The Batman animated films have been some of the finest animation in recent memory. Throwing away the Saturday morning cartoon childishness found in most superhero cartoons, they fully embraced the sinister and more macabre aspects of the Batman mythos. But the long line of successful Batman animated films is unlikely to exist, had the first film in the series not set an incredible path to follow.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm followed Bruce Wayne through his early years as Batman. Although not an origin story, we are given extensive glimpses into Bruce Wayne’s motivations for fighting crime, such as the death of his parents, the vile corruption that has engulfed Gotham City, and the need to strike fear into the hearts of criminals. At one point, having become so fed up with a life of serving others, he laments that he just wants to live a normal life. And to make matters even more complicated, a killer known as the Phantasm is taking care of Gotham’s crime lords and turns out to be *20 year-old spoiler* Bruce’s love interest, Andrea Beumont.
Featuring an original character as a central protagonist certainly seemed like a risky move at the time, but Andrea pays off. She represents everything that Batman is not. She believes that the best way to fight crime is to kill the guilty, whereas Batman has always strictly followed a no-kill code. Sure, it would be easy for Batman to simply kill his enemies, meaning that he would never have to face them again, but what would that make him?
One major flaw with the film is that it’s only 76 minutes long. All the DC animated movies have a similar runtime, due to budget constraints. But is 76 minutes really enough time to tell the story that they wanted to tell? Well, although they were able to tell the story in that time, you can’t help but with that they should have stretched the runtime to allow the plot more time to develop. And with a screenplay written by Arkham City scribe Paul Dini, Superman writer Martin Pakin, and Star Wars novelist Michael Reeves, you can’t be blamed for wanting to see more. Christopher Nolan, known for his long runtimes, would not be pleased.
Despite being released back in 1993, the animation still packs a punch. Most notably, a chase sequence through a building site, used CGI (back when CGI was not yet commonplace) to great effect, creating a visually thrilling sequence which would have been groundbreaking at the time.
The art style of the film, overseen by co-director and former DC animation supervising producer Bruce Timm, which was had a brilliantly sinister, haunting feel to it. Uninviting, aggressive buildings dominated the skyline, which threatened to engulf anybody who came to close. This incarnation of Gotham City is a place where tourists should stay well clear of.
And the best thing about the film was that characters actually died. Really, truly, stone cold dead. Gone forever, not getting back up, brown bread etc. Remember watching superhero cartoons as a kid and feeling frustrated because nobody actually died, thus diminishing any real sense of danger that the characters were in? Not here. Mask of the Phantasm is a film for adults disguised as a children’s film, and makes you wish that all children’s animation would be so bold.
All the cast are on top form, but the standout performance comes from Mark Hamill, voicing the Joker following his successful run on the television series, a role that he would continue to play until finally retiring from the character in Arkham City. Sinister, crazy, remorseless and cruel, Hamill’s Joker sounded just like the Joker should sound, and became one of his most recognisable roles. He’s also known for some sci-fi series thing (I think he had some sort of laser sword and his father was some dude in a black cape) but today he receives more recognition as the Joker. Gene Siskel famously said that he did not like Hamill’s performance in the film, whilst praising the film in general. Clearly he got that detail wrong.
Mask of the Phantasm is also notable to have been the only DC animated movie to have been released theatrically, in a wide 1506 screens, and only grossing $5 million. Had it been a success, then maybe we would have seen more of DC’s animated films on the big screen. It was not to be, although maybe Disney’s Big Hero Six, based on the Marvel team (you can’t help but wish that they’d chosen more well know characters instead of playing it safe with unknowns) which, if financially successful, will pave the way for more animated superhero films based on comic book characters.
“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce. I’ve always feared that you would become that which you fought against” Alfred solemnly tells Bruce at one point. Why did Bruce become Batman? To protect a city which he holds so dear to his heart? To avenge the death of his parents and to honour their memory? Or to give a purpose in life? Either way, Alfred’s prediction may unfortunately hold true.
How do you think Batman: Mask of the Phantasm holds up 20 years later? Sound off in the comments or send your thoughts to us on Twitter: @AP2HYC.