dvd-batmandouble.jpgBatman: Mask of the Phantasm

Long before the days of Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan, the Batman franchise suffered some pretty dark days. It was started in the hands of Tim Burton, and while I dearly love him as a director, the Joker’s dance numbers, mucking with the mythology and bringing Vickie Vale into the Bat Cave was just unforgivable.

But just as Warner Bros. was ready to hand the franchise over to Joel Schumacher, who killed it for almost ten years, they greenlit a feature film based on the popular television series Batman: The Animated Series.

This animated series was the first one I remember that made a huge impact with comic book enthusiasts. Gone were the days of cheaply animated Hannah Barbera SuperFriends. The cartoons had grown up, and the Batman animated series was quite impressive – and easily truer to the original source material than the movies ever have been.

1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was given a theatrical release, which unfortunately wasn’t well received. I suppose the American public was ready for nipples on the Bat Suit, but they couldn’t handle a non-live-action movie.

Still, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm managed to soar above the theatrical Batman adaptation, and would remain the best Bat Movie to hit the big screens until Batman Begins shook things up in 2005.

The film is partly an origin story for Batman, but told from a very different angle. Like last year’s Casino Royale, this story showed how Bruce Wayne hardened his heart in the past. The film takes place at a critical point in his career, when he’s making the decision to live a regular life or lose some of his humanity to become the Dark Knight.

This decision is personified in the character of Andrea Beaumont, whom Bruce has fallen in love with. However, when she unexpectedly flees his life, the path is set for Bruce to become Batman full time. However, now Andrea has come back in his life, and he must resolve some of his many emotional issues.

In my opinion, the entire animated history of Batman on television (at least since the animated series debuted in 1992) is far richer than the films ever have been. Even now with the latest animated incarnation The Batman, the mythology is as rich on the television as it is in the comics.

Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm is available as a double feature on a double-sided DVD, along with SubZero: Batman & Mr. Freeze. The Phantasm side of the disc comes with just the theatrical trailer, but that shouldn’t deter you from checking out these recently re-released films.

The Upside: One of the better Batman films – live action or not.

The Downside: It was pretty much a bust at the box office.

On the Side: I was once flamed for not listing Kevin Conroy as one of the best on-screen Batmans… and I can’t say it was unwarranted.

SubZero: Batman & Mr. Freeze

Five years after Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm was released in theaters, Warner Bros. mined another character from the Batman: The Animated Series. This time, it was Mr. Freeze they resurrected, whose story and origin was told on the animated television show.

SubZero: Batman & Mr. Freeze came out as a tie-in to the Joel Schumacher-directed cinematic disaster Batman & Robin. While George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger were putting the final nail in the feature films’ coffin, SubZero actually was a stand-out quality superhero film. Too bad this was the one that got the direct-to-video release.

SubZero takes place after Victor Fries was exiled to the Arctic. While trying to save his wife from a rare disease, his lab is destroyed by a submarine. This sends Mr. Freeze back on a crime spree. He returns to Gotham to kidnap the only person whose blood and tissue types match his wife’s for a transplant. Too bad for him that potential donor is Barbara Gordon. Batman joins with Robin (who happens to be dating Barbara) to try to take down Freeze again and save his wife.

Like Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, SubZero is superior in quality, tone and respect for original source material to the Burton/Schumacher debacles. The characters are lifted faithfully from the comics, and it sets the stage for the even more impressive animated series that were yet to come, not just for the DC universe but for Marvel as well.

Additionally, the filmmakers for SubZero got Mr. Freeze right as a Batman villain. By the end of Schumacher’s run as feature film director, the villains became nothing more than wisecracking caricatures of their original selves. The animated Mr. Freeze kicks ass all over the Schwarzenegger mess that was made in Batman & Robin.

Both SubZero and Mask of the Phantasm are now available as a double feature double-sided disc. The SubZero side features a common Warner Bros. animated “Get the Picture” segment that shows how to draw Batman, cast and crew information, a musical montage and a “Hunt for Mr. Freeze” set-top game.

The Upside: Two great Batman movies on one disc… and at a pretty low price.

The Downside: Unless you’re a fan, this was under your radar from the beginning.

On the Side: Didn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger suck when he played Mr. Freeze on screen?

Grade: B+


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