Long before Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, enthusiasts had been scratching their heads in search of accurate portrayals of the Dark Knight on film. Burton's original Batman came very close, yet lacked a certain stature and human nature that exemplifies the character. Schumacher's ideal, oppositely, made him dance around with protruding nipples from his costume whilst spouting off overindulgent one-liners in overly heavy comic-book fashion. Finding that balance between brooding intrigue and engrossing action is a tough scale to measure. However, there was one medium that, for some odd reason, was really hitting the nail on the head with the Batman character: the animated series and, more importantly, the animated feature-length films.
Featuring incredible voice talent and a certain animated flavor rich with vivacity, Warner Bros. productions of Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero and, more importantly, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm hit that aforementioned balance between comic-book flavor and dramatic draw quite successfully. Kevin Conroy, voice of our vocal hero in Batman: The Animated Series and many, many other Dark Knight projects, takes the animated cowl in-hand for these two works as well. His vocal talent exudes a quality rhythm with both his Batman and Bruce Wayne that both commands the scene at hand as well as allow the narrative's little tidbits to shine through the shadowy silhouette of the hero.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (**** 1/2 / *****) finds itself wedged between Burton's Batman Returns and Schumacher's Batman Forever, yet it doesn't follow the chronological mythos connecting the films. Instead, it introduces an intriguing take on the Dark Knight's origin story. Though the MPAA made certain to give it a PG rating so that younger fans of the series would be able to enjoy it without much guff from the parents, it is actually a fairly dark and accurately brooding portrayal of Batman and Bruce Wayne. It had a brief theatrical showing where it chimed in with a miniature box office claim, but it slowly has grown into an almost cult-like piece respected amidst many circles as one of the definitive snapshots of the Caped Crusader.
When a series of mobsters wind up dead in several violent displays in Gotham City, the police look in Batman's direction as the murderer. The hero's never been a killer, instead opting to string up or detain his captured targets, so this implication comes as a sharp blow to Gotham's dark detective. Instead, these murders are at the hands of a new renegade sentinel - a form of cloaked "phantasm". As the bodies keep piling up, Mask of the Phantasm becomes a race between Batman and this new ethereal being to its next target. There's motivations at play that will soon reveal themselves as Gotham City's outskirts and rooftops become their battleground.
The real focus of the film, however, is on Bruce Wayne and his capacity to cope with being both his millionaire façade and the unrewarded martyr. Instead of all action-packed wine and roses, it takes the time to show Bruce Wayne reflecting on his parents' death and his "promise" to fight crime in their name. He struggles with the humanism of his situation, which begins the downward spiral that distances both Wayne and his alter ego into separate entities. The film also concentrates a lot on his failed love life, especially on the relationship he builds with fiery Andrea Beaumont in his early years during his initial transformation. It's a precursor to Nolan's stellar focus on the dynamic between Wayne and Batman, offering some very unique conflicts between the character and his everyday life. Most intriguing, however, is the relationship he's built with his deceased family, one that steadily swings him on the pendulum between destiny and sacrifice.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is, by far, one of the strongest and most pensive films about the character to date. It delves into his darker side and reveals his humanity, all the while giving its audience an engaging villain with its own compelling parallels to Batman's character. Aside from also including the immortalized conflict between him and The Joker, which comes masterfully voiced from Mark Hamill of all actors, Mask of the Phantasm features one of the first, if not the first, cinematic depiction of Bruce Wayne putting on his own mask for the first time. Though only a few steps over an hour long, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm successfully seeps into the character's depths by showing his shaky resolution to remain engulfed in his alternate persona.
Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (*** / *****) has the fortunate advantage of being compared to the live action Dark Knight flick from the same year, Batman and Robin. Many a word has been said about Schumacher's second venture into the mythos which, to the behest of readers everywhere, I'll simply sum up as being, well, negatively received. Batman: SubZero attempted to tap into character's piqued market interest at the time as a direct-to-video confection released for younger audience's consumption, yet it additionally displays the framework for story narrative and tone that Schumacher's film could've potentially had if it were done properly.
