Blu-ray Review: BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM (1993)
[Editor’s Note: This review may contain spoilers]
Directors: Bruce Timm & Eric Radomski
Story: Alan Burnett
Screenplay: Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, & Michael Reaves
Starring: Kevin Conroy, Dana Delany, Stacy Keach, Mark Hamill, Abe Vigoda, Hart Bochner, Efrem Zimbalist Jr.
Reviewed by: Joshua Raynor
Gotham City’s most feared gangsters are being systematically eliminated, and the assumed blame is falling on the Caped Crusader. But prowling the Gotham night is a shadowy new villain, the Phantasm, a sinister figure with some link to Batman’s past. Can the Dark Knight elude the police, capture the Phantasm and clear his own name? Unmasking the Phantasm is just one of the twists in this dazzling animated feature, which provides new revelations about Batman’s past, his archrival the Joker, and Batman’s most grueling battle ever — the choice between his love for a beautiful woman and his vow to be the defender of right.
There are so many great things to say about Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, so many that I’ll probably forget some. So, let’s start with the two things we get right off the bat (pun intended) — the score and the animation.
While the score for Batman: The Animated Series has always been top tier, composer Shirley Walker kicked it up a notch for this theatrical film by making it much more operatic. This gave the score a far more grandiose feel, which felt right at home on the big screen. It helped to create the dark and brooding atmosphere so well known with the Dark Knight, but in a bigger way.
Then there’s the animation. For those of you who know, Batman: The Animated Series was a unique case of animation style, where they painted their backgrounds on black paper to make the scenes darker, and that was carried forward into this film as well. Even though it’s 30 years old, the animation is simply incredible, and the new 4K version makes it all pop even more. It’s just stunning to look at.
Alright, let’s get into the film itself now. Batman: The Animated Series, and therefore Mask of the Phantasm, is the greatest version of Batman ever put on screen. He embodies everything the comic book version of Batman has built, and did so right from the beginning. And in this film, we get to dive deeper into who this character really is and what motivates him.
We see Bruce’s early days as a budding vigilante, ten years prior to where we see him in the movie, wearing just an all-black outfit with a black coat and ski mask. He does, however, have one thing that has become a staple in Batman’s wardrobe — the utility belt. And we even get a glimpse of a young Bullock when he was still a patrol officer.
I loved getting to see the early side of Bruce, without getting the death of his parents, yet again. A large portion of this story is spent in the past, setting up Bruce’s relationship with Andrea Beaumont and what it meant to him, and for his future, to lose her the way he did. She was the one that got away. I’m sure many of you out there know just what that feels like, but for Bruce, it sent him on a path, a path toward being the vigilante hero we all know him to be.
He was completely ready to give up his quest for vengeance for a happy future with her, which is funny because he barely gave her the time of day at first. He showed no real interest in Andrea until she takes him down with a martial arts move. This is where he sees that there’s so much more to her than all these other women that surround him. She’s a strong, capable woman, and we all know that’s Bruce’s type — Selina Kyle, Talia al Ghul, even Wonder Woman occasionally. But when she leaves him, this pushes him deeper into the darkness, and he spends the next decade as Batman before he sees her again.
His willingness to give it all up shows how deeply he just wants to be loved and to love someone in return. We even get a heartbreaking scene where he begs his dead parents to let him break his promise to them so he can finally have some joy in his life. He’s been holding onto an incredible amount of guilt all these years, and his subconscious makes it very difficult for him to move forward in any way. This is one of the best displays I’ve ever seen for why he continues to do what he does, and why none of his relationships ever seem to work out.
While I absolutely love the past storyline in this film, it’s the story structure that really makes it work. The cutting back and forth at key moments to give present day scenes more context was a perfect way to tell this story. One of my favorite moments to do this was toward the beginning of the film, where Bruce is at a party and a woman comes up to him and throws a drink in his face, saying that he essentially led her on and then ghosted her. This woman has red hair and blue eyes. Right after that scene, we are introduced to Andrea Beaumont in a past scene and we see that she too has red hair and blue eyes. This tells me that Bruce was attempting to recreate what he lost after she left, to no success. It’s a very small detail, but one that really fascinated me upon my rewatch of the film.
One other thing I love about Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is how the mob plays a major role in the story, something most on-screen Batman tales fail to utilize, though the recent Matt Reeves film, The Batman, did a great job with that. In this, Batman is being blamed for the mob murders perpetrated by The Phantasm, and we get a major tie-in with the mob, Andrea’s father, and even The Joker. We also get a small peek into Joker’s past because of this, and I thought that was really intriguing.
I would also be remiss if I failed to talk about the stellar voice acting throughout this film. Kevin Conroy shines as Batman/Bruce Wayne, as he always does. He will forever be the extremely high bar set for anyone else voicing the character. The way he is able to show such complex emotion just through his voice is simply incredible and shows how much art and skill there is in being a true voice-over artist. He is joined in this by Dana Delany as Andrea Beaumont and she does such a wonderful job, especially as she came into this never having done any voice-over work before. And, of course, Mark Hamill is superb as The Joker.
I honestly have no real negatives about this movie. I love it so much. But if I had to list anything, I would say that the lack of resolution to what happens to The Joker would be one. We see Andrea take him in a cloud of mist to presumably kill him, and Batman doesn’t stop her. So she’s gone with Joker and we never know what happens to him, leaving the audience to assume she finished the job.
However, three years after the film, DC released the comic book issue Batman & Robin Adventures Annual #1, which explains what happens after she leaves with Joker. It’s a fascinating issue to read, and that part is just the beginning, so go check it out if you want more Phantasm.
The 4K Blu-ray includes three special features: a 4×3 version of the film, the episode of Justice League Unlimited titled “Epilogue”, and the short documentary Kevin Conroy: I Am The Knight.
4×3 Version – It was really cool to see them include this version, as the series was all done in 4×3. You actually get to see more of the screen with this, as the widescreen just cuts the top and bottom off of this version. So, if you want to enjoy more of the amazing art that is the animation of this film, check out this version.
“Epilogue” from Justice League Unlimited – This is one of my favorite episodes of JLU, and for multiple reasons. This episode serves, as the name suggests, as an epilogue to both Batman Beyond and Mask of the Phantasm. The events that take place show that she still cares about him after all these years.
It also has one of the most heartbreaking moments in all of Batman history with Batman and Ten from the Royal Flush Gang. If you haven’t seen it, you need to watch it.
Kevin Conroy: I Am The Knight Documentary – This was an incredible tribute to the man who voiced Batman for three decades, the man who many of us still hear in our heads anytime we read a Batman comic, Kevin Conroy. The documentary included many great people who all praised Kevin’s work as the Dark Knight. And we even got some interview footage of Kevin himself, which was absolutely wonderful to see.
For me personally, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is the best Batman film ever made. It is an absolute gem and a classic that everyone who is even slightly a fan of this character needs to watch. And with the documentary about Kevin Conroy included on the Blu-ray, this is a must buy for all fans. So, do yourself a favor and pick this up today!!