Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was born from the wild success that was Batman: The Animated Series.
The Emmy Award-winning cartoon had set a high bar for writing, characterization, story-telling, design, music, and animation, so it was only fitting that its feature length film would take these elements and enhance them even further, delivering a product that not only eclipsed the quality of the show, but far surpassed it.
Released in 1993, it made a minimal splash at the box office, but even after decades of theatrical installments (with Ben Affleck's solo Batman project being the next on the horizon) Mask of the Phantasm still remains the ultimate interpretation of the character on the big screen for many fans.
Jumping between time periods, it features the Batman of the present dealing with Bruce Wayne's past, as he tries to discover the identity of a ghost-like vigilante slaughtering aging gangsters who committed an unforgivable crime decades ago.
Now that the scene is set, and in honor of its upcoming Blu-Ray release, here are the 15 Reasons Why Mask of the Phantasm is the Best Batman Movie Ever.
15 It Tells An Untold Story
When it comes to adaptations of comic book heroes for the small or big screen, there’s often a liberal borrowing of storylines and arcs from the source material.
However, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm diverged from pre-existing tropes and concepts. The same way that the Animated Series forged a new path and style for the character, so did the storywriters forge one for the film’s plotline.
Not only were they bold enough to add a completely original main character, but they were also not afraid to have the character fundamentally alter what we know about Batman and (Bruce’s) life.
Then there’s the Phantasm, who’s hellbent on eliminating geriatric gangsters throughout Gotham City. To make matters worse, Batman is blamed for these crimes and hunted by the police in a way that hadn’t been seen before, practically pushing the Bat to his limit.
With the addition of the added lore, original characters, and shake-ups of previously-held conventions, Mask of the Phantasm keeps the mythos fresh in a series that occasionally runs the risk of feeling stagnant.
14 It Captures The Joker Perfectly
Batman’s archrival is easily one of-- if not the absolute-- most iconic comic book villain to ever be conceived. He’s immediately identifiable by his pale face, green hair, and sickeningly macabre grin, and the sometimes-absurd horrors he inflicts on the denizens of Gotham City.
While he has had countless interpretations over the years, from Jack Nicholson’s crazed gangster or Heath Ledger’s deranged psychopath, none have ever found the right balance between harmless clown and murderous villain except for the Animated Series.
This is taken to the next level in Mask of the Phantasm, where the writer’s were able to create a nuanced Joker, whose line between killer and clown was infinitely blurred. Ever threatening and unpredictable, he conveys the controlled chaos implied by never mastered.
In one moment, he’s hanging out with an old friend and then, suddenly, explodes in anger, only for it to amount to nothing. In another, he’s under attack and, instead of grabbing the nearby kitchen knife, he willingly grabs a log of bologna to fight back.
It’s these moments, enhanced by Mark Hamill’s inimitable performance, that give the joker life like never before, where you never quite know what you’re going to get.
13 It Features An Original Villain
Batman’s Rogues Gallery is filled with beloved characters, ranging from the strange to the terrifying, so it’s only fitting that his films have taken some of the most well-known of these fiends and given them their time to shine.
Mask of the Phantasm, however, breaks this mold with the introduction of the ghastly Phantasm. Embodying the look of the Grim Reaper, the Phantasm is shrouded in smoke. Its face is that of a stern skull, and its black body is endowed with a tattered grey cape. Its weapon of choice? A wrist-mounted scythe.
Striking fear into heroes and criminals alike, the Phantasm is a dark version of Batman, eliminating crime, but crossing lines that the virtuous Caped Crusader never would.
When all is said and done, despite some subsequent appearances, it’s a shame that the Phantasm hasn’t made more of an impact in comics or even live-action films, as the villain's story, design, and abilities make for something far more interesting than seeing yet another take on Two-Face or Joker.
12 It Proves Violence Has Consequences
Batman has done his fair share of fighting in the comics, along with the small and big screens, but there’s so much more to his character than his ability to break every bone in a criminal’s body. When it comes to the movies, there are typically extended action sequences that focus on spectacle and excitement, failing to serve a purpose despite their entertainment value.
In Mask of the Phantasm things are different, with each violent action and encounter not only satisfying the need for entertainment, but serving a creative purpose. Through encounters with the police or criminals, the action scenes teach us more about the world, move the plot forward, and add layers to the characters.
Batman fights with a reason, dispatching foes as quickly and violently as possible as an act of punishment. The Phantasm toys with its prey, taunting and terrifying them before causing their deaths through their own actions. Even the Joker’s soul is laid bare by how he chooses to engage his adversaries, with lethal toys and trickery.
This approach to the violent content gives intrinsic artistic value to what is normally spectacle for spectacle's sake, giving this tale an even classier edge against its brethren.
11 Stunningly Sleek Art Direction
The Animated Series pioneered a timeless look, inspired by the superb Max Fleischer Superman cartoon of the 1940s, from which they adopted the art deco art style for all of its buildings, vehicles, and technology.