Dr. Victor Fries lives within in an icy cavern far away from the expanses of Gotham City. There, he resorts to a primitive life filled with swimming amongst polar bears and capturing fish while he cares for his pseudo-cryogenically encased wife, the terminally Nora Fries. When a submarine rises and destroys their home, along with Nora's encasement, Victor must rapidly find a cure for her suspended disease before the time runs out. To do this, he must kidnap a donor with a rare blood type from Gotham - which just so happens to be Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon's daughter. It's up to Batman and young Robin, who just so happens to be dating Gordon's daughter, to locate and reclaim her from Mr. Freeze.
Batman: SubZero rides on the coattails that the very successful run Batman: The Animated Series enjoyed starting in 1992, one year before Batman: Mask of the Phantasm showed theatrically. From the early moments when both Batman and Robin shut down a few jewelry thieves in their typical rag-tag fashion, it's obvious that the tone is much lighter fare. Instantly Robin, the young sidekick Batman takes in as his ward, does a number on this mood; it sacrifices much of the darker tone to accommodate for this action-packed duo of crime fighters, resulting in opportunities for more bustling activity but less of an introspective core character. This can be also seen through Dick Grayson's testosterone-fueled discomfort around Barbara Gordon during their dinner outing. Essentially, SubZero's storyline becomes less about Batman's darker, intriguing attitude, and more about keeping a broader range of audiences viscerally entertained through an easily digestible, hour long cat-and-mouse mystery.
However, it's still leaps and bounds better than Batman and Robin, showing grace through its well-balanced angst between explosive action and the fuming desperation within Mr. Freeze. SubZero creates an interestingly linear conflict in Freeze's capture of Barbara Gordon, showing his desperation is merely in pursuit of a cure for his wife's illness. The film accomplishes this by presenting his angst with thoughtful constraint, relying on moments of restrained silence in between the bustling mystery that Batman and Robin unlock through a wide array of half-baked computer based cues. Most of it is nonsensical revelations that require a lot of disbelief, but it's still a lot of fun to soak in. SubZero doesn't offer anything revelatory like Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, but still offers a good hour of robust action with the Caped Crusader.
This Double Feature DVD comes from WB in a standard keepcase presentation on a flipper disc with each film packed on its respected sides.
The Video and Audio:
Warner Bros. released Batman: Mask of the Phantasm some years back with an anamorphic widescreen image, as well as a full-frame presentation on the flipside of the same disc. The film showed theatrically at 1.85:1, which really exemplifies a lot of strength in the older disc. Here, Mask of the Phantasm comes with the standard 1.33:1 presentation that just doesn't suit the film's broad scope quite as well. Outside of that decision, the color replication seems relatively solid, while the digital noise still seemed to pop out in a few places. It's an older transfer that desperately needs some polish. Audio options are available in 2.0 Stereo English and French, with subtitles available in the same languages.
Batman: SubZero has been, assumedly, presented in its proper aspect ratio at 1.33:1 fullframe. It's a decent visual endeavor, rich with fluid colors and smooth moving detail. Much like Mask of the Phantasm, it has its digitized moments of fuzziness. However, it looks generally quite strong. Also presented in a 2.0 Stereo track, the vocal points and sound effects rang true just fine as well. Audio is also available in 2.0 French, Portuguese, and Spanish languages, with optional subtitles in all the aforementioned languages as well.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm gets nothing more than a fairly uninteresting Trailer. Here again, there's a lot of story behind this exceedingly solid animated film that could be fluidly elaborated upon.
Batman: SubZero comes with a Cast and Crew section, an Art of Batman: Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero artwork analysis, a quick how-to draw video titled Get the Picture: Batman, a rather lame The Hunt for Mr. Freeze DVD Game, and a set of Trailers for a few other films, both Batman related and not. It's not as compelling of a work, so these reasonable, albeit paltry, extras get the after-viewing job done.
Each of these two Batman stories are a few of the stronger representations of the character captured on film, whether it be animation or live-action. The presentation for Batman: SubZero is suitable enough for its confection-type nature, but Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is long overdue for a more elaborate special edition that delves into such things as penning the script and analyzing the last minute decision to release the film theatrically. If you've got $15 bucks to blow on the stories alone, I'd personally seek out either the individual releases of these Batman flicks or a certain Batman Collection which, to boot, includes Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. The standard release of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm does sport a widescreen representation not available here, but on a flipper disc with the full-frame on the other side. It apparently was also released in a repressed anamorphic standalone DVD as well, so keep that in mind. Going into this double feature presentation blindly, I'd give it a hearty Rental rating for the solid stories themselves.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site