I remember a couple of years ago some friends and I were discussing superhero movies. I had just finished watching the hilariously terrible Batman and Robin, and commented that this meant I had now seen all the Batman movies. One of my friends asked if that included the animated movies, and I had to admit that it did not; they had slipped my mind at the time (I’m also short one of the old movie serials, though I own and have watched the other.) The animated movies have had a way of slipping past my radar; I remember seeing commercials for the first, Mask of the Phantasm, when it came out, but as this was before I had my own driver’s license, I was unable to see it in the theatre, and eventually forgot about it. Once reminded, however, I had to add it to my “to see” list, and kept an eye out for opportunities to watch it.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was the first animated movie featuring Batman, and also the only one to have had a theatrical release. It was originally conceived as a two-part episode for the Batman animated series, but was expanded just slightly (to 76 minutes, just barely long enough to constitute a feature) and reworked for the movie theaters. Being essentially a part of the series, it uses the same animation style, and several of the regular voice actors reprise their roles. Kevin Conroy is Batman, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. is Alfred, and Bob Hastings provides the voice of Commissioner Gordon, though Gordon’s role in the film is rather small.
Some city councilors are so pushy they push a guy right out of the movie.
The plot is not particularly complicated, but it is fitting for a comic book movie and cartoon tie-in. A new vigilante, the Phantasm (voiced by Stacy Keach and never actually referred to as the Phantasm in film) has arrived in Gotham, and the Phantasm doesn’t play by Batman’s code of conduct. The Phantasm hunts down various mob bosses and executes them, and eyewitnesses who spot a caped and cowled figure of the night creeping around murdered mob bosses draw the inevitable conclusion: Batman has gone loco.
In fairness, it’s not much of a stretch.
Gotham City Councilman Arthur Reeves (Hart Bochner) pushes the police department to go after Batman. Gordon refuses, but Reeves insists and Detective Harvey Bullock (Robert Costanzo), always ready to believe the worst of Batman, leads the pursuit. So Batman now has a personal motivation to bring down the Phantasm, as if he needed one; not only is the Phantasm a killer, but Batman now needs to clear his own name. Complicating matters is the return of an old flame, Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delaney), whose relationship with Bruce Wayne is revealed in flashbacks that weave in and out of Batman’s origin story. And, as if there weren’t trouble enough, one of the mob bosses (voiced by the venerable Abe Vigoda) realizes he’s next and goes to a rather unorthodox source of protection: the Joker, with Mark Hamill continuing his role as voice actor from the series.
There’s always a wild card in the deck.
Between Batman, the Phantasm, and the Joker, there are a lot of fun action sequences and fights. The animation is fluid and looks great, though that shouldn’t surprise anybody who is familiar with any of the DC animated series from Batman through Justice League. Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski directed the film, and while the film fits in perfectly with the animated series that spawned it, it also does a great job of showing just why that animated style works so well: it’s a clean design, nuanced and detailed without being cluttered, and there’s no need to “get used to it” the way there sometimes can be when watching an animated adaptation of a familiar property. It just looks right, and always has.
The romance subplot I’ll admit left me feeling just a little flat, since it’s fairly pedestrian and we all know it’s not going to go anywhere with Batman. That it’s tied in with his development of the Batman persona only increases the feelings of familiarity, though to be fair Batman’s origin story had only been shown a couple times outside of comic books when this film was made. (To the best of my knowledge, it was previously shown in Batman: The Animated Series itself; the 1989 Batman film; and the episode “The Fear” in the 1985 cartoon series The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians, which was the first non-comics medium to show it.) But even though there is a sense of familiarity and predestination in the romance story, it’s still fairly important to the film and doesn’t hinder it overmuch. But the main selling point, as it ever is with Batman, are the action sequences, which are imaginative and energetic and a lot of fun to watch.
I swear this makes sense in context.
To be perfectly honest, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm feels a lot like what it really is: a long episode of the animated series rather than a stand-alone movie. But an episode of the animated series is still pretty entertaining, so there’s not really much to complain about. Plus, using a voice cast that was almost entirely made up of people who had already been voicing these characters for a few years meant that all the voice work was superb. I did have some problems with the sound mixing — action sequences were much, much louder than a lot of the dialogue scenes, to the point where I often had to adjust the volume — but that was really the only issue with the quality of the film.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm may not have the depth of Christopher Nolan’s work, but I would happily watch it again. It’s a fun romp with fun, familiar characters, and the Phantasm makes for an entertaining antagonist even if it isn’t too hard to figure out just who is behind the mask.