Tag Archives: batman the animated series

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm Blu Ray

Batman-Mask-of-the-Phantasm-Blu-rayI’ve written about Batman: Mask of the Phantasm on more than one occasion, often in glowing terms. I dubbed it the definitive take on the Batman character for film and ranked it pretty highly on my list of best Batman movies of all time. In addition to that, I did a straight-up review of the film as well. Most of these articles are old by the standards of this blog, but all of those write-ups were based on the DVD release of the film. It’s taken Warner years to finally put this film on Blu Ray, but it’s finally here and I’m going to tell you about it.

Now since I’ve already done an actual review of the film, I’m not going to go into much detail though I did re-read my review and I have some embellishments I can make in order to pad this post out. The Blu Ray itself is what is important for this post. Mask of the Phantasm is a film I always felt would benefit from a high-definition transfer because of all of the deep blacks, particularly in the backgrounds. The DVD release was an old one and not particularly good by the standards of DVD. It was re-released in multi-packs with the direct-to-video Batman films based on the animated series and I don’t know if any of those were handled better than the version I have. As far as the transfer goes, the Mask of the Phantasm Blu Ray is a mixed bag. My assumption the blacks would benefit was spot-on. Not only are they rich, but the deep blue of Batman’s cape looks great as well and the animation is nice and fluid. Sadly, there’s some blurring that takes place, particularly early in the film. I’m not sure if it persisted throughout at times and I just became engrossed in the plot or if it was confined to the beginning of the picture. Either way, it’s disappointing the transfer isn’t better.

The other disappointing aspect of the release is the complete lack of special features. The DVD did the same as both only include a standard definition version of the trailer for the film and nothing else. I find it hard to believe the likes of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm weren’t interested in doing something for this release, be it a commentary or a short piece on the making of the film. The subpar transfer and lack of special features really makes it feel like Warner cared little about the integrity of this release, which is a shame because it’s a film deserving of more respect.

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What you see is what you get.

And what a film it is! In re-watching it for this write-up I’m just reminded of how well it gets the Batman character. Seeing Bruce’s early years as a vigilante really drives home the tragedy of the Batman character. And I don’t mean the sad origin of Batman, but in how Bruce has given up any chance at a healthy life by committing to being Batman. He’s fighting an un-winnable battle to rid Gotham of crime and foregoing marriage, children, and the simple pleasures of life. He’s unquestionably doing good in the community and helping people, but it’s probably not a fulfilling lifestyle.

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The Joker could have felt tacked-on to give the film a recognizable villain, but his inclusion pays off

The other aspect of this film that really merits praise, because it feels overlooked in light of The Dark Knight, is its depiction of The Joker. The Joker of the cartoon series is somewhat of a cornball. There’s some danger to the character, but standards and practices kind of holds him back. He’s overshadowed by the likes of Mr. Freeze and Two-Face as far as memorable villains go. Instead he’s kind of the old reliable stand-by for Batman as decades of Joker material from the comics means it’s relatively easy to come up with a decent episode. Here we get The Joker that the animated series probably wanted to give us, but couldn’t. He’s still a nut, but so much more menacing. There’s a real tension in his scenes because he feels unpredictable. Is he going to aid a character? Kill him? What’s his endgame? It’s a shame he doesn’t share screen time with a character we as an audience are invested in, instead he’s paired with scum and we don’t mind if Joker opts to murder them. And what more can be said of Mark Hamill’s performance as The Joker? He’ll always be my favorite.

What we have here is a mixed bag, a great film undermined by a mediocre release. Even so, the Blu Ray is an easy recommend for those who do not have the film already, especially if you’re into Batman and you’ve never seen it. It may be a brief experience, but it’s worthwhile. For those like me who already had the DVD, it’s a tougher sell. This strikes me as a release that will be discounted to the ten dollar bin by this time next year, so maybe waiting on it is the right move if you’re not eager to re-watch. If you’re perfectly happy with the DVD then sure, feel free to pass on this one. I don’t feel burned by it, but I do feel like at 19.99 it’s probably five bucks too expensive. Next year is the film’s 25th anniversary so perhaps there’s an outside shot of Warner doing a more robust release, but I kind of doubt it. This is probably all we’ll get with maybe a future two-pack coming along with an HD transfer of Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero, but I doubt that would feature any additional content aside from the films themselves.


