In trying to decide on my favorite Batman movie in honor of Batman Day, I kept coming back to Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Sure, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight will always be the most thrilling and intense of any Batman picture ever made. And I’ll grant that Tim Burton’s Batman deserves credit for its cinematic style and dark tone. But when it comes down to the characters, story, and atmosphere, I can’t help myself from sticking with the first theatrically animated Batman movie.
I’m sure it’s an easy sell for most Batman fans given how revered Batman: The Animated Series has become over time. For many fans, the only two people they can hear as the voices of Batman and the Joker are Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, and given that they both appear in Mask of the Phantasm, it’s a little odd that more people don’t praise the film as much as they do the animated series. Almost every time I mention the movie to someone, they either scratch their head for a moment or bulge their eyes in surprise for forgetting about such a movie.
If you grew up watching Batman: The Animated Series and don’t remember such a movie being in the theaters, you’re not alone. In fact, when it was theatrically released on Christmas Day 1993, it had little marketing and made hardly any money at the box office. It wasn’t until the movie was released later the next year on home video that the movie finally received overwhelming praise.
But how was it so overlooked at a time when Batman was such a hot property? Mask of the Phantasm was originally intended to be a direct-to-video movie, but Warner Brothers decided that it would instead be a theatrical movie. This news came when the movie was already in production for home video, however, leaving only a few months to prep it for theaters. Though rushed to reformat for a widescreen presentation, the animation quality was able to exceed the standards of the already-astounding animated series. The opening shot of a computer-generated Gotham City scored with a deep choir was a powerful way to open the picture. A rooftop chase in which Batman follows the Phantasm gives a grand perspective of the city. And the climactic fight at an abandoned amusement park depicting a 1950s view of the future makes for a thrilling action sequence.
There were no big names attached the movie—mostly just regulars from the animated series (Bob Hastings, Arleen Sorkin) as well as some fitting guest voices of (old-timers Abe Vigoda, Dick Miller, and Stacy Keach). The most marketing the movie received for its theatrical debut was a quickly edited trailer and a special behind-the-scenes sneak peek on HBO that was hosted by Efrem Zimbalist Jr., the voice of Alfred.
Mask of the Phantasm has a plot that’s simpler than other Batman films, but it allows for more character. It seems as though every theatrical villain for a Batman movie has the same goal: take over and/or destroy Gotham City. But the Phantasm, a cloaked figure wielding a blade for a hand, has a very achievable goal. The mysterious figure is targeting mafia gangster, knocking off one after the other in a quest for revenge. With each crime committed, the Phantasm stages the murders so that Batman looks like the one to blame. So not only is Batman trying to solve the mystery of the Phantasm’s true identity, but he must also avoid the police that are out to arrest now more than ever. The Joker is present, fittingly, as a wild card in all this.
What makes Mask of the Phantasm tower above its competition is how it unloads a salvo of character development on the one character that lacks it in every Batman movie: Bruce Wayne. In most of the live-action Batman movies, his character seems to begin with the death of his parents and end with his donning of the cape and cowl. From that point onward, we’re really only seeing Batman with mere glimmers of Bruce Wayne under the surface. But Mask of the Phantasm isn’t afraid to dig deeper into his mind, past all the detective training and criminal obsession, to find someone human.
During Batman’s investigation, he finds himself lamenting over his lost love, Andrea (Dana Delany). In a series of flashbacks, we get to see a younger Bruce, who is attempting to both run his company by day and fight crime by night—without the costume quite yet. But when Andrea walks into his life, he has second thoughts about pursuing a life of vigilantism. This new romance frustrates him as he pleads at his parents’ graves that he’s done enough to keep Gotham safe. He wants to be with Andrea, but, as he tearfully says to his dead parents, “I didn’t count on being happy.” This is a rather unique side of Bruce never seen in previous Batman movies; here is a man that finds himself crippled by what may be the last temptation before he steps into the endless void that is being Batman.
Mask of the Phantasm was also able to distance itself from the live-action Batman movies of the time by being darker and mature than the adaptations by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. Their films appeared to be struggling to find a Batman who was equal parts grim and sensational, loading their pictures up with elaborately designed costumes, smoke-filled streets, and lots of explosions. But the creative forces of directors Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, along with a screenplay by series writers Paul Dini and Alan Burnett, seemed to know what makes a great Batman movie. They were big fans of the comics, but they also understood the character of Batman better than any other filmmaker. It wasn’t about adhering to costumes or playing up camp value; it was about being invested in characters and giving viewers a reason to take a man who dresses up as a bat seriously.
My wife has often stated that she really only digs Batman for the villains. This is easy enough to understand coming from the live-action movies, where the pathos and madness of the antagonists seem to trump that of the lead hero. Mask of the Phantasm gives the audience a reason to care about Batman in a Batman movie, a feat that few directors over the years have seemed to accomplish.
If you’d like to read more about Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, check out my book The Great Animated Movies.