Eric Radomski & Bruce W. Timm | 76 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG
Batman movies have a habit of provoking strong reactions. The Dark Knight is popularly regarded as one of the greatest films of all time (settled at #7 on IMDb’s Top 25); Batman & Robin is widely reviled as one of if not the worst of all time; the Adam West movie and Batman Returns have long been wildly divisive, and it looks like The Dark Knight Rises has now joined their ranks.
And then there’s Mask of the Phantasm. Relatively little seen (it made under $6 million at the US box office on release and has never been particularly well served on DVD, though I understand it’s sold well), it’s acclaimed by those that have caught it — including critics — as perhaps the greatest Batman film of them all. Some even say it was the best animated film of 1993, and that’s the year of The Lion King and The Nightmare Before Christmas — a bold claim indeed.
Oh yes, that’s right — it’s animated. And right there we have an explanation for its lack of wide-spread appreciation.
Spun off from fan-favourite TV series Batman: The Animated Series, this feature-length version sees Batman remembering events from early in his career while tracking down a murderous vigilante, the titular Phantasm.
One of the main reasons the film succeeds is that look back at Bruce Wayne’s early days as a crime fighter. Batman’s origin is oft told — too oft, truth be told — but they thankfully don’t rehash it here. Instead, early in Batman’s career Bruce falls in love and finds happiness, causing him to question whether to continue down the path he’s already dedicated his life to. The scene where he talks to his parents’ grave, expressing his guilt at potentially finding happiness after so much mourning, is one of the most powerful, emotional moments in all of Batman’s many iterations.
But it’s not all navel-gazing. There’s more than enough action to satiate the young and young-minded, including a spectacular explosive finale set in a rundown theme park. It’s just another of the film’s many triumphs; another reason it deserves to be better known and better respected.
Many sensible, genuinely grown-up people will happily espouse that animation is not solely a kids’ medium, as Western attitudes have wound up painting it. It’s a battle far from won: despite the attention now afforded anime, companies that handle its Western distribution still struggle, and I think it’s seen by many as the preserve of ‘alternative’ teenagers and manchilds. Mask of the Phantasm is far from being an adults-only experience, instead treading that line often taken by US animation nowadays (particularly Pixar) of having plenty for the kids alongside more thematically and emotionally mature sensibilities. But instead of falling in some nasty halfway-house, Phantasm turns up trumps on all fronts.
I think we have to accept that it’s never going to gain the mass appreciation of Nolan’s Bat-films, or even Tim Burton’s; but for those in the know, Mask of the Phantasm is a gem in the history of Batman on screen. Indeed, it may even be the best Batman film of all.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm placed 4th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2012, which can be read in full here.