If you ask Batman fans what the best Batman movie is there will no doubt be arguments as to whether that is between Tim Burton’s first Batman film or Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight. However, a vast majority will come to agreement that one of the very best Batman film of all time, if not the best, is an animated movie that came out in 1993 called Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. One look at this unsung classic, and it’s easy to see why.
Despite it’s surprising origins, it’s a great film. The movie is a tie-in to the widely successful Batman: The Animated Series from 1992. In the wake of the release of Tim Burton’s first film, WB commissioned Bruce Timm and Paul Dini to launch an animated series to capitalize on the success film. While it contained some similar elements, the series stood on it’s own,and even spun off an entire shared universe with Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League/Justice League Unlimited, and Batman Beyond.
Part of the success of the show, and this feature film is the maturity of the writing. It’s dark without being too dark, it takes itself seriously but it doesn’t forget to have fun, and it respects the established comic book mythology while taking some minor liberties. The art design has a certain level of simplicity, owing much to the art work of the late Jack Kirby. The characters clearly have form and dimension, but they also have a certain simplicity that makes it much easier to animate. Compare and contrast this series with the other superhero cartoons of the 90s and it hold up much better.
Now what about the movie itself? The story opens with a group of mobsters planning to push some counterfeit bills through their casino, when Batman intervenes. One of the mobsters, Chuckie Sol escapes, only to meet up with another, more lethal vigilante, The Phantasm. The actions of this new villain are pinned on the Batman and he is wanted for murder by every cop in the city, except Commissioner James Gordon who refuses to believe that Batman could cross that line. Mobster after mobster is cut down by this Phantasm, all with one connection, they all had dealings with the late Carl Baumont, the father of BruceWayn’s college girlfriend, Andrea. This swath or murders leads right to the hideout of Batman’s archenemies, The Joker.
Meanwhile Andrea returns to Gotham, and Batman reflects back on when he became the Batman. Here we see a Bruce Wayne that almost never became Batman and why. He had fallen in love with Andrea and was happy for the first time since his parents died. He had lost his edge nad his anger and pain had subsided. He was in love and proposed to Andrea ready to start a new life.
He tells his parents in an excellent at their grave yard,
“ It doesn’t mean I don’t care anymore. I don’t want to let you down, honest, but… but it just doesn’t hurt so bad anymore. You can understand that, can’t you? Look, I can give money to the city – they can hire more cops. Let someone else take the risk, but it’s different now!…Please! I need it to be different now. I know I made a promise, but I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t count on being happy…. Please! Tell me that it’s okay.”
However the calling would find him, and Andrea and her father would be driven off by the mob, ending his chance at happiness and solidifying his resolve to be the Batman. We see just why The Batman can never be fully happy. Not only does he lose his drive and his focus, but the city itself won’t let him. Gotham had taken away his parents and now his first true love. He could never fully be happy as long as evil prospered in Gotham.
When Batman’s archenemy, the Joker also shows up for the fun, he spreads his classic brand of mirth and mayhem. As he says when he lays a trap for the Phantasm,
“Whoops! Ha! I guess the joke’s on me. You’re not Batman after all. Looks like there’s a new face in Gotham and soon his name will be all over town… to say nothing of his legs, and feet, and spleen, and head…”
He also has a surprising connection to the mob, one that startles even the Batman. In the end when the masks come off between Batman and the Phantasm, we are left with a brilliant film that, despite being marketed towards children examines the cost of vengeance and justice. Batman himself asks the question of what will vengeance solve, but Alfred sums it up best,
“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce. I’ve always feared that you would become that which you fought against. You walk the edge of that abyss every night, but you haven’t fallen in and I thank heaven for that.”
The writing quality for this movie is on par with even the best of the live action films. It is a very thoughtful, well written and mature take on the characters and story that will leave viewers spell-bound. In many ways this film is vastly superior to the movies Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and Batman & Robin.Here is a Batman that is clearly defined with strong motives and a compelling back story, as are his friends and foes in Gotham City,
The voice casting is top-notch. Veteran voice director Andrea Romano, selected individuals based on having voices with character and it shows. Like an old-time radio show they bring these comic book characters to life. They are so perfect that long time fans of both the show and the comic books can only hear these voices in their head when they read these adventures. Kevin Conroy IS the definitive voice of Bruce Wayne and Batman. His Batman sounds “Dark” without sounding like he’s doing a Cookie Monster voice.
Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. brings both wit, as well as a sense of fatherly love and wisdom as Batman’s trust friend and butler Alfred. Character actor Bob Hastings sounds like an old, weathered veteran cop and makes for an amazing Jim Gordon. Actress Dana Delany brilliantly voices Bruce’s old love, Andrea giving her a bit of fire, mixed with her sweetness. Appropriately, she would go on to voice Lois Lane in the spin-off series Superman. Even actors like Abe Vigoda and Stacey Keach, who you’d never imagine being involved in a cartoon get into the act.
And as usual, The Joker steals the show. The Ace of Knaves is voiced by Mark Hamill, better known to generations of fans as Luke Skywalker. Like Conroy, Hamill is the definitive voice for the Clown Prince of Crime, perhaps even more so than ledger. His Joker is sly, oily, and has just the right hint of menace in his voice to make you wonder what ace he has up his sleeve. Add his character design, complete with demonic yellow eyes, you have one of the most frightening villains in cartoon history. If you ever wondered what Luke Skywalker may have been like had he gone to the Dark Side, watch Hamill’s Joker or check out his Firelord Ozai in the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender for a glimpse of what could be.
Shirley Walker adds life to this film through it’s musical score, adapting Danny Elfman’s theme from the 1989 Batman to suit this story. She even has it performed with Gregorian style chanting, something fitting Batman’s gothic nature.
The end result is an animated movie that is on par with anything in the Disney animated canon in the sense that both kids and grown ups can enjoy it. This is the Batman movie to see. You owe it to yourself if you consider yourself a fan of the Batman. So go ahead, take a peak behind the Mask of the Phantasm. You’ll be glad you did. 20 years later, I know I am.