Case #4: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

This Week’s Case: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

Released: 1993
Director: Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm
Starring: The Voices of Kevin Conroy, Dana Delany, Abe Vigoda, and Mark Hamill

Synopsis: A new villain, The Phantasm, is murdering its way through the Gotham underworld all the while leading police to believe that Batman has turned to homicide. The plot thickens progressively as an ex-fiancé of Bruce Wayne serendipitously shows up in town and The Joker is singled out as The Phantasm’s final victim. 

The Charges:
None to speak of. 
Mask of the Phantasm isn’t an abhorred film that deserves a second chance; it’s an incredible film that deserves a first chance.

The Advocation:

Check it out: the total theatrical gross for Mask of the Phantasm came in at just over $5, 600,000. The opening weekend theatrical gross for Batman and Robin was just over $110,000,000. 
Mask of the Phantasm is easily the second best of the modern Batman films, blowing both Burton’s flawed-but-beautiful action romps and Schumacher’s soul-eating chum sloughs thoroughly out of the water and seated neatly behind Chris Nolan’s recent masterpiece with a happy, shiny silver medal pinned to its svelte 79-minute runtime. 
Batman and Robin, the epitome of Shumacher’s chum sloughery, is the worst Batman film. Ever. Even the 60’s Batman (Batkitsch really) didn’t jump the shark repellent nearly as thoroughly as nipples on the bat suit or the bone-stripping crapulence of Bane or, lest we forget, Mr. Freeze’s ice hockey team… 

P.S. Anyone sitting there trying to justify the later Schumacher debacles by reminiscing about Burton’s original live action portrayal of the dark knight has obviously not remembered up to the part where The Joker is listening to Prince. 

So, why was Mask of the Phantasm handed the short end of the shrift stick?

Well, that’s easy. Because it was animated. I guess folks thought that because it was a PG-rated cartoon, it was meant to deliver Batman Lite to the kiddies while, meanwhile, their parents could revel in the unencumbered high-octane thrills of a more mature Batman film. You know, one with lines like, “What killed the dinosaurs? The Ice Age!” (By the way, if that doesn’t make you puke, you’re either Stalin or Satan, depending on the style of your moustache)

Okay, I’m done bullying the other films. If I really wanted to dwell on suffering I’d write an Anne Frank book report. This is about why the animated Batman movie kicks a plurality of butts.

So, what makes Mask of the Phantasm the second best portrayal of Batman ever brought to the big screen?

For starters, like Batman Begins, Phantasm structures its story around Bruce Wayne and then builds Batman off of his character rather than trying to build the story around Batman and then including the Wayne alter ego as merely an eccentric afterthought. Because Wayne occupies a healthy half of the story, the movie provides extremely candid and visceral insights into the emotional torment that Wayne suffers both as a result of his parents’ death and his subsequent double life. Visits to his parents’ grave and tearful consultations with their portrait, in which Wayne pits his solemn vow to justice against his longing for a happy, ordinary married life, seem to effortlessly provide a window into the inextricable torture that is being Batman; a window that none of the live action films (excepting, of course, Nolan’s) failed to supply in even a half-assed fashion.

Like all of the live action Batman unpleasantness, Phantasm features two primary villains: the titular Phantasm and the Skywalker-voiced Joker. Unlike the live action films (again, excepting Nolan’s) these villains are not spot lit caricatures connected by floss thin story threads strung between plot holes but, to the contrary, a compelling overarching story involving revenge against deeds committed by a pre-deformation Joker that are, ultimately, tied to some of Bruce Wayne’s emotional disparagement and all of The Phantasm’s murders. It’s an expertly executed plot that uses flashback and straight up great storytelling better than almost the entirety of modern action film.

And it is a modern action film. Ironically enough, Schumacher’s celluloid hellscapes of films are far cartoonier than this actually animated rendition of Batman. Although the Phantasm murder sequences are conceptually dark, the two scenes which demonstrate the horrific effects of the Jokers laughing toxin, one of which finds a mobster’s contorted corpse wired to a bomb, are far more disturbing than all of Tommy Lee Jones’ coin tossing and Jim Carrey’s diorama building combined. These along with more traditional hand-to-hand fights and the requisite explosions make for an extremely successful Batman venture.

True to Batman: The Animated Series’ form, the film looks incredible. The animation is beautifully stylized and all of the design is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Gotham looks perfect. Even some of the best visions of the city as portrayed by the Burton films, such as the derelict Gotham Zoo in Batman Returns, are rivaled by the Animated Gotham, which includes, most notably, the crumbling remains of the Gotham World’s Fair. Now inhabited by the Joker, the ruined pavilions and rusting automata, all themed around The World of the Future, are obviously directly based off of the 1939 New York World’s Fair and couldn’t possibly look better. 

Honestly, I could write about this film forever. While most of the films I write about have been done the injustice of inproportionate and sometimes even baseless, reactionary hatred, Mask of the Phantasm has been dealt an even worse hand – it hasn’t even been given the chance to be maligned. 

So give it that chance. You won’t be disappointed.

Written by Matt Finley

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