During the 1990s Bat-renaissance, no less than four actors played Batman on cinema screens in the span of five years, though one’s name may not spring to mind as quickly as the others. Nestled between the entries starring Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney was another take on the Dark Knight voiced by Kevin Conroy. While the animated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm may not have made much of a splash theatrically, it was well regarded by fans and has had quite a lot of longevity on home video.
Spun off from the popular Batman: The Animated Series, Mask of the Phantasm was originally conceived as a direct-to-video production with a very modest budget. However, when both director Tim Burton and star Michael Keaton exited the franchise after Batman Returns, studio execs at Warner Bros. needed a stopgap to keep fans engaged while they reworked plans for the next live-action movie. Thus, the barely feature-length Phantasm was shifted to a full-scale theatrical release. It was perhaps not ready to be elevated in such a fashion, but the publicity exposure benefited it in the long run.
|Title:||Batman: Mask of the Phantasm|
|Year of Release:||1993|
|Watched On:||HBO Max|
|Also Available On:||Blu-ray|
Various VOD rental and purchase platforms
Created and developed by the team of Bruce Timm, Eric Radomsky, and writer Paul Dini, among others, Batman: The Animated Series premiered on television in the fall of 1992, just a few months after Batman Returns had played in theaters. Beyond sharing the same underlying source material and a similar preoccupation with 1930s Art Deco styling, the two projects were otherwise not directly connected. The cartoon established its own narrative continuity separate from the live-action films.
Aside from a brief and ill-fated attempt to rebroadcast some episodes in prime time, the show’s first season aired daily during the afternoon Fox Kids programming block for 60 episodes, from September 1992 to May 1993. Despite the “Kids” branding, the show was notable for taking a surprisingly mature and darker tone than the usual after-school fare. That, along with the high quality of its writing and very stylized animation, earned it a passionate fan base and strong critical support.
The series was successful enough out of the gate that plans were put in motion for a DTV spinoff film, which the studio redirected onto a theatrical release track early in development. Mask of the Phantasm was rushed through production and scheduled for a Christmas premiere at the end of 1993. Its main competitors opening in wide release that weekend were Grumpy Old Men and Tombstone, while Schindler’s List, Philadelphia, and The Pelican Brief all held over strongly. Theoretically, none of those films targeted the same young audience. Nonetheless, Phantasm cratered at the box office, failing to earn back even its meager $6 million budget. Looking over their limited options that season, parents apparently decided that the silly Beethoven’s 2nd looked more tolerable than a Batman cartoon based on a TV show they hadn’t bothered to watch with their kids. Honestly, I’d probably have made the same choice in that position.
As it turns out, Mask of the Phantasm doesn’t really require much familiarity with Batman: The Animated Series. It follows the traditional and well-known Batman lore for the most part, and even recaps some of Bruce Wayne’s origin story just in case. The movie is also much more grown-up friendly than it may have looked in the ads, with a story that’s both more thoughtful and complex than a newcomer might expect.
The film finds a new masked vigilante emerge in Gotham City, with an agenda to not just capture but actually murder criminals, specifically mobsters connected to one particular crime outfit. At first, the media and authorities assume that Batman is responsible. A newspaper headline questions, “Has Bats Gone Bats?” Corrupt elements in the Gotham PD, backed by smarmy City Councilman Arthur Reeves (Hart Bochner), use this as an excuse to hunt Batman with the intent to kill him and take him out of the picture. As Batman tries to evade the police and investigate the mysterious Phantasm for himself, a mobster fearing for his life seeks assistance from the Dark Knight’s arch nemesis, the deranged Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill), who doesn’t believe Batman has gone bad but happily agrees to set a trap all the same.
Meanwhile, an old flame of Bruce Wayne’s named Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delaney) returns to town after a long absence. This triggers a series of flashbacks in which we see young Bruce begin his crime-fighting adventures while struggling (and failing) to maintain a romantic relationship, thus forcing him to choose between his love life and his secret life as a burgeoning hero. Given that he wears a cape and mask now, it’s pretty obvious how that turned out.
At just 76 minutes (several of them credits), Mask of the Phantasm is both very short for a feature film and yet more than three times the length of an animated TV episode. In that regard, it straddles an awkward line where it feels both a little insubstantial for a theatrical release and a little too draggy compared to the series that spawned it. Likewise, the animation looks great for an afternoon cartoon but cheap for a movie you’d be expected to pay a theater ticket price to see. Lengthy flashbacks disrupt the pacing quite a bit and the Joker storyline feels like it was grafted on from a separately planned project. A plot twist in the second half is also a little too easy to guess well in advance of its reveal.
That said, the film has a number of exciting sequences, a very appealing retro-1930s visual design, and a story that juggles some complicated adult themes involving relationships, responsibility, obsession, and the toll that a quest for vengeance takes on its seeker. Mark Hamill is very entertaining as the loony Joker, and the movie climaxes with a super-fun kaiju parody set in the miniature cityscape at an abandoned and decrepit World’s Fair exhibition.
Mask of the Phantasm may have failed at the box office, but the promotional campaign behind it gave the film a lot more public awareness than it might have had otherwise. Ultimately, this led it to be quite successful on home video, probably more so than it would have achieved had it gone that route directly as originally planned. To this day, it remains more famous with much more name recognition value than any of the DTV sequels or spinoffs that followed.
Although Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was released on Blu-ray in 2017, I don’t own that disc and had to settle for streaming the movie from HBO Max. The underwhelming results leave me questioning whether a purchase would be worthwhile or a waste of time. If the physical disc is sourced from the same underlying HD master that HBO Max is using, I don’t think I’ll bother. That’s not to say it’s unwatchable, but better is surely possible.
First, know that HBO Max only offers the movie in a 16:9 aspect ratio, opened up a hair from the theatrical 1.85:1. Reviews of the Blu-ray edition confirm that it has two separate transfers, one in 16:9 and another in 4:3 with more picture on the top and bottom. During its initial development, Mask of the Phantasm was planned to be a direct-to-video release, which in 1993 would have meant a “full frame” 4:3 ratio consistent with episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. The switch to a theatrical release necessitated cropping the image to widescreen. I assume that the animators had time to prepare for that, as the 16:9 version rarely appears too badly cramped or missing relevant picture information. Still, I’d be curious to check out the other one to compare.
I also question whether the 16:9 transfer may have been created merely by cropping and zooming the center portion of a 4:3 HD scan. The picture is soft on the whole, enough that I even wondered if it’d been upconverted from standard-definition at times. Some shots are extremely blurry, but I think the worst of those were probably optical blow-ups to reframe the composition. In any case, the master looks old. The image is rather noisy. Colors and contrast are merely adequate. The movie’s animation wasn’t all that detailed to begin with, but given that episodes of The Animated Series also streaming on HBO Max look crisper and more vibrant than the Phantasm feature, I have no doubt that a proper remaster scanned from the original film elements would yield better results, in the very unlikely event the studio felt like investing in that.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack on streaming has weak bass and only moderate surround activity, but the musical score by Shirley Walker (a frequent collaborator of Danny Elfman and a pioneering composer in her own right) swells nicely. For what it’s worth, the Blu-ray encodes that track in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio format. The only extra on either HBO Max or the Blu-ray is a trailer in standard-definition.
3 thoughts on “Batmanimation Appreciation – Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)”
$5.6 million box office, yeesh. Today, even the barest of bare Batman releases would gross 10x that amount. I know you gave some food for thought as to why it flopped, but it’s still baffling it made such a pittance.
R.I.P. Kevin Conroy.
So sad. He was the definitive Batman for me.