#8 Best in TV Animation: Gargoyles

disney-has-gargoyles-legally-streaming-on-youtube-socialWhen I started this feature I swear I did not intend to list the best cartoons aimed at children, that’s just how it’s worked out so far. I promise the next few are going to trend older. That said, Gargoyles is a pretty terrific show whether you’re 8 or 18. The show borrowed heavily from comics and was obviously influenced by the likes of Batman and X-Men. Like most cartoons geared towards boys, the show featured plenty of action but also contained plenty of drama. It asked a lot of its viewers, opting for a more serialized narrative structure with numerous callbacks to older episodes. Sometimes, plots required multiple episodes to develop and pay-off which is probably one reason why the show aired weekdays as opposed to Saturday mornings (though the final season was moved to Saturdays). Lastly, as a Disney produced and developed cartoon show, the program featured slick animation and stellar production values all around.

Gargoyles first began airing in 1994 and centered around the character Goliath, the leader of a clan of Gargoyles displaced by time and forced to adapt to life in New York City. The premise for the show was established over the first five episodes and the lore of the world is firmly established here. Gargoyles are beast-like creatures that are active at night, and stone by day. During the middle ages they protected a castle inhabited by humans in Scotland but were betrayed with most of the gargoyles destroyed while they slept. Magic is also a part of this world, and the remaining gargoyles that survived the attack were placed under a spell that would keep them stone until the castle they inhabited rose above the clouds. Of course, this would happen when a man by the name of David Xanatos purchased the castle and placed it atop a skyscraper in New York.

MacBeth is one of the more prominent antagonists in the series.

MacBeth is one of the more prominent antagonists in the series.

Over the resulting episodes, the gargoyles would come to view Xanatos as an enemy, as well as many others. Surviving outside of the curse is Goliath’s old flame, Demona, a female gargoyle who is like the Magneto to Goliath’s Xavier. She wishes to exterminate humanity while Goliath sees value in forging alliances with people and serving as their protectors. Goliath and his clan, consisting of fellow gargoyles Hudson, Broadway, Lexington, Brooklyn, and Bronx, forge a bond with detective Elisa Maza and basically become protectors of New York. They don’t run around like Batman, but their presence draws out and attracts the attention of various foes, many from the past. Some are more interesting than others. Throughout the series, Demona is a worthy foe for the clan. She’s ruthless and cunning, and even though she often finds herself on the losing side the writers manage to maintain her credibility as a villain. MacBeth is another stand-out foe. He and Demona share a bond as a result of a curse and neither one can die unless the other is killed which makes for an interesting dynamic. MacBeth is no friend to Goliath and company, leading to numerous instances where the gargoyles are caught between MacBeth and Demona, who despise one another.

Stylistically, the show is quite dark. This is to be expected since the primary protagonists are only active at night. The gothic influence in the look and music invite comparisons to another well-regarded cartoon; Batman: The Animated Series. So natural was the likeness that Batman producer Bruce Timm was asked about the show more than once and was said to be not a fan of Gargoyles. The tone of the show was certainly quite serious, even melodramatic. The serialized nature of the show and the human/gargoyle dynamic make it seem more comparable to X-Men, particularly the first two seasons. There’s even a beauty and the beast vibe going on (and the allusions were quite literal in one episode) between Elisa and Goliath. Their relationship starts off professional early on and gradually develops into something more. If you’re looking for pay-off though, you’ll have to consult the not safe for work fan-fiction of a few a diehards (you may want to enable safe search between doing a google image search of Elisa and Goliath) scattered across the internet.

Goliath and Elisa share a bond bordering on love that only intensifies as the series goes on.

Goliath and Elisa share a bond bordering on love that only intensifies as the series goes on.

One thing that Gargoyles did that I can appreciate is that it added to its cast. In X-Men, several mutants and other heroes would cameo on various episodes. These characters, like Archangel and Nightcrawler, were members of the team in the comics but would never join the roster on the television show. This used to bug me, though I understand why the show runners would want to try and keep the cast as manageable as possible. Gargoyles expanded its roster during the second season and it was cool to see. Villains were also eliminated or changed while others, like Xanatos, would become grayer as the series progressed.

Where the show opens itself up for criticism is within its tone and scope. Two things that I consider a strength, do sometimes bog it down. The show is so grim at times it feels joyless. There’s moments for comedic relief but not a lot when compared with contemporary programs. The show also became burdened with the lore it created, particularly during the last half of season two, and sometimes the show felt like it was becoming too big for its own good. It’s no surprise that the show kind of fizzled out towards the end and the final third season is rather poor.

Gargoyles earns its place on my list of top animated television shows because it scores very well across the board, even though it doesn’t quite knock-it-out-of-the-park in any one category. Though maybe I should amend that last sentiment because I’ve underplayed how stellar the animation is for a televised program. The first season especially is borderline feature-film worthy, which is something Batman can’t even boast. Gargoyles is a really unique program when compared with the other Disney Afternoon shows and it would be nice to see Disney try to revive the franchise in at least a small way (cough KingdomHeartsThree cough).

