Warner Brothers Animation (1993, 1998), Warner Brothers Home Entertainment (February 12, 2008), single disc, 76 mins (Phantasm)/67 mins (Subzero), 1.33:1 ratio, Dolby Digital 2.0, PG (Phantasm)/Not Rated (Subzero), Retail: $14.97
A masked figure is killing Gotham’s gangsters, and Batman catches the blame. Now the Dark Knight must clear his name and save Gotham in Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm. In the other story: After Barbara Gordon is kidnapped by Mr. Freeze, Batman and Robin must rescue her before time runs out in Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero.
With the release of The Dark Knight Rises coming ever closer, it’s a good time to look back at Batman on the big screen. First portrayed by Lewis Wilson and Robert Lowery in 1940s serials, Batman didn’t achieve major mainstream popularity until the 1960s TV series and movie starring Adam West in the aforementioned role. Then, for the next twenty years, Batman was confined to ink on pages until 1989, when a young director named Tim Burton took on the task of updating him for a new generation. Gone were the bright colors and “Bat-shark-repellant”, this was a more serious, brooding Batman that fought crime through the grimy streets of Gotham. And audiences ate it up. The film was so popular that three sequels followed, and a new cartoon inspired by Burton’s films, Batman: The Animated Series, debuted in 1992. The series was a smash hit, praised for appealing to both children and adults, and garnered four Emmy awards.
A year after the series first premiered, a theatrical spin-off, Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm, was hastily released to critical acclaim but box-office failure. Warner Brothers, looking to cash in on Batman Returns, released it the same year, but the short notice hurt the film, which didn’t even make back its budget. (It was really intended more as a direct-to-video offering anyhow.) While the animated series continued to thrive, Joel Schumacher began production on Batman Forever. By the time the film hit theaters, Batman: The Animated Series was hanging up its cape. But with the release of Batman & Robin in 1997 came a new direct-to-video release Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero. The film served as a continuation of the show and a sequel to Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm. Extremely negative reviews for Batman & Robin pushed Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero back a year, in hopes that audiences would forgive and forget. Upon its release, Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero proved to be a refreshing change of pace from the Schumacher films and received critical acclaim, winning an Annie Award for “Best Animated Home Entertainment Production” of 1998.
More than ten years later, the Christopher Nolan series has defined Batman for a new generation, making the earlier Batman films look corny by comparison. Because of the chronological association, the animated series and movies might now be forgotten or wrongfully labled as “kiddie-fare”. This, of course, would be wrong. So, with Batman at the height of public awareness, what better time to use the character’s popularity to shine a light on two lesser known titles.
Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm
During a meet and greet of Gotham City’s gangsters, Batman bursts in to deliver some leathery justice. One of the gangsters, Chuckie Sol, makes a run for it. He is confronted by a mysterious cloaked figure who tells him ‘[his] angel of death awaits.’ Chuckie tries to run over the figure, but ends up driving his car out of the window, and Batman arrives just in time for people to see him and accuse him of murder. Councilman Arthur Reeves calls Batman a public menace, yet is cracking jokes at Bruce that night at a party. While Bruce is flirting with a group of women one of Bruce’s past loves, Andrea Beaumont, shows up and throws wine in Bruce’s face. Bruce, so distraught at seeing her again, excuses himself to have a flashback. We see in the flashback Bruce and Andrea meeting in a cemetary, each visiting their deceased parents. They fall in love and are soon snuggling on the grass while Alfred heavily sighs.
Back in the present day, Buzz Bronski is killed while visiting Chuckie Sol’s grave. Reeves tries to signal Batman so he can capture him, but Batman drives in the opposite direction to investigate Bronski’s death. Since he’s there, Batman stops in front of his parents’ grave, and runs into Andrea, who makes the connection and realizes who Bruce Wayne really is. Andrea then goes to dinner with Arthur, and Batman sits outside with a pair of binoculars, but doesn’t watch for long before he flashbacks again. Bruce and Andrea visit the World Of The Future and see a high-tech car, which looks suspiciously like the Batmobile. Bruce goes with Andrea to meet her father, but has to leave when shady gangster Salvatore Valestra interrupts to talk about shady gangster stuff with Mr. Beaumont. On their way out Bruce and Andrea run into a mugging taking place. Bruce beats up the group, but is knocked down by a mugger and fails to catch them. Soon he’s drawing doodles of a vigilante costume, but can’t commit to fighting crime while he dates Andrea. Then the flashbacks end as Batman realizes he’s been staring at Andrea and Arthur for a very long time and drops away into the night.
Thus ends the summarizing, as the third act goes to dark and unexpected places that are best left to discover while watching. The rest of the film continues to switch back and forth between the present and the past, with flashbacks revealing more and more about Andrea, and ultimately the two stories come to a head with a surprising if not inevitable twist. Eventually Mark Hamill’s Joker is brought into the mix, and livens the movie up with his trademark homicidal glee. After Joker gets into the picture the movie picks up the pace and heightens the drama. The climax at a rundown World Of The Future is well staged and executed, making up for an understandable lack of action throughout the rest of the film. Mask Of The Phantasm isn’t seventy minutes of Batman swooping down out of the sky to fight bad guys, its concerns are akin to Christopher Nolan’s sensibilities; meaning no action for the sake of action. Besides the opening beatdown and Bruce’s vigilantism while becoming Batman, this is a slow burn of a story. One could argue that Batman isn’t even the main character, Andrea is.
