Posts Tagged ‘ Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

Batman and Metaphor

The first movie I streamed from Netflix was the outstanding Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. It has aged well, a perfect example of what the team behind The Animated Series were capable of doing when freed from the half-hour format and content restrictions. A mobster gets killed in the first scene, which absolutely never happens in the TV show, and what follows is increasingly violent and disturbing. Mark Hamill’s Joker was never more hilarious and creepy, striking the right note of whimsical sadism. Couple that with a villain who was a frightening inversion of Batman himself, and some sharp dialogue between Bruce Wayne and his love interest, Andrea Beaumont, and you have the recipe for what remains perhaps the best Batman film yet.

That moved me to revisit The Animated Series that I loved so fiercely growing up. I recently finished the first set and, while it doesn’t hold up nearly as well as Phantasm, there are quite a few episodes that remain standouts. More importantly, within the confines of a children’s show, they employ a surprisingly clever metaphors to draw out parallels between the lives of the show’s young audience and the action on the screen.

Two-Face’s origin story, for instance,is wonderfully told. We meet Harvey Dent at the height of his powers: charismatic and incorruptible, he is coasting to an easy re-election and closing in on Rupert Thorne, a Gotham crime boss. But Harvey starts showing flashes of volcanic, uncontrollable rage. His friend Bruce urges him to get counseling, which he does, but Harvey continues to become more secretive about his problems.

In the counseling session, we learn that Harvey has always had a bad, unpleasant temperament. But rather than deal with that and master it, he suppressed it. He just wouldn’t allow himself to show or feel any anger. He created a persona, Big Bad Harve, who became the recipient of all his negative feelings. And now, with growing pressures and responsibilities, that coping mechanism is breaking-down. His desperation to conceal his weaknesses, as a child and now as an adult, ultimately leads him to the tragic encounter that births Two-Face.

A lot of kids’ shows condescend. They adopt the attitude, common among grown-ups, that there are a multitude of things that children just don’t understand or can’t quite cope with hearing about. They use fairytale dichotomies between good and evil, or they present the world as a place of lighthearted, Tom Sawyer-esque mischief.

Occasionally, Batman: TAS broke through this barrier and started dealing with difficult subjects and complicated feelings that a lot of children might not fully understand, but which would still have been relevant to them. “See No Evil” is one such episode.

“See No Evil” starts with a little girl, asleep in her room, being visited by an invisible friend, “Mojo.” Mojo has a kind voice and the affection between the girl and her friend is obvious, but it’s still unsettling. Mojo is bringing her treasures, like valuable jewelry, and he promises next time he’ll bring her a pearl necklace. The gifts are inappropriate for a girl age, and there is the question of where they are coming from. It goes unanswered. Mojo tucks her in and leaves.

But of course, “Mojo” is actually the girl’s father, a petty criminal who has managed to steal an experimental cloaking device. And the reason he has to visit the girl in secret is because he and his ex-wife are bitterly estranged. At another point in the episode, he runs into her at a store and tries to force a reconciliation. But the entire scene goes horribly wrong, and it ends with her running toward her car, shouting, “Why can’t you just disappear?”

“See No Evil” is really about divorce and custody. An man has been erased from his family, and he finds a plot device that makes that disappearance a literal one. He uses that power to insinuate himself back into his daughter’s life. The daughter, meanwhile, must learn that there are reasons her mother wanted to keep this man out of their lives. The show never suggests this man does not love his daughter. It merely lets him reveal that his love is unhealthy and possessive.

The real standout in the first set is “Beware the Gray Ghost”, which is basically a meta-story about Batman, his creators, and his fans. The Gray Ghost was a Batman-like TV superhero during Bruce Wayne’s childhood. We get an absolutely heart-breaking black-and-white flashback of Bruce, sitting on the floor in front of his father, clutching a Gray Ghost doll while the show plays on TV. The music theme that accompanies The Gray Ghost is brassy and heroic, a Silver Age motif employed in stark contrast to the darker modernism of Shirley Walker’s typical Batman: TAS score.

Gotham is struck by a series of crimes that strongly resemble old episodes of The Gray Ghost, and Batman becomes convinced the show holds the secret. There is only one problem: the show (like many children’s shows from the 50′s and 60′s) was destroyed after it went off the air. No copies of it exist. So Batman must track down the actor made famous by the role:  Simon Trent.

And of course Trent is voiced by none other than Adam West, and we find that Trent has become a washed-up actor. We witness a desperate phone call to his agent as he runs out of rent money, begging for work. His agent is apologetic, but explains that all anyone remembers him for is The Gray Ghost. Trent says, “But I’m an actor. I can play other parts.”

“Beware the Gray Ghost” is a great story about the other side of the dream factory, and how our fictional heroes live in memory long after the cameras stop rolling. Batman: The Animated Series, invited kids to contemplate their own relationship to Batman, and how he would look to them as adults. It invited them to think about the people who make it, and whether there is anything real underneath the illusion. It gave comforting answers and a Hollywood ending, but I can only admire a show that respected children enough to raise the questions.