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Batman: Mask of the Phantasm/ SubZero

One disc; Warner Home Video; $14.98

By Richard von Busack

This bare-bones two-fer comes with Batman: SubZero and a full-screen (why not widescreen?) version of the 1993 theatrically released cartoon Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and some minor extras. Its commercial purpose is to prep audiences for this summer's double-Batgasm of The Dark Knight (July 18) and the straight-to-home-entertainment animated Gotham Knight (July 8). SubZero (1998) is, you know, for the kids. Batman and Robin rescue Barbara "Batgirl" Gordon from Victor Fries, a.k.a. Mr. Freeze (voiced by Michael Ansara). It's intelligent, not-too-heavy superhero action, with the neo-1940s art direction carried out in a sequence at a swing-dance club, a popular form of entertainment in the mid-1990s. (It wasn't your father's music—it was your grandfather's.) The plaintive image of Victor's comatose wife, Nora Fries, floating in a test tube is stolen from the best—see Edgar Ulmer'sThe Black Cat. At the 45-minute mark, SubZero transforms from a mystery into an ambitious, explosive-laden cartoon adventure.

If the romance and solitude of Batman is what keeps you watching, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is the real reason for acquiring this DVD set. Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm's cartoon noir begins with a baffling case. A Grim Reaper–masked vigilante called the Phantasm is killing off the members of a crime gang one by one, leaving Batman wanted for murder. Meanwhile, the love of Bruce Wayne's life has returned from Europe. She is his former fiancee, Andrea; the character is seemingly drawn from Bette Davis. She sees Wayne and asks him the obvious question: "So tell me, with all your money and power, why do you look like you want to jump off a cliff?" The Batman films are always tiptoe about the women in his life. These women have to be motherly, of course, and eventually they have to step away from the Bat. The romance in Phantasm, unlike most of the ones in the live-action films, is clearly consummated. At least, it's clear for those who can read the language of 1940s film: flapping curtains in the moonlight, crashing waves on the cliffs below Wayne Manor. The contrast of past and present overlaps at the grounds of the Gotham City World's Fair. The fair is first a promise of a triumphant, happy future for Andrea and Bruce. It is, years later, a dank ruin inhabited by a horror clown. The yellow-toothed Joker, voiced by Mark Hamill (is this his best performance in any medium?), is the key to the film's plot. He as is mischievous as he is murderous, and he has the best lines. Comforting a desperate mafiosa fleeing the Phantasm, he drawls, "Why so formal? Mi cosa nostra es su cosa nostra."

Shirley Walker's superb Latin choral score, with Hans Zimmer on synthesizer, gives this cartoon a mood of doom. And Kevin Conroy (back this summer for Gotham Knight) does the grave yet soulful voice of Batman. A little more confidence in this film and a higher budget for the animation would have heightened its reputation. Interesting that the reviews of the time complained of the Japanese-animation quality of the characters. Gotham Knight will be strictly anime, since that style has triumphed over the painterly, three-dimensional, Max Fleischer–influenced backdrops of the world's worst city.

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