Batman: The Animated Series: Mask Of The Phantasm
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Batman: The Animated Series: Mask Of The Phantasm

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Batman: The Animated Series

<i>Mask Of The Phantasm</i>

Season 0

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As two of the most internationally recognizable superheroes, “World’s Finest” is a fitting name for the pairing of Batman and Superman. World’s Finest Comics was published from 1941 to 1986, bringing DC’s most popular characters together in one book where they starred in separate stories until they were finally partnered in the mid-’50s. Yet while the World’s Finest have often teamed up in comics and animation, they have yet to fully intersect in live action. Efforts to incorporate Batman in Smallville never came to fruition (although he’s appeared in the Smallville Season 11 comic) and Warner Bros. hasn’t been able to get a Batman/Superman film off the ground, despite it being a hell of a lot easier of a story to tell than a Justice League film.

Originally produced as a three-part episode of Superman: The Animated Series under the title “World’s Finest,” Warner Bros. saw financial opportunity in the first meeting of Batman and Superman in the DC animated universe. The studio packaged the three parts into one direct-to-video feature film, The Batman/Superman Movie: World’s Finest, and it’s a testament to the generally high quality of the DCAU that an extended episode of television completely works as a blockbuster movie. Written by Alan Burnett and Paul Dini, who are given story assistance by DCAU veterans Stan Berkowitz, Rich Fogel, and Steve Gerber, “World’s Finest” emphasizes the similarities and differences between Batman and Superman to build a friendly rivalry between the two while exposing new facets of the respective heroes.

The Fleischer Superman shorts were the guiding inspiration for the creation of Batman: The Animated Series, and “World’s Finest” takes that influence to the extreme as Batman relocates to Metropolis to take down the Joker. Director Toshihiko Masuda and animators TMS provide jaw-dropping visuals that emphasize the drastically different tones of the two characters, staging Batman as a stealthy but brutal creature of the night while Superman’s action sequences are all about spectacle and maximum collateral damage. I’ve said in past reviews that TMS brings cinema-quality animation to its episodes, and the work is so strong on “World’s Finest” that it’s easy to believe this was originally a film from the very start.

The majority of this movie is action sequences, and TMS knows how to stage smooth, dynamic fight scenes that are incredibly stimulating to the eye. Batman wreaking havoc on a Metropolis nightclub is one of the best fights ever captured in the DCAU, with Masuda making great use of the nightclub’s lighting to add extra style to the scene. (Love the little green starbursts when Batman roundhouse kicks two thugs in their faces.) Lighting is a big part of capturing the mood of Batman’s scenes, and there are some beautiful shots that take advantage of shadows to give the hero a supernatural aura. A simple moment like Batman attacking two men on some stairs becomes bold and dramatic when there’s a huge bat shadow stretched across the wall behind him, threatening to devour the criminals.

The plot of “World’s Finest” is focused on the Joker, who has gotten his hands on a dragon statue made entirely of Kryptonite. Deciding that the Dark Knight has made Gotham too much of a hassle, Joker goes to Metropolis to strike a deal with Lex Luthor: If he kills Superman, Luthor owes him $1 billion. Luthor agrees, not realizing he’s about to bring some major hurt down on himself when Bruce Wayne flies into town. Bruce is in town to look at some new robots LexCorp is developing for Wayne Enterprises, and when one of those robots ends up attacking Batman, the bald baddie finds himself on the shit list of someone he most certainly does not want to piss off. Not everyone in Metropolis gets on Bruce’s bad side, though, and he immediately hits it off with a plucky female reporter from the Daily Planet, much to the chagrin of her Kansas farm boy colleague.

The first half of “World’s Finest” is much stronger than the back half as it focuses primarily on character relationships rather than typical superhero action. The love triangle between Lois, Bruce, and Superman is fascinating; Lois likes Bruce and Superman, but she doesn’t want the identities they prefer. Both Batman and Clark Kent are disguises that hide Bruce and Kal-El’s true natures, but they’ve grown to enjoy the masks they put on because they give them a sense of purpose. Batman gives Bruce the opportunity to seek vengeance for his parents’ murders, while Clark gives Kal the opportunity to have the family that was denied him when Krypton exploded.

