Is This the Best Batman Movie?

Nc best batman movie.jpg

May 10, 2016

(The shortened opening)

NC: Hello, I'm the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don't have to. When people talk about the best Batman movie, what usually comes to mind?

(A shot of the poster for Batman & Robin pops up)

NC: (leaning forward) HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa...! But seriously...

(A montage of posters for other Batman movies are shown)

NC (vo): Dark Knight, Batman '89, and...

(The montage of posters goes faster: Batman Returns, Batman Forever, The Dark Knight Rises; finally, the first two Batman movies mentioned are shown side-by-side)

NC (vo): Yeah, usually just those two.

NC: But when it comes to the best representation of Batman as a whole, there's one that everybody always overlooks: the animated one.

(Cut to a clip of Batman: The Animated Series)

NC (vo): Now, I'm not talking about the animated series...

(Cut to a montage of images of various Batman animated movies on DVD)

NC (vo): ...or the dozens of DVD releases.

(Cut to footage of the Batman movie in question that the NC is talking about: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm)

NC (vo): I'm talking about the hand-drawn theatrical release that didn't do well at the box office, but more and more people are discovering every year.

NC: That is Batman: Mask of the Phantasm! (smiles and nods)

(Cut to a shot of the poster for Phantasm, followed by film footage of this movie)

NC (vo): Released in 1993, Phantasm was trying to cash in on the rising success of Batman: The Animated Series, taking place in the same universe. It had the same voice actors, same writers, animation team, except on a cinematic level. It was a critical hit, and, as mentioned before, is gaining a following as possibly the best Batman movie there is.

NC: (perplexed) But if that's the case, how come it's gotten so little attention?

NC (vo): Not a ton of people talk about it, at least, not on the level of all the other Batman films, and there's not even a Blu-Ray release of it.

NC: Yeah, that's right! The Schumacher films...

(Images of Blu-Ray covers for Batman & Robin and Batman Forever are shown)

NC (vo): a Blu-Ray release...

(Cut back to Phantasm)

NC (vo): ...but the movie with what some consider to be (shot of Kevin Conroy) the best Batman, (shot of Mark Hamill) best Joker, (opening credits show the screenplay as by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko and Michael Reaves) and best modern-day storytellers of the classic characters, doesn't. Why is this swept under the rug while movies like (poster for...) Dark Knight were declared the best Batman flick, even before it was released?

NC: Well, to better understand, let's take a short, spoiler-free look at the story.

NC (vo): A mysterious villain known as the Phantasm is killing off what appears to be random gangsters. Yeah, killing, as in "this movie is PG when PG actually meant something". People believe it's Batman, as, from a distance, it seems to look like him, and thus, it's up to our hero to find out who's behind these murders while also outrunning the police. On top of that, an old flame named Andrea comes back into his life, as it seemed she was his first love after the loss of his parents. This gives some insight of his transformation into Batman as he is tortured by the fact that, for the first time, he's actually happy and feels as human as he's ever felt since the murder of his parents.

NC: As with all Gothic stories, though, it doesn't end well...

NC (vo): ...leaving the two bitter at each other, despite the fact that each one knows they're hiding information that the other could use. To make things worse, one of the gangsters brings in the Joker to try and take Batman or... whoever is behind this murderous spree down before his life is next. It's a four-way clash between Batman, the Phantasm, the Joker and the police, all trying to see who can take out the other first while solving this complicated mystery.

NC: Sounds promising, but what makes it particularly special in comparison to the other Batman movies? And on top of that, what separates it from just being an extended episode of the animated series?

NC (vo): First of all, the budget is certainly higher.

(Cut briefly to a clip of the Joker in the animated series, before cutting to the Joker in Phantasm)

NC (vo): As wonderful as the animation was on the TV show, you can tell there's a lot more focus and effort on this project. The characters look more solid and three-dimensional, but still lend themselves to exaggerated designs, allowing for greater expressions.

NC: They also stay true to their form as well.

(Cut to a montage of shots of CG in Disney animated movies of the period: Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King)

NC (vo): At this time, every animated film was putting CG everywhere. It was new and looked cool...

