Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)—The Best theatrical Batman film?
Among the most well-regarded Batman media is Batman: The Animated Series. Dark, well-written and with great heroes and villains, it has often been called one of the greatest animated shows of all time. The show has also had many films in its universe, most being direct-to-DVD. However, the first one was released in theaters. Suffering from a late ad campaign comparable to Solo: a Star Wars story, and despite good reviews, the film, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, bombed at the box-office, but would be successful in home release, and be considered one of the best Batman films ever made, surpassing the other live action releases of that decade in popularity.
A mysterious figure has arrived in Gotham city and has started killing some gangsters. For very obvious reasons, everyone is mistaking them for Batman, which is helping an anti-Batman crusader in his campaign against the Dark Knight. So Batman now must investigate the murders and discover the killer’s true identity and motives. Meanwhile, an old flame of Bruce’s has returned to Gotham, dredging up old memories of a relationship before he became the Caped Crusader.
First off, the film is well animated. The film doesn’t look too different from the show, which is good since the show has good animation. The backgrounds have a Gothic beauty to them that gives the film style and helps it fit in with all the other Batman films. Additionally, the film also has a lot of great shots, which are aided by the film’s strong lighting.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is among one of the most downbeat films Batman has had, only rivaled by Batman Returns and The Dark Knight. All happiness for the characters in this film is fleeting, lost due to the lingering wounds of the past. The film hits the audience hard with its darkness, especially for a film that is a companion to a cartoon show for kids. The Phantasm’s murders manage to be brutal while showing the bare minimum of violence, and the other deaths or near deaths follow suit, especially when the Joker enters the fray.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the story is the character work. Mask of the Phantasm shows Batman in a situation we don’t really see at all: finding happiness outside his role as Batman, to the point where he considers abandoning his quest. And this choice is harrowing to watch, especially in his one-sided conversation with his parents. The woman he falls for, Andrea Beaumont, is very likable and is fun to see with Bruce. Which makes the fact that they won’t be together, cut much deeper than one would think. And the Phantasm themselves are a constant threat, able to be intimidating while never losing that menace they start with. My only issue with the story and writing is that the identity of the Phantasm is really easy to figure out, with only three options that are actually possible.
This should come off as no surprise, but Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is an amazing film. It’s well animated, well-written and emotionally compelling. The film does what most great Batman movies do in studying our hero, but does it in such a unique way that is not able to be replicated by any of Burton or even Nolan’s entries. However, the film is very dark and is not the most child-friendly film out there. Then again, kids shouldn’t have only light-hearted Batman films, as it could easily become another Batman and Robin.