40×40: Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm (1993)

Directed by Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm

“Why you’re the very model of sanity. Oh by the way, I pressed your tights and put away your exploding gas balls.”

Why Did I Get This?

As discussed on more than one occasion in recent weeks, I’m a bit of a Batman fan. Have been for years, and will continue to be.

That being said, I was kind of a latecomer to Batman: The Animated Series – I watched the odd episode here and there as a kid, but didn’t really appreciate how good it was until the live action films got a bit silly and day-glo.

Full disclosure, this wasn’t meant to be the latest Late Review, but with the recent passing of the brilliant Kevin Conroy, I felt like bumping up the list a bit. For many people, Kevin Conroy was and will remain the greatest Batman – he had an amazing voice, and quite a story to tell too, as anyone who read his tale in 2022’s DC Pride edition will know.

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will go into detail about the film from start to finish, so if you’re looking to avoid potential spoilers, scroll down to the next heading.

Somebody is murdering Gotham City’s most feared gangsters, and the authorities say Batman (Kevin Conroy), is to blame. Outside of the cowl, Bruce Wayne crosses paths with his ex-girlfriend, Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delaney), who appears to have worked out his secret identity.

From the get-go, Mask Of The Phantasm looks classier than your average early nineties cartoon. Famously rushed through production to meet a theatrical release date, the efforts of everyone involved are clear from the stylish, almost 3-D swooping opening shot through Gotham’s dark Deco skyline – it looks amazing, and the music is worthy of any one of the live-action Caped Crusader movies.

While the rest of the film uses a classic 2-D animation style, there’s a weight to the characters which really holds up and shows the quality. This is particularly good in the fight scenes – punches have heft, and the crashing of bodies into walls and the floor look, sound and feel weighty enough to hurt.

Plot-wise, there’s a lot going on, with regular flashbacks to the earliest days of pre-cape Batman, as a conflicted Bruce falls in love with Andrea and considers giving up his crime fighting ways to settle down and marry. Until, that is, she ditches him and flees the country with her dad, following an unwise deal with the mob. This causes him to put on the cowl for the first time, in a brilliantly sombre shot including a great reaction from Alfred (Efrem Zimbalist Jr) – terrified and disappointed that the boy he’s raised has turned into this terrifying figure.

The flashbacks are inserted into a timeline ten years down the line, when Batman is an established figure in Gotham, but not necessarily a welcome one. His only ally in the police force is Commissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings), while city councilman Arthur Reeves (Hart Bochner), demands the bat’s head on a silver platter.

While that makes it heavier than I imagine the young fans would have expected in 1993, looking back on it now, it squeezes a lot into 77 minutes without it feeling messy or bloated.

As a fan of the comics, it’s easy to see elements of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One as well as Mike W Barr’s Batman: Year Two, though I’m honestly not sure why the filmmakers replaced Barr’s villain The Reaper with The Phantasm – they both serve more or less the same purpose (wiping out gangsters, close links to Bruce’s life), but for me the character designed for the cartoon is less memorable or creepy than the brilliant skull/sickle combo of the comics.

Conroy’s work as Batman/Bruce Wayne is sometimes cited as the pinnacle of the character’s on-screen appearances, and revisiting this, I can kinda see that. Bruce’s rain-soaked speech at his parents’ gravestone as he asks whether he can explore other ways to improve the city and lead a normal life offers more humanity than pretty much everyone who’s taken on the character since.

Obviously, the animation plays a part, but Conroy’s sadness, frustration, determination, and occasional uncertainty offers more to the character than a throaty growl – you get the feeling there’s a real guy under the cowl, not just a vengeance-fuelled machine.

Every new Batman film promises we’ll see him doing some proper detective work, and there’s plenty of that here. I’ll be honest, for me it’s almost a bit disappointing when the identity of The Phantasm is revealed (Joker works it out first too!), and the finale becomes a punch-up between The Dark Knight and The Clown Prince Of Crime… but then it’s a punch-up that happens while they’re both flying around a derelict fair on a jetpack, which is a new element.

Oh yeah, Joker’s in this too – Mark Hamill giving it his all, while the animators mix it up between daft Looney Tunes gags and terrifying Expressionist leers towards camera. One minute, he’s all laughs and puns, the next, he’s murdered a mob boss and left him with a rictus grin that, frankly, was practically revealed as a jump scare – and an effective one at that.

The effects of Joker Gas are pretty terrifying when they kill a character, and quite unnerving when they don’t, as one is rendered unable to stop laughing through tears of fear despite being sedated in a hospital bed.

Between that, a story about political corruption, flashbacks and interconnected storylines, a dark tone and a Batman who frequently doesn’t want to be Batman, you could say it’s a tough sell for the kids who watched the fun 20-minute episodes. But it’s more than just a Batman cartoon – it’s a well-written and designed film in its own right, and one that’s regularly held up as among the best of the Dark Knight’s canon.

Verdict

Some people think Mask Of The Phantasm is still the best of all the Batman movies. I’m not sure I’m quite in that camp, but it’s a cracking ride, and a brisk 77 minutes without ever feeling rushed, which really counts in its favour.

It’s not totally dark and moody – there are a few laughs too, including a great running gag of Alfred bringing the loving couple drinks at inappropriate times.

Speaking of which, the romance is really well handled, Andrea’s a perfect foil for Bruce – in more ways than one – and the animated action is genuinely thrilling (and better directed than some of the live-action sequences of recent years).

Sounds like a hell of a lot of film for such a short runtime, and I suppose it is. But it’s a film with properly sketched out characters (no pun intended), a decent storyline, genuinely thrilling action scenes you can actually follow, beautiful design and a terrific score.

Highly recommended.

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