We’ve been in what many people, including myself have dubbed, “The golden age of comic-book movies” for a while now. During this glorious time, many of our favorite comic book characters come to us in an animated form via the direct-to-video and/or limited theatrical-release market. Arguably, Marvel may have DC currently bested in the live-action department. However, in my opinion, the situation is quite the opposite when it comes to animated fare. Not at all surprising considering DC kicked the whole animated comic book movie thing off with their release of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
“The Bat” was at the height of his powers, having had two highly successful & popular live-action films under his utility belt. Beyond those, there was the even more popular, Batman: The Animated Series. Originally conceived to be directly in-line with design and tone of Tim Burton’s Bat-Flicks, this “cartoon” became a more neo-noir, comics-accurate interpretation of The Caped Crusader. Premiering in the fall of ’92, The Animated Series was an immediate hit. While Season 1 of the show was on the air, series creators Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm were offered the chance to do an animated movie. The original intention was to make it as a made-for-TV movie.
However, the series and the characters were incredibly popular at the time. Add to that the fact that 1992’s Batman Returns had disappointed many and the studio knew it would be another couple of years before they would be able to get another live-action Bat movie out. Thus, Warner Bros. gave Mask of the Phantasm a theatrical release on Christmas, 1993. Such a release was unprecedented at the time. Ultimately though, the film didn’t do well in theaters; but was a huge hit on home video.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm follows our hero as he races to solve a series of gangland slayings of crime bosses in the city. The individual committing the murders, known as The Phantasm (voiced by Stacy Keach), looks similar to The Dark Knight. Thus leading witnesses, as well as the rumor-mill of Gotham’s organized-crime community, to believe that Batman, in a new outfit, has gone from vigilante to straight-up, cold-blooded killer. In the midst of all this, Batman/Bruce Wayne (voiced by Kevin Conroy) discovers that his lost-love, Andrea Beaumont (voiced by Dana Delany) may be back in town; causing Bruce to think back on their relationship as well as his early days in the Bat suit. The latter taking inspiration from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s classic comic book series, Batman: Year One.
Much like The Animated Series, Mask of the Phantasm gives the viewer the perfect mix of being kid-friendly, yet adult-minded. As it was designed to be, no doubt. Rewatching it as an adult, you will notice the obvious hints as to whom The Phantasm is. But, that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, and it’s unlikely that younger viewers will solve the mystery themselves. It is in doing this that The Phantasm manages to place itself among some of the better or best stories in the Batman movie canon; animated or otherwise.
In comparison to a fair amount of the modern animated Batman/DC films, the one in question focuses more on story and characters, whereas many of today’s animated Bat movies focus on the action of it all. Though there is plenty action to keep everyone entertained. The film’s script is good enough that it can also be compared to Batman’s live-action outings as well. It proves to center on Batman and the emotion & trauma of it all more than any of the Batman Burton/Schumacher movies do. (Those tend to concentrate too much on flashy villains.) Though, this film doesn’t lack the flashy villian at all with its inclusion of The Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill). Aside from being arguably slightly narratively jumbled, I can’t imagine this flick would disappoint any Bat-fan.
The one real issue I, and many other fans, had with Mask of the Phantasm is that the animation does not hold up to a high-definition standard. Up until now, the best one could do was a DVD or standard definition streaming version. Both of which prove to be distracting eye sores in an age where our eyes soak up 1080p or 4K images like soil does water. In standard def, it is nearly unwatchable. The animation, while being well done, is very soft in standard def. The other issue is that some of the scenes contain animation and edits that are choppy. The choppiness is mainly because when the film was being made, the filmmakers were only given eight months to get everything done. So, the fact that the movie got made at all is pretty impressive considering most animated movies take 2-3 years to make.
24 years after its release, Mask of the Phantasm has finally been given the Blu-Ray treatment! This new Blu-Ray thankfully solves all the aforementioned animation/visual issues with the film. No longer will your eyeballs have to be irritated when trying to enjoy this. All the carefully-crafted, classically styled animation can now be seen in all its glory. The Blu-Ray provides a crisp HD transfer. Only a couple of minuscule choppy cuts remain intact, and they’re barely noticeable. The film’s audio has also been updated.
I’d say the only department in which this Blu-Ray release is lacking is special features. The only supplement on the disc is “The TV Version.” In other words, the same movie; only it has been formatted in its traditional 4:3 aspect ratio. Probably a smart addition considering most folks who grew up with this movie, watching it on VHS. While I prefer the 16:9 letterbox ratio, that version is there if you’re feeling nostalgic.
For me, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is the best animated Batman film. It also ranks among the better Bat movies in general for myself and many other fans. If you enjoy this movie as well, I whole-heartily recommend this Blu-Ray. At less than $20, it’s worth the upgrade if you don’t feel like rubbing your eyes after watching the standard-definition version anymore. Plus, I doubt we’ll ever get an edition packed with extras.
In closing, look at it like this: If this Blu-Ray sales well, perhaps will get Blu-Ray/HD transfers of The Animated Series. Here’s hoping, In the meantime, why have that “same Bat-channel”?