The Animated Movies

   Mask of the Phantasm: * * *
   Sub-Zero: * * 1/2
   The Batman-Superman Movie: * * * 1/2

Now that the film franchise has melted into a noisome puddle of pop kitsch, many Bat fans look to the animated show for a rescue or redemption. Ardent hopes that one or another of the show's creative team will be tapped to pen a script or design a production find expression in persistent rumors that a deal has been bruited, negotiated, or even signed; popular contempt for the Warners management team is apparently only matched by the widespread conviction that the same team is smart enough to turn the franchise over to Burnett, Dini, Timm and Co.

Such hopes, I think, are misguided. Any script (however worthy) written by Paul Dini would have to survive the suggestions offered by the studio. (One can just as easily imagine a parapalegic surviving a running of the bulls at Pamplona.) Nor is there any guarantee that the tone, style or strengths of the show would survive the transfer from cartoon to film—witness that cup of ice shavings dumped in our laps called Batman & Robin. For better or worse, the best cinematic representation of Batman has evolved as an animated cartoon, and evolved in response to that art form's very specific demands. Personally, I would be content with what the show's team gives us in the course of its everyday job.

Anyway, that team has already given us some movies—three of them, in fact. The results are by no means unmixed, but as a presentiment of future efforts, they are on balance highly encouraging.

Obviously the main differences between a short like "Heart of Ice" and a feature like Sub Zero will derive from their comparative lengths. This is no mere matter of footage or running time. The difference is more like that between a sprint and a marathon, with each form requiring different techniques. Happily, the team seems fully cognizant of this fact; unfortunately, in these films they don't seem to have fully adapted to the new requirements: The muscles still seem toned more for the short burst than the long haul.

Mask of the Phantasm Cast
Story by Alan Burnett
Screenplay by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini,
     Martin Pasko & Michael Reaves
Sequence Directors: Kevin Altieri, Boyd
     Kirkland, Frank Paur & Dan Riba
Directed by Eric Radomski & Bruce Timm
Music by Shirley Walker
Animation by Dong Yang & Spectrum
Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne
Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Alfred
Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon
Robert Costanzo as Detective Bullock
Mark Hamill as the Joker

Hart Bochner as Arthur Reeves
Dana Delany as Andrea Beaumont
Stacy Keach, Jr. as Phantasm
Dick Miller as Chuckie Sol
John P. Ryan as Buzz Bronski

Abe Vigoda as Salvatore Valestro

Additional Voices
Jane Downs
Pat Musick
Vernee Watson-Johnson
Ed Gilbert
Peter Renaday
Jeff Bennett
Charles Howarton
Thom Pinto
Marilu Henner
Neil Ross

Mask of the Phantasm is the most ambitious of the three, and the one most clearly aware that it needs to work harder to justify its length. Its opening sequence may look like it was lifted from a TV episode—Batman busts a ring of counterfeiters; the leader escapes but is intercepted and killed by a menacing "angel of death"—but the action is longer, slower and more complex than the teaser to a 20 minute episode could be. By the time characters are introduced and scenes are set, eleven minutes slip by. The pace is careful and deliberate, with rhythms that settle us in for a long haul.

The conflict is cunningly ambiguous. From a distance the cloaked and hooded Phantasm looks like Batman, and so is immediately mistaken for him; suddenly the non-lethal Bat looks to many like a rogue and menace. So Batman must (1) figure out which gang bosses are on the Phantasm's hit list, and save them; (2) discover the motives and identity of the Phantasm; (3) clear his own name with the public.

Within ten minutes, then, we have a great set up, and an adversary who, in the eyes of the audience, is both fascinating and not unsympathetic. Development, however, is another matter. There is none. Instead, the film layers in backstories: how Bruce adopted the Batman persona, and how he met and romanced Andrea Beaumont. To do this, it stops and drops in great dull slabs of flashback and exposition. The stories therein told would be all well and good in another time and place, but here they just get in the way of that really cool plot we got sucked into at the top. The effect is like trying to watch a really great movie with someone's big head blocking most of the screen: you want to take some gardening shears to the obstructing material.

