1990s, 4/4, Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski, Fantasy, Review

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) - IMDb

#1 in my ranking of theatrically released Batman films.

There are really two ways to go when adapting a television show, much like with sequels: you go bigger, or you go deeper. The live action adaptation of the 60s comedy show went bigger, bringing in all of the main villains together for one large plot. This feature film continuation of the animated series from the early 90s goes deeper, much deeper, possibly gaining and retaining the crown for the film version of the Caped Crusader that gets him best. And, in addition, the film is shockingly tight, with a villain that informs our main character rather than  just stands apart, intelligent use of images to help provide deeper meaning to what’s going on, and a marvelous voice cast that nails the emotional reality of what’s going on. Also, it’s just great to look at on top.

A masked vigilante has begun killing prominent mobsters, and Batman (Kevin Conroy) is being blamed. Commissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings) refuses to believe that it’s Batman since Batman does not kill, but city councilman Arthur Reeves (Hart Bochner) is on the warpath, convinced of Batman’s guilt. We know from the start that it’s not Batman because we watch the masked figure, the Phantasm, do the deed. Who is the Phantasm, and what do they ultimately want?

I remember being lukewarm on this film when I was much younger because the film barely contained the Joker. He doesn’t appear until halfway through, and he doesn’t become prominent until the final act of the film. In his place for most of the film are these relatively generic mobsters, ultimately led by Salvatore Valestra (Abe Vigoda). What the movie does with these less flamboyant villains is really allow the focus of the film to rest on Bruce and his exploration of his past. For the film, the team of writers (most notably including Paul Dini) created a woman from Bruce’s past, Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany). She and Bruce fell in love in the earliest days of Batman, before Bruce had settled on the bat as his engine of fear. The conflict Bruce has between needing to fulfill his vow to his parents to exact justice upon those who would prey upon the innocent of Gotham City and his desire to simply be happy with Andrea pinpoints who Bruce is when he is Batman. He cannot have ties because his life can be nothing but Batman in order to do what he has to do. The idea of marrying Andrea almost convinces Bruce to abandon the project, that for which he begs forgiveness from his parents at their grave. When she and her father mysteriously disappear after Bruce proposes to her, he had nothing left and took up the mantle of the bat.

This backstory is told in flashback interspersed amidst the present day investigation of the Phantasm and the deaths of the mobsters. Salvatore ultimately runs to the dilapidated World’s Fair of Gotham where the Joker (Mark Hamill) is hiding out to look for safety since, in another life, the Joker was one of Salvatore’s henchmen.

Now, when I say this movie uses images really well, I’m mostly thinking of the World’s Fair. There’s a scene in the flashback where Bruce and Andrea go to the World’s Fair, seeing it in all its glory, and it’s at the same time that Bruce is seeing his future with Andrea as a happy, hopeful thing. The World’s Fair’s vision of a technologically advanced future feeds that. When Salvatore goes there to hide, we see it falling apart, the promise of the future having fallen into disrepair, mirroring the destruction of Bruce’s own image of his own future, but that’s just the start of it. The film’s finale takes place there, and the ultimate fight pits Bruce against the image of Andrea he had held onto for years, ultimately ending with the whole place exploding in huge balls of flame at the same time that Bruce realizes the future he had imagined, and gotten a taste of once more, was never going to come back.

The actual mystery extends into Andrea coming back to Gotham after the deaths have begun, and her immediately figuring out that Bruce is Batman (because she’s no dummy). The deaths of the mobsters are intimately tied to her past and, in particular, the day that she left Bruce. How all of this comes together (in a super-tight 78-minute film no less) is rather amazing.

The art-deco inspired visual design of the film (and show, of course) has always provided it a certain timeless appeal. Much like Burton’s Batman, the combination of film noir-like character design and costumes mixed with the high-tech computers allows the movie to exist outside of a specific time, giving it the ability to age rather gracefully. Thirty years after the film’s release, it doesn’t feel like a product of the early 90s, it feels like it could have been made at any time. The score, built off of Danny Elfman’s original work and expanded wonderfully by Shirley Walker, helps enhance the depth of feeling, tragedy, and sadness of the film as well.

I love this film. It really is one of the best depictions of Batman on screen, and I’m really glad I finally revisited it.

Rating: 4/4

10 thoughts on “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm”

  1. For me, and maybe for many others, the Animated Series is the canonical Batman now. Far more than the movies or even the comics, the Animated Series gets Batman right. It gets his rogues gallery right. The writing is great, the art style is distinctive and the voice work is iconic.

    The Mask of the Phantasm is a minor masterpiece, basically it’s a two-part TV episode given time to breathe and space to grow. The characters all feel real, they all feel like real people. You actually feel the fear of the gangsters as they believe Batman is killing them, finally, so they turn in desperation to the Joker to stop Batman…and you can feel they don’t like that idea either. That’s the secret of good writing: treat everyone as if they were real, as if their problems were real. This movie nails that.

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    1. I remember watching the show intermittently as a kid and enjoying it, but I’ve never really seen any of it since I was about 12 or so. I think I’m going to try and get the elder child into it as a solid excuse for checking it out again myself.

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  2. It wasn’t even suppose to be a movie, they had plans for a direct to video release but the series success had the execs push for a theatrical release and in places it shows how it was taken up steps rather than the other DTV release. Sadly it failed in theaters (I saw it twice, once first run and second at a dollar theater) and there were sadly never many people in the crowd, Though I was responsible for dragging one extra person to the first run and 2 to the second run.

    Thematically I also like how Bruce is captivated by the car that will serve as inspiration for the Batmobile at The World of Tomorrow, as it speaks both to what his life will become but also a bit of wonder with what will become one of his most important tools, but seen from more light than dark.

    Sadly the film cuts a few scenes, as the man who approaches Andrea at the end of the film was actually the photographer at the scene of the first crime (we see a flash) and his picture proves that Phantasm was the murderer, something that the film sadly doesn’t give us so thematically it is weird how Batman goes from wanted criminal to being summoned by the Batsignal at the end of the film, just because the DA confesses to Batman.

    Plus the image of a haunted Batman, with the rain pouring down his cowl is fantastic in its own right.

    The animation team knew they had freedom to story tell and didn’t need a box office return (until they did after it got bumped up) and so they went with richness over more flashiness. To me that team had my favorite vision of Batman ever.

    And the Bluray release of the film is so spectacular, and totally worth the upgrade form DVD.

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    1. I think that’s more of a plot hole than a thematic hole. The theme isn’t about Batman coming back to prominence in Gotham, but about Bruce breaking with his past. I largely don’t care about plot holes, though, because they rarely actually matter that much.

      I had the VHS forever ago, and I’ve never gotten around to buying it since. I watched it on HBO Max and the stream was shockingly bad, nigh unwatchable. I persevered, though, and I will probably buy the Blu-ray at some point in the next few months. It comes in a couple of packs, too. One with the entire Animated Series and another in a pack of 18 Batman animated movies. I might buy it in one of those.

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  3. #1 in my ranking of theatrically released Batman films.

    Oh good I was afraid I was going to have to go on a jihad and burn down your blog. 😉

    Saw this back in the day with my best friend. Have the VHS and blu-ray and an autographed picture by Kevin Conroy. Definitely the standard against which all Batman movies are judged.

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