Between the unmitigated piece of shit that is Batman v Superman and the merely bad Batman: The Killing Joke it seems 2016 hasn’t been a good year for Batman (though i have no idea what’s going on in the comic book world). So i attempted to rekindle my Batromance by watching one of my favorite Batmovies.
As a side note it is an absolute travesty that Mask of the Phantasm isn’t as well known as even Tim Burton’s Batmovies, and i hope in the coming years more and more people will watch this movie and give it the credit it deserves.
So i’ll do my part with it here:
In this animated adventure Batman must piece together the mystery of the Phantasm, whose disturbing connections to Batman’s past make this mystery one of his most personal ones yet.
In trying to craft a suitable ending to the first run of the original Batman: The Animated Series the producers mix in equal parts origin story and denouement. Refreshingly however during the various flashbacks they avoid dwelling on the death of Bruce’s parents (which is over saturated at the very least), and instead use an unexpected romance to heighten the sense of tragedy that surrounds Batman. As he is denied a chance for happiness as an adult due to circumstances outside of his control, just as he was denied a chance at a normal life for the very same reasons. Thankfully the romance between Bruce and Andrea is well written, with each getting the proper amount of scenes together and apart showing mutual attraction and heartbreak at the situation.
The strong writing would be for naught if there wasn’t equally compelling voice work complimenting it and thankfully all the players in Mask of the Phantasm are uniformly strong. Kevin Conroy’s performance is of particular note considering his abysmal performance in The Killing Joke, as he actually has energy and emotes well in this film instead of phoning it in. Dana Delany characterises her Andrea Beaumont as both charismatic and likable, and as a result is very easy to see how Bruce might fall in love with her. Even Hart Bochner playing a supporting character gives outstanding voice work (minor spoilers if you click the link and i do apologise about the annoying edit as it’s the only version of the scene i could find).
Another boon to the movie is Mark Hamill finally being allowed to stretch out his Joker wings, and revel a bit with scenes that were a bit too dark for a Saturday morning cartoon show. I’ll admit the Joker here in Mask of the Phantasm is my favorite and represents my definitive take on the character, who is both funny and more than a little bent. Of course i have a favorite Joker laugh btw:
The great script is also enhanced by solid technical and artistic film making, with the directors Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm having a good grasp on the necessary elements of creating tension and creating/sustaining mood. Details such as Mr. Beaumont’s fist clenching when an unexpected visitor arrives or a kick from Batman dislodges one of Joker’s teeth stack up on one another to create a sense of sophisticated story telling. The film is filled with subtle visual and literary metaphors like rising storms, and how the bright and shiny “World of the Future” shown in Batman’s past is inhabited by the complete opposite in the present.
Furthermore the strong story is accompanied by superb visual design and animation, with its production design mixing in 1930’s inspired Art Deco and modern day technology, and its art direction continuing the animated series’ dark and evocative style the film creates a memorable setting for the story to play out in (unlike the mish mash of “The Killing Joke”). The last notable part of the production is Shirley Walker’s great musical score, whose brass and choral heavy work here swathes the film in a suitably Gothic and grandiose atmosphere, and is as indispensable to the lasting impact of the film as the animation itself.
While the film manages to remain incredibly solid despite its short running time (76 minutes), its lack of screen time has some disadvantages. The biggest one that comes to mind is how the subplot of Batman being blamed for the murders committed by the Phantasm is completely dropped after a climactic chase and shoot out. Speaking of shoot outs, while it isn’t as bad as The Killing Joke is there are a couple of overlong action scenes that rob time from the film that could be used to explore its themes a bit more.
The movie’s blazing fast pace also doesn’t allow for much time for some scenes to sit; Bruce’s proposal to Andrea being interrupted by a swarm of bats seems clipped off at the end and could have benefited from a bit of extra time. The Phantasm itself while being in the title of the movie ends up being more of a glorified subplot as the real focus is on Andrea’s and Bruce’s doomed romance, and the origins of The Batman himself.
Quite frankly The Mask of the Phantasm was the best Batman movie until the release of the excellent Batman Begins. It’s emotive, thematically rich, narratively solid, and most importantly it uses its story to offer interesting insight into the main characters. It paints a picture of a man who had no choice but to become and ultimately remain as the Batman due to circumstances tragically out of his ability to control.
If you in any way are curious about the character then you can almost do no better than to hunt down a copy of this movie, i promise you won’t be disappointed.
OUT OF FIVE