If you’re interested in reading more of my thoughts on Gargoyles, you can fine reviews for the three DVD releases here, here, and here as well as read my arguments for why it should be included in a popular gaming franchise here. Enjoy.


Gargoyles: Season One

Gargoyles - The Complete First Season (2004)

Gargoyles – The Complete First Season (2004)

In the early 90’s, Fox cornered the market when it came to television shows for young demographics, particularly boys in that 7-12 age group.  They had hit shows with Batman The Animated Series, X-Men, and Power Rangers and their Saturday morning programming was unrivaled.  Batman, in particular, ushered in an era of cartoons where the writers didn’t feel like they had to dumb-down the show to please its audience.  The stories were mostly grounded within the fantasy world the show created, while X-Men wasn’t afraid of creating serialized episodes that asked more from its viewers.  These weren’t stand-alone episodes with the same throw-away clichés prevalent in most children’s programming.  And while the shows were, first and fore-most, children’s shows they didn’t make adults feel like idiots for watching.

Disney, by contrast, had seen its viewership decline.  The once popular Disney Afternoon programming was mostly content to keep things the same.  Duck Tales and Tailspin were successful early on, and Darkwing Duck was Disney’s own answer to Batman but with a comedic core.  If Darkwing Duck was supposed to reel in Batman viewers then Disney missed the point.  Putting a cape and mask on a character and having him fight crime isn’t what people tuned into Batman for.  Those viewers wanted to see the show take itself seriously, present real threats, and overall just make it a credible show.  Disney needed a show that matched Batman’s tone and not his costume, so they turned to comic book writer Greg Weisman and from that relationship came Gargoyles.

Gargoyles could be described as modern fantasy mixed with Greek tragedy.  Stylistically, the show is reminiscent of the aforementioned Batman and X-Men with similarities to contemporary cartoon Jim Lee’s Wild C.A.T.S.  The color palette is muted with lots of deep violets and blues and plenty of black.  The first season has a split setting between modern-day New York and turn of the first millennium Scotland.  The gargoyles, lead by the hulking Goliath, are a humanoid, bat-like race that spends the daylight hours encased in stone and owns the night.  In 994 Scotland, they’re protectors of a castle inhabited by humans that, for the most part, view the gargoyles in an unfavorable light.  When the gargoyle clan finds itself betrayed by those it trusted, most are smashed to death during the day while the few survivors are magically encased within stone until the castle they inhabit rises above the clouds.

The Manhattan Clan (left to right):  Lexington, Brooklyn, Goliath, Hudson, and Broadway.

The Manhattan Clan (left to right): Lexington, Brooklyn, Goliath, Hudson, and Broadway.

The existence of the extraordinary gargoyle race is all but wiped away from history, but one noted wealthy individual by the name of David Xanatos, is well-aware of their past.  It is he who purchases the castle along with the gargoyles and moves them to Manhattan where he places it atop a massive skyscraper, thus ending the spell placed upon them.  The rest of the first season deals with the gargoyles coming to terms with what happened to them a thousand years ago and finding a way to relate to this new, modern world and find their place in it.  Themes of tragedy, isolation, trust, family, and acceptance help frame the show.  In this there are many similarities to X-Men as both the gargoyles and mutants find themselves as unwelcomed protectors of humanity.  Their isolation, seemingly alone in this world with the exception of their one human ally, Elisa, helps evoke the Batman similarities.

Detective Elisa Maza heads the short list of allies for the Manhattan Clan.

Detective Elisa Maza heads the short list of allies for the Manhattan Clan.

The remaining gargoyles, now known as the Manhattan Clan, are a small group of varying personalities.  Goliath is the unquestioned leader.  He’s noble, proud and a bit stubborn at times.  He’s always learning and isn’t immune to mistakes, but he does everything with purpose and conviction.  Hudson is the elder statesman of the clan and its former leader.  He prefers to stay on the sidelines and leave the fighting to the younger gargoyles.  Brooklyn, Broadway, and Lexington are the younger members of the clan and rookery mates, which is gargoyle speak for siblings.  Brooklyn is a curious sort who seems to model himself after Goliath while Lexington is consumed by modern technology.  The gluttonous Broadway is sometimes relegated to comic relief though the show mostly avoid slapstick and jokes.  Rounding out the clan is the dog-like Bronx who is the only gargoyle incapable of speech and lacking in wings.  Detective Elisa Maza is the sole ally of the gargoyles in season one.  She’s a strong-willed character who is able to give the gargoyles leads on the goings-on of their enemies while also sometimes acting as almost a mentor to Goliath.

