Season One of Batman: The Animated Series had come off better than anyone at Warner Bros. Animation could have hoped. After 60 episodes had aired between September of 1992 and May of 1993, there was a brief respite before the series would return in September of 1993. Season Two, in sharp contrast, would only be ten episodes in length and would be split five in September and five in May of 1994. That left a huge gap between new animated Dark Knight adventures. On the small screen, that is; in December of 1993, a feature film adaptation of TAS was released theatrically and would be the crowning achievement for Bruce Timm and company. Or, at least it SHOULD have been. That film was Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
Tim Burton’s Batman Returns had only just been in theaters in June of 1992, only a couple of months before The Animated Series premiered, so it seemed a bit weird to put out an animated film featuring the character, at Christmas no less. This was, however, not the original plan. The TV show had been going so well that it was decided to do a direct-to-video feature film to capitalize on it. The Warner Bros. higher-ups were so impressed by what they were seeing from their team of animators that they upped the budget (not by much, though) and moved the film into a holiday theatrical release. That gave the team not much time to have the movie done and dusted and ready to be in theaters on December 25th. They had the right people working on it, using all of their regular writers and directors to turn in one of their darkest and most action-packed stories, even by their already high standards. We’ll get to how it did in a moment, but first the movie itself.
While the series had never touched Batman’s origins, Mask of the Phantasm was all about the past, and either burying it or embracing it for good or ill. The themes in the film are very deep and resonant even today, especially given how the character has been handled onscreen since. Despite the presence of costumed villains and vigilantes, the movie is arguably the most realistic in terms of how the characters’ states of mind are depicted and how they deal with their incredibly sad losses. It’s a dour movie, and also intensely frightening at times, thanks in no small part to the appearance of everyone’s favorite psychopath, the Joker. We get a little bit of his backstory here too.
We begin with a conference of crime bosses (which only happens in comic books and movies) led by the gangster Chuckie Sol (voiced by Dick Miller). The meeting is interrupted by Batman who bursts through the window of the skyscraper. Everyone disperses and Sol is making his getaway when he’s set upon by another masked and cloaked figure, this one with a mask that looks like a skull and a blade for a hand. The figure gets Chuckie to chase after it in his car which makes the crime boss careen out of the parking garage and crash into a neighboring building, killing him. Because this figure looks a bit like Batman, the Caped Crusader gets blamed for the death.
Batman’s supposed involvement in the death leads new councilman Arthur Reeves (voiced by Hart Bochner) to call for his immediate arrest, citing him as a public menace, despite what Commissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings) believes. Reeves doesn’t make himself any more friends when he attends a function for Bruce Wayne. He teases Bruce about not being able to keep a girlfriend since the one that got away, Andrea Beaumont (voiced by Dana Delany), who it just so happens is coming back to Gotham City and Reeves is going to see her. What an a-hole.
We then flashback ten years to when Bruce hadn’t quite become Batman, but the plan was in place. He’d trained for years and had gone out a time or two, but didn’t yet have the proper visage. He meets Andrea when he overhears her talking to her mother’s grave. Through a morbid meet-cute (it’s a cemetery you guys!), Bruce and Andrea begin seeing each other. Andrea’s father is a big businessman and likes Bruce immediately, though the man-who-would-be-Batman is wary of Mr. Beaumont’s friends. Bruce eventually decides, full of guilt, to abandon his vigilante quest because he’s happy with Andrea and wants to ask her to marry him. However, before they can do anything about it, Andrea leaves town suddenly with her father, leaving behind a Dear John letter and the ring. This pain is the last straw that puts Bruce back on his Bat-path.
In the present, the masked murderer is killing more gangsters, including Buzz Bronski (voiced by John P. Ryan). The big boss of the crime syndicate, the aging, wheezy Sal Valestra (Abe Vigoda) talks to Reeves, who was once an accountant for the mob, and eventually to his former chief enforcer, the Joker, who now lives in the model home in a dilapidated World’s Fair grounds. Valestra thinks Batman is killing everyone, but the Joker knows better. Valestra beseeches him to help and the Joker obliges… by killing Sal and using his body as bait for the true murderer.
Batman and the Joker eventually learn the truth about the “Phantasm” (who is never named onscreen, only in the credits) and the connection between him, Andrea Beaumont, and her father. It culminates in an enormous, explosion-filled fight (to the death?) in the Fair grounds — one of the most spectacular finales of a Batman movie ever made.
This movie is just so fantastic, I can’t even get over it. This is a movie I watched a dozen times as a kid and now, 20 years later, I still think it’s a beautiful and vibrant piece of Batman mythology. As was common for animated features, and what would be the norm for the later WB Animation direct-to-videos, Mask of the Phantasm is only 76 minutes long, just enough to be feature-length. However, even though it’s very short, the film packs in so much melancholy pathos and action that it may as well be twice that long.
Mask of the Phantasm opened to incredibly strong critical praise, much more than Batman Returns had a year and a half earlier, but because there was only an 8 month window between green-light and release, there wasn’t adequate time to market the movie, especially for Christmas. It was too grown-up seeming for the kids on holiday break, and adults weren’t going to go see an animated Batman movie they’ve heard little to nothing about, and so the film ended up being an enormous bomb. However, it was a massive success on home video, so much so that it single-handedly allowed for the follow-up film Batman and Mr. Freeze: Sub-Zero in 1998 and the whole string of direct-to-DVD films that came after.
After 20 years, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm still ranks as one of the three best Batman films ever to go to theaters, and occasionally you can find it screening at a revival house. It’s on DVD in several different editions, but there has yet to be the extras-filled release (or even a Blu-ray!!!) that fans keep clamoring for. Perhaps this Christmas, with it’s 21st Anniversary, we’ll get to see it pop in HD.
Next week, we’re back to the small screen for the return of Poison Ivy in “House & Garden.” Until then, share your favorite memories of Mask of the Phantasm below!