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
-

Batman: The Animated Series

<i>Mask Of The Phantasm</i>

Season 0

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The Mystery Of The Batwoman (originally released October 21, 2003)

The year is 2003 and The New Batman Adventures has been off the air for five years. Justice League has ended a strong first season and is beginning an even better second, and Warner Bros. has decided to return to the DCAU Gotham City for a new direct-to-video feature film. The direct-to-video Batman Beyond: Return Of The Joker showed how the cartoon writers could explore darker story material without network limitations, so there’s good reason to be excited about The Mystery Of The Batwoman (MOTB), which reunites most of the B:TAS/TNBA voice cast and creative team to introduce a new member of the Bat-family. Betcha never thought it would be this disappointing.

With a story by Alan Burnett and screenplay by Michael Reaves, two writers who turned out exceptional work on B:TAS, it’s odd that MOTB is missing so much of the style that made Batman’s previous series so memorable. The script is pedestrian with a predictable mystery at its center, the characterizations aren’t consistent with what came before, and the animation doesn’t have the same artistry; while Subzero was a cinema-quality film forced to release on video, MOTB is clearly a product that is going direct-to-video from the outset. It’s also clearly aimed at the kind of viewers who will pester their mothers at Wal-Mart to buy the new Batman video, and is the type of all-ages appropriate material that can be seen at play dates all year around. No more of that Return Of The Joker darkness, especially with the kid-friendly The Batman getting ready to debut in a year.

The concept of MOTB is simple: there’s a new female vigilante in Gotham and three new people in Bruce Wayne’s life could be behind the mask. There’s Kathy Duquesne (a play on the name of original comics Batwoman Kathy Kane), the sexy daughter of a notorious gangster, Rocky Ballantine, a clumsy scientist working for Wayne Industries, and Sonia Alcana, Harvey Bullock’s new partner who owes Batman for saving her family from a fire when she was a child. The new Batwoman doesn’t have the same regard for criminal life as her male counterpart, and the Caped Crusader makes it his duty to stop her before she becomes as bad as the people she’s trying to stop.

MOTB offers some interesting insights into Bruce Wayne as it shows him dealing with romance that he isn’t prepared for and isn’t particularly interested in. The contrast between Bruce and Batman is stronger than ever in this film, with the writers making his civilian identity extra studly and charismatic to convince the audience that Kathy Duquesne would take an interest in him. The relationship between Bruce and Alfred is especially relaxed, with the butler constantly poking fun at his employer as he tries to balance women with the superhero lifestyle. One of those women barely appears in the film, but Bruce’s scene with Barbara Gordon is a highlight even if it’s just a phone conversation.

Picking up on subtext from earlier in the series and tidbits dropped in Batman Beyond, Barbara is in full-on denial considering her relationship with Bruce, thinking that they’re more than just costumed comrades. When she hears about the new Batwoman, Barbara calls Bruce from college and checks to make sure that he isn’t cheating on her. Bruce doesn’t know how to respond and starts crinkling a magazine by the phone receiver, much to the amusement of Tim and Alfred, although it’s odd to think that Batman doesn’t have the balls to tell a woman much younger than him that he’s not interested. Of course, that’s assuming that he’s not interested. It could be that Bruce is developing feelings for Barbara, considering she combines the redheaded civilian comfort of Andrea Beaumont with the superhero thrill he gets from Catwoman. Throw in the spunky personality and brains of Lois Lane and Barbara is Bruce’s perfect match, but as Batman Beyond reveals, his dedication to his mask is ultimately what breaks them apart.

It doesn’t take the world’s greatest detective to realize who Batwoman is, especially for viewers who have been watching the Batman cartoons. It’s immediately obvious that Batwoman is going to be Kathy, Rocky, or Sonia, and it’s not hard to figure out that the three of them are working together to bring Gotham’s newest vigilante to life. Once Batman traces Batwoman to Kathy’s house, then sees the heroine again when he’s out at the Iceberg Lounge with Kathy, it’s easy to deduce that there is more than one person under the mask. Rocky’s overly clumsy demeanor is her Clark Kent disguise, and once Sonia tells Batman about how her family never got justice for the arson committed against them, all the pieces fall into place.

MOTB largely focuses on Kathy and Bruce, bringing the two together through their mutual tragedies. Kathy’s mother was killed during an assassination attempt on her father, igniting a passion for justice that was shared by Sonia and her college roommate Rocky, whose boyfriend was falsely imprisoned because of the Penguin. The story is strongest when it focuses on these more personal conflicts, but a large percentage of the film is a typical supervillain plot uniting Penguin with Rupert Thorne, Bane, and Kathy’s father. The three Batwomen are working to destroy an arms shipment to Kasnia that the three men have organized, and they ultimately all team with Batman to take the bad guys down.

While Subzero’s repetitive plot was elevated by the quality of its action sequences, the animation in MOTB doesn’t have the same level of detail or smoothness. The direction by Curt Geda fails to add much excitement to the proceedings, and the big set piece at the end of the film is the usual warehouse battle that has been shown over and over again in Batman’s TV shows. The technical elements of this film aren’t up to par for the DCAU, particularly Lolita Ritmanis’ score, which sounds dinky and flat without a full orchestra behind it. And while I praised the use of licensed music in Subzero last week, the animated music video for Cherie’s “Betcha Never” that drops in the middle of this movie is one incredibly strange development. When Kathy and Bruce hit up the Iceberg Lounge on a date, they’re treated to the Latin pop stylings of recording artist Cherie, whose song also serves as the music that plays over the film’s end credits. Did Warner Bros. make some sort of deal with Cherie’s record label to give her some exposure? Or was “Betcha Never” the only song that fit within the boundaries of the movie’s licensed music budget?

While the main feature is a bust, there’s a great short film attached to MOTB that covers similar ground with more entertainment value in a fraction of the time. “Chase Me” is a Batman and Catwoman story with no dialogue that perfectly summarizes their relationship in six minutes, showing an intense chase across Gotham City that ends with a bittersweet kiss for the villain and a night of high society boredom for Bruce Wayne.

Without any words, writer Paul Dini reveals how the two sides of Bruce Wayne pull at him; he doesn’t get any sort of thrill when he’s in his tuxedo being fawned over by women, but once Catwoman enters the picture, he starts getting revved up. Warner Bros. should have ditched the Batwoman angle completely and given this movie to Dini to write the definitive DCAU story that Catwoman never received. The DCAU already had the ideal romantic foil for Batman in Catwoman, and Dini proves in six minutes that there’s a more riveting story in that relationship than in 75 minutes of Batman and three Batwomen.

Stray observations:

  • Batman Beatdown: Trapped underwater, Batman blows up the pool of the Iceberg Lounge and floods the nightclub. He lets a seal do the rest of the beating.
  • How did Batwoman get her hands on Norman Osborn’s Goblin Glider?
  • Kicking a box of plasma rifles into the street where anyone can grab them is a really bad idea. Batwoman needs to go back to vigilante school.
  • Kimberly Brooks, the voice of Kathy Duquesne, is the voice of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl/Oracle in Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, and Injustice: Gods Among Us. Looks like MOTB was a good stepping stone for her.
  • “Chase Me” has me itching for a direct-to-video adaptation of Darwyn Cooke’s Selina’s Big Score graphic novel, which is the perfect length for a film and easily one of the best Catwoman stories.
  • “As they say on the streets: ‘I ain't touchin' that one.’”
  • “Sheesh, what's next? Bathound?”
  • “I miss working for the Joker.”

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