In the last couple of decades, DC has been aggressive about adapting its comic book stories into films. Some of the most iconic DC stories have been adapted, with various degrees of success. But the first DC animated film, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm has several distinctions. Made in 1993, it was not an adaptation of a comic, but an original story. It’s the only one that got a first-run theatrical release. The release was a complete bomb, and so it is also the lowest earning theatrical Batman movie. It is also one of the best original Bat stories made for the movies.
The Phantasm of the title is a new figure in Gotham Batman encounters while running down a counterfeiting ring. He’s trying to catch the bad guy, but the Phantasm doesn’t take prisoners. When the hood, Chuckie Sol, ends up dead (rather inventively by driving his car off a very high parking garage and landing through the window on the next building) witnesses only see Batman on the scene.
Soon another hoodlum, an associate of Chuckie, is done in by this mysterious hooded figure. That gets pinned on the Bat, too. At the urging of ambitious city councilman Arthur Reeves, all the police force begins hunting down the bat… except for Commissioner Gordon, who sits this one out. Batman must get to the bottom of who this Phantasm is, and why he’s targeting these hoodlums. They might be scum, but Batman doesn’t let anyone get away with murder in his town. At the same time, Bruce Wayne is having his own issues. An old flame has come back to town. Andrea Beaumont is the one woman for whom Bruce might think of hanging up the cowl.
Their story is told in extensive flashbacks which contrast Bruce’s growing infatuation with his early attempts at fighting crime. He and Andrea have a meet cute in the cemetery. She expects him to call that night. Instead, he goes out on the streets to beat up some thugs. What he finds is that just being a guy in a ski mask isn’t all that intimidating. He needs to focus on his life’s work, and not be distracted by some skirt. Even if she is pretty hot. Throughout the film we get the whole story of their relationship, including her inevitable leaving town. Without Bruce.
Her return, just when Batman is in one of his most difficult investigations, opens up old wounds. He doesn’t need the doubts or the pain. He’s got being a Bat to do. And if Andrea, the Phantasm, and the cops coming after him isn’t enough, one scared gangster calls in an old associate to eliminate the Bat: The Joker.
Mask of the Phantasm is, of course, based off Batman: The Animated Series, which was still running as this was released. It has the art deco style, which makes Gotham look permanently stuck in the ’20s, despite the bat’s high-tech gadgetry. The higher-budget animation is a cut above what the TV show (which always looked good) could achieve. The length of the film, 76 minutes, is a bit more than three episodes of the show put together. But in every way that matters, this film does basically feel like an extended episode of B:TAS.
This is not a criticism. Batman: The Animated Series had a very specific tone and gravitas. It was happily set in a comic book world, so it didn’t pretend to any hyper-realism. But it did have grit and darkness. The tone tended toward melancholy and grim. Pretty heady stuff for a kid’s cartoon. Mask of the Phantasm uses that tone and aesthetic to tell a story that might have fit on the show in terms of content, but not with this depth. Bruce Wayne struggles with finding love just as he’s ready to fulfill what he sees as his promise to his parents. Poignantly, at their gravestone, begging to be released from that promise, he says, “I didn’t count on being happy.”
As in the cartoon, Batman is voiced by Kevin Conroy. He’s consistently excellent, able to differentiate his Bat and his Bruce subtly without having to turn into some growling monster. A few other performers from the TV show reprise their roles, including Mark Hamill as the Joker. The Clown Prince of Crime is weaved into this gangster crime story surprisingly elegantly.
This new 4K UHD release of the film is based on a new restoration of the film. Warner Brothers has a brief note on the restoration on the company’s website: “Mask of the Phantasm was sourced from the 1993 Original Cut Camera Negative and was scanned at 4K resolution. Digital restoration was applied to the 4K scans to remove dirt, scratches, and additional anomalies, but special care was given to not touch the film grain or the animation cel dirt that was part of the original artwork.” It generally looks fantastic. There are occasional shots that look soft and out of focus, but that might be an artifact of the existing materials.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was a box-office bomb, but a storytelling triumph. It has big set pieces and big story twists, but they are all set up elegantly. It tells an original story (cribbing a few beats from Batman: Year One, without directly swiping anything) and gives Bruce Wayne more dimension than is usually seen in the Animated Series. Dude even gets laid. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm isn’t just the best Batman animated movie, it’s in the top tier of Batman movies, period.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm has been released on 4K UHD by Warner Brothers. Note there is only a 4K UHD disc, no Blu-ray. The only extra available on disc is a video featurette, “Kevin Conroy: I am the Knight” (26 min), a tribute to the late voice actor.