Sequence Day Two – Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) & Watchmen (2009)

Over the weekend of 7-9 April, 2017, in collaboration with the Comic Studies department at the University of Dundee, overseen by the world’s only Professor of Comics Dr. Chris Murray, and the city’s very own festival of geekdom Dee Con, Dundee Contemporary Arts is running Sequence, a series of films inspired by comic books and animation. 

If Heavy Metal‘s view of “mature” content is that of a hormone-addled teenager, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm takes a more genuinely adult perspective, despite being aimed at a younger audience. Based on the celebrated Batman: The Animated SeriesMask of the Phantasm utilises its longer running time and higher rating certificate to tell a story of revenge that delves into the psychology behind loss, and what separates vengeance from justice.

Mask of the Phantasm outdoes many of the previous Batman films simply by telling a different kind of origin story for the Caped Crusader. The lethally botched mugging of Thomas and Martha Wayne is as well-known now as the destruction of the planet Krypton or the death of Uncle Ben. It barely requires restatement, having become a piece of pop culture general knowledge. Despite this, many Batman movies feel a compulsion to retread this ground, so that now the moment when Bruce Wayne becomes an orphan has become tiresome. The figures of the Waynes look large over the story even though they never appear, and their influence is far more weighty in death. Picking up with Bruce at the beginning of his crime-fighting career, his mission is threatened when the unthinkable happens: he falls in love.

Bruce’s reaction to finding peace with the beautiful socialite Andrea Beaumont is not exactly what one might expect, and is heartbreaking to witness. Having already pledged himself to his crusade against crime, he is torn between completely conflicting emotions, hope at glimpsing the chance for a normal and fulfilled life and crushing guilt at “betraying” his vow to his parents. The scene in which he falls to his knees at their gravesite, pleading for forgiveness for his sudden happiness is more revealing than a thousand Crime Alley flashbacks. His feelings are eminently relatable. Having lost a loved one, it is all to easy to worry that one is insufficiently sad, that any easing of one’s pain is an insult to their memory. When he reconnects with Andrea decades later, the chance to reignite that relationship shows the growth in Bruce. He is still clearly conflicted but lacks the same youthful angst, and seems willing to contemplate that the two could have a future together. When the bereavement is less raw, he is able to see the wisdom in Alfred’s counsel, that his parents would never have wanted him to live his whole life in misery.

While Bruce has learned to deal with his parents’ deaths in a (relatively) healthier way, Andrea has not. Any reconciliation between them is made impossible by her actions when, as the titular Phantasm, she wreaks murderous revenge against the mobsters who killed her father. The parallels between Batman and Phantasm are clear. What separates them is perhaps less apparent. While both take up vigilantism as the result of trauma, the key difference is the use of murder to achieve their ends. Arguably, since Bruce’s loss came so early in life he retained enough youthful optimism (naivete?) that he could seek justice outside the law while never becoming just another criminal. When Andrea’s father dies, she is older and more cynical, and seems resigned to the fact that she must descend to the level of killers in order to seek retribution. Her goal is more selfish and more savage than Bruce’s, for which she ultimately pays a heavy price.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm ranks among the very best Batman movies, and of the more nuanced treatments of the character is certainly accessible to the broadest audience. The inclusion of the Joker is the only slightly questionable choice, seemingly done more because he is a popular villain than because it serves the story, but this is small criticism indeed. Mask of the Phantasm is thrilling, tragic, and human, and provides a perfect capstone to the outstanding animated series.


Watchmen was considered an impossible-to-adapt property for many years, and a lot of people (writer Alan Moore included) would argue that it remains so. With a book as dense, as influential and as beloved as Watchmen, adaptation is incredibly difficult., but Zack Snyder does a relatively good job with the source material. The film is undeniably inferior to the comic book, but in terms of cinematic superheroism is more thoughtful and engaging than most.

The film suffers somewhat from its slavish fidelity to the graphic novel, particularly the visuals. The world is reproduced in exacting detail, though the colour palette loses much the brighter aesthetic of the book in favour of the more common Snyder moodiness. This is linked to the film’s desire to make the characters look cooler than they were before, in contrast to the usual technicolour comic superheroes. This works both for and against the theme of casting heroes in a more realistic and human light. The contrast between masked persona and naked humanity is made starker. Nite Owl is the best example of this; his nebbish and impotent manner out of costume is blown away when he dons his Batman-esque armour. Conversely, the intention to show the Watchmen in a more attractive hue sacrifices some of the story’s tragedy, that costumed adventurers were always faintly ridiculous and that these kinds of antics are rendered absurd in a world threatened by atomic holocaust. There is a superficiality to the film’s look, more concerned with appearing impressive than catching the profundity.

Where the film shines brightest is in the elements unique to the medium, namely the casting and the musical choices. Most of the cast are very well chosen. Patrick Wilson is the moral centre of the movie, an old-fashioned Boy Scout left foundering in an ethical quagmire. Jackie Earle Haley and Jeffrey Dean Morgan throw themselves into their psychopathic characters with gusto. Haley is a simmering ball of rage, always threatening to spill over into gratuitous violence, while Morgan’s sneering laughter in the face of nihilism is completely believable. Playing an omnipotent and increasingly detached character is a real challenge, but Billy Crudup blends aloofness with a strange sadness, and never makes Doctor Manhattan truly inhuman. The two weakest links in the principal cast are Matthew Goode and Malin Akerman. The reveal of Ozymandias’ villainy is made rather too obvious by Goode’s oddly sinister performance, and Akerman’s performance is slightly wooden and unnatural in the face of this fantastical setting. The exceptions to this are her scenes with Wilson, as their genuine chemistry allow both characters to seem more like real people.

The film’s soundtrack is (almost) uniformly fantastic, and aids in adding resonance to many key scenes. The movie’s single greatest innovation is its opening credits sequence, wordlessly relaying the alternate history of the Watchmen universe from the 1940s to the 1980s, set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin'”. It communicates a huge amount of information clearly and concisely to the audience in a way that would have been stilted and tedious in expository dialogue. The film uses a similar device for the other big chunk of backstory, the birth of the world’s first and only true superhero, Doctor Manhattan. Taking its cue from the fractured, time-displaced narrative of Chapter Four of the comic book, it is underscored by Philip Glass’ “Pruit Igoe” and “Prophecies” (music originally composed by the 1982 experimental film Koyaanisqatsi), which gives his account of his own life a grand and otherworldly quality. This is not to say that every musical choice is perfect. The decision to set Nite Owl and Silk Spectre’s slow-motion sex to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” must rank as one of the most awkward love scenes in movie history, and turns a moment of emotional release into cringe comedy. Music is a component unavailable to a purely graphic medium and, despite this misstep, the film uses it to its full advantage.

Watchmen is a flawed adaptation, but is probably close to the best possible of such a difficult text. Previous versions were attempted, even reaching the level of full scripting and prospective casting. An early concept, intended to be helmed by Terry Gilliam, featured more humour and an insane dimension-hopping conclusion, which might have proved more original but would likely have alienated fans even more. As it stands, Watchmen serves as a good primer to the graphic novel, and an entertaining film for more casual viewers. Among the continuing tsunami of superhero movies, this film ranks as one of the more challenging and interesting examples of the genre.

 

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

Directed by Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm

Written by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko and Michael Reaves

Starring Kevin Conroy, Dana Delany and Mark Hamill

 

Watchmen

Directed by Zack Snyder

Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse

Starring Patrick Wilson, Malin Akerman and Jackie Earle Haley

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