Dana Delaney does a great job voicing Andrea, making the audience sympathize with her instead of just reading lines without changing emotions. Kevin Conroy is great as always, and is given a chance to show his acting chops outside of what he normally would in a twenty minute episode. Another highlight is Abe Vigoda in a suprising turn as Salvatore Valestra. Valestra goes from being the big man on campus to sitting alone at home fearing death, and is given a great scene with the Joker. And speaking of the Joker, though he was mentioned before it can’t be overstated how good Mark Hamill is in the role. This Joker comes across as goofy comedic relief one minute and an actual threat the next, and Hamill makes the transition seamlessly.
Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero
Subzero begins in the arctic, with a submarine discovering a cave. The cave belongs to Mr. Freeze, who has made the frozen wasteland his home. His only companions are two polar bears and a young Inuit boy, Kunac, along with Freeze’s cryogenically-frozen wife, Nora. After Freeze shows Nora a flower he found in the snow, the submarine crashes through the floor, breaking Nora’s container and destroying Freeze’s home. It is things like this that make people into supervillains. A group of crew members from the sub who were exploring come upon the cave and find their shipmates frozen solid. And wouldn’t you know it, soon they’re frozen solid too. Freeze goes on the lookout for help in saving his sick wife, and his travels lead him straight into Gotham City.
After stopping some robbers, Batman and Robin suit up in tuxes and attend a formal gathering for a Children’s Hospital. Bruce leaves early, much to the chagrin of his date, while Dick asks Barbara Gordon if she’ll go to the coast with him. She accepts, and everything for the young lovers seems perfect. But a party guest is confronted by Freeze, who needs his help in saving his wife. Freeze finds out his wife has only weeks to live without an organ transplant, and no deceased donors have what she needs. So he offers to pay an entire vein of arctic gold if the man considers using a live donor. And the live donor they settle on? Barbara Gordon. Barbara is captured by Freeze at a restaurant, and Dick gives chase on a motorcycle. He only makes it so far before the road is frozen and his motorcycle is destroyed. Barbara wakes up a prisoner and tries to escape, but Freeze stops her. With only a short amount of time remaining before her surgery, Batman and Robin have to find Freeze and stop him before Barbara is killed.
While Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm feels more epic in scale than a typical Batman: The Animated Series episode, Subzero doesn’t fare as well. Subzero tells a fairly straight-forward story with a bad guy capturing the girlfriend of the hero and the hero having to save her, and doesn’t really add anything new or inventive to the mix. When compared to the awful Batman & Robin, it’s no surprise that Subzero received better reviews, but looking back at it now the cracks begin to show. Still, Subzero is enjoyable as animated fluff, yet there’s sadly not much more to it than that. The worst offender in Subzero is a heavy reliance on computer animation, which looks horrendous now. Scenes like the motorcycle chase between Dick and Mr. Freeze swap back and forth between traditional and computer animation, and the contrast is glaring. Wanting to use the new medium is completely understandable, but it shows up in places it isn’t needed. And even the traditional animation isn’t without its faults, particularly in the first act. Characters move stiffly and lips don’t always match words, but it either is fixed as the film goes along or eventually you’ll get used to it. At the risk of not making this review too negative, Subzero is certainly enjoyable and is overall helped by a great final scene, but falls short of being anything more than a three episode arc of the show.
The disc comes with the practically nothing in terms of bonus content. Phantasm only has a trailer. Subzero has special features, but they come off as something you’d see edited together on YouTube. There is an interactive game using the remote that goes through scenes of the movie that is boring after only a few seconds, a cast and crew page that is nothing more than the credits you’ve already seen, a 60 second quick draw of Batman, and a decent two and a half minute video of The Art Of Batman which is a quick cut of scenes from Subzero. Don’t buy this expecting to spend time watching anything but the two features, because that’s really all there is.
The case is fairly typical for a double feature, with both covers halved at the middle and DOUBLE FEATURE at the top. Subzero has a decent cover image but Phantasm has a beautiful one, with Batman and the Phantasm combining against the night sky.
Mask Of The Phantasm looks great enough to carry the slack from Subzero‘s CGI reliance. Both heavily evoke a comic book feel, with juxtapositions of bright colors with heavy shadows, and though this is a standard defintion DVD both look pretty good. Mask Of The Phantasm holds up very well, and beautifully uses shadows and rain to great effect. Though the standalone disc of Phantasm had both 4:3 and matted widescreen, this version only has 4:3. (Both films were created in the 4:3 ratio, but meant to be safe for widescreen matting.) Despite the lack of anamorphic widescreen, there is little else to gripe about. When Subzero isn’t relying on CGI it also looks pretty good, especially during the climax at Freeze’s hideout. The film starts off with some rough and stocky animation, but it vastly improves after that. Both films aren’t as vivid and sharp as they would be if made now, but that is to be expected. There is no cel dust or any other distractions with the transfers. And besides the shoddy animation in Subzero, the image is consistent. Overall, for both films’ ages this disc holds up surprisingly well.
The sound in both films is great, with propulsive scores and sound effects that complement each other very well. Both are available in 2.0 Stereo and would from benefit from turning the sound up and enjoying. There are plenty of moments in both films that will play great with a loud presentation whether you have surround sound or not. The sound is still crisp even when the video isn’t, although there is the occasional muffled line or sound effect that are expected with films of this age. Mostly though there are no noticeable problems to be found in either film’s audio presentation. Phantasm and Subzero are available in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, with subtitles in all four.
While both kids and adults can enjoy Mask Of The Phantasm, kids will likely enjoy Subzero more than adults. Still, Subzero is enjoyable for anyone as brief escapism, and is worth checking out. Phantasm is the real winner here, and despite the lack of special features is worth the disc price alone, with Subzero as a nice addition. The high Main Feature rating might be surprising due to the slightly more negative Subzero review, but it is a result of averaging a 9 for Phantasm with a 6 for Subzero. The DVD should more than do the trick of satisfying a Batman fix before The Dark Knight Rises comes out.