Been wanting to get to this film for some time. As you may have guessed from a few of my previous Batman reviews I’m quite the fan of the 90s animated series. Mask Of The Phantasm was the first feature length film based on that series. It is also, so date, the only animated Batman film to receive the theatrical release. To add to that it’s one of the most highly rated of all the Batman films. For a while it was the highest rated on Rotten Tomatoes, Until the Dark knight was released. Yup, it was higher rated than Burton’s Batman and Batman Begins. There’s a very good reason for this which you can read all about after the jump…
Mask Of The Phantasm begins on a typical night in Gotham where a group of criminals are making a deal involving some forged money. For some reason these criminals have forgotten that Batman (Kevin Conroy) will break up any of these deals and sure enough he bursts through the window of their tower office with all the subtlety of a dubstep track. One of the criminals makes a break for it but before too long a masked, cape wearing vigilante garbed in black and grey cuts him off and eventually leads to his demise. Gradually other crime bosses are killed and it’s looking a lot like, in the public eye at least, that The Batman has finally gone over the edge. Naturally this doesn’t sit well with The Dark knight and so he sets out to find out who really is behind these murders.
Pretty adult and dark set up for a story. Especially one based on a kids show. That was what made The Animated Series so great though. It treated its audience with enough respect to not treat them like fragile creatures that needed shielding from anything remotely real. People died in the series. Teenagers got hooked on drugs. Bad things happened and the kids that watched it loved that they had a show that was presented just like the grown ups shows were. That maturity comes through every step of the way in Mask of The Phantasm.
The majority of the films first half focuses on Bruce/Batman’s memories of the moment he truly became The Caped Crusader. Naturally a woman is involved, that woman being Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany). She was the love of young Bruce Wayne’s life but she gets right in the way of his plan to go beating up criminals in the night whilst dressed as a bat. As Bruce says in one scene “He never counted on being happy”. The idea of sharing his life with someone never factored into his plans and so when she inevitably has to leave he makes that final step into becoming Batman. These flashback sequences play out very well with each one leading towards some tragedy. There’s an element of Citizen Kane to the idea of the lost love of a now broken man. The way the story all falls into place over the course of it’s brief 77 minute runtime really is a prime example of how to actually use flashbacks to your advantage. Flashbacks are a bit of an issue for many writers because they can lead to being there solely for the purpose of exposition. Here they may be filling in back-story but it’s also filling in a blank In the animated series version of Batman’s life that had never been covered in the show. Flashbacks need to serve the story as a whole and these provide all sorts of small clues as to the truth of the overall story.
One element worthy of focus in Mask Of The Phantasm is it’s excellent score. The series relied on Danny Elfman’s Batman Theme for it’s title credits but that piece is nowhere to be found here. Series composer Shirley Walker made a score that for the action evoked the triumphant style of Elfman’s score but generally the music sounds like it could have been lifted from any 1940s crime thriller or romance. It’s a very fitting score too seeing as this incarnation of Batman is set in a amalgam of various time periods. Batman has all his tech and computers but TV is in black and white. The police have helicopters and riot squads whilst criminals are ripped straight from the 1930s crime serials. Shirley Walker said later that of all her scores this was her favourite, and quite right she is to be proud of it.
Whilst the animation may not be the flashiest ever the film retains the exact look and feel of the series and still manages to pull out some flashy set piece moments. The team only had 8 months to make this film, I wonder what they could have done with the animation given more time because the talent is really there. There’s a lot of cool visual references and unique design choices. One sequence references the Dick Sprang era of Batman comics which would usually involve Batman fighting villains against the backdrop of giants objects such and musical instruments. Here the tables are turned as Batman and The Joker (Mark Hamill as always) fight in a miniature version of Gotham City in an abandoned former Worlds Fair site.
Overall Mask of The Phantasm is easily one of the best Batman adventures yet. Of all the animated ones I’d probably put it at the top. Which one sits at number two though is a bit too close to call. If you’ve somehow managed to miss seeing this animated film you should do something to rectify that now. It’s so rare for a film aimed primarily at kids to manage to satisfy on an intellectual level with it’s smartly written story and thematic influences. Well worth a watch.