By the time it is all sorted out, of course, Andrea turns out to be implicated in the Phantasm's revenge spree, and her motives are shown to be not so different from Wayne's. But by this time we don't care as much as we should; while we were waiting for information vital to the climax to be dolloped out, most of the tension and suspense generated early in the film has dissipated.

Sub-Zero Cast
Written by Randy Rogel & Boyd Kirkland
Directed by Boyd Kirkland
Music by Michael McCuistion
Animation by Koko/Dong Yang
Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne
Michael Ansara as Mr. Freeze
Loren Lester as Dick Grayson
Mary Kay Bergman as Barbara Gordon
Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Alfred
Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon
Robert Costanzo as Detective Bullock
Mari Devon as Summer Gleeson
George Dzunda as Dr. Gregory Burns
Marilu Henner as Veronica Vreeland
Dean Jones as Dean Arbogast
Liane Schirmer as Renee Montoya

Additional Voices
Rahi Azizi
Townsend Coleman
Brian George
Ed Gilbert
Carl Lumbly
Tress MacNeille
Neil Ross
Randy Thompson
Lauren Tom

At least Mask of the Phantasm has material enough to justify a feature-length running time. Sub Zero hasn't even that. The idea is simple: Mr. Freeze discovers that his preserved wife will die unless she has an organ transplant. No organs from deceased donors being available, he kidnaps his own: Barbara Gordon. Then Batman and Robin rescue her. This simple story is not one that needs 60 minutes to tell, so it gets padded out with action sequences. Those sequences are stylish, beautifully rendered—and boring as hell. Sub Zero is not bad—it was done by Randy Rogel and Boyd Kirkland, two top-notch veterans from the first two seasons, and from first frame to last it is sustained by their professional touch. It's just an episode that has been stretched out far past what plot and running time can sustain.

The Batman-Superman Movie Cast
Story by Alan Burnett & Paul Dini
Written by Stan Berkowitz, Alan Burnett,
     Paul Dini, Rich Fogel & Steve Gerber
Directed by Toshihiko Masuda
Music by Michael McCuistion
Additional Music by Lolita Ritmanis
Animation by TMS-Kyokuichi
Tim Daly as Clark Kent
Dana Delany as Lois Lane
Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne
Clancy Brown as Lex Luthor
Mark Hamill as the Joker
Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn
Lisa Edelstein as Mercy Graves

Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon
Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Alfred
Joseph Bologna as Dan Turpin
Robert Costanzo as Detective Bullock
George Dzundza as Perry White
Lauren Tom as Angela Chen

The Batman/Superman Movie is the most successful of the trio, and why not? It has great heroes, terrific villains, a brilliant premise, sharp writing, a never-stop-for-anything-extraneous pace, and a plot packed with action. Lex Luthor and the Joker collaborate to take out Superman and Batman; our two superheroes (who get on each other's nerves quite nicely) co-operate to survive. Lois Lane finds herself comically caught between two men with secret identities and no clue as to who to fall in love with. It's got Kryptonite, killer robots, a giant flying wing, exploding marbles, and a kick-ass fight between Harley Quinn and Mercy Graves.

It also has a breathless, daisy-chain-of-incident structure that is ultimately exhausting. Both its many virtues and this single flaw are a function of its structure. It was initially broadcast as a three-part episode on the Superman show (as "World's Finest"), so it is not surprising that it has a surfeit of action but minimal development. No matter. The extraordinary fun to be had is justification enough.

The production of a straight-to-video movie (or even a sell-through video by way of theatrical release) is not a creative decision, but a business one: If the studio deems the market receptive, it will commission one; if it doesn't, it won't. Given the lucrative nature of the Batman tentpole, and the recent lapse in production of the live-action films, it is therefore all the more surprising that Warners has not seized on the production of animated movies as a way of sustaining the franchise during the films' hiatus. A TV show is just a spinoff, but a video is a way of reminding the audience that there are movies that could be made.

On the other hand maybe it is just as well. The show has prospered in the (relative) ghetto of afternoon TV. If the latter day Lipnicks at Warners thought the franchise depended upon the animated Batman, they might start taking an interest. Is there any doubt that if they did, Ah-nold (or a sound-alike) would quickly become the new voice of Mr. Freeze? I repeat: Speaking only as a selfish fan, I am content to see the creative team continue the path it currently treads.