Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy brought prestige and focus back to Batman on the big screen after being shelved for years. And while many cite these films, particularly The Dark Knight, as their favorite cinema incarnation of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, there is one other that may surpass these.
It’s not Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. It’s definitely not anything by Joel Schumacher. It’s not even Adam West’s camp classic Batman: The Movie. It is the elegant and extremely well crafted animated feature film from 1993, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
Created by the same people that brought Batman: The Animated Series to television, Mask of the Phantasm may be the most definitive version of The Caped Crusader ever released in movie theaters. But then again, you may have never realized that this came out on the silver screen.
That’s because it was suddenly put into wide release by Warner Bros., who originally designed for it to be a direct-to-video movie. But they dumped some extra cash into it and told directors Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm to get it ready for the big screen with only a few months’ notice. The result was a poorly marketed box office bomb that has since become a cult classic for fans of The Bat.
The movie tells the story of the early years of Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) when he was still hunted and hated by the Gotham City Police Department. But in the midst of his one man war on crime, a long-lost love returns, Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delaney), along with a shadowy vigilante that does not follow Batman’s ethical code, The Phantasm. Flashbacks to Bruce’s time before he took up the mantle of the Batman intersperse with his present day mystery, adding emotion, pathos, and heartache to a dark and somber tale of violence and obsession. And into this volatile mix is thrown The Joker (Mark Hamill).
Because Mask of the Phantasm is done in the world of The Animated Series, it contains all of the show’s trademark art deco noir style, extremely talented voice cast, and unshakeable grasp of what makes The Dark Knight such a compelling character. Except it’s recast in the form of wide screen operatic tragedy, taking these strong points and hammering them home even harder.
The Heart of the Bat
While Mask of the Phantasm has a central mystery that propels much of its action, both its past and present narratives focus on the wounded hearts of both Bruce Wayne and Andrea Beaumont. Because we see where they are in the present before we learn of their past love, we know their relationship is doomed to end. It’s a potent mix of both tragic circumstance and dark destiny. Bruce must become Batman. But what has happened to Andrea, who has been away from Gotham for a decade?
Take, for example, the following clip, where Bruce’s relationship with Andrea comes to an abrupt end. Being the only thing keeping Bruce hanging on to the notion of happiness, he fully embraces his role as a dark vigilante and becomes Batman for the first time.
Bruce once had a chance to turn his back on his path to becoming The Dark Knight when Andrea entered his life. Now that she is back, does he have a second chance at happiness? Batman has been a tortured soul since he saw his parents murdered in front of his young eyes. But Mask of the Phantasm isn’t afraid to break his heart a little more.
But that’s the thing about Batman. No matter what adversity he faces, he comes back stronger than ever. An indomitable will to fight for the people of Gotham.
This film is more than willing to go dark. From the very beginning, the gothic trappings of Batman and his world are in full force, with Shirley Walker’s score kicking in through a choir rendition of the Batman theme. It’s a piece of music that is intrinsically linked to this animated version of the hero. But when filtered through a choir and accompanied by the nighttime skyline of Gotham City, it takes on a far more menacing tone, overwhelming its more heroic qualities.
But the darkness isn’t just limited to the score. Both the overall look and the many plot developments take on darker tones than The Animated Series, which already had many noir elements. Gotham is frequently robed in darkness, which only serves to highlight the bright scenery present in Bruce’s flashbacks. These are darker times indeed.
Mask of the Phantasm is filled with death. Many characters meet an untimely and violent end, but the animators keep it more implied than graphic. Revenge is a driving force behind many characters, and many sacrifice happiness for the sake of pursuing a personal vendetta. More specifically, love is often abandoned in pursuit of darker motives.
The hope that Bruce and Andrea chased in the past is long dead by the present. A major setting in the film, the World’s Fair amusement park, is a bright beacon of what may yet come for the characters. In the present, it is long abandoned and the home of the film’s explosive finale. In the end, there is no real happy ending for anyone involved. Bruce may embrace his role as Batman, but only glimmers of hope remain, instead of any real instance of a brighter and better future.
Every character is quite memorable as well and fit well into this balance between the cartoony and the darkly real. Hamill is seen by many as the ultimate version of The Joker. Yes, even more so than Heath Ledger. His villain is darkly funny and dangerous at the same time, maniacally laughing as he ends his victims. It’s a potent blend between being a unhinged and laser focused and gives The Joker all the qualities that made him a star on the comic book page.
Delaney also gives a strong performance as Andrea. Her character is a mystery for most of the film as both Batman and the audience try to understand what has happened to her and what she wants. She’s also the most starkly different between past and present versions, and Delaney portrays the differences well, without being too obvious. She’s ultimately propelled by a shattered heart and may even be more broken than Bruce.
The Batman in Full Force
Like The Animated Series, Batman in Mask of the Phantasm is a fully formed representation of this complex character. The Dark Knight is a superhero, a detective, a mortal man, an unbreakable spirit, and a deeply scarred soul. So far, every live action interpretation of the character has emphasized some of these aspects while completely neglecting others, creating a Batman that never quite matches what is found in the best comics.
Timm, Radomski, and the four writers (Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, and Michael Reaves) that created this film take the time and effort to have all of these elements shine through. Because the plot centers on a mystery, Batman’s detective skills are frequently displayed as he pursues The Phantasm. Bruce also experiences great emotional pain, mourning over lost love, the deaths of his parents, and his struggle to commit his body and soul to the everlasting crusade that is being Batman. But he soldiers on. All while taking part in some fantastic action sequences!
Kevin Conroy, while only doing voice-over work, wonderfully displays the two sides of Bruce. While out in public, he’s a carefree playboy, a perfect mask for the dark soul that hides underneath. But it never feels totally fake, since it contains real emotion, especially when dealing with Andrea. As Batman, he’s dark, imposing, and powerful. He feels like a hero, but not a campy Adam West one, and shows his tortured side, but not like a growling Christian Bale. You respect this Batman, but you also want to be his friend.
Batman must cope with some serious emotional wounds throughout this film and Conroy does fantastic work selling the deep-seated pain he feels. Bruce’s plea to the spirits of his parents at their graves is a particularly power scene, as is his discovery of the locket at the end of the film. Both of these are lovingly animated, but it is his delivery that really brings them home.
A Batman Movie for the Ages
It has been more than 20 years since Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was released, but the film is still finding new audiences. It was never given the chance to shine like so many of its inferior live action brethren, so its very existence may not be known by many. But it really is one of the strongest interpretations of the character, just like The Animated Series that spawned it.
If you have not seen this film and have a love for Batman, or even a passing interest in animated movies, watch Mask of the Phantasm. This is how the hero was meant to be portrayed. It may end up being your favorite Batman film.