An animated feature from the nineties that’s highly revered by Batman fans, who rank it with Tim Burton’s 1989 BATMAN and the Christopher Nolan helmed DARK KNIGHT features. For a dissenting opinion read on…
BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM was intended as a straight-to-video spin-off of the popular Batman animated series, at least until Warner Bros. made the surprise decision to give it a theatrical release on Christmas Day 1993. Even more surprising was the rapturous critical response the film received (it currently has an 81% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes), although that didn’t help it at the box office. The film has, however, garnered an enthusiastic following in the ensuing years.
A gang of crooks have their secret meeting broken up by Batman, only to be menaced by another, far scarier caped figure that sports an armored faceplate and speaks in a scary baritone. More vigilante mayhem follows at the hands of the phantasm, who is mistaken for Batman by Arthur Reeves, a publicity-hungry councilman.
Flashbacks fill us in on a portion of Batman/Bruce Wayne’s history, specifically his relationship with a young hottie named Andrea Beaumont, to whom he proposed marriage. She inexplicably broke off the engagement, causing a dejected Wayne to give up all hope for a normal life and become Batman.
Batman gets in trouble over the phantasm’s outrages, and is pursued through Gotham City by machine gun wielding cops. He’s rescued, unexpected enough, by a sports car driving Andrea, who drives him back to his manor and fills him in on her recent history: she’s been hiding out in Europe with her father, who was on the run from the mob. Mob enforcers, however, succeeded in tracking down and killing Andrea’s father.
Later Batman learns of the involvement in the anti-Batman campaign of his old nemesis the Joker. The latter poisons Arthur Reeves with laughing gas, but not before Batman gets Reeves to admit that he was responsible for informing the mob of the hiding place of Andrea and her father. The head of the mob, it transpires, is the Joker, as is revealed by the phantasm, who tracks the Joker to his lair in an abandoned amusement park. There the phantasm finally reveals its true face…
According to one of its creators, MASK OF THE PHANTASM was “basically an extended episode” of the BATMAN animated series. That explains the truncated narrative, which feels as if it begins in the middle (a working knowledge of Batman and his accoutrements is essential). This also explains the Saturday morning cartoon worthy animation; in fairness, the animation was considered state-of-the-art back in ‘93 (including the then-novel use of computer animation in some of the backgrounds), but these days it looks pretty stodgy.
As you might expect, the film is very much in keeping with the brooding, tormented Batman of Frank Miller’s DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and the 1989 BATMAN movie. Another stated predecessor was CITIZEN KANE (in the flashback-littered structure), although even the most ardent film buff will have trouble discerning that influence.
Unmemorable two-dimensional bad guys are a liability—as has become typical with BATMAN movies, it’s the joker, irrepressibly voiced by Mark Hamill, who steals the show, even though his appearance amounts to an extended cameo—as is the thoroughly bland Dana Delaney voiced Andrea Beaumont, who by calling off her engagement to Bruce Wayne, we’re led to believe, single-handedly caused him to become Batman. Really?
Beyond that the film is marked by loud and aggressive sound design (to remind us we’re watching a MOVIE and not a TV show) and ominous music that’s quite redolent of Danny Elfman’s iconic score for the ‘89 BATMAN.
BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM
Director: Eric Radomski, Bruce Timm
Producer: Alan Burnett, Michael Uslan, Benjamin Melniker, Bruce Timm
Screenplay: Alan Bennett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, Michael Reeves
Editing: Al Breitenbach
Cast: Kevin Conroy, Dana Delany, Hart Bochner, Stacy Keach, Abe Vigoda, Dick Miller, John P. Ryan, Mark Hamill, Efram Zimbalist Jr., Bob Hastings, Robert Costanzo