Coupled with Bruce Timm’s iconically blocky-yet-sleek character designs, noir atmosphere, and concept of having the backgrounds done on black paper, Batman: The Animated Series ended up with a truly unique style.
With Mask of the Phantasm’s expanded budget, they were able to carry this style over and flesh it out further, this time with an awesome computer-generated fly-by of a fully-realized Gotham City as the setting for the opening credits.
Accompanied by Shirley Walker’s unsettling music, this sequence and its aesthetics immediately suck viewers into this film’s world, never letting go until the final moments.
10 Pitch Perfect Casting
The mantle of Batman has been passed down through a variety of very talented actors, with their own unique takes on the character. The same can be said of varied takes on the Joker, Commissioner Gordon, and the rest of the characters that populate Gotham City.
However, unquestionably, the voices of the Animated Series are the definitive interpretations of the characters for countless fans. Kevin Conroy’s deep, gravelly voice gives Batman a true depth, with genuine heart behind his gruff tones. He’s even unafraid to add fatherly warmth to the character when need be, giving his Batman a wide range of emotion, not just a single-minded “I’m Batman.”
Then we have Mark Hamill, who delivers a pitch perfect Joker that has been emulated but never duplicated or surpassed. Blending utter jubilance with complete psychosis, he creates an endearing yet horrifying villain.
Best of all, Dana Delany, a newcomer, puts on an incredible performance as Andrea Beaumont, with infectious personality and impeccable timing, breathing definitive life into a character that was introduced for the first time ever.
9 Not A Minute Of Wasted Runtime
The Animated Series strived to tell concise but fully-formed stories in each and every one of its stand-alone episodes, and for the most part, they succeeded.
With the added running time of Mask of the Phantasm, they were remarkably able to maintain that same efficiency, but with far more depth thanks to the added breathing room. The result is a perfectly paced masterpiece, hitting the same high-notes and emotional beats that they would in the half-hour television show, but now in feature length format.
No sequence lasts too long, and not one is too short. Since this balanced pace is maintained throughout, the viewer is left satisfied scene after scene, never feeling that they couldn’t grasp something or that they were bored.
Along those lines, every piece of dialogue expertly and subtly moves the plot forward, and every moment of silence (or musical interlude) is taken without fear of falling behind, which makes the film feel whole.
With Mask of the Phantasm, you’ll never hear yourself saying “I can’t wait until they get to the good part,” or questioning why one scene or another exists. Instead, each scene, moment, character, nuance, and punch thrown has a purpose.
8 A Refinement Of The Animated Series Formula
Batman: The Animated Series remains the ultimate Batman experience for many fans. Each episode was designed as a miniature movie, with self-contained plots that covered a variety of thematic concepts, all set in a wonderfully art deco, noir world.
While there was a lot to enjoy for children, the sharp writing and storytelling hooked adults as well. With the series’ feature-length attempt, Mask of the Phantasm took all of these concepts and, using the extended run-time, perfected the formula to create the ultimate incarnation of the formula.
The action is edgier, the writing has greater depth, the score is expanded, and the story-telling itself goes down a dark path, yet remains exceptionally enjoyable for both kids and adults, leaving everyone satisfied with this animated portrayal of the Dark Knight.
7 Distressingly Creepy Atmosphere
While Batman is often interpreted to be a demon or genuine creature of the night by superstitious and cowardly criminals, Mask of the Phantasm focuses instead on its atmosphere to provide a living nightmare for the characters, viewers, and subtext.
Gotham City, despite its gorgeous art deco styling, has an underlying feeling of grime and ruin permeating the streets, with a large part of the film’s theme being the decay of once-good people, places, and things. Even the climax takes place in the decayed ruins of a convention that was once the beacon of hope for the future for not just Gotham, but also Bruce.
This creepiness also extends to the Phantasm, as it emerges like a true angel of death from a dense fog, and possesses seemingly supernatural abilities that terrify even the most hardened of criminals who have long-since become accustomed to the Bat.
Coupled with the utterly haunting score, the imagery of dilapidated construction sites, misty graveyards, and nightmarish villains, along with a general sense of despair, there is an underlying feeling of dread and fear that has yet been unmatched by any other film in the series.
6 Shirley Walker's Score
The late Shirley Walker was instrumental to Danny Elfman when he was writing the 1989 Batman score, one of the composer’s most iconic works and easily the most defining musical presence for the Caped Crusader in history.
When it came time for the animated series to enter production, the exceptional decision was made to continue this sound, and the task fell to Shirley Walker. Walter and her team of talented composers were able to deliver unique, fully orchestral, and emotionally rich soundtracks for each and every episode, advancing the groundwork laid by Elfman.
With Mask of the Phantasm, this approach was once again continued, and Shirley delivered an unrivaled score that is able to terrify and inspire simultaneously. Wisely using an ominous choir to round-out the orchestra, the film opens with a ghostly choral rendition of Shirley’s Batman theme, genuinely haunting the viewer as they’re introduced to Gotham City.
