. Then, when that nervous breakdown occurs, Pfeiffer turns on a truly manic performance that shows the traumatic transformation Selina has now gone through. It’s the character violently breaking free of the restraints she’s had all this time, and out the other end of it comes this confident, aggressive woman. This is a Catwoman that excites. Beyond just the sizzling hot sexual aspects, she is electrifyingly dangerous between her ferocious fighting skills, the razor sharp claws, and the leather whip. Pfeiffer slinks very smoothly into being Catwoman lusciously embodying her feline grace. As Selina herself, she shows an amazing ability to subtly shift tone from humorous or casual to just plain dark and unsettling. That venomous dark side seeps through beautifully. Michelle Pfeiffer brings out such intense emotional pain and conflict which forges together an immensely fascinating and sympathetic character. There’s so much subtle texture and emotional range in her performance that one could go on all day detailing it all. Simply said, she put in a remarkably diverse and emotionally intense performance here, and greatly enhances the depth of the film. From what she did in this role, you can definitely see why Selina Kyle had such a strong emotional impact on Bruce Wayne by the film’s end. Pfeiffer absolutely left me wanting more in absolutely every good way imaginable.
Of course, you can never go wrong with casting Christopher Walken, and in Batman Returns, he’s definitely at his best. He has fierce charisma that forces the character of Max Shreck vibrantly into the meat of the film. He never gets lost or brushed aside in favor for the more fantastical villains. There’s just too much weight and excitement in what Walken brings to the role for an audience not to welcome his presence. Walken is massively intimidating when threatening Selina just before attempting to kill her. You feel like Max Shreck is a powerhouse heavy. He’s masterfully manipulative with a mesmerizing skill of twisting people’s minds with his words. Walken just has such a fascinating delivery of lines that is a signature for him, but I think he adds something specially dynamic to this role. He could carry this whole movie as the main villain if it had called for it. Shreck is not damaged goods like Batman, Catwoman, or the Penguin, and that probably makes him the most condemnable villain of the film. He’s a corrupt, deceitful, murderous human being wrapped up in the guise of a respectable businessman. He’s an unethical vacuum of morality that will go to any crooked lengths to further his agendas and strengthen his legacy in Gotham. He’s cutthroat to no end, and Walken embraces the unsettling, shrewd nature of the character powerfully.
Again, the look of Batman Returns is much more polished than the 1989 movie. There is not as much grit in the visuals, and instead, has a stronger contrast. Blacks are thick and rich. They maintain a striking appearance as the shadows are nicely balanced with the light. Burton and his Edward Scissorhands director of photography Stefan Czapsky give this movie its own visual identity. I very much like the blue tones seen throughout which offer up a very complementary tone. Batman Returns certainly doesn’t have quite as much iconic imagery as its predecessor, but it surely has its dramatic moments that are beautifully captured. The snowy appearance of the film was a gorgeous choice as it further adds to the visual contrast and beauty. It’s strange that while the subject matter is definitely darker than the first, Batman Returns actually doesn’t look nearly as dark as the 1989 movie. It appears to be generally brighter and more inviting. It has plenty of moody visuals, but moves away from the muted color schemes and grim aesthetics. It’s definitely a pleasant experience for the eyes.
The production design is much sleeker, and that is reflected in the redesigned Bat suit. It has a cleaner, more art deco armored design which makes sense. Batman would likely evolve his suit into something generally more durable. From a production standpoint, it just looks more refined and streamlined. Gotham City looks more updated with a generally more modern feeling, but still showcasing an gothic industrial look as well as some 1930s or 1940s artistic mentalities. It’s a beautiful city no longer tainted by grime and trash, but still has its darker qualities. Even the Batcave gets a fine upgrade with more up-to-date technology and refined lighting schemes. Plus, the Bat-Ski boat is a sleek addition which gives the film a little extra something near the climax. The wardrobe is just wonderful all around. The gorgeous pinstriped suits of Max Shreck have an excellent 1900s turn of the century class to them. They make him feel like an iconic captain of industry, and the full grey head of hair was a nice touch to his look. The Catwoman outfit could not be sleeker or more sexually charged. It’s absolutely perfect for a character of this slinky nature, but also, reflects her fractured psyche with the stitched together look. Even Penguin’s more upscale outfits, somewhat reflective of Shreck’s style, still have a grungy feel to them. It creates a nice texture and contrast for the character. Penguin’s lair is exceptionally moody, decrepit, and dank perfectly reflecting the striking image of the character.
Danny Elfman really broadens the musical landscape of the franchise with this film. With more main characters come some very distinctive and marvelous themes that richly reflect the complicated natures of these characters. Catwoman’s theme is so wonderfully complex representing the chaotic and unbalanced nature of the character, and throwing in a dash of sorrow and sympathy here and there. Elfman adds a chorus into the score to enhance the operatic sense of everything, and the slight rearrangement of the main title march is very pleasing. It is a heavily and finely textured score that is vibrant and epic. The Christmas season setting of the film truly weaves its way into the score every so often, and makes for a very colorful and haunting listen. While I’ve never seen A Nightmare Before Christmas, I have to imagine there’s some correlation between those musical styles from Elfman.
