Directed By: Bruce Timm & Eric Radomski
Release Date: December 25, 1993
Starring: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Dana Delaney
Over the years, no comic book character has quite had the media presence that Batman has had. From TV shows to film, both live-action and animated, the character - along with all his friends and foes, of course - has never been far from the public eye. In the past few years alone, we've seen Christian Bale finish off his run as the character only for Ben Affleck to pick up the mantle for the budding DC Extended Universe; gotten the staggeringly popular Arkham video games; received a season of the animated Beware the Batman; and witnessed the debut and continuing run of Gotham on Fox.
All this is to say that Batman's popularity is undeniable, so much so that he has managed to endure and overcome a number of stumbling blocks - like 1997's Batman & Robin - only to find himself repeatedly embraced by audiences the world over. With so many different interpretations of the character past, present, and future to choose from, it's no surprise that the debate continues to rage among fans as to who their "favorite Batman" is and which movie or show has done the character and his world the most justice.
One thing many seem to agree on, however, is that Batman: The Animated Series, which premiered in 1992, the same year as Tim Burton's Batman Returns, is a gold standard by which any and all adaptations since have been measured. Often considered one of the greatest animated series of all time thanks to its incredible level of maturity and decision to not shy away from the level of freak show darkness 1989's live-action Batman thrived in, Batman: TAS went on to have a long lifespan, kicking off a whole animated universe - collectively known as the DCAU - that spanned a number of series and spawned a handful of movies.
The first and, perhaps, most important of the films it gave rise to was Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which skipped a direct-to-video release and dropped quietly in theaters in 1993. Recently, I began going through the DCAU in its entirety, and though I was more than happy to revisit Batman: TAS, I was arguably more excited to finally see Mask of the Phantasm, a film which I've always been meaning to watch but never got around to, mainly because I wanted to watch it in its full context in continuity with the show.
By the time I got to Mask, I had 56 episodes of The Animated Series under my belt, some I had seen long ago, others I hadn't, and while that undoubtedly enriched the experience of seeing the movie for the first time, I can say that it still works as a solid standalone for anyone coming into it completely fresh, requiring an understanding of only the most fundamental aspects of Batman lore rather than hours of encyclopedic knowledge of the series leading up to it.
Mask of the Phantasm sees the arrival of a new vigilante in Gotham - the mysterious Phantasm - who has begun killing mob bosses across the city. Unfortunately, Batman is inadvertently blamed for the acts, and while he works to stop the specter-like being and avoid getting caught by police, Bruce Wayne wrestles with the memories of his former love, Andrea Beaumont, who has also returned to the city she long ago abandoned.
Though The Animated Series featured numerous familiar faces from Batman's rogues gallery and introduced the ever-popular Harley Quinn, none turn up here except, of course, the Joker, who effortlessly slides right into the whole affair without his presence feeling tacked on for the sake of it. The film reveals a surprising new layer to the enigmatic Clown Prince of Crime that had never been unveiled on The Animated Series, and it ties pretty seamlessly into the overall story of Bruce and Andrea.
While I have soft spots for Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger's live-action performances as the character, Mark Hamill is still, for my money, the best Joker to date, capturing the very core of the character as being someone dangerously unpredictable and incredibly reckless no matter the risk to himself; someone who can do terrible things and laugh about it simply because he can. (And boy, what an infectious laugh he has.) That's no exception here, and the Joker unsurprisingly steals every second he's on screen.
That said, something that works so well in the film's favor is that the Joker never dominates the proceedings. Whereas, for instance, its then-recent contemporaries - that is the one-two punch of Batman and Batman Returns - seemed to love spending more time with their respective villains than their hero, Mask takes great strides to keep the focus on Batman and, even more importantly, Bruce Wayne. Though the Dark Knight trilogy eventually saw the benefit in exploring Bruce as a character outside the cape and cowl, Mask really was the first Batman film to really dig deep into the character's complexities.
The film's usage of flashbacks is the biggest way in which it does this, tracing Bruce's relationship with Andrea in an effort to highlight how close Bruce came to being able to find real happiness, culminating in a standout scene in which he pleads with his parents' gravestones for the opportunity to finally, mercifully be happy, only for her exit from his life to push him well and truly over the edge in becoming Batman. When Alfred sees his master as the Caped Crusader for the first time, it's a moment played more for horror than awe, selling the idea that Bruce has given himself over to Batman, as it were, making Bruce's whole journey all the more tragic, if inevitable.
Those involved could've easily pushed Joker to the forefront, but I can't stress enough how admirable it is that they showed restraint in his usage. He's a major player by the end, certainly, but this is Bruce's film through and through, and a perfect showcase for actor Kevin Conroy, who, like Hamill, has frequently returned to the character time and again in the years since the DCAU proper ended back in 2006. He's another fan favorite for a reason, and given more Bruce-related material to work with here than on the show itself, he more than steps up to the plate to emphasize the core notion that Bruce is just as engaging a character as his crime-fighting alter ego.
As for the titular antagonist, the Phantasm has secrets all its own, including his or her identity, and though it may be obvious what that is pretty early in the movie, the journey is still enjoyable for the simple fact of seeing how everything comes together, whether it be how the pieces of Bruce's past add up or how the Joker ties in. The character's design is pretty slick, surrounded by an ever-present shroud of fog and sweeping in and out like an agent of Death itself, and its ultimate strength rests in the fact that the DCAU never ended up retroactively diluting the character’s place and importance in this chapter of Bruce/Batman’s life by having the Phantasm become a recurring figure.
There are a few other familiar faces from The Animated Series that turn up, notably Harvey Bullock and James Gordon, and while Robin sits this story out, he's not missed thanks to its focus on Bruce. As I mentioned, the film really stands on its own two feet without the support of the series and other familiar faces, but its fantastic art style and score from TAS stalwart Shirley Walker are proof positive that if you haven't seen any of the series itself, you'll likely come out the other end of it eager to immediately revisit Gotham.
While I personally don't think it's the greatest Batman film of all time, it sure is solid nonetheless, and it's easy to see why many fans do consider it to be. For an animated film that barely runs a little over 75 minutes, it's incredible that it effortlessly distilled so much of the essence of the Dark Knight and his world in a way that some of the live-action interpretations have completely missed the mark on. It's essential viewing for every fan of the character, and a stellar companion piece to an animated series that still stands as the greatest adaptation of the character overall.
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