The greatest superhero cartoon of all time gets a movie makeover in Mask of the Phantasm. Is it, as some critics say, the best Batman film?
Who made it?: Eric Radomski, Bruce W. Timm (Directors), Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, Michael Reaves (Writers), Benjamin Melniker, Radomski, Timm, Burnett (Producers), Warner Bros. Animation.
Who’s in it?: Kevin Conroy, Dana Delany, Hart Bochner, Mark Hamill, Stacy Keach, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Bob Hastings.
Tagline: “The Dark Knight fights to save Gotham City from its deadliest enemy.”
IMDb rating: 7.6/10.
Bruce Wayne is the lead character in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Sure, his alter-ego gets to indulge in a variety of action sequences, but it works because we care about the loon beneath the cowl. Twelve years before Christopher Nolan offered a “definitive” take on the Dark Knight’s origin – a period of history rarely explored in forty years of comics – the theatrical spin-off from Batman: The Animated Series did it rather well. Yes, this was a cinema release. A Christmas Day opening and a dismal marketing campaign led it to tank at the box office, but the reviews were highly positive. It has only gained more respect in the intervening years. After seeing the bloated camp of Batman Forever (1995), and realising that the Caped Crusader would be permanently sidelined in favour of the villains, it was a personal joy to discover this film on VHS. Here was a Batman film about Batman.
Mask of the Phantasm presents a Bruce Wayne in turmoil. The reappearance of an old love interest, Andrea Beaumont (voiced by Dana Delany), makes him reminisce about the past, particularly his days before donning a mask. As he rekindles his romance with Andrea, we learn more about the world’s most outlandish billionaire. Like Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), the film has a non-linear approach, intertwining flashbacks with the present-day action to great effect. It also took inspiration from the graphic novels Year One and Year Two, just like Begins.
As Beaumont arrives in Gotham City, a mysterious killer begins offing the resident crime bosses. Batman (the legendary Kevin Conroy) catches the Phantasm in the act, but is blamed for the murders when he is spotted at the scene. Facing a retaliation from the police force, doubt about his willingness to carry on as the Dark Knight, and deepening feelings for Andrea, Mr. Wayne has a lot to contend with. Adding insult to injury, The Joker (Mark Hamill) is also in the Phantasm’s cross-hairs, forcing the demented Clown Prince of Crime to get creative. It’s going to be emotional.
It is perhaps impossible to review Mask of the Phantasm without gushing about The Animated Series. First broadcast in 1992, just after the release of Batman Returns, the cartoon retained the dark, moody vibe of Tim Burton’s classic work, whilst bettering it in every way. The Gotham cityscape employed by producers Paul Dini and Bruce Timm was constantly bathed in shadow, with only rare glimpses of sunlight. Such a serious approach made the series standout from the crowd, and it definitely made an impression on this comic-obsessed youth. Yet it also worked for adults who were drawn to the television on Saturday mornings (when it became a success, networks in the US gave it a prime-time slot). The Animated Series boasts a timeless style, with the animators giving Gotham an art-deco finish that recalls 40s film noir and pulp detective stories. Batman has been dubbed “the world’s greatest detective” after all, and the show features many of the hallmarks that fuelled Hollywood’s golden era. Mixing such an aesthetic with the comic mythology was a stroke of genius, making Batman: The Animated Series a thing of beauty to this day. Phantasm was intended to be the finale, but when the show became an Emmy Award-winning sensation, it went on to spawn multiple seasons and spin-offs.
From the opening credits onward, which are rendered in early CGI, Mask of the Phantasm is compelling. Composer Shirley Walker was one of the many reasons the show worked, and she reassembles Danny Elfman’s theme to spine-tingling effect. It is an ideal prelude to a moody family film. Timm and co-director Eric Radomski waste no time in setting up the action, with Batman dispensing justice to a room full of gangsters with ease, and establishing the Phantasm as a malevolent presence. Ten-minutes in, you know you’re in safe hands, and this will be above and beyond the typical comic book animation.
Screenwriters Dini, Alan Burnett, Martin Pasko, and Michael Reaves achieve a lot in the film’s tight seventy-six minutes. Bruce Wayne was never a cheery bloke in the series, at least not when he was alone, but his mental breakdown gives us plenty to chew on. Like Rick in Casablanca (1942), he is torn asunder by the return of a lost love who might have been the one if events hadn’t conspired to keep them apart. It is a strand that could have been mishandled by lesser writers, but it only serves to remind us that Batman is human. I especially like the early scene of him spying on Andrea in a restaurant from an adjacent skyscraper – there’s something so mournful about seeing a Dark Knight perched on a ledge in the pouring rain, thinking about what might have been.