There is also a vast improvement in visual effects work here. Before watching the featurettes on the Special Edition DVD, I never knew that the opening title sequence was entirely done with miniatures and effects work. It always looked entirely natural to me. Matte paintings are still great, but have a little more life to them with some extra color and integrated motion. Since digital effects had progressed into the forefront, we definitely get the benefit of that higher end work here. Being released in 1992, it was sandwiched right between 1991’s Terminator 2 and 1993’s Jurassic Park. While the digital effects are not used on a massive scale, they are very seamless with both something like the armored shields on the Batmobile, and more so with the digital replication of the penguin soldiers late in the film. Overall, it’s a very fine accomplishment from the visual effects department. Stan Winston also provided his studio’s talent with creating numerous animatronic penguins that seamlessly blend in with the real life ones.
Tim Burton continues to show a great sense of action in this sequel. Every single action sequence is choreographed and shot amazingly well. They are smartly scripted making sure each one is organically different without forcing it. With the eccentric nature of the Red Triangle Circus Gang, Batman has plenty of gimmickry to combat from the sword swallower to the fire breather and many more. He handles each one with originality packed with some ironic entertainment value. Igniting the Batmobile’s flaming turbine engine upon the fire breather is just too priceless. Then, things get more interesting when Batman combats Catwoman. She’s immensely skilled and agile making for a dynamically dangerous adversary that gets some stinging shots in. Mixing that in with the sensuous aspects of their peculiar relationship, it creates a great twisting psychological unpredictability to their confrontations. The climax of the film just blows me away. There’s so much slam bang awesomeness packed into it which Burton handles with so much competency and balance. The race to halt the Penguin’s missile attack on the city creates the fast paced excitement with the Bat Ski boat rocketing to its desination. The explosive and poignant conclusions to the Penguin’s storyline are nicely balanced on either side of Selina Kyle’s own emotionally charged climax. This entire sequence is tightly paced, and hits all the plot and character beats perfectly on the mark. Everything is powerfully wrapped up to a highly satisfying degree. Many superhero films with so many villains usually end up in a mess, but Batman Returns handles all of them exceptionally well all the way through to the end.
The film certainly has more impact upon Bruce Wayne than Batman, but it all ties in very nicely. The parallels of Batman and Catwoman versus Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle was an excellent idea. How both are tied into one is exceptionally strong. Just a simple unassuming line of dialogue is what triggers the revelation to them both, and injects a much stronger emotional element into the climax. It also does create a fine arc for Bruce Wayne / Batman. Seeing him connect with this woman that is very much like him, and how he ultimately wants to be able to save her from the vengeance that’s eating her alive is wonderfully done. The Batman / Catwoman relationship has always been one of the most fascinating and complex ones in comics, and I believe Tim Burton and his screenwriters did an excellent job bringing that to the screen while Keaton and Pfeiffer made it exceed any expectations.
After watching Batman Returns again, I think this might be my new favorite Batman movie. While it’s not really faithful to all the characters as, in the comics, Catwoman is just a cat burglar with no mystical type powers or psychological unbalances, and Penguin is just a sort of quirky, non-freakish crime boss, I really like what was done with these characters, and all the concepts were executed with depth and intelligence. If it was all done poorly or just fell short of its potential, I would surely have some gripes with it all, but everyone involved just couldn’t have done a better job. The tight pace is really what excites me about the movie. It’s constantly moving somewhere with one character or another, and they are all logically and organically tied in together instead of some slap dashed plot to force multiple villains into the same movie. It’s this tightly wrapped sordid web of interconnected characters and plotlines that are smartly interwoven. I will say that there was a slight missed opportunity by Batman not having to really deal with being framed for murder by Penguin and Catwoman. It is an unresolved plot point that is brushed aside rather effortlessly, and it’s a shame too. It’s a storyline that could be very fascinating to explore, but the film just didn’t have room to resolve it. Any such resolution can only be implied, likely through Batman’s rescue of the children from the Red Triangle Circus Gang. However, for the trade off we get for it, I can generally overlook this issue. I enjoy Batman Returns thoroughly now, and I think it’s gotten some bad press over the years. People seem to act like 1989’s Batman was this bright, happy, fun adventure film for the whole family in comparison, but like I said in that review, at nine years old, my parents did not let me see it in the theatre. It was a dark movie that could be unsettling to a young audience. Batman Returns at least has a bit more levity via light, appropriate humor and great chemistry to balance out the dark characters and subject matter. I would venture to say that this sequel is more fun and more exciting than the first movie. I just find this more satisfying on numerous levels. It has a stronger, more layered story with more rousing action, and a tighter rhythm and pace held together by an incredible cast. I believe Batman Returns is an amazing movie, and a great sequel. I won’t say it’s perfect, or that it will give you everything you want from a Batman movie, but it’s a damn good one, regardless. I know it almost certainly will never happen, but I would be very interested in seeing Tim Burton and Michael Keaton return to the franchise with a proper sequel to their Batman movies. I think they could still do a great job if collaborating with the right creative talents, and Burton could likely use a change of talents these days.