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.
In recent months, I started buying comics again, and of course, one of the first I grabbed was Justice League. With DC revamping their full line of books with 52 all new #1 issues, it was a perfect entry point. I was a serious fan of the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited animated series, and while this is not of the same continuity, all of the main voice actors were brought back for this outing. So, that made this animated movie quite special for me. What we have in Justice League: Doom is a very stellar story crafted by some amazing talents as DC Comics’ premiere superhero team battles with more than just villains, but a breach of trust within their own ranks.
Soon after thwarting an attempted robbery by the Royal Flush Gang, the Justice League of America comes under the attack of Vandal Savage’s Legion of Doom. The immortal conqueror has assembled a team of villains to defeat Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, and the Martian Manhunter. Concerned of the consequences should his fellow crime fighters ever turn their backs on humanity, Batman created a set of methods for which to immobilize Earth’s most powerful superheroes in the event of an emergency. However, Vandal Savage breaches the Batcave’s security and obtains these files allowing for his team of villains to use them for lethal intent. Now, joined by the young hero Cyborg, the JLA must overcome deep feelings of betrayal to defeat the diabolical Legion of Doom before Savage launches a missile that will destroy half the planet allowing for himself to be situated as ruler of all mankind.
While there is a lot of subject matter I will delve into, first and foremost, I want to say that this is a thoroughly enjoyable, fun, and exciting motion picture. It is full of great action, excellent characterizations, and plenty of epic, heroic moments that will inevitable please any adventure-loving viewer. There is plenty of levity throughout to counterweight to more dramatic storyline, and the balance between them is beautifully handled. There is much to examine and highlight with this animated feature.
This was adapted from a 1990s story arc in the JLA comic book titled Tower of Babel, and a few changes were made. The line-up of the team is different which originally included Aquaman and Plastic Man. The roles of Green Lantern and the Flash were originally the relatively newer heroes of Kyle Rayner and Wally West, but are now the more classic Hal Jordan and Barry Allen. Also, Cyborg is only a recent addition to the Justice League of the comics, but he is nicely integrated into this story. His role shows a young hero earning his keep by stepping up in a chaotic situation, and using his unique skills to help resolve it. The main villain was also changed from the endlessly fascinating Ras’ Al Ghul to the less dimensional Vandal Savage. Using Ras’ made more logical sense since he is a Batman villain who has infiltrated the Bat-cave numerous times, and it is established that he knows Bruce Wayne is Batman. Plus, his motives are usually more ideological in nature whereas Vandal Savage is usually just about conquering the world. Still, they are both megalomaniacal in their own ways. However, despite these peculiar changes, the story still works excellently adapting new motives and dynamics to these different characters.
Every superhero is handled with substantial depth and respect. The story allows for an audience to see most of the JLA outside of their superhero personas. You see Barry Allen attending to a crime scene as a police forensic investigator, Clark Kent at a press conference as a reporter, Martian Manhunter in his human guise as a police detective, and Bruce Wayne in his interactions with Alfred. They are brief moments, but enough to show an audience that these people do live lives outside of their costumes. In their lives, there are people who they personally care about, and those that care deeply for them. I did especially like how Alfred was written being the rational voice to Batman’s more obsessive, workaholic mentality. It shows that Alfred is still his keeper, and can exercise authority over him due to a long standing respect. Batman wants to keep working, pushing through the pain and fatigue to resolve this new mystery, but Alfred reminds him that he is human and needs rest and mending. Bruce could override Alfred’s mandate, but he would never disrespect Alfred’s better judgment. The interactions of these characters display a history amongst them. Little quips about how Ace “sucker punched” Superman before, or Hal and Batman talking about who is ahead in saving whose life really creates a long standing trust and camaraderie here. This makes the impact of Batman’s secretive contingency plans a stronger blow because we can see how much they are friends on top of being teammates. What is really great is what Batman reveals as his contingency plan for himself at the end, and it hit me as very telling of Batman’s true nature of trust.
