CHILDHOOD REVISITED – BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM


This shot is too epic for witty words.

This shot is too epic for witty words.

BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM – (1993)

Director: Eric Radomski, Bruce W. Timm
Starring: Kevin Conroy, Dana Delany, Mark Hamill
Screenplay by: Alan Burnett

Tell all the modern Batman Begins and Dark Knight fans to go jump off a cliff, since us “real” fans knew how awesome Batman already was via “Batman: The Animated Series”. Christian Bale and (RIP) Heath Ledger are nothing compared to the Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill voices that showcased the airwaves for three seasons (1992-1995). And, truth be told, Conroy’s Batman voice is a hell of a lot better than that raspy, sandpaper noise that emerged from Bale’s mouth when he donned the black mask.

Of course, I’m exaggerating. I certainly enjoyed Batman Begins and The Dark Knight a whole heck of a lot. But the rich, deep, dark Batman everyone knows and loves now was fighting crime back in 1992 every afternoon. In retrospect, it certainly was an excellent show, but other than a few awards and a die-hard fan base, I don’t think anyone watched it. The series debuted Mask of the Phantasm to theaters in 1993, and pretty much broke even at the box office. Gee, I sure wonder how the show/movie would perform now…

NOSTALGIC LENS: I remember little about this movie. I vaguely remember the flashbacks and I do remember (SPOILERS) that the Joker was the one who managed to solve the identity of the Phantasm before Batman did. I was pretty young, so to be honest, I don’t remember much about the animated series other than being enamored by it, and Batman whipping some series ass. Also, I do remember hearing that the show was animated on black backgrounds to really bring out the dark aesthetic. The specifics, however, are gone from my memory.

DOES IT HOLD UP:  This movie is fantastic.

Now, granted, I fully understand why the movie failed at the box office. First, there was little to no marketing of the movie prior to its release. Secondly, the story engages in a lot of tropes and ideas that stem directly from the TV show. In other words, if you didn’t watch the series, you were a few steps behind. It’s not that the plot is too complicated; it’s more that the overall style doesn’t quite cater itself to the movie-going audience, especially those hard-bent on Tim Burton’s vision or delighted more in campier versions of the masked vigilante. To say nothing of those misguided souls that automatically peg animation as “kids fair”.

That final point is more significant than you may think, since the movie is rated PG.  A number of Netflix and IMDB reviews seem to be disappointed by this “kiddie” rating, expecting, perhaps, a PG-13. Well let’s just say in this day and age, it would have certainly received that rating—but the real wonder of the film is how it delves into such strength, drama, action, and danger without dropping curse words or ramping up the blood.

As a new masked vigilante starts killing mob bosses, Batman is wrongly implicated for their murders, which has the police on his tail. Meanwhile, former lover Andrea Beaumont returns to town, which causes Bruce Wayne to relive some painful memories of his past. It seems Wayne and Beaumont were lovers, which left Bruce stuck between giving in to the love of his life or the vow to his parents. (By the way, the exact nature of this vow—to fight for vengeance in terms of righteousness—is never quite explained. I can’t even say for sure it’s implied, either. So it’s bit tricky to expect audiences to know what exactly is troubling Wayne, unless, again, you’re keen on to the TV show.)

But even if you’re not aware of the details, the movie really drives in some serious emotions:

The story is intriguing enough that it works perfectly for the elements that the film tries to convey, even though it’s really just a prolonged episode of the TV show. But the conflicts are full blown (Batman’s escape from the police is a tour-de-force in animated action) and all the ideas we know now about the Batman oeuvre are present here. An early scene of pre-Batman-Wayne fighting criminals near a warehouse perfectly compliments a similar moment in Batman Begins. Regarding The Dark Knight’s theme of people going over the edge of sanity? Why, the Joker (Mark Hamill is on top of his GAME) here delights in the idea that Batman may have finally snapped, too!

Again, the story isn’t too complex, which involves some vague, past mob threats and a unique (if not too original) plot-twist. But for PG movie with a short running time (76 minutes), there’s a lot of subtle drama with dark edges and overtones, making this a great and satisfying way to kill an hour with absolutely no regrets. Also, the animation is gorgeous. Who ever said it doesn’t date well is severely mistaken.

IN A NUTSHELL: Excellent movie, despite a few minor flaws here and there (some specific voice readings are kinda awkward, and there seems to be a misstep, plot-wise or timing-wise, in a few early scenes). Otherwise, though, it works in so many ways, and the animation is quite good—Batman was doing hardcore art-deco before Bioshock made it COOL. Check out this dramatically powerful yet understated ending sequence:

I want a full, HD poster of the shot at 0:41.

June 15th: The Rescuers
June 22nd: The Rescuers Down Under

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  1. #1 by Nadine on June 21, 2009 - 2:02 am

    Hi there,
    I have already seen it somethere…

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