If you walk down any of the remaining Blu-ray/DVD aisles (or sadly, wherever physical media is still clinging on for dear life), you would find no shortage of direct to home video animated superhero films, like maybe Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
Typically, you will find a large section devoted to specifically DC animated films. Sure, there’s Marvel. But, despite its dominance on the big screen, has remained largely absent in the home video market. And then, DC Comics has lined the shelves with low budget, extremely violent animated films aimed at adult viewers.
Given the success of these films, they have no doubt found an audience.
Due to the high volume of new releases from DC Comics, you would be forgiven if you missed one. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is yet another in a long line of modern home video DC animated films.
That notwithstanding, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm has much more to offer than other 75-minute comic books fan-centric action romp films.
The Forgotten Theatrical Batman
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm came out quietly on Christmas day in 1993. It was sandwiched between 1992’s controversial but oddly fascinating Tim Burton-directed Batman Returns and the campy more kid-friendly but still fun Joel Schumacher 1995 venture, Batman Forever. That may be why Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was famously not made with the intention of the big screen.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was intended to capitalize on the acclaimed TV show Batman: The Animated Series. And it was going to be made for the growing home video market. But, Warner Bros decided to push it to theaters. The heads there provided a bigger budget but only eight months to complete the project.
The film came and went with little marketing. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm made only just over five million in the domestic box office. This led many, like me, to discover it in video rental stores across the globe and cherish it.
But why? There have been many animated Batman movies, some by the same creative team. They have a proven model of success, so why has this one stuck out? Was it the theatrical release giving it weight? If that were the case, then the limited release would have boasted the abysmal Killing Joke adaptation.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm had one advantage over all the live-action films. Its visual look already was established previously. The art-deco and ’30s noir gangster aesthetics in the series got to flourish. Speaking of proven, those aesthetics were built from ideas Burton was playing within his 1989 Batman adaptation. But, this particular crew of animators had a larger budget. This is why they could fully develop their visuals and sensibilities on a wide-scale.
Between the art-deco style, the film noir/gangster movie influences, and a romance that feels like it was ripped straight out of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm feels like it could have been conceived in a classical era. #BatmanTweet
Yet, it also engages in retro-futurism and a Gotham City that feels as expressionistic and large as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Even with the comparatively smaller budget, the animation team found ways to work around their limitations. Their art was stylizing its animation to give the illusion of grandeur.
This combination of influences makes this feel distinct and unique from Schumacher’s camp, Nolan‘s Michael Mann-Esque realism, or even Burton’s gothic expression (of which is perhaps the closest counterpart to this). This film does not use its influences to remind you of a different era. Nor do they attempt to convince you of what type of film it is trying to be. Phantasm uses it to creates something unique and different.
And isn’t that what is amazing about animation? To create and show you something that couldn’t be real?
A Bruce Wayne Story
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is the first theatrical Batman movie that is interested in exploring Bruce Wayne. Tim Burton’s Bruce Wayne was more of an enigma. His costume was an empty shell that explores the wicked and freak nature of Gotham. Burton wasn’t really interested in Batman as a character. Actually, he considered it an idea where he could explore the characters around him.
There is nothing wrong with that approach. Burton’s Batman films remain a compelling take on the character (and has aged well with me). However, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm didn’t feel content with following that approach. In just 76 minutes, we are treated to a story informed by the doomed love and hopefulness of the past turned tragedy.
We get to see the nexus point where Bruce Wayne could stop his journey toward Batman and have a life of happiness. You also get to watch it slip-by. The film makes you care about Bruce Wayne as much as Batman; you want to see Bruce Wayne happy. You don’t just wait for the cape and cowl to come out and fight off bad guys.
I didn’t count on me being happyBruce Wayne, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Twice we go to “The World of the Future.” once with Bruce Wayne and Andrea at the beginning of their relationship, full of hope and potential. And, again in the present, as it rots and decays hiding a Joker in its midst. The final battle is played out against this environment, making it emotionally resonant and a visual representation of the film’s thematic core. All the while, composer Shirley Walker’s magnetic, operatic, and gothic score perfectly communicates the story’s tragic leanings and violent consequences.
The movie has stakes because of these consequences. It has very little blood yet feels more violent, dangerous, and suspenseful than most of the modern R-rated edgy animated superhero fare.
The police chase of Batman shows the film reducing Batman to such a human and venerable level than we’ve ever seen him. All the setpieces managed to do this not just from its expert sound design and carefully crafted action scenes but allowing each moment of action to feel the weight upon its story.
The Bat Signal Still Reigns
It’s not a perfect film by any means. At 76 minutes, the movie does feel a bit compressed, and its central mystery is not all that compelling or that hard to deduce. There are obvious red herrings if you’re engaging with the film’s themes and look at how two people in a superhero world deal with trauma and tragedy, then you know where we are heading and who the mysterious new villain, the Phantasm, will end up being.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a miss by @DCComics and a bit of a shame considering this is one of the few #Batman films where we see the “World’s Greatest Detective” actually be the World’s Greatest Detective. #DCFanDomeTweet
However, this film manages to overcome this flaw simply because Paul Dino didn’t write a murder mystery (despite the plotting resembling one). He wrote a love story. The tragic failings of all the principal characters are a thing that drives the story not the cloaked mystery. Dino’s writing makes the revelations to the characters more important than the revelations to the audience allowing the reveals still have an impact at the moment.
Despite years of a cult following and high praise from critics and audiences, this film seems almost always destined to be an underappreciated or overlooked superhero film. Yet, my hope is in a post-Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse world, we might see the audience for this only grow. Even if it doesn’t, it will be cherished by a sect of Batman and film fans, and perhaps that’s all it needs?