I also enjoyed that the entire League is not unanimously opposed to Batman’s contingency plans. They are all stunned by it, but subtle actions by some of them suggest a more open minded, fair viewpoint. I can entirely see Hal Jordan being for it as, at least in the comics, he went completely insane and killed the Green Lantern Corps when infected by the fear entity Parallax. He’s also seen someone like Sinestro, who was a Green Lantern, betray the Corps and become an enemy as well. So, having counter-measures in place to neutralize a rogue member would be a wise precaution in his eyes. However, most of the League would view this as a betrayal of trust, and no one is entirely wrong. When Tower of Babel was written Batman was being made into an increasingly more paranoid character, and so, while his ideas might have been wise, his secrecy might be arguable. However, Batman never takes time to brood about this, or feel regret over it. He remains strong in his belief that what he did was a necessary precaution, and it’s only Savage’s twisting of their intent that made them potentially objectionable, in his eyes. Being the sole non-super powered member of the team, he has a unique perspective to see how destructive their powers could be if mind control or a psychological break were to turn them to the side of evil.
Of course, the voice cast is excellent! Having the same actors back who I loved in the old DC Animated Universe just added an extra special quality to the film. Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly have been voicing Batman and Superman, respectively, for a long time, and have earned a respectable standing in the annals of these characters. Conroy is the voice of Batman to me, forever and always. He captures every psychological and emotional nuance of the character perfectly, and clearly enjoys voicing the Dark Knight. Daly embodies the moral sensibilities and epic quality of Superman wonderfully. Michael Rosenbaum is clearly a great actor, and he is able to adapt his voice acting nicely from Wally West to Barry Allen. There’s still a playful aspect to his performance, but it’s more restrained, a little more mature now. He clearly made a conscious effort to differentiate the two performances. The only change-up here is the amazing Nathan Fillion as Hal Jordan reprising his role from the Green Lantern animated movies. His performance truly transcends expectations meshing greatly with the animation direction to create strong emotional moments. Fillion offers up great jovial quips, but also, deep emotional resonance for Hal. He creates an interesting and fun character that holds a lot of weight. Lastly, Phil Morris, who portrayed the Martian Manhunter on Smallville, takes on Vandal Savage, and does a thoroughly effective job at it. He gives Savage a nice touch of majesty and culture wrapped in an imposing megalomaniacal package. The remainder of the cast inhabit their characters superbly keeping things strong, vibrant, and powerful throughout, but it doesn’t end with just the voice acting.
I have really enjoyed the animation style of these animated movies. I have seen Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, and Batman: Under The Red Hood (which I previously reviewed). All of these have had some slightly different character models, but they have all raised the animation standards for this medium. They are nicely detailed giving each character their own unique look, angles, and energy. All of the heroes here seem a little younger than usual, but that’s exactly what DC Comics has done with their new continuity. So, it did not throw me off at all. The motion of the animation is very fluid making for some dynamic and exciting action sequences. Those sequences are also smartly handled by never making them frivolous. The heroes have to work hard for their victories, and each action scene furthers the story along. The Royal Flush Gang tends to be a token, generic band of villains to battle, but here, they are made more formidable. They have cunning, skill, power, and some cohesion. As dialogue suggests, they have eluded the JLA before, and so, everyone steps up their game so to not repeat that loss. The Justice League uses teamwork and smarts to ultimately triumph over them.
Scenes play out with a solid cinematic style aided by an excellent color scheme to bring out vibrancy and mood. These enhance the subversive elements in the story creating a mysterious, foreboding atmosphere. The creative design of locations is very cool. I really loved the waterfall interior setting of the Bat-cave. It offers up a different aesthetic than I’ve seen applied before. I felt it was a little inspired by the one in Batman Begins due to the waterfall entrance in Christopher Nolan’s film. Also, the Hall of Doom was a nice update from the old SuperFriends cartoon. It still has all the classic design elements, but it reflects Vandal Savage’s personality with various pieces of elegant art that depict him only.