Much like the clan itself, the rogues gallery for the show is kept fairly compact for the first season.  It’s dominated by Xanatos, who poses as an ally early on to the clan but is soon revealed as duplicitous and self-serving.  His main weapons are cunning and money, but he also possesses some high-tech weaponry including his own cybernetic army of gargoyles.  He splits time as the main foe for the clan with Demona, Goliath’s former lover who was complicit in the destruction of their clan a thousand years ago.  While her intentions were without malice, her persona is consumed with a bloodlust for humanity as she blames them for their near extinction.  She is the Magneto to Goliath’s Charles Xavier.  Other villains include the sportsmen MacBeth and the television actors turned criminals The Pack, a group of men and women who fashion their personas after wild canines.

Demona, Goliath's former lover, is one of the primary antagonists for season one and beyond.

Demona, Goliath’s former lover, is one of the primary antagonists for season one and beyond.

The show opens with a very ambitious five-part mini-series titled “Awakening” (it was also released direct-to-video as Gargoyles:  The Movie) that sets up the series.  Right from the start, viewers are able to get a sense of the large-scale story-telling the show is aiming for while also being able to take in the peak of the show’s production values.  The animation quality is a grade above the usual afternoon cartoon fare, making it possibly the best looking cartoon of the mid 90’s.  The score is also exemplary and the voice acting contains notable actors such as Keith David (Goliath, various voices) and Edward Asner (Hudson) as well as numerous vets of various Star Trek programs.  Following the five-part debut, the show mostly settles into stand-alone episodes that also call upon happenings in previous ones.  Each gargoyle, with the exception of Bronx, is basically given his own episode to star in which helps the viewers get better acquainted with each one individually.  It’s similar to the tactic utilized by X-Men in season two and is an effective way to flesh out an ensemble cast.  There are thirteen episodes in total for season one, and pretty much all of them are good.  Some standouts include “Deadly Force,” which stresses the importance of gun safety without being ham-fisted (possibly created because main character Elisa is shown wielding realistic weaponry as opposed to fantasy, laser type devices).  “Her Brother’s Keeper” helps define what family means to the gargoyles and how it’s not so different from what it means to humans.  “Reawakening” is the bookend for the season and is a satisfying conclusion for the show’s first major arch.

Xanatos would be the other main foe for the gargoyles.

Xanatos would be the other main foe for the gargoyles.

What I appreciate most about the show is its commitment to realism.  This is a show starring unreal creatures but it takes them very seriously.  Their culture is defined as is their biology when Goliath points out early on that they can’t fly, merely glide on air currents.  As previously mentioned, Elisa is armed with a realistic handgun as are most of the police force.  Many of the villains do use lasers and other such fantasy fare but they come across as credible, in part due to a willingness to throw around phrases like “Die!” at their targets.  And when it’s called for, the show is not afraid to show blood which helps add severity to a scene.  The show also wasn’t afraid to be a little progressive as it’s revealed (casually) that Elisa is of mixed-race, having a white father and black mother.  And if you’re a fan of keeping movies and television as they were, you’ll be happy to know that the numerous shots of the New York skyline have not been edited to remove the twin towers.  Recent shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Beware the Batman have mostly empty city streets and lifeless scenery, it was refreshing to watch Gargoyles with its fully realized and very much alive New York.

The DVD release for season one is fairly basic.  There are animated menu screens depicting the gargoyles emerging from their stone prisons accompanied by music and sound effects.  The transfer is of good quality for this type of release and the case is a standard DVD case with a hinged insert for the second disc.  Bonus features include the original show pitch by Weisman which is worth a look just to see the original designs of the gargoyles.  There’s also a brief feature on The Gathering of the Gargoyles, a convention that used to be held in the US for fans of the show, that I suppose is worth a look though it’s basically just a bunch of fanboys and girls gushing over the program.  There’s also audio commentary on the fist five episodes, but I have yet to check it out (and probably won’t as it’s just not my kind of thing).

The show did not shy away from placing its characters in real danger.

The show did not shy away from placing its characters in real danger.

Gargoyles felt overlooked during its hey-day and today feels kind of like a forgotten series.  This is due, in part, to Disney’s stubbornness over releasing the entire series on DVD.  Season one was released in 2004 with the first half of season two following in 2005.  The rest of season 2 was in limbo until recently when it was released quietly as part of the Disney Movie Club.  Still remaining are the thirteen episodes from the abbreviated season three, rebranded as The Goliath Chronicles .  While fans would likely appreciate having those thirteen released, all but the season premiere were done without Weisman and thus are not considered canon by him for the show’s storyline, which lived on in comic book form for a short while following the show’s cancellation.  Unlike many cartoons from my youth that I have chosen to revisit, Gargoyles still holds up and impressed me a great deal.  I would love to see Disney revisit the show with Weisman for either a short fourth season or direct-to-video movie to provide additional closure.  Expect to see more of Gargoyles from me as I make my way through both volumes of season 2.