The best Batman movie you’ve never seen

Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm is one of the very best Batman films - yet surprisingly few people have seen it...

For many fans, Batman: The Animated Series stands as one of the greatest takes on the character and his world.

Others have their place: the Nolan films, of course, were wildly successful, thrusting the Dark Knight back into the mainstream after the garish nonsense of Batman & Robin left audiences cold (ahem). The Arkham series of video games has blended elements from the films, comics, and animations into an irresistible mix, with serious mass-appeal. And, for those of us fond of Tim Burton’s flicks, Michael Keaton was a great Caped Crusader for the late 1980s/early 90s.

However, The Animated Series is still regarded as a breakthrough for the character. Not only was its bold visual style a genuine breath of fresh air back in 1992 (and still informs much of DC’s animated output today), but it also brought an unprecedented depth, maturity, and artistic integrity to cartoons about a guy in a cape and cowl.

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Throw in a stellar voice cast (Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are still viewed by many fans as the definitive versions today, nearly a quarter of a century on), stunning music, and an unwavering faithfulness to the character, and you have a masterpiece.

However, while even the most casual Batman fan will have some awareness of The Animated Series, how many will know of its first spin-off movie, Mask Of The Phantasm?

The simple answer: not enough.

As much as this film has a loyal cult following, it’s still criminally overlooked – which means many people are missing out on one of the truest, most emotionally satisfying, most downright awesome Batman movies ever made.

For me, this film will always be special, partly because it was the first one I ever bought on VHS, but mainly because it never fails to impress: despite having seen it countless times in the past twenty-plus years, it always pulls me in and keeps me hooked, from the first frame to the last.

Intrigued? I hope so. Let’s look at what makes Mask Of The Phantasm so special…

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Jingle Bells, Batman Smells, Robin laid an egg

When it opened in time for Christmas 1993 (in the US, at least – we Brits had to wait for its home-video release around nine months later), Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm was a box-office failure. Pulling in just $5.6m on a budget of $6m, the movie’s poor performance was due largely to a lack of marketing, apparently caused by Warner Bros.’ decision to promote the project from a video-only tie-in to a theatrical feature at short notice.

The movie’s outstanding quality is even more impressive considering the creative team (including Bat-experts Bruce Timm and Paul Dini) had only eight months to get the film completed in time to reach multiplexes. What could easily have been a rushed, lightweight cannibalisation of The Animated Series became a dark, powerful exploration of Batman, his motivations, and the immense sacrifices he makes for the good of others.

Running at a trim 76 minutes, Mask Of The Phantasm tosses an incredible amount of ingredients into the narrative soup: a murder mystery; heavy romantic elements; multiple action sequences; flashbacks; and some of the best screen Joker moments ever written. It’s further testament to the writers that the film never feels too fast-paced or rushed, retaining the same well-measured feel of the individual 20-minute episodes that spawned it.

Without dropping big spoilers, the plot runs thus: someone is slaying Gotham City’s mob-leaders in a variety of creative ways, and Batman is blamed by the media. He sets out to clear his name, identify the caped menace offing said mobsters, and, eventually, bring the Joker to justice.

In the midst of all this, an old flame of Bruce Wayne’s – the sumptuous Andrea Beaumont – returns to Gotham, keen for a reunion. This face from the past prompts Bruce to assess his life, his ongoing devotion to crime-fighting, and the self-denials he’s made for the greater good.

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Mask Of The Phantasm is a richly-textured film, showing a side of Batman/Bruce Wayne largely neglected by the live-action movies: the romantic. Granted, every Batman blockbuster features a love interest of one kind or another – sometimes it’s done well, and at other times… well, we end up with Dr. Chase Meridian. For the most part, these feel tacked-on or fail to make much of an emotional impact.

In Mask Of The Phantasm, though, the script is so well-written (by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, and Michael Reaves) that the romance between Bruce and Andrea is always engaging. As the story jumps between the past and the present, we see their relationship unfold, from their first meeting to Bruce’s struggle between ‘the plan’ and committing to a ‘normal’ life.

These elements really help to humanise the character, and hit home just how much crime-fighting demands of those heroic/foolish enough to take it on. While The Dark Knight explored this with the relationship between Bruce and Rachel Dawes, for my money, Mask Of The Phantasm does a much better job – no small feat for a film that’s effectively half the length of Nolan’s hit.

The music of the Knight

Despite its age, Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm still looks gorgeous, with all the shadows, red skies, and timeless setting The Animated Series is known for. Special mention, though, must go to Shirley Walker’s sublime score.

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The late Walker had a long and varied career, and her work on Batman: The Animated Series is the perfect complement to the dark visual style. In Mask Of The Phantasm, she created a score that keeps the familiar Batman beats but introduces a bolder, more cinematic feel: the action scenes (particularly the gripping climax) are given a truly epic grandeur, while the romantic flourishes are suitably evocative, tugging at the heartstrings of even the most stoic viewer. Both sides of the Batman character are brilliantly represented: the passionate, driven man and the brooding, criminal-bashing detective.

Alongside the excellent score, Tia Carerre (yep, Cassandra/’Baberaham Lincoln’ from Wayne’s World) recorded a ballad which plays over the closing credits – it’s a brave choice, and a fitting send-off for the emotional story we’ve just enjoyed (and she can really wail.

Voices in the dark

On the subject of sound-production, it’s impossible to heap praise on Mask Of The Phantasm without complimenting the cast.

As mentioned earlier, Conroy and Hamill are on form as Bruce/Batman and the Joker respectively. Conroy in particular has to portray Bruce at various ages, from a younger man still yet to don the cowl to the seasoned crusader we know and love; we really get to see a solid evolution of the character as he falls for Andrea, and eventually starts down the path he can no longer avoid.

Hamill is as creepy and delightful here as he has ever been: laugh-out-loud funny in one moment, and genuinely unnerving the next. The Joker’s introduction into the story never feels forced or tacked-on, either: his presence steers the story into darker territory, and runs deeper than is at first apparent. It’s not hard to imagine this being one of Hamill’s favourite Joker-centric gigs.

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Dana Delaney (also the voice of Lois Lane in Warner Bros.’ later Superman: The Animated Series) is terrific as Andrea, and Hart Bochner (Ellis from Die Hard, Hans Gruber’s ‘White Knight’) is suitably slimy as another contender for her affections.

The way in which the various characters and threads are eventually drawn together is masterfully-handled (no surprise, given how amazing The Animated Series is), and makes the viewer feel as if they’ve learned new things about Batman – not easy for a character created in 1939!

Closing thoughts

So, what else is there to say about Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm?

Well, there’s the way in which it pays homage to Frank Miller’s Year One mini-series with a suitably-disastrous ‘pre-Batman’ crime-fighting exercise for Bruce. Plus I could praise how skilfully the script weaves a certain character’s background into the plot, hinting at prior activities without actually revealing too much.

And, of course, I could give the writers kudos for taking the chance to create a new villain (albeit influenced by Batman: Year Two‘s anti-hero, the Reaper) when they could have easily just bumped the Joker into the foreground and rolled out a few other staple members of Batman’s rogues gallery.

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It really is a stellar achievement that stands the test of time and deserves as much respect and adoration as many recent animated movies.

For hardcore Bat-fans and novices alike, Mask Of The Phantasm is essential viewing. If you haven’t seen it yet, I can’t recommend it highly enough – it truly is the best Batman film you’ve never seen.

And if you have seen it? Watch it again, and then pass it on to a friend. They’ll thank you for it.

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