The story unfolds in a very tight fashion. Pacing is consistent throughout. As DC is keeping these hovering around the 75 minute mark, there’s hardly time to let the story lag anywhere, but it’s more a fact that there are no extraneous elements present. It’s a very lean, meaty storytelling structure staying right on point with the plot elements and character dynamics. Every plot element that is introduced has a purpose. They all tie back into the story at some point, and grow organically from the conflicts or crises that develop. They really took Tower of Babel as a template, an idea, and built a fresh story around it using a new set of character dynamics and relationships to create Justice League: Doom. That is very smart screenwriting, and that was evidently the standard for the late Dwayne McDuffie. Brilliant stories filled with well rounded, well realized characters and themes. He surely hit every character squarely on the mark in this instance crafting their psychologies and histories around a very intelligent storyline. When the Leaguers are taken down in the second act, there is such an epic and powerful weight given to it all. It’s not handled like “just another villain victory.” These are moments that could claim all of their lives, and it is no easy feat for them to bounce back from it. Beyond just the physical toll, it becomes an emotional and personal injury that they need to overcome to move forward with stopping the Legion of Doom. These moments are given their due time so that their epic weight can come crashing down upon the viewer. It is an amazing sequence that gripped me tightly as it unfolded.
My only down comment is that, at the end, I would’ve preferred a more sound tactical approach in the villains and heroes pairing off. When you have such equal opponents setup here, it would be more logical to change them up. Have Flash take on Cheetah, Batman against Mirror Master, Superman against Bane, or Martian Manhunter battling Star Sapphire. Throw the villains off guard by pitting an opponent against them they are not prepared for instead of each hero battling their common enemy. I can understand the storytelling significance of having each hero take down the villain that defeated them earlier in the story, but this suggested approach also makes sound storytelling sense. The Legion of Doom outsmarted them once. Now, it should be the JLA’s turn to outsmart them instead of just throwing down like they’ve done countless times before with the same enemies. This is especially so since there’s a missile ready to be launched that will destroy half the Earth. No time for personal vendettas. For me, it would’ve been more satisfying if they had taken a smarter approach by changing up the fight dynamics instead of trying to settle scores when the fate of half the world is at stake. However, that is merely my own personal issue, but the climax of the film doesn’t end with a hero-villain fight. The Justice League still has a crisis on their hands that requires each member to give it their all to avert disaster, and that only made for a far more intense and satisfying ending.
This is a very dramatic story that deals squarely with the characters on numerous levels. It raises a very involved issue about trust amongst a group of people with secret identities and super powers. Despite their own personal secrets, they have come to trust each other, but at some point, there must be an objective point of view questioning ‘what if.’ Beyond just the potential of mind control or magic manipulating them, anyone is capable of using their power to do something destructive through emotional or psychological turmoil. When that day comes, someone has to be prepared to deal with it, and Batman surely felt it was his responsibility to prepare for that. Batman, at his best, has always been about doing what’s needed, not what’s popular. The film doesn’t address the complexities of the issue, but it does address how the characters deal with it. That is what’s important, in the long run, and it would truly be intriguing to see a direct follow-up to this story to know how this team moves forward from here.
All of this simply results in an extremely well rounded animated movie. The foundations of its success truly began with Dwayne McDuffie’s immense talent and brilliance as screenwriter. I have not had a wide spread exposure to his work, but from what I have learned of it, Justice League: Doom exemplifies much of what he was admired for. This is written with so much depth and knowledge of the characters that it works as an excellent entry point for anyone into the DC Universe. The loss of all the stories McDuffie still could’ve given fans worldwide is hard to fathom, but it is clear that his talent will be forever missed. However, he left behind a large catalog of work for us all to enjoy at our leisure. So, I would say starting here would be a fine choice. Justice League: Doom has thrilling action, great excitement, rock solid dramatic storytelling, wonderfully fun characters, and is an all around enjoyable watch. It’s an attention grabber from beginning to end, and I know for me, it left me wanting more of this greatness. As I know it does for the great guys at the Raging Bullets DC Comics fan podcast, whose own review helped me fuel mine, this movie makes me long for the return of a Justice League animated series.