Bruce arrives in Metropolis right after Lois makes the moves on Superman and is semi-rejected (he has to stop a bank robbery), so she’s vulnerable to Bruce’s charms. Their relationship moves quickly, but it’s also nice to see Lois finally get some superhunk action after being led on by the Boy Scout for so long. The beginning scenes with Bruce and Lois are cute, but their relationship takes a big turn when she discovers Bruce’s secret identity. Lois’ emotions are in direct opposition of her journalist instincts, and her refusal to run with the story shows how much she cares about Bruce, even if she did just meet him. Granted, this is Bruce Wayne we’re talking about here. Who wouldn’t immediately fall for that wealthy slab of blue-eyed beefcake?

Bruce flirting with Lois immediately starts him off on a bad foot with Clark, who has even less reason to like him when he uses his x-ray vision on Batman and learns his true identity. That’s an asshole move on Superman’s part, and he completely deserves to have a tracer put on his cape so Batman can learn his identity as well. This sets off a rivalry that has to be quickly pushed to the side when Joker kidnaps Lois, requiring the two heroes to look past their differences if they’re going to save the woman they love. The writers make great use of Clark and Bruce’s superhuman identities to bring comedy to their civilian scenes, and there’s just something fun about seeing Clark get pissed off when he’s forced to babysit Bruce at the Daily Planet or when he visits Lois’ apartment and Bruce is sitting on the couch.

The voices in the DCAU have become the voices I hear when I read DC characters, and “World’s Finest” features all the heavy hitters. Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly have a lot of fun bouncing Batman and Superman’s conflicting personalities off each other, but by the end of the episode, it’s clear this is the start of a friendship above everything else. Dana Delaney is the ideal Lois Lane: confident, smart, and sexy, with a sense of humor that makes her the total package. Mark Hamill and Clancy Brown have fantastic chemistry as Joker and Lex, with the latter playing the straight man while the clown and his harlequin destroy LexCorp property and ultimately threaten all of Metropolis. One of the highlights of the film is the scene where Lex and Joker are discussing the next phase of their plan while Harley and Mercy have a catfight off-screen that every so often moves into the frame. It’s like the kid-friendly version of Game Of Thrones sexposition, providing something titillating (and hilarious) in the background while two characters go through boring but requisite plot points.

I’ve talked about my dislike of Batman’s jetpack in past reviews, and it’s no surprise that “World’s Finest” takes a dip once Batman decides to fully embrace Superman’s world. The most interesting thing about these two heroes is the contrast, and once the street-level, nocturnal Batman starts flying around in the daytime, he loses some of his appeal. While the last act loses some depth, it compensates with action as we get to see Superman really cut loose. Sometimes Batman’s methods are more effective and sometimes Superman’s are, and it’s the combination of the two that makes them such a formidable pairing. Unless they’re trying to score with the ladies, in which case they’re both screwed.

Stray observations:

  • Batman Beatdown: The entire scene of Batman in the nightclub is full of badassery, but the highlight is when he grabs a cage and throws it at some goons, still with a dancing female inside. 
  • I’ll be covering every Batman DCAU film as a lead-in to Justice League Unlimited, with Subzero next week followed by Mystery Of The Batwoman and Return Of The Joker. (And before you ask, there are still no plans to cover Batman Beyond for T.V. Club Classic.)
  • There’s a new Batman/Superman series debuting at DC in June written by Greg Pak with art by Jae Lee. It tells of the first meeting between the two heroes in the New 52 which apparently wasn’t Justice League #1. It seems like a fairly superfluous title, but the art looks breathtaking and Pak is a solid writer.
  • Michael McCuistion’s score for this film is perfectly evocative, especially the saxophone-heavy smooth jazz that underscores Bruce and Lois’ relationship.
  • Lex Luthor’s wallpaper is phenomenal. It looks like there’s always a thick haze of smoke behind him.
  • I have a soft spot for Bibbo Bibowski as I love the idea that there’s a huge Popeye-looking sea captain walking around Metropolis. And any opportunity to have Brad Garrett voice a character is always appreciated.
  • “Lane? Lois Lane? The one Superman always saves?”
  • “There are differences to be sure. Like hair.”
  • “There’s nothing mere about Batmortal.”
  • “You’ll be Mr. Clean, I promise.”
  • “Boing! Boing! Boing!”
  • “I don’t like guns.”
  • “You seem awfully interested in Superman, do you want me to fix you two up?”
  • “I’m going to let you go so you can count sheep or whatever it is you Kansas boys dream about.”
  • “Don’t worry, I’m taking Lois quite seriously. Besides, it seems to me you’ve had your chance.”
  • “How rude!”
  • “More powerful than a locomotive, and just as subtle.”
  • Superman: “I couldn’t have saved Lois without your help.” Batman: “I’m aware of that.” Catty!
  • “If I may be so bold…when in Rome, sir.”

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