I remember when Batman: Mask of the Phantasm came out back in the fall of 1993. Warner Bros had decided to unceremoniously dump the film into theaters with barely any marketing. Despite receiving good reviews, the film was a total flop at the box office. It was not until it was released on video and DVD that the movie gained a cult following and it is today regarded as one of the best Batman movies out there.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was made based on the success of the TV series, which helped launch the careers of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, the writer and director of the animated series and this film, and it marked the beginning of what came to be known as the DC Animated Universe. Those who know me know what a huge comic book fan I am. The Marvel and DC superheroes are the heroes of my childhood with Batman being among the greatest of them all. For unexplainable reasons, however, the Batman Animated Series never held much interest for me. Perhaps this may have been because in the early 90s, animation was strictly synonymous with the new golden age of Disney animation (The Little MermaidBeauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King) and it was practically sacrilege to bother with any other studio’s animated projects. Regardless of any reasons, I didn’t bother to give Batman: Mask of the Phantasm a chance.

Well, after finally watching this film, I can see why it has gained cult status with the fanboys. For anyone who is knowledgeable of Batman’s comic book history, you will probably be familiar with the legendary early artists who drew the Batman and Detective Comics books during the 40s. Dick Sprang was one of those artists who drew Batman with a square chin and barrel chest.  His style is an obvious inspiration for the look of this film as is the dark, gothic art deco style that we saw in the Tim Burton Batman films. Over the decades, Batman has undergone many stylistic changes, but the one that has always stood out for me as being the most appropriate to the character’s underlying darkness is the art deco look.

The Dark Knight and Batman Beyond have elevated my expectations of a good cinematic Batman story and I’m afraid that my expectations found Batman: Mask of the Phantasm to be a bit too light for my taste. There are really two stories here. The first revolves around the Phantasm, a villain who shows up and begins killing off Gotham City’s mobsters, which eventually brings The Joker into the fray. The second plotline introduces a new character in Batman’s life, Andrea Beaumont. We discover that early in his crime-fighting career, Bruce Wayne had at one point decided to give up his career as Batman and marry Beaumont. However, due to other circumstances (that involve The Joker), this did not come to pass and Bruce Wayne continued along his path to become The Batman.

I didn’t so much mind the story, but I felt it lacked the epic grandness of the other Batman films. Its as if the filmmakers took a plot meant for one of the television series’ episodes and extended it for the big screen. Although The Joker is in the film and he is wonderful in it, the Phantasm reminded me of a Scooby-Doo villain (and you’ll know exactly what I mean by that if you watch the ending). The most interesting aspects of the story were the flashbacks to Bruce Wayne’s early years when he courts Beaumont and is in the process of creating the Batman. However, the present-day plotline felt weak in comparison even with The Joker.

Much has been said in geek circles about the awesomeness of Mark Hamill’s (Luke Skywalker for those who dare not know who Mark Hamill is) portrayal of The Joker. Some have even ventured to claim that Hamill’s interpretation of The Joker is still the BEST version of the villain. I disagree with that notion as no one even comes close to Heath Ledger’s portrayal. All in all, however, Hamill does a great Joker that is more true to the comic book Joker than Ledger’s version.

A final note: Shirley Walker’s film score is hands-down amazing and easily rivals Danny Elfman’s classic score. The opening credits are reminiscent of Elfman, but Walker’s score sounds more epic and foreboding and if you are a collector of film scores, this is one not to miss.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a worthy addition to the Batman saga. It doesn’t fail to entertain and its perhaps the most faithful to the look and feel of the comic book. I expected more out of the story, but considering I saw this on the small screen, I was not as disappointed as I would have been had I had paid $7 to see this on the big screen. The animation is beautiful to look at and it reminded me a little of the old 30’s Fleischer cartoons.

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