Originally published on Creators.co on August 1st, 2017
Only a year after the release of Tim Burton’s second entry into his Batman canon, Batman Returns, there was a release of another theatrical Batman film. Most moviegoers would automatically think about Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever as the next theatrical Batman movie they would be forgetting about one small Batman movie in between those two films. In the winter of 1993, Warner Brothers would unceremoniously release a small animated Batman movie to theaters from the crew behind the universally acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series and would be called Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Although it was critically acclaimed upon its release and most die-hard Batman fans know and love the film even to this day the general public still tends to forget about this animated film. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, up until Christopher Nolan’s masterful trilogy, was arguably the best Batman film released into theaters.
With the release of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm last week on Blu-Ray I thought there is no better time than to talk about this wonderful piece of superhero crime drama. Here are 5 reasons why Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is still a great Batman movie and well worth your time.
1. It Is A Story About Bruce Wayne
Before the release of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns did very little in terms of building Bruce Wayne or even Batman into a fully fleshed out character. While I love the first Tim Burton Batman, the character of Batman is more of an elemental mysterious force than a well-rounded character. The villains nearly always got the spotlight.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm focuses on the story of Batman and Bruce Wayne. The narrative of a group of gangsters getting murdered one by one is framed against Bruce Wayne’s past relationship with a woman named Andrea. Here Bruce Wayne is treated as a three-dimensional character rather than a force of nature.
Quite a bit of this story is focused solely on Bruce’s love life with Andrea in a very adult and mature fashion. In the course of the flashbacks, the audience is treated to Batman’s origins as he slowly grows into the brooding Dark Knight we all know and love. Not until Christopher Nolan came along did the origin and character get as much detail and attention. The love story never takes away from the ongoing mystery and Batman action. But smartly the filmmakers use the origins to tie in with the plot of the narrative and use it as a way to develop key characters and more importantly the character of Bruce Wayne. This makes Batman: Mask of the Phantasm one of the compelling and interesting Batman films from a character perspective.
Movies such as Sam Rami’s Spider-Man 2, the often mentioned Christopher Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy, and Bryan Singer X-Men movies are praised for being focused on their respective characters and developing them rather than them simply being there to serve the spectacle. Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm is built with the same type of character foundations that made these later superhero movies so successful.
2. The Animation and Art Style Is Unique and Great
That last point aside an animated film can only survive by how much it’s animation holds up. This is where once again Batman: Mask of Phantasm shines and stands the test of time. While I like some of the modern DC animated films the animation can sometimes lack a unique look. This can be because of time and budget constraints.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm brilliantly takes the art deco art style and character models of Batman: The Animated Series and beefs them up with a cinematic quality. The movie even adopted some early CG to enhance the city of Gotham giving it a large scale look. While the movie can’t quite compete with the animation of Disney films being released at the time, the animation and the film noir look manages to stand the test of time. There is a lot of detail, expression, and movement given to the animation and all the fight scenes are fluid. This doesn’t look like an extended episode of Batman: The Animated Series, this looks, as it should, like a movie.
3. A Unique And Original Villain
Nearly all superhero movies will populate their movies with established villains from their respective source material (with good reason). Here though the filmmakers chose to create a brand new villain, the Phantasm. Although some could argue that the Phantasm resembles the Reaper from the Batman: Year Two comic book storyline but that comparison is for mostly superficial reasons. This is a brand new villain.
This creates a mystery even for the most hardcore of Batman fans. I’ve decided to not go into spoilers into the Phantasm’s identity because I know there are plenty of people who have yet to see the movie. I’m surprised that no one has really done much with the Phantasm after this film’s release (unlike other characters Batman: The Animated Series created or redefined in it’s run). Phantasm is a perfect foe for the Caped Crusader and a memorable one at that. The design is unforgettable, the reveal is surprising, and can go toe to toe with Batman in a fight.
The character of the Phantasm is in many ways a dark reflection of what Batman could have become if he allowed himself to go over the edge and murder his enemies. This creates a deep resonating conflict in the film between the two characters which makes for a compelling drama.
4. Mark Hamill’s Joker
When Batman has a villain such as the Joker it is easy to go a little overboard and use him as much as you can. I love Jack Nicholson as the Joker but he stole the spotlight away from Batman by the virtue of being the Joker and having a great performer play him. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm uses the Joker but in a manner, you wouldn’t expect.
Here the Joker is used very sparingly. He isn’t the main foe for the Caped Crusader and doesn’t come to the forefront of the story until almost the third act. Normally this approach would almost feel like a wasted opportunity with someone like the Joker but it works because of narrative revelations that make Joker’s late appearance feel all the more relevant.
Once Joker appears Mark Hamill delivers a devilishly funny and creepy voice performance as the clown prince of crime. On Batman: The Animated Series Hamill and the writers had to restrain the character being on network television but in the theatrical arena the filmmakers got to show a deadlier side to the character. This firmly cemented Mark Hamill’s Joker as one of the defining big-screen Jokers despite not appearing very much in the film’s runtime or even being a physical performance. The brilliant animation combined with Hamill’s voice work made for a terrific and unforgettable Joker. A Joker that now all voice performances will be compared too.
5. It’s Film Noir/Mystery Driven
Some Batman fans have noted that most big-screen incarnations of the character lack the detective trait of the character. Director Matt Reeves has stated that his upcoming Batman movie will be more noir driven. Many fans are excited that his comments seem to indicate that his Batman movie will have more of a detective story than previous incarnations. But here is once again where the forgotten film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm really shines.
Phantasm is a movie driven by mystery and detective work. I showed this movie to a friend recently and once the film was over he immediately noted how noir-driven this film is. Gangsters, heavy shadows, darkness, mystery, and an art style at times reflective of classic films like Maltese Falcon, Phantasm is a true animated superhero film noir. The mystery isn’t an easily predictable story either there are many twists and turns that may catch some off guard. The mystery is smart, well written and one that perhaps new Batman films should take inspiration from.
That’s A Wrap
I think unfortunately with the flood of DC direct to video animated films Batman: Mask of Phantasm has a harder chance of standing out as time goes by. Not to say there aren’t any good animated Batman films made now, there are some really good ones like Under the Red Hood and The Dark Knight Returns Deluxe Edition, but Mask of the Phantasm was the first and only one to get a wide release in theaters. This wouldn’t count for much if it wasn’t so damn good.
At one time the movie was supposed to get a direct to video release, but when Warner Brothers took a look at the project and were so impressed by the level of quality they gave it an increase in budget and a spot in theaters. Why this film didn’t appeal to mass audiences could be for a variety of reasons. With, it’s Blu-Ray release, however, there is no better to watch it and take in one of the best theatrical Batman films of all time.
What’s your favorite animated Batman film? Let us know in the comments!