(Cut to a shot of the Rock Ogre from Quest for Camelot)

NC (vo): ...but sometimes, they put it in places where it didn't belong.

(Cut back to Batman: Mask of the Phantasm)

NC (vo): This movie knew the technology at the time wouldn't look good with their Art Deco style, so they just used it for their opening credits, which adds a little something different, but doesn't distract from anything.

NC: If they tried to have Batman in The Phantasm fight in an animated city, it would look a lot like the animated...

(Cut to a clip of the 1994 Spider-Man cartoon series, whose shots of the city are CG-rendered as Spidey swings through the city on his webs)

NC (vo): ...Spider-Man cartoon at the time; just kind of awkward and phony.

(Cut back to Phantasm)

NC (vo): This film knew to keep to its roots and stay hand-drawn. And much like the show, it doesn't shy away from its dark style, with harsh shadows, grim colors, and a lot of enjoyable light work.

NC: But... okay, Batman & Robin had pretty colors; what makes it a particularly good film?

NC (vo): Because the focus is where any great Batman film should be: on the screwed-up psyche of our characters. Before Batman Begins, there was really no cinematic look at Bruce Wayne's transformation into Batman. Now, there's nothing wrong with that, as you can argue it's more powerful what you don't see as opposed to what you do.

NC: But this is one that goes into an element that's never really been explored: Bruce Wayne if he found happiness.

NC (vo): The death of his parents is so strong with him that even when he finds love, he feels guilty. He pleads on their tombstones forgiveness, like being happy is some sort of crime. All he's known is lost, so when he finally finds something, it throws him off and he doesn't know how to react to it.

Bruce: (kneeling before the Wayne tombstone and shedding a tear) Please, I need it to be different then. I know I made a promise, but I didn't see this coming. I didn't count on being happy.

NC (vo): It's a pretty damn good psychological analysis without being... well...

(Cut to a clip of The Dark Knight: Batman interrogating the Joker)

NC (vo): ...literal psychological analysis.

Joker (Heath Ledger): See, there are morals. They're only as good as the world allows them to be.

NC: (annoyed; holds up hand) Yes, yes, you took a psych class, shut up.

(Cut back to Phantasm)

NC (vo): Well, that's all great for Bruce Wayne, but what about Batman, the character everybody wants to see? Well, the advantage of this movie is that, while it is a continuation of the show, you can catch on even if you haven't watched it. If you're a fan of the cartoon, you'll laugh even harder at Batman and the Joker's history. But if you're not, you can still follow who he is and what their connection is, as well as all these characters.

NC: But the cleverest advantage that the animated series was, is that it encompassed practically everything that was Batman.

NC (vo): From the comics to the Burton movies to even a little bit of the Adam West show, it was a hodgepodge of everything the character has been in the past. Everybody could recognize something from a version of Batman they grew up with. But it also somehow still managed to be its own unique entity as well, even creating new characters that have now become regulars in the lore.

NC: The movie works in the same way.

NC (vo): It works as a dark journey into a character's psyche, but it also works as comic book camp. It has serious discussions and tough questions, but it also has death traps and rocket packs. It's not ashamed to be a comic book movie, as so many films were for a while. Kids can enjoy the jokes and fight scenes, but they also have a lot of harsh adult moments, too, including some pretty intense violent imagery. Like I said, they earned that PG rating. There's a lot of gruesome deaths in this cartoon that was originally meant for kids, as well as a lot of bleeding. And you feel every impact. I always grab my arm every time I see this scene.

(The scene in question is Batman's arm getting slashed by the spinning blades of a helicopter that swoops down to attack him, which causes NC to yelp, jump back and clutch his arm, startled; cut to a montage of images of the live-action Batman)

NC (vo): Something you may notice a lot of Batman movies miss is the art of the mystery. Batman is said to be the world's greatest detective, but there's very few mysteries to solve in the films. At least, none that the audience can figure out, too.

(Cut back to Phantasm)

NC (vo): This is a legitimately good mystery, with clues, twists and turns, there's even a clever curveball thrown in if you check the credits after the film and see who did the Phantasm's voice. I can't give it away without revealing the Phantasm's identity, but let's just say it's a very subtle touch to play with your deduction a little more.

