Batman Mask of the Phantasm: Blast from the Past

My favorite memory as a child was coming home from school with my brother and waiting for the premiere of Batman: The Animated Series. Reruns of the Adam West Batman television series and Tim Burton’s feature film were our introductions to the character and when we found out a cartoon show was being produced, my brother and I were so excited we couldn’t sit still. I can remember that day: September 5th, 1992. My brother and I got home and waited through episodes of Tiny Toon Adventures and Peter Pan & The Pirates, our chicken nugget Happy Meals getting cold as a result of a pact we made to not eat before the show started.  I believe the show ran at 5:00pm, which was the perfect slot for a Batman show. With the days getting shorter, dusk served as the perfect backdrop for this new Batman. The series kicked off with a bang, an action packed title sequence set to Danny Elfman’s score, and before the episode’s title card appeared (“On Leather Wings”), we were already planning out weekly viewing schedule

Produced by Tom Ruegger, written by Paul Dini, and character designer Bruce Timm, Batman: The Animated Series was unlike any other cartoon in the 1990s. The show eschewed “traditional” animated programming at the time and instead was much darker and nuanced. It didn’t talk down to children and favored narratives in which classic villains blurred the line of “good guy” and “bad guy.” With the exception of The Joker, the series sympathized criminals like Two-Face, Mister Freeze, and Clayface, delivering a level of pathos unexpected for a children’s cartoon show. Adding to the production was a moving and often brilliant symphonic soundtrack by Shirley Walker, one that used Danny Elfman’s classic theme before jumping off into the deep end of unique motifs. And let’s not forget that the series propelled Mark Hamill into his second career as a voice actor. Who knew Luke Skywalker would end up giving the performance of a lifetime as the Joker?

Near the end of the show’s first season, Warner Bros. released a near-feature length animated film called Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (check out Paul Dini’s Dark Night, a graphic novel that recounts his struggle writing the film after becoming a victim of a violent assault). The movie opens, as Batman properties often do, with a crime: gangster Chuckie Sol is poised to launch a counterfeit money laundering scheme in Gotham’s casinos. As expected, Batman arrives and busts up the party, leaving Chuckie to run off and leave his underlings at the mercy of the Dark Knight’s fist. He is then confront by a mysterious hooded figure–the Phantasm–who claims to be the Angel of Death. A short vehicle based scuffle later and Chuckie is killed after accidentally driving off the edge of a parking structure and crashing into the building next door. Left to survey the damage, Batman is immediately labeled the culprit after being spotted by both police and other hoods. While Batman tries to uncover the identity of the Phantasm, he is unable to stop the other vigilante’s gangster murder spree nor can he hold off the strong arm of Gotham PD. Batman’s experiences in the present trigger a series of flashbacks relating to the reappearance of his old flame, Andrea Beaumont. In these moments of vulnerability, we watch as a young adult version of Bruce Wayne finds himself amidst the struggle of keeping his vow to his dead parents (to rid Gotham City of crime) or start a life of his own with Andrea.

Although the film maintained the television series’ dark tone set inside an art deco paradise, Phantasm somehow managed to take the drama a substantial step forward. Criminals are murdered, a congressman is infected with the Joker’s laughing toxin, and blood tends to flow a little freely. It’s easy to feel for Bruce has he is genuinely burdened by his parent’s death after finding happiness, through Andrea, for the first time since he witnessed the murder. The movie has something to say about people being controlled by their past, as both Bruce Wayne and Andrea Beaumont are haunted by atrocities committed against them. Adding some levity to the emotionally driven narrative is The Clown Prince of Crime himself. Although he will forever be Batman’s greatest rival, his appearance doesn’t feel shoehorned in any way. As a matter of fact, the movie provides a brief, tantalizing glimpse into the Joker’s life before he donned the wide smile and face paint. As expected, the Joker is one of the film’s highlights because of Mark Hamill’s wonderful performance.

Mask of the Phantasm was released in 1993 and while the animation has aged, it has done so with grace. The Blu-Ray edition of the film, which runs at 1080p resolution with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, looks as beautiful as it did over twenty years ago. The print is clean, though there are a few moments where some scenes look as if they were passed through a fog filter. I’m not sure if this was a stylistic choice or simply a flaw in the animation but it doesn’t ruin the quality of the film or its animation. When it happens during the flashbacks, it makes Bruce’s memories feel more dream-like.

My only disappointment with the Blu-Ray release is that it arrives bereft of special features. Apart from the option of viewing the film in its theatrical run or television broadcast version, there is nothing here that celebrates the legacy of Batman: The Animated Series and Mask of the Phantasm–no commentary track, no behind the scenes reel, animatics, or even an interview with Paul Dini. This high definition re-release, from a content standpoint, is a real missed opportunity.

Content issues aside, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is required viewing for those that who grew up with and developed an appreciation for the animated series. As a bonus, watching the film will sooth the pain brought upon by last year’s terrible animated adaptation of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke.

Title: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Director: Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski
Distributor: Warner Bros. Family Entertainment
Media: Blu-Ray disc
Genre: Action, Drama, Superheroes, Animated
Release Date: 07/25/2017
Price: $21.99
Purchased Or Received For Review? Purchased
Where to buy: Amazon

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