Ricky Church revisit Batman: Mask of the Phantasm on its 30th anniversary…
Batman has appeared in nearly a dozen live-action films, beginning with 1966’s campy Batman with Adam West to last year’s dark detective film The Batman with Robert Pattinson. No doubt there will be plenty more as Matt Reeves is working on The Batman Part II and DC Studios co-head James Gunn is developing The Brave and The Bold featuring a separate Batman and Robin from The Flash director Andy Muschietti. All have ranged from great films (such as Tim Burton’s Batman or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight) to incredibly divisive ones (Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), but one of the best theatrically released Batman films wasn’t live-action at all, but Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, the animated tie-in to the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series.
Released on Christmas Day in 1993, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was developed after the success of the animated series and originally envisioned as a direct-to-video feature length film. However, Warner Bros. decided to give the film a theatrical release instead, giving it a higher budget for the writers and animators to work with and whereas most animated films are in production for two or more years, Mask of the Phantasm was completed in eight months and underwent several technical changes for its theatrical release, namely having to change the aspect ratio from a fullscreen TV image to a widescreen presentation for the big screen.
Even with Burton’s two Batman films at the time of its release, not to mention several episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm delved into the mind and character of Bruce Wayne like no other film before it. The story takes place in Batman’s past and present as a new vigilante descends on Gotham City, one who has no qualms about killing members of Gotham’s organized crime syndicate with Batman getting blamed for the murders. As he investigates the deaths and who is behind them the case becomes more complicated as a past love of Bruce’s returns to Gotham, exploring their early romance and how it led to him becoming the Dark Knight as well as the mysterious connection the victims have to Bruce’s past.
The strength of the film comes from the fact it treats the story and its characters as seriously as possible. Despite it being an animated film this is no cheery fluff piece, taking the mature seriousness of BTAS to a higher level with its deep character examination of Bruce Wayne and the trauma he carries with him. Mask of the Phantasm contains one of the most tragic scenes in any Batman film, let alone comic book film, as a young Bruce Wayne is torn between continuing a life with his newfound love Andrea or keeping the vow he made the night his parents were murdered and begs at their grave to release him from his vow, telling them “I know I made a promise, but I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t count on being happy.” It is an absolutely emotional and heartbreaking moment for a character who becomes a stoic crimefighter striking from the darkness.
The film takes its exploration into Bruce’s psyche even further by examining the themes of justice and revenge and the personal toll Batman and the Phantasm’s crusades take on them. Much like BTAS, the story is dark, character driven and not your typical superhero adventure. With the exception of one notable figure, members of Batman’s rogues gallery are entirely absent as the film focuses on mostly ordinary bad guys as the mob are the targets of the Phantasm’s wrath and ambitiously corrupt politicians try to capture Batman despite little evidence pointing to him.
The fact it is a film noir mystery, complete with a femme fatale-like love interest, just speaks to how much more down-to-earth the story is and shows off Batman’s intellect. Mask of the Phantasm really was the first Batman film to highlight his detective skills as he observes crime scenes, records his notes and examines evidence in the Batcave. It’s an aspect to the Dark Knight that wasn’t fully explored again until 29 years after its release in last year’s The Batman. It is an engaging mystery as to the identity of the Phantasm and how or why it may connect to Bruce’s youth.
Then there is the stellar cast of all involved. Dana Delany, who would funny enough go on to voice Lois Lane in Superman: The Animated Series, is absolutely fantastic as Andrea Beaumont. She’s a great foil to Bruce’s closed off personality as she’s much more energetic and snarky, bringing out a sense of fun to Bruce despite his best efforts. Stacy Keach provides a real menace as the Phantasm, enough to make you wonder if he really is an angel of death with supernatural origins, and Hart Bochner makes Councilman Arthur Reeves a sleazebag with a superiority complex as he talks down to Bruce, Andrea and several others.
And of course, there is also Mark Hamill as The Joker, the only villain from BTAS to appear, after he’s hired to kill Batman. With Mask of the Phantasm being a theatrical release, BTAS writers Alan Burnett and Paul Dini really raised the stakes and made Joker much more of an evil villain than they usually could in the animated series. Hamill relishes every moment he’s onscreen, conveying Joker’s zany goofiness and evil.
Of course, though, the movie belongs to the late Kevin Conroy who voiced Batman on and off in several series and direct-to-DVD films for nearly 30 years. Conroy makes a distinction in his vocal performance between Batman and Bruce Wayne, especially during the flashback sequences, and completely makes you believe how broken inside Bruce feels as his life weighs down on him. The performance he gives at the Waynes’ graves might just be his best throughout his tenure, but from his chemistry with Delany to his growl as Batman, every single thing he does makes you believe he truly understood the appeal of both Batman and Bruce Wayne, knowing that without a good Bruce Wayne performance audiences would not fully embrace or empathize with him.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is so well regarded it often appears on lists of favourite Batman films, even if it is not live-action. Its 30 year legacy is a standout among Batman media for its examination of Bruce Wayne/Batman and its compelling mystery. Everything about it, from the cast, the writing, the music and especially the animation, show how much passion and respect the production team had for Batman and why it has endured as one of the best Batman films ever, animated or not.
What are your thoughts on Batman: Mask of the Phantasm? Let us know on our socials @FlickeringMyth…
Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk.