Doug’s Cinematic Firsties is a recurring series wherein Douglas Laman (A.K.A. NerdInTheBasement) will review a well-known classic motion picture that he’s never seen before.
Most live-action Batman movies tend to be more interested in Batman’s baddies than Batman himself. It’s hard not to argue against being super interested in Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman or Heath Ledger’s Joker. Still, that’s meant thoughtful examinations of Batman as a character have been left unexplored by the live-action Batman movies. Luckily, one 1993 animated feature is here to correct that. Much like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a much more thoughtful film than most live-action Spider-Man movies, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm eats the lunch of other live-action Batman movies. Between Phantasm and The LEGO Batman Movie, maybe Batman should just star in animated movies from now on?
Set in the world of Batman: The Animated Series, Mask of the Phantasm see’s a new mysterious adversary arriving in Gotham. This figure, known only as The Phantasm, is picking off a series of Gotham crime lords. As the denizens of Gotham begin to believe that the mysterious Batman (Kevin Conroy) is the one responsible for these murders, Batman begins to try and track down the Phantasm. At the same time, Bruce Wayne’s old lover Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany) has returned to Gotham City. This relationship is explored through a series of flashbacks showing Wayne being torn between his commitment to a potential new lover and his lifelong commitment to fighting back against the kind of criminals who took his parents.
These flashbacks are where Mask of the Phantasm’s interesting exploring Bruce Wayne as a person comes into play. Screenwriters Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, and Michael Reaves take the time to examine what it’s like for Wayne to be so conflicted between his grim past and a potentially bright future. In live-action Batman movies, this kind of internal conflict is usually ignored entirely in favor of a greater emphasis on the villains. With Phantasm featuring an intentionally mysterious antagonist, though, it has more time to focus on its own protagonist. Batman is allowed to become a much-more three-dimensional being than he is in so many motion pictures.
Such internal exploration is helped by the fact that Phantasm isn’t afraid to actually be dark or moody. Nothing in here stretches the PG-MPAA rating and thank goodness for that, we’ve already got enough grimdark Batman projects! But just because it’s aimed at a younger audience doesn’t mean that Phantasm eschews engaging writing or actually ominous sequences. Scenes where Phantasm hunts down Gotham crime lords are actually pretty menacing. Many modern-animated movies striving for darker tones like Rise of the Guardians or the How to Train Your Dragon sequels can’t help but undercut their aesthetic with shoehorned-in gags. Phantasm, by contrast, has enough confidence in itself to just let its gloomier moments just be gloomy.
It’s also wonderful to see what kind of memorable visuals Mask of the Phantasm employs throughout its runtime. Directors Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski carry over the film noir-inspired aesthetic of Phantasm’s TV show source material. This means there’s plenty of shots making great use of moody shadows and darker colors. The mid-20th century visual cues carry over to a World’s Fair dedicated to the technology of the future that Bruce and Andrea visit while on a date in a flashback. It’s a nifty environment in its design but it gets even better visually when we revisit in the modern-day portions of Phantasm. Now run-down, with its animatronics crumbling into pieces, this once hopeful world’s fair is overrun by misery.
Rendering the World’s Fair in this manner turns this locale into a great physical extension of Bruce Wayne’s own personal struggles. Both for Wayne and this World’s Fair, the future has gone from being full of promise to a reminder of past opportunities squandered. Oh, and the World’s Fair also works since it allows for a final Batman and Joker (Mark Hamill) showdown where the two basically engage in a Kaiju fight among a miniature replica of Gotham City. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm delivers so much visual imagination that could only be captured through animation. Plus, you get a killer voice cast! Not only are Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill doing their rightfully legendary turns as Batman and Joker, respectively, but you’ve also got Stacy Keach, Dick Miller and Abe Vigoda in supporting roles! What a fittingly exceptional cast for the exceptional feature Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.