In 1939, National Comics (later to become DC Comics), was looking for a new super hero—a character who could build on the success of Superman (who debuted in 1938). Bob Kane, a gag cartoonist, was asked to design a new hero. Kane conceived one of the most popular and enduring characters of the twentieth century—The Batman.
As the 10th Anniversary of Christopher Nolan’s Batman approaches, I went on a trip down the memory lane, watching some of the old classics. What I experienced was nothing short of fantastic. Of all the movies that I revisited, 3 movies stood out. This piece is about the finest (in my humble opinion) animation (or maybe better than the live action) movie that has bought the caped crusader alive on large screen, Batman: The mask of Phantasm (1993).
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, a feature-length film set inside the Batman: The Animated Series universe was the first animated Batman movie. Based in the nineties Batman cartoon universe, the film boasts much of the same cast and crew as the series.
The movie starts out with the Caped Crusader dropping in on some of Gotham City’s gangsters planning a money laundering scheme, only to have a strange new vigilante drop by and send one of the criminals to their death. When Mob bosses start getting bumped off by a guy in a cape, everyone assumes that Batman has gone off the deep end. Meanwhile, Andrea Beaumont, the one time love of Bruce Wayne’s life, returns to Gotham City stirring up memories including those of how he almost didn’t become Batman. As all of this unfolds, and the Phantasm becomes a more imminent, lethal threat, the Joker is brought into the fold as a major wild card. Now, can the Dark Knight elude the police, capture the Phantasm and clear his name?
Like any other Batman feature, there are certain things these movies always seem to have. First, we have the public (and then the police) debating the necessity of Batman, then we have Bruce Wayne pining over his parents death and then we have the the complicated love interest. Love interest? Yes, you read that right.
“Mask of the Phantasm” is a love story, of sorts, tracing Bruce Wayne/Batman’s relationship to Andrea Beaumont, who comes into his life at a time of self-doubt about the self-imposed burden of justice and vengeance. The tale is beautifully crafted and truly shows the emotional depth and humanity of Bruce before and after he becomes Batman. Was this the woman who almost stopped Bruce Wayne from donning the mantle of the Bat, or did she push him over the edge?
Apart from this subplot, the movie is about a dozen times more complex than any of the live action movies. Part of that comes with dealing with an entirely new villain instead of just another nutcase pulled from the pages of the comic. We don’t immediately know who it is or why they’re doing what they’re doing, which allows for a lot of leeway in terms of plot twists and the like. Midway through, the Joker replaces the revenge-driven Phantasm as the villain. The Joker’s introduction and development into the main villain, however, does allow for the Joker’s trademark rants, raves, jibes, and bad puns, which is a total blast.
The extended climax inside the amusement park is only one of several well-directed action set pieces. This is the kind of action that one would want to see in a live action film. Others scenes include the Batman eluding a SWAT team along the rooftops and dark alleys of Gotham City (which takes you back to the scene from Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One). In one of the many flashbacks, one scene set inside Gotham’s World Fair, not only informs us about Bruce and Andrea’s past, but also gives us a glimpse into the inspiration for the Batmobile’s design.
The animation style of this feature film is definitely one of it’s big pluses. It maintains the brilliant art deco noir style that Batman: The Animated Series was based on.. The opening title sequence even features a beautiful CGI fly through of the Gotham City skyline. The animation, though “very nineties”, still stands the test of time. It’s a quality film.
Coming to the music, the main theme from Danny Elfman for Tim Burton’s Batman movies lived on in this DC Animated Universe. For this feature, Shirley Walker, makes it even more gothic and haunting with a beautiful chorus. It’s a fantastic score that rouses, and nails all over the wonderful. The rest of the movie sounded even better, stereo effects a-plenty. Helicopters, gunshots, squealing tires, all coming at you from the direction you’d expect, and they all sound fantastic.
As for the voice acting, could you ask for a better? It has the legendary Kevin Conroy, has been the definitive voice of Batman for over two decades now for legions of fans. Conroy reflects all the best qualities of the character from the upbeat playboy, the serious businessman, the dark, brooding man in the shadows, and the powerfully imposing Dark Knight. And what about our favorite super villian, Joker? Mark Hamill nails it. What Hamill does is make the Joker this insane clown who will do whatever hits the biggest punch line in his own twisted mind. He brings the jovial zaniness meshed with a lethal intimidation that forges a colorful maniac that is endlessly fun and entertaining while still being a major threat. It will also be a grave injustice, if I did not mention Alfred Pennyworth (Voice by Efrem Zimbalist Jr), who walks away with some of the greatest lines and moments in the movie.
If I had to find a flaw in the film, well, for one, it is too short, running at just 75 minutes! Yes, as the movie is almost 25 years old, you may find faults with it, but , at the end of the day, it remains one of the finest features ever made on Batman.
Batman has been in many movies and maybe this incarnation of Batman isn’t for everyone. Mask of the Phantasm may not be the best of the bunch, but it is a classic. It’s a nostalgia ride for a generation of nineties kids. It is still awesome, still relevant and kicks ass, just like Batman does.