The Dark Knight fights to save Gotham City from its deadliest enemy.
Batman has seen many incarnations in the comics, on television, and on the big screen. His first appearance was in Detective Comics, where he used cool gadgets and the power of his anonymity to battle crime. He was spun as a camp hero in the 1960s television and the movie it spawned. Artists such as Frank Miller reinvented him as the Dark Knight. Tim Burton followed that vision in his Batman and Batman Returns, then Joel Schumacher had to ruin the franchise with Batman Forever and Batman And Robin. The creative team of Alan Burnett, Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and Tom Ruegger brought Burton’s version of Batman to television in 1992 with their animated series. The popularity of that series, particularly amongst older comic fans, allowed them to bring the series to the big screen with 1993’s Mask Of The Phantasm.
I will say this right off the bat (um, no pun intended): Mask Of The Phantasm was not made with kids in mind. Its storyline, subject matter, flashback structure, violence, and menacing tone aren’t targeted at young kids. Though it’s not shown on screen, Bruce Wayne obviously sleeps with his girlfriend. Bullets kill people. Batman seriously beats the crap out of people. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. On the other hand, it’s meatier entertainment for adult fans.
Mask Of The Phantasm introduces a new villain, the titular Phantasm. The Phantasm appears and disappears at will, stalking and attempting to kill kingpins of the Gotham City underworld. City councilman Arthur Reeves blames the attacks on Batman, turning the police force and the public against the Caped Crusader. At the same time, Bruce Wayne’s old flame Andrea Beaumont reappears and attempts to rekindle their relationship. These events cause Batman/Bruce Wayne to reflect on events many years past…
Millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne has returned to Gotham after several years abroad. While visiting the gravesite of his parents (if you’ll recall, Bruce vowed to devote his life to fighting crime after his parents were killed by street thugs), he meets Andrea Beaumont. By day, the two become involved with each other. By night, Bruce struggles to find the right way to fight the rampant crime of Gotham. A visit to a cave underneath his family’s mansion gives him the idea for the costume that would send shivers through the heart of the underworld: Batman. At the same time, he is drawn to Andrea, and does not want to sacrifice his life every night when he could be at home with her. When he determines the path he wishes to take (and it’s not the one you’d expect), she disappears without a trace.
This is just a thin summary of the plot. Mask Of The Phantasm presents a side of Batman/Bruce Wayne that the movies or television series have not explored: his vulnerable, human side. He pines over his lost love. He questions the vow he made to his dead parents. We experience his happiness, and sadness, and anger. The story borrows some elements from Frank Miller’s 1986 “Batman: Year One” comic miniseries (namely, the interaction between Batman and Commissioner Gordon, and Batman’s battle with a police SWAT team). I’ve also neglected to mention that the Joker makes an appearance, though he is not the key villain in this story (also, his origins are not the same as in Tim Burton’s movie).
If you’ve seen the Batman: The Animated Series that first aired in 1992 (and is now in rotation on the Cartoon Network), then you will be familiar with Mask Of The Phantasm‘s visual style. The series, and this movie, took its visual style from the cartoons and film noir movies of the 1940s. Gotham City has an angular, stylized appearance. Characters are drawn mostly with straight lines. The animation is not as smooth as most feature animation (such as Disney’s animated movies), but it is a step above the level of the Saturday morning cartoon.
Mask Of The Phantasm features many of the same voice characterizations that added extra richness to the animated series. Batman and Bruce Wayne are voiced by Kevin Conroy. I’m not familiar with him from his live-action work (mostly soap operas and made-for-TV movies), but his deep voice is perfectly suited to the brooding Dark Knight. Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (Wait Until Dark, Remington Steele) provides the voice of Bruce’s confidant and loyal servant, Alfred Pennyworth. The voice of the Joker is a name you’ll recognize, but I dare you to recognize his voice: Mark Hamill…Luke Skywalker himself. Appearing specially for the movie are Dana Delaney (China Beach, Housesitter) as Andrea Beaumont; Stacy Keach (Escape From L.A., American History X) as her father, the corrupt businessman Carl Beaumont; and Abe Vigoda (The Godfather, Joe Vs. The Volcano) as mob boss Sal Valestra.
Warner Bros. released the DVD of Mask Of The Phantasm without much concern for the fans. The movie is presented in full-frame and 1.85:1 anamorphic, on opposite sides of the disc. The image is a bit grainy and shows more signs of dirt on the negative than a newer film should. It shows signs of compression, and is not as sharp or the lines as crisp as other animated releases, such as the WB’s The Iron Giant. Audio is presented in Dolby Surround. The only extra is a theatrical trailer.
Mask Of The Phantasm itself is first-rate…easily the best translation of the character to the big screen. However, the DVD just feels like a rushed production, from the unimpressive transfer to the near-complete lack of extras. The animated series and this movie were a labor of love for the creators that produced it. In fact, they’re still hard at work on The Batman/Superman Adventures and the latest incarnation of Batman, Batman Beyond (it’s set twenty or so years in the future, when Bruce Wayne is an old man and the cowl has been passed to teenager Terry McGinnis). There’s an excellent book, “Batman Animated,” that covers the production of the animated series and the making of Mask Of The Phantasm. It’s a veritable trove of information and beautiful artwork, and even if WB had put a smidgen of the material available on the DVD, I would be proclaiming it a must-buy rather than just a good disc for die-hard fans.
I think I just pretty much said it all: Mask Of The Phantasm is a good purchase for fans, but I can’t recommend it to anyone else.