Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) / Animation-Action

MPAA Rated: PG for violence
Running Time: 76 min.

Cast (voices): Kevin Conroy, Dana Delany, Mark Hamill, Hart Bochner, Stacy Keach, Abe Vigoda, Dick Miller, John P. Ryan, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Bob Hastings, Merilu Henner, Robert Costanzo
Director: Eric Radomski, Bruce W. Timm
Screenplay: Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, Michael Reaves (based on characters created by Bob Kane with Jerry Robinson)
Review published July 3, 2006

Spinning off from "Batman: The Animated Series", which was a big hit on television in the early 1990s, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm earned a theatrical release from the combined popularity of the television show and live-action movies, Batman and Batman Returns, that had made huge profits for Warner Bros. around the same era.  Unfortunately, while people enjoyed Tim Burton's Batman at the movies, the few that went to see Mask of the Phantasm were primarily fans of Bruce Timm/Paul Dini/Alan Burnett's TV show, resulting in low returns at the box office (under $6 million domestically).  Although several factors also contributed to the film's hasty demise in theaters, such as little in the way of pre-release advertising, the film has gone on to enjoy a bit of a cult status on video among Batman fans, especially of the animated series, as well as those that enjoy the re-imagining of the Batman story in the comic books, "Batman: Year One" and "Year Two".

Mask of the Phantasm is told both in the present day, as well as in the past via flashbacks.  The flashbacks tell of Bruce Wayne's (voiced by Kevin Conroy, SubZero) earlier days as a crime fighter, back before he donned the Bat outfit permanently.  It also tells of why Bruce Wayne would become the international playboy, having loved and lost once before.  The one that got away is Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany, Tombstone), gorgeous and intelligent, but difficult for Wayne to keep in a relationship with while still fighting crime.  Although he has sworn to avenge the deaths of his parents by fighting crime, Bruce believes that it just might be time to hang up the mask and finally fall in love, so he retires for the time being to concentrate on his relationship.  However, there's more to Ms. Beaumont than meets the eye, as it turns out she is the daughter of a wealthy and respected man (Stacy Keach, Road Games) that just might be the link between some mob bosses that have been mysteriously slain throughout Gotham City.  The culprit appears to be a costumed villain dressed akin to the Grim Reaper, although his additional resemblance to Batman makes the latter the target of the police.  Meanwhile, Batman's arch nemesis, The Joker (Hamill, Return of the Jedi), also has a hand to play in the matter, as the Reaper's last potential victim.

This was originally intended to be a straight-to-video release, and well into the pre-production of the feature, it actually was seen as one by everyone making it.  Warner Bros. changed it to a theatrical release some time after the project had been developed conceptually, resulting in a bit of a rush to make sure the new animated Batman feature struck theaters while the iron was still hot.  The film would be a critical success but a commercial failure, virtually relegating nearly all future animated superhero films to television and/or video releases, as there appears to be a conflict between the cartoon audiences, which tend to be younger kids, and comic book superhero fans, which tend to be adolescents.   Compounding the problems, the film, with its noir storyline and emphasis on characters over action, plays best to adults, leaving Mask of the Phantasm as a movie in search of an audience years after it was first released into theaters.  Eventually it found one among the savvy Batman elite.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is one of the better animated superhero films ever made, and in my opinion, better than all of the Batman theatrical releases, with the exception of Batman Begins.  If you are a huge Batman fan, especially if you read the comics or watch the animated shows on television, it is practically must-see viewing.  The exceptional music, the terrific voice work, and the quality of the writing are solid across the board, so even if you are just a passive Bat-fan, you may want to give this one a look if you have a jones for more Batman action than just the live-action releases.

 Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo