Superhero Sundays: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Matthew Turner | On 17, Dec 2017
Directors: Eric Radomski, Bruce Timm
Cast: Kevin Conroy, Dana Delany, Hart Bochner, Mark Hamill, Stacy Keach
Watch Batman: Mask of the Phantasm online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
On Sunday mornings, we like to watch cartoons. So we’re working our way through DC’s animated superhero collection on Amazon Prime Video UK. We call it Superhero Sundays.
Arguably the film that started it all, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is the first movie to be set in the DC Animated Universe. Conceived as a feature-length continuation of Batman: The Animated Series (following its successful first season), the film was given a rare theatrical release in 1993, something that wouldn’t happen again for another 23 years, with Batman: The Killing Joke in 2016. The cult success of Phantasm lead to two further stand-alone direct-to-video sequels: 1997’s Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero and 2003’s Mystery of the Batwoman.
Co-directed by Eric Radomski and animation maestro Bruce Timm, Mask of the Phantasm draws heavily on two graphic novels: Batman: Year One and Batman: Year Two. The plot centres on masked killer The Phantasm (although he’s never actually named as such), who’s murdering his way through Gotham’s underworld. After being spotted near the crime scene, Batman (Kevin Conroy) is blamed for the murders, making him a target for the police.
However, Batman is distracted by the return of Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delaney), an old flame to whom he was once briefly engaged, before she fled to Europe with her father (Stacey Keach), who’d gotten involved with the mob. Meanwhile, The Joker (Mark Hamill) finds himself on the Phantasm’s hit-list and resolves to fight back.
The extremely appealing animation is identical to that of the TV show, showcasing what would later become known as “the Bruce Timm style”, which feels rooted in the 40s and 50s. On top of that, the film contains all the classic Batman elements – from a focus on actual detective work to colourful villains, a compelling mystery and three judicious deployment of three different Bat-vehicles, as well as some exciting action sequences.
Three sequences, in particular, stand out. The first has a costume-less Bruce taking on a chain-wielding, motorcycle-riding thug and pulling off a spectacular jump-punch move. The second involves a rooftop chase and an explosion, during which Bruce actually gets injured and bleeds – a rare occurrence for an animated Batman feature. And the third – and best – is a brilliantly conceived scene where Batman fights The Joker in a model of New York, so they look like they’re Godzilla-sized giants smashing up buildings. This allows for both a great moment when The Joker nearly impales Batman with the Chrysler Building and a wonderful reference to King Kong, when Batman is attacked by The Joker’s model planes.
The script’s use of flashback is extremely impressive, particularly in the way it re-frames elements of Batman’s origin story, such as Bruce discovering the Bat-cave (and getting the inspiration for the costume) immediately after proposing to Andrea. The flashback scenes are also packed with detail, whether it’s a bat fluttering outside Wayne Manor (before the Bat-cave scene) or a lovely, beautifully directed moment where Bruce sees a car design that will inspire the Batmobile at the Gotham World’s Fair (he does a barely audible gasp and everything).
However, while the action is terrific and the story-telling is assured, the key success of the film lies in its depth. This is a film that really digs into the psychology of Batman, not least the way in which Bruce’s decision to put on the suit for the first time is directly linked to the brutal rejection note he receives from Andrea (“Too young. Need time. Forget about me”), just as his proposal is interrupted by a genuinely scary stream of bats.
In fact, the film contains perhaps the most powerful moment in any Batman film to date, in which Bruce pleads at his parents’ graveside to be freed of the promise he made them: “I’m sorry – it just doesn’t hurt so bad anymore. I didn’t count on being happy.” That moment of palpable pain and heartache is unusual for an animated Batman feature, and it’s extremely effective as a result.
Incidentally, although there’s nothing that would trouble its PG rating, this is also a movie in which Batman has sex. Admittedly it’s offscreen, but it comes with all the traditional signifiers – billowing curtains, crashing waves, a cut to the next morning with the bed in shot, the works.
As for the voice performances, they’re exceptional across the board, which perhaps isn’t that surprising, given that most of the actors had already done a season of the TV show at that point. Conroy is terrific at the subtle differences, not just between Bruce and Batman, but also between pre-Batman Bruce and post-Batman Bruce. Hamill is a cackling delight as The Joker, while Efrem Zimbalist Jr gets all the best lines as deliciously deadpan Alfred (“You’re the very model of sanity. Oh, by the way, I pressed your tights and put away your exploding gas balls.”) On top of that, Delaney is extremely appealing as Andrea – indeed, she impressed the producers so much that she was later cast as Lois Lane in the Superman animated series. (Also, in a nice touch, her character is named after voice casting legend Andrea Romano.)
Combining thrilling action, emotion, strong character work and a satisfying mystery with some clever red herrings, this is easily the best of the Batman animated features, making it quite possibly the best Batman movie ever made.