This an ideal excuse to flashback to his early experiments as a crime-fighter. One of the film’s best sequences is his first attempt to take down some thugs, long before he became Batman. Decked-out in a balaclava and black jacket, he fails to inspire fear in their hearts, and even comes close to death. As the film charts his relationship with Andrea, it also maps his journey toward the Bat. Naturally, it is the heartbreak of Andrea’s departure that ultimately gives him the push he needed.
Structurally, Mask of the Phantasm is pretty much perfect, always upping the stakes. The Phantasm is an elusive adversary who is beautifully contrasted with our hero. Batman might not kill his marks, but he goes after the same people. If there is a flaw to be found here, it would be that the Phantasm’s identity is all too obvious. It’s therefore wise that the filmmakers decided to incorporate The Joker. Showing up halfway through, the agent of chaos effectively steals the picture. Devilish, violent and prepared to go out in a blaze of glory, The Joker more than pushes the limits of the film’s PG rating. The finale, in which the Andrea, Phantasm and Joker storylines converge, is greater than anything in the live-action films up to that point. We feel like Batman has something to lose.
These events wouldn’t mean a thing if it wasn’t for the fine characterisation on display, and the whole ensemble is given great material, including regulars Alfred (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), the valiant Commissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings), and Animated Series favourite Detective Bullock (Robert Costanzo). The supporting cast is well-utilised and never feel forced into the narrative. We get to see Alfred’s conflicted feelings toward his boss’s activities, and Gordon’s disbelief over Batman’s apparent guilt. The latter is expressed best in a sequence where the Dark Knight is cornered by the Gotham PD at a construction site. The secondary characters might not have much screen-time, but Timm and Radomski make the most of their obligatory inclusions.
The voice cast is truly phenomenal, led by the talented Conroy and Delany. Conroy IS Batman to a whole generation of comic book fans, and it’s always disheartening to see an animated adaptation without his vocal talents. He brings a subtle change in pitch between each persona, and makes the graphic novel-style dialogue seem natural. Conroy is certainly more comfortable in his Bat-delivery than Christian Bale. As Andrea, Delany manages to convey sex appeal and mystery effortlessly. It’s hardly surprising that the creative team would bring her back as Lois Lane in Superman: The Animated Series.
You’ll also hear Die Hard‘s Hart Bochner as unlucky City Councilman Arthur Reeves, and Stacy Keach as Andrea’s doomed father. Rising above them all, expectedly, is Hamill with his peerless work as The Joker. Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s interpretations are rightly iconic, but no-one has ever managed to master the fiend’s laugh quite like the former (and present) Luke Skywalker. Phantasm could be his best turn as the homicidal clown, and that’s high praise indeed.
It’s hard to believe that this fine film is now twenty-three-years-old. As a piece of animation, it holds up as masterful work by some of the industry’s best, and remains one of the Dark Knight’s most enjoyable ventures. The achievements are all the more impressive when you consider that it was written, produced and released in under a year. Warner Brothers were right to release it in cinemas and not straight-to-video. Mask of the Phantasm is a film that not only loves its title character, but understands him, too. If you were to pick this as your favourite Batman film, I wouldn’t be one to argue.
The Dark Knight is born.
- The dummy corporations “O’Neil Funding Corp.” and “Adams Tool and Die” shown on Batman’s computer screen are references to Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, respective writer and artist for Batman comics circa 1969.
- The character of Arthur Reeves originated in the comics. In “Half-an-Evil,” Arthur Reeves was a short-lived comic relief who had a bone to pick with the Batman. He ceased all complaints, and appearances, after the Batman frightened him senseless with one well-timed “Boo!”
- When the Joker shoots the robots in the World’s Fair, the sound of them winding down is the sound of the Millennium Falcon winding down from Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.
- Respected film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert devoted a portion of their show to the film long after its release (below), partly because they were ashamed for having missed it the first time.
- Despite the title, the Phantasm is never referred to by name.
- The construction site scene mirrors a similar sequence in Batman: Year One, where a rookie Batman is pursued into a tenement building by a crooked Gotham SWAT team, which Batman barely escapes.
- The computer generated version of Gotham City seen in the opening credits was originally designed to be used in the TV show. The purpose was to create a “virtual set” to replace hand-painted backgrounds and help speed up production of the series. It was never used for that purpose.
- The Phantasm returned in Justice League Unlimited episode “Epilogue.”
- Conroy and Hamill reprised their roles countless times in the extended DC Animated Universe, most recently in the video games Arkham Asylum and Arkham City.