NC: With that said, there's also a lot of mystery that's not revealed.

(Cut to more shots of live-action Batman movies)

NC (vo): I feel like the past couple films with Batman have been showing too much of how everybody does everything.

(Cut back to Phantasm)

NC (vo): But part of the fun is, again, it's a comic book, and there's a fun mystery to how characters pull things off in comics. We never figure out how the Phantasm disappears and reappears in that puff of smoke, but we know it has to be an illusion similar to how Batman sneaks away when nobody is looking. The same with the Joker and how well-timed his death traps are, translated very well into the cinematic universe.

NC: It's also suspenseful.

NC (vo): There's a chase scene between Batman and a SWAT team that gets pretty intense. It just beats him down further and further until he's totally exposed. I can't recall so many people getting so close to seeing who Batman is. It's pretty damn heart-pounding. While it does big scenes like that well, it also does a great job at the little touches. Like, there's a scene where one of Bruce's ex-girlfriends is about to hand his ass to him when he's flirting with other women, but see if you notice a little foreshadowing in this scene...

(The scene in question is set at a fancy party that Bruce is attending and he is surrounded by other women)

Woman #1: What about the "I" word?

Bruce: The "I" word?

Woman #1: "Ingagement"!

(Suddenly, there is the sound of glass shattering, as another woman approaches, holding a glass of wine)

Woman #2: I'd watch out for Brucie if I were you, girls.

NC: Did you hear that? That little glass breaking?

(The woman with the wine glass throws the wine in Bruce's face)

NC (vo): Clearly, it's not her, as that she's about to, well, throw it in his face, but it's clearly a touch signalling that something bad is going to happen. Something is uncomfortable, something is just a little off. Little touches like that are all over the place, even to the reveal of certain people's identities. And they just make the experience all the more engaging when you watch it both the first or second time.

NC: And speaking of sound, everyone always glorifies the music in the Batman movies, and rightfully so.

NC (vo): Once again, the music here is amazing. The late Shirley Walker, who did the music for the animated series, adds a size and weight to this that makes the epicness leap off the screen. Her music was already great, but now, with the budget they had, she was able to bring a gigantic choir in it, complimenting the Gothic scope that Batman deserves. Just try listening to this without getting chills...

(The film's final scene, showing Batman staring out across the city to see the Bat Signal appear in the sky, is shown as dramatic music with an ominous choir is heard)

NC (vo): It might even have the best moment of Batman first putting on his mask. You don't even see what he looks like, but the music guarantees you, it's the coolest thing you can imagine.

(Dramatic music plays as Alfred hands Batman his signature mask; he slowly puts it on and then looks toward a surprised Alfred, then starts walking away)

Alfred: My God...!

NC: It also helps create what many consider the biggest Joker laugh ever.

NC (vo): Again, without giving too much away, in the climax of the movie, everybody is bloodied and beaten up, and they just find out the entire place is about to blow. Everyone thinks their number is up and there's no way out as explosions burst into the air, fire consumes the sky, anarchy and chaos is everywhere, a choir in Latin is screaming into the night, and the Joker lets out what could possibly be his last laugh. It's as epic as you could possibly get.

(The scene happens as the NC describes it: the area is exploding in huge fireballs while dramatic music and the aforementioned Latin choir sound out louder than ever; confronted with his end, the Joker starts cackling insanely)

NC: So, this movie seems to be everything Batman: the comics, the cartoons, the TV shows, the movies, so... how come it doesn't get more attention?

NC (vo): Well, there's a few theories. One is, the marketing wasn't very good. It was as generic advertising as you could get. It just showed them punching some guy, the Joker says a line, we see a bit of the Phantasm, and that was it. I don't know why so little effort was put into it, especially when marketing for...

(Cut to footage of Batman & Robin)

NC (vo): ...the Batman movies has always been very impressive, even for the bad ones.

(Cut back to Phantasm)

NC (vo): Maybe it was because of theory 2: there just wasn't that much respect for animation if it didn't have Disney's name on it. Some critics didn't even get a chance to review it.

