A Reflection & Review of DC Comics’ 1993 Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
Animated feature films continue to excel in the box office. On December 14th 2018, the most significant animated adaptation of a Marvel comic book character was released. Marvel’s animated endeavor hit theaters to mass critical and public acclaim. That film would go on to gross 375.5 million dollars worldwide. It also brought home a multitude of accolades including Best Animated Feature at both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. That feature was Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and its success followed the trajectory of Marvel’s live-action feature films.
Contrarily, the cinematic adaptations of DC Comics have been met with mixed reception. It’s forgotten that DC Comics released an animated masterpiece of their own all the way back in 1993. December 25th of that year saw the theatrical release of Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Of course, Mask of the Phantasm underperformed in the box office after a lackluster marketing campaign. That ineffective campaign forced critics such as Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert to miss the movie in theaters. In its home video release however, Mask of the Phantasm exposed far more viewers to the greatest Batman story ever put to film.
A Forgotten Gem… even at the start.
Siskel and Ebert would go so far as to admit they regretted not seeing Phantasm in its original run. As recently as 2011, Phantasm was regarded by Time magazine as one of the ten best superhero films ever made. That includes animated and live-action features. In 2010, IGN ranked Phantasm as the 25th Best Animated Feature of all-time. For this Batman title, post-release reception and accomplishments rewarded in hindsight have been consistent and positive. Unfortunately the film’s age and DC Comics’ inconsistent quality in their animated features has kept Mask of the Phantasm from reaching its deserved recognition.
Born from Greatness.
At the time of Phantasm’s release, Batman: The Animated Series (TAS), also helmed by Timm, was at its pop culture peak. To this day TAS is regarded as one of the best animated television adaptations based on a comic book property. In 1993 alone, The Animated Series was nominated in seven different award categories. It won 1993’s Primetime Emmy as an Outstanding Animated Program award and the Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program. Mask of the Phantasm transformed elements which made TAS so appealing on television and fit them on the silver screen.
Animation sharpened with a raised budget. That leeway allowed animators to orchestrate stunning action sequences which at the time could not be replicated in the live-action. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, heralded as the perfect voice of Batman and the Joker respectively, brought their usually captivating performances to Phantasm. What truly elevated Mask of Phantasm above its small screen counterpart was the execution of its longer-form narrative. Phantasm was free of filler while the cast remained stuffed with motivation, conflict and emotion. Roger Ebert praised the visuals of the city and the exaggerated art which heightened key moments of story-telling. Similarly Gene Siskel would say, “It’s tight. It’s 77-minutes long. Every image counts.”
A Definitive Origin.
Most notably, Mask of the Phantasm’s storytelling excelled where even Batman’s live-action counterparts have misstepped. Phantasm was a timeless origin story which traced Bruce Wayne from his roots as a hooded vigilante to his reign as the caped crusader. Even modern moviegoers with “origin fatigue” are unhindered by the glimpses of Batman’s past provided in this film. This was an intimate detective story which showcased the grit of the Batman. Phantasm perfectly balanced the tension of the Batman’s role in the city with the fragile determination of the young Wayne. The two sides of this identity, the man and the vigilante, shined all the brighter due to the contrast illustrated between them. No Batman film before or since Phantasm has succeeded in this degree.
Faithful and Fearless.
Mask of the Phantasm also showcased an element of the Batman that, while prevalent in the comics, is somewhat missing from film adaptations. While the live-action films established that Batman is an intimidating character, none have focused so closely on that fear. The viewers see a man in a costume. The characters see a nightmare. After all, his goal is to paralyze criminals with fear before he ever sets foot on the field. Phantasm encapsulated this most significantly in one moment. The butler Alfred Pennyworth watched as Bruce Wayne, his surrogate son, donned the cape and cowl for the first time. Alfred was soon horrified. His mouth fell agape and his eyes widened. Moments like that allowed Mask of the Phantasm to strengthen its setting in ways otherwise unseen in the films of DC Comics. Viewers realized all at once that in this world the Batman is truly terrifying.
Supported in Full.
Fortunately Alfred Pennyworth was not the only character to lend to Phantasm’s magnificent world-building. The titled Phantasm, voiced by the great Stacy Keach, remains one of Batman’s most memorable villains. Iconic design, engaging mystery and strong characterization led to an unforgettable new character. In Phantasm, this antagonist arrived in Gotham and pinned the murders of various mob figures on the Caped Crusader. Bruce soon realized that the Phantasm must also be someone returned from his past.
New Faces, Familiar World.
Other unique characters joined the Phantasm’s debut. We visit the turmoil of Bruce Wayne’s first major love interest in the charming Andrea Beaumont. We also see a new figurehead in Gotham’s underworld named Salvatore Valestra. Valestra walks a delicate line between the sadistic mobster and the weakening old man. Every new face remained exciting throughout Phantasm as they represented the various stages of Bruce Wayne’s war on crime. Phantasm is the only feature length adaptation of the Batman to feature original characters in every chief supporting role. Where other films haven’t tried, Mask of the Phantasm has triumphed.
A Truly Conflicted Hero.
The narrative was ripe with themes central to the Dark Knight’s mythos and focused on symbolism which mirrored the evolution of both Gotham City and of Bruce Wayne himself. Viewers explored Bruce’s grief and fragile sense of identity as he slowly fell for Andrea Beaumont. To Bruce, that love represented a betrayal of the oath once made to his dead parents. When he eventually proposed to Beaumont, a surge of bats burst forth from a nearby cavern and flooded the air around them. Their fluttering wings warned Bruce that he would never be free of the Batman.
More Than a Symbol.
Similarly audiences followed a futuristic theme park from the days of Bruce’s amateur vigilantism to the present. Bruce had hope for the future of Gotham. By the modern day, that hope was covered in rust. It’s the same rot from the amusement park that took over Gotham’s streets and called Batman to arms. It’s the same erosion that Bruce felt as he spent more and more time as the Dark Knight and less time as a regular man. Mask of the Phantasm approached these scenes and the subject matter they represented without hesitation. It was a brave endeavor in 1993. It’s a shame that in 2019 so many have failed to appreciation Mask of the Phantasm for what it was: a glimpse into the bright future of comic-inspired animation.
The Phantasm Revisited.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight gave us the best live-action adaptation of the Joker. Zack Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman gave us a momentous example of what a humanized and burdened Bruce Wayne might look like. Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski’s Mask of the Phantasm gave us the definitive look at the early days of the Caped Crusader. Phantasm is a must-see film for fans of DC Comics. The Phantasm character returns in January 2020 as the villain of Tom King’s much-awaited Batman/Catwoman comic series.