Early on in the 1993 animated film, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, there’s a scene where Bruce Wayne, out of his Batman costume, is watching TV with his butler, Alfred. Following a negative newscast on news of “the Batman,” Alfred angrily turns off the set and assures Wayne, “Such rot! Why, you’re the very model of sanity… oh, by the way, I pressed your tights and put away your exploding gas balls.” Wayne’s nonchalant, mildly bemused response: “Thank you, Alfred.”
Here is one of the few Batman films that understands that the “world’s greatest detective” is damaged goods and hardly a “hero.” For all the fascinating things about him, Wayne is nuts and Alfred, in his gentle, fatherly way, is enabling him. If anything his nightly crime fighting is a form of madness, with Wayne’s alternate identity a torturous obligation. The tragedy, over the course of the story, is how Wayne meets someone willing to share his dark obsession.
The plot has Wayne reflecting on his origins, as he’s rattled by the reappearance of Andrea Beaumont, the one that got away. While struggling with his desire to be the Batman and possibly leaving crime fighting behind him, Wayne faces a new opponent, the mysterious Phantasm. The film not only presents Wayne’s early years as a vigilante but gives us a rare Batman love story; Beaumont is an intriguing match for Wayne because, for better or worse, they have much in common.
For devoted Bat-fans, the 1993 animated film, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a lost treasure. While it gathered an adoring cult following over time, it had a rough unveiling 25 years ago. This unusual DC Comics feature was an offshoot of the “Batman: The Animated Series,” the brilliant TV series that premiered in the fall of 1992. Created by writer Paul Dini, artist Bruce Timm, and producer Alan Burnett, it stands tall as one of the all-time greatest cartoon shows. Original plans to make Batman: Mask of the Phantasm a straight-to-video release were abruptly altered and it was rushed into theaters with very little promotion.
In addition to a release akin to witness protection, its Christmas Day opening put it up against Mrs. Doubtfire and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, the legendary film critics, missed it during release but made the remarkable decision to whole heartedly promote the film two years later on their program.
From Shirley Walker’s powerful score to animation that incorporates art deco, computer animation, Fleischer Studios-style characters, and set designs (with Gotham City resembling Fritz Lang’s Metropolis), the film is a stunner. So are the action sequences, which are violent, crisp, and exciting. There’s some nice moments of humor but this has a serious tone that reflects gritty film noir, as well as the 1989 Tim Burton Batman. The connection to the televised cartoon may have caused audiences to think it was a cheap TV-spinoff and miss-able back in the day, but this is a real deal, event comic book movie, presented in a packed 76 minutes.
Every Batman movie reflects not only its era but a phase the character was going through in comic books. This is why, for example, the universally loathed Batman & Robin, which faithfully represents the campy Batman of the 1960s, is essential, but I digress. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is not merely an impressive offshoot of the milestone animated series that inspired it but a surprisingly engrossing work that stands alone. The only drawback in this Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm-directed work is the central mystery; while the plot is layered and complex, the central mystery (Who is the Phantasm?) isn’t hard to solve .
Kevin Conroy’s vocal turn as Wayne is golden. So are Dana Delaney’s heartfelt turn as Beaumont and Hart Bochner’s great, sleazy take on Arthur Reeves (you can hear delicious traces of Bochner’s “Ellis” character from Die Hard). Mark Hamill’s iconic vocalization of The Joker is also on-hand; the character enters the story late and still manages to steal the film. The dazzling moment where The Joker cackles madly while the world erupts around him is one of best in this franchise. The same can be said of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
Rated PG/76 min.
Catch the special showing of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm at the Maui Mall Megaplex on Nov. 12, at 2pm and 7pm.