(Cut to a clip of Siskel and Ebert's review show)

NC (vo): Siskel and Ebert went out of their way to do a special episode talking about the movie, as they didn't get to review it when it first came out, but they wanted to draw attention to it on video and felt it didn't deserve to fly under the radar.

Gene Siskel: ...the Batman animated feature that was made in 1993, and Roger and I never reviewed it, and as far as I'm concerned, we made a big mistake because it's terrific.

NC: Another theory is that while it did take a few risks, it didn't take enough to leave a big enough impact.

(Cut to a clip of Batman ('89))

NC (vo): Everyone remembers Batman because it was so dark and different.

(Cut to a clip of Batman & Robin)

NC (vo): Everyone remembers Batman & Robin because it was so campy and lame.

(Cut to a clip of Dark Knight)

NC (vo): Everyone remembers Dark Knight because it was so adult and disturbing. None of these are perfect movies, but they did take chances that you would remember.

(Cut back to Phantasm)

NC (vo): Phantasm didn't do that much different. Aside from there being a new character, it... just did Batman.

NC: But... here's the thing: it wasn't Nolan's Batman, or Burton's Batman, or Snyder's Batman. It was Batman!

NC (vo): Any part of this movie you can immediately identify as something familiar, something you grew up with, and something you're still drawn to, even as an adult. And that's what makes Batman last for so long.

NC: This movie came out before...

(Cut to a shot of a poster for...)

NC (vo): ...Batman Forever came out, and diehard fans were shocked to see how much more adult...

(Cut back to Phantasm)

NC (vo): ...the version for kids was than the version that was supposed to be for adults. Thank God we'll (image of Batman v Superman pops up briefly) never have that happen again. In a sense, I can understand the argument not taking, quote-unquote, "enough" risks. I mean, don't get me wrong, people still die in this and an animated film that was PG was not seen as profitable back then.

(Cut to footage of Batman ('89) and Dark Knight)

NC (vo): But I, too, personally kinda like Batman and Dark Knight more for the huge leaps and bounds they took. It's just gonna speak to me a little more.

NC: But in terms of which movie understands who Batman is in all his reincarnations and all the various versions that have been out there, all rolled into one... this really is it!

(More footage of Phantasm follows)

NC (vo): It has great drama, it has great comedy, it has great acting, it has great writing, it has great artwork, and it's totally faithful to its source material while also introducing new elements.

NC: (posters for Batman ('89) and Dark Knight appear in left corner) I'm always gonna have a soft spot for these two, but if you were to ask me which film represents Batman the best, (poster for Mask of the Phantasm appears in right corner) it's clearly this one.

NC (vo): It's deep and complex, but it's still gadgets and costumes. It's dark and grim, but it still has bright colors and visuals. It's silly enough for kids to have fun, but smart enough for adults to take seriously.

(Cut briefly to a few shots of live-action Batmans)

NC (vo): In a long line of Batmans that always seem to go from one extreme to another...

(Cut back to Phantasm)

NC (vo): ...this seems like the perfect in-between. It's its own thing while also being a continuation of what we know and love. It works on pretty much every level.

NC: So, the next time somebody asks who's your favorite movie Batman, along with...

(Cut to shots of Batman as played by Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck)

NC (vo): ...Keaton and Affleck...

(Cut to a shot of Batman's voice actor, Kevin Conroy)

NC (vo): ...maybe throw in Conroy in there.

(Cut to shots of the Joker as played by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger)

NC (vo): Along with Nicholson and Ledger...

(Cut to a shot of the Joker's voice actor, Mark Hamill)

NC (vo): ...maybe consider Hamill.

(Cut back to Phantasm)

NC (vo): Because this is not only a legitimate Batman film, it's the best one done. And instead of just shrugging it off as just the cartoon movie, maybe it should be considered as a better representation than some of the ones we're getting today. And if somebody tells you that movie is nothing more than kid stuff, just remember...

(Cut briefly to an image of a Batman comic before returning one more time to Phantasm: a dramatic clip of Batman firing his zipline launcher and swinging on it)

NC (vo): ...Batman was seen as kid stuff, too, but those who look deeper find something that'll last much longer into adulthood.

NC: I'm the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don't have to. (gets up from his chair and leaves)

(Credits roll)

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