Moments such as this abound throughout the film, with unsettling atmospheric sequences, sweepingly tragic romantic themes, and darkly boisterous renditions of the main leitmotif giving major gravitas to every moment accompanied by Shirley’s phenomenal score-- feats that subsequent Batman films have failed to cohesively deliver musically.
5 It Focuses On Detective Work
Batman has been called “The World’s Greatest Detective,” but this aspect of his persona has been sadly eschewed in most of his film endeavors, often taking a backseat if appearing at all.
Although the original Batman touched upon it and Batman v Superman gave us a further taste of a more investigative Bat, Mask of the Phantasm was the first and only to truly dive head first into the concept.
The majority of the film’s main plot revolves around Batman attempting to figure out who the masked Phantasm is, and why they are murdering a series of old-time gangsters. We’re treated to extensive research, evidence gathering, and the gradual unfolding plot where we feel actively engaged in this investigation, and completely shocked when the revelations are made.
4 It Handles Duality Better Than Nolan's Films
If there’s anything that can be taken away from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, aside from a myriad of plot holes, it's that it was obsessed with the concept of Batman and Bruce’s duality, where one was a mere shell, and the other was the true person.
Mask of the Phantasm tackles the subject in a different way, using the Phantasm and Batman as opposite sides of the same coin, ending up with a far more symbolic (and much less pretentious) result than Nolan’s effort.
Aesthetically, the characters are similar enough to the point of confusing the police, but, digging deeper, their motivations are the same as well: cracking down on crime in the name of their murdered parents. The difference is in their methods, where Batman spares and the Phantasm kills.
The Phantasm represents what Batman could become if he were to fall off the knife’s edge that is his crusade. The Phantasm is the dark, corrupting, and ultimately unfulfilling path of absolutes, where justice must be served no matter the cost. It represents the never-ending struggle that Bruce faces every day he dons the cowl, a lesson that he learns in the most painful of ways.
3 Batman's compelling love interest
Andrea Beaumont is one of best original characters ever introduced into the franchise, and the fact that she hasn’t been revisited in any meaningful capacity is a crime.
To start, she’s the only love interest for Bruce that makes complete sense. Her turbulent past, the loss of her mother, and her genuine snark create a romantic and emotional foil for him that no other beau has ever compared to. While Catwoman and Talia may be the traditional go-to love interests, they’re wet blankets when compared to the fiery Andrea.
However, she’s more than just a love interest; she’s a fantastic character. Her personality, wit, and intelligence are a joy to watch in action, and her backstory and influence on Bruce’s life give her an emotional pull that even traditional characters lack.
Most remarkably, for a character introduced solely for this film, you truly get to know her, which is a testament to her design, writing, and performance.
Overall, Andrea Beaumont, despite being an original creation, truly feels like she belong as a canon fixture in the mythos, so let us hope that future Batman productions will have the sense to incorporate her, and properly so. She certainly deserves it.
2 An Original Twist On The Origin
Superhero origins for well-known characters are slowly becoming needless additions to their respective films, since the characters have been around for so long and much of the population is acutely aware of how they came to be.
Mask of the Phantasm seemed to understand this, and, instead of giving a straight take on the origin, they put a monumental twist on it. The death of Bruce’s parents is apparent through dialogue, we skip his training to the point where he’s already starting to fight crime, but it’s the addition of Andrea Beaumont and her effect on Bruce where things take a most interesting turn.
The budding romance between the two, a concept introduced in this film, has a tremendous affect on him and his desire to begin his crusade. With Andrea, Bruce discovers the future Bat Cave, along with the inspiration for his costume, Batmobile, and more. Additionally, the effect isn’t just surface-level.
Her presence and the relationship they shared directly influenced Bruce’s transformation in the coming years, long after they parted ways, and it’s their final moments together that shaped him into what he would eventually become.
1 Bruce Wayne Gets A Much-Needed Spotlight
If there is one crime that the previous Batman films have all been guilty of, it’s woefully neglecting to give Bruce the believable spotlight that he needed, typically tossing him aside for the Bat.
Though, to be fair, Batman v. Superman appeared to be addressing this, with Affleck’s Wayne having an outside life, personality, and obligation to his family business, but Mask of the Phantasm did it first, with a large portion of its narrative directed solely on Bruce.
We learn not only about Bruce’s public life, but also about his troubled personal life. We see him at his weakest point, sobbing at the grave of his parents, grappling with the inner turmoil he faces about becoming Batman, and even the consideration of abandoning his crusade in order to pursue love.
These are gripping sequences that allow the viewer to sympathize with, and get to know, Bruce Wayne, instead of just his alter ego. When he finally does make the transition into Batman, it’s all the more tragic, as we were given a taste as to what Bruce could have become without the cowl. For better or worse, fate had other plans.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm's Blu-Ray will be released on July 25, 2017.
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