Mask of the Phantasm is still the best animated Batman film

23 years and countless direct-to-video movies later, this Gothic romance is still the high watermark for animated Batman features.

There’s been no shortage of animated Batman films over the last 23 years, culminating in the release of The Lego Batman Movie later this week. Some of them have been pretty good, and a few of them have been great – but none of them have explored the character as successfully as Mask of the Phantasm.

Directed by Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm, and written by a fab four of Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko and Michael Reaves, Mask of the Phantasm is essentially a feature-length episode of Batman: The Animated Series.

The film tells the story of The Phantasm, a mysterious new vigilante who’s murdering Gotham’s crime bosses (and allowing Batman to take the fall for it). At the same time, an old flame comes back into Bruce Wayne’s life, forcing him to remember the time leading up to his decision to become Batman.

The Phantasm was created specifically for this story, and unlike most Batman movie villains, this one doesn’t overshadow the main character. Sure, The Phantasm has a great look and an interesting backstory, but the character really just provides an opportunity for us to learn more about Bruce Wayne and the demons that drive him.

Hitting theatres on Christmas Day of 1993, Mask of the Phantasm didn’t have anything close to the marketing blitz of The Lego Batman Movie behind it – but, ultimately, that might have been to the movie’s advantage.

Looking back, there’s a sense that Warner Bros really didn’t know what to make of this project (it was originally intended as a straight-to-video movie, before it was unceremoniously released in theatres), so they left the creatives well enough alone. The result was a perfect Batman film that still holds its own against any of its live-action counterparts.

It had everything fans loved about the ‘90s Animated Series that spawned it, only more — more gorgeous Art Deco designs, more action, more of Kevin Conroy’s brilliant portrayal of the Dark Knight.

But it also, crucially, had less. The creative team showed remarkable restraint in choosing which aspects of the Batman mythos to feature in the film. There’s no Robin, no Batgirl, no shoehorned cameos from the rogues gallery. Even Harley Quinn, so closely associated with the Animated Series, is nowhere to be seen here.

Despite being animated, the film is less over-the-top than Tim Burton’s Batman films, and – with its focus on Gotham’s seedy history of organised crime – has more of a film noir feel.

Andrea Beaumont, then, is the perfect femme fatale. Voiced by Dana Delaney, it’s not hard to tell why Bruce Wayne falls head-over-heels for her. She sees right through his façade, and she’s vulnerable in all the same ways that he is — but there’s a steeliness, a toughness and a world weariness, to Andrea that Bruce can’t match.

The heart of the film is the doomed romance between Bruce and Andrea. Their trip to the Gotham World’s Fair, an amusement park full of futuristic wonders and optimism, represents young Bruce’s last chance at a normal, happy life before he commits to a lifetime of dressing up as a bat and punching criminals.

When Bruce kneels before his parents’ grave, begging to be let out of his vow — “I didn’t count on being happy”, he pleads — it’s a side of Bruce we haven’t seen before.

We see Bruce Wayne become Batman in this film, although, crucially, we don’t actually see the moment that he transforms. Instead, we see Alfred’s reaction to that moment. The butler gasps, taken aback. It’s not the costume that scares Alfred – he isn’t cowardly or superstitious, after all. It’s the realisation that Bruce Wayne is gone, forever, that he has descended into the depths and given himself over to his obsession.

When Bruce puts on the mask for the first time, the score sounds like a funeral march. Because, really, that’s what it is.

(The late, great Shirley Walker’s score for this film is phenomenal, by the way. It’s riffing heavily on Elfman’s scores for the Tim Burton films, of course, but it’s also littered with romantic flourishes that would have been out of place in those films, but work perfectly here.)

We cut directly from Bruce’s transformation to the ruins of the Gotham World’s Fair, and there’s never been a more apt visual metaphor.

There is one classic rogue in this film — The Joker, who has set up shop in the derelict World’s Fair. It’s perfect. This twisted clown lives in the ruins of our happy memories and broken dreams.

Where are our jet packs? The Joker’s got them, and he’s up to no good.

Mask of the Phantasm uses The Joker in the same way that Suicide Squad tried to – as a supporting character, and as a true wild card. But it works here, because his limited screen time is so satisfying. (It’s the same reason that nobody complained about, say, Darth Vader’s limited screen time in Rogue One.)

The ‘cartooniest’ elements of the film come along with The Joker, but it’s all tinged by an air of menace, and a feeling that he’s going to gleefully up-end the narrative the film has been carefully crafting at any moment. Mark Hamill has never been better in the role.

At one point, Batman and The Joker battle it out in a miniature model of Gotham City, as if they were Godzilla and King Kong duking it out by the Empire State Building. It’s a brilliant set-piece; an inversion of the giant props that were so common in Dick Sprang’s Batman comics in the 1950s, and a perfect encapsulation of the way these two larger-than-life foes tower over Gotham.

It all comes together in a grand finale that finds The Phantasm in a position to kill The Joker, while the World’s Fair falls down around them and Batman watches on helplessly.

It’s perfectly executed by the writers, animators and Hamill himself — the Clown Prince laughs maniacally while the world burns, revelling both in the absurdity of his ‘death’ at the hands of this Johnny-Come-Lately, and in the knowledge that he can never really die, anyway.

(On some level, The Joker is aware that he’s been coming back from the dead since his first appearance, and he’s not about to stop now.)

I first saw this movie on VHS sometime in 1994 (I actually read the comics adaptation first, but that’s a whole ‘nother post), and while I liked it a lot, I don’t think I loved it the way I do now. I think that’s because, to fully appreciate this movie and the tragedy of its story, you have to be able to acknowledge that being Batman is not a good thing, which is difficult for a kid to do.

Is it the best Batman movie ever? I don’t know. There are certainly a lot of people who think so, but the craft involved in making a live-action film is so different that I don’t think it’s really fair to compare Mask of the Phantasm to, say, The Dark Knight or Batman Returns. They’re all very tasty apples and oranges.

But it certainly deserves a Blu-Ray release (honestly, it’s ridiculous that it hasn’t had one yet). And I’ve got no doubt that it’s the best animated Batman movie — while the animation might have gotten more sophisticated (but rarely as stylish) in later efforts, nothing else has been able to get into Batman’s head like this one.

Of course, once The Lego Batman Movie finally comes out in Australia on March 30, I might need to revisit my rankings…

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