Batman: Mask of the Phantasm- A Retrospective on an Overlooked Classic

The words “Batman” and “theatrical animated movie” may not go together for some. They will, however, if you’re a fan of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, a theatrically released animated movie that bombed in 1993 despite strong critical feedback- esteemed critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert actually regretted not seeing it when it came out in theaters on their show. Ever since it was released on video, the film’s developed more and more of a cult following among Batman fans and superhero fans in general, with many calling it one of the best- if not the best- theatrical Batman movie ever made.

It’s 20th anniversary in 2013 was highlighted by some private screenings and a special limited edition anniversary poster by Mondo but that was it. As I’ll explain later, many fans of the movie (including myself) feel it hasn’t received the amount of attention it deserves after almost 25 years of existence.

To understand why the film’s praised so highly, we need to look back at how it was made and when it came out, then see what happened to the film’s home video releases, and what’s being done regarding the film today.

 

Work on the movie started as a straight-to-DVD feature which is how every other animated DC Comics film after Phantasm went. Therefore, this movie was the only animated Batman film ever to be released in theaters- until the one night only release of Batman: The Killing Joke some 23 years later. However, Phantasm still holds the distinction of being released for more than one weekend in theaters.

The same team that made Batman: The Animated Series were responsible for bringing Phantasm to life, including series co-creators Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, who’d serve as co-directors for this movie. Warner Bros. called over halfway through production and told Timm and Co. that they’d changed their minds: now the movie was a major motion picture. The only problem was the animation had been drawn to a then-standard 4:3 TV aspect ratio, leaving the animation team less than a year to go back and expand all the scenes to fit the wider theater aspect ratio of 16:9. Luckily, Warner gave them a $6 million budget and plenty of creative control.

They ended up using part of that $6 million on a CGI opening credits sequence and a larger orchestra for composer Shirley Walker (check out my post entitled Shirley Walker: A Forgotten Legend for more on her and her score to this film). To make the story short, the animators finished their work on time for the film’s release date…of Christmas Day, 1993. Looking back this probably wasn’t the best release day, considering the film’s dark nature and style.

Today, WB markets many of its films- especially those involving it’s DC characters- extensively, most of them over a year or two before release. However, the marketing for this film was nothing short of atrocious. The trailer was bland and didn’t convey at all what the movie was about- which Siskel and Ebert later blamed as one of the reasons they didn’t see the movie in theaters- and very few other ads existed. What merchandise existed was a small toy line, a tiny, tiny promo on 1993 Happy Meals, a comic book, and a novelization.

 

What’s the movie about? Bruce Wayne/Batman (Kevin Conroy), in an undisclosed time of his crimefighting career- we assume he’s anywhere from his early to mid thirties- finds out that his former love interest from years prior, Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delaney), is returning to Gotham City. This happens to coincide with the emergence of a new villain, called The Phantasm, who’s killing off all of Gotham’s major crime bosses. Since this new villain and Batman share a bit of a resemblance from far away, many assume it’s Batman. The Dark Knight has to prove them wrong, catch the Phantasm, and once again deal with his arch-nemesis, The Joker (Mark Hamill) .

Sure, the story may be simple compared to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, but it has enough mystery to make people watch the full film. The animation and music are spectacular (thanks in part to the increased budget), and voice work is top-notch. Many now consider Conroy and Hamill to be the definitive voices of Batman and the Joker, respectively. Also the Phantasm is a wonderful, original villain. He’s also incredibly underused in the Batman universe. I wish somebody would write a storyline featuring the Phantasm in a Batman comic, because there’s a lot of potential there.

 

Mask of the Phantasm saw its home video debut in 1994, and this is around the time people began to take notice of the movie. The film had it’s DVD debut in 1999, and was re-released on VHS in 2003 as a box set. It’s next DVD release came in 2004 as part of a box set and released again in 2005 as a standalone. The most recent DVD release was in 2008 as part of a double feature collection.

However, it’s the 2005 DVD or the original VHS copies that many people have to this day. Physical copies of Phantasm in new condition are very hard to find nowadays and major online stores run out quickly of what stocks they have. The film is available online for streaming on Youtube, among other sites, but not on Netflix or anywhere else.

Most notably, every other animated feature length film DC has made about or features Batman has been re-released on Blu-Ray disc except Phantasm. Fans had asked and begged Warner Home Video to re-release it for many years, but no word came from WB until summer 2017. In a surprise move, Warner finally released the movie on Blu-ray on July 25th of the same year.

The same goes for the equally underrated soundtrack. It’s been released on CD only twice: before the film came out in December 1993, and a limited expanded edition in 2009. Both are, as of July 2017, sold out. The unexpanded version is currently on iTunes, but I feel the expanded version is the only way to truly listen to the score. Luckily, bootleg versions exist on YouTube and similar sites.

 

As I said earlier, there wasn’t much done regarding the film’s 20th anniversary. Despite numerous publications naming it one of the best animated movies of all time and one of the best theatrically released Batman movies ever made, the lack of a major DVD release for almost a decade has led to a number of people forgetting this film exists.

So what can we look forward to when the film’s 25th anniversary rolls around in 2018? Not much as of now. While the Blu-ray is a overdue welcome and will make up for some of the obscurity, LaLa Land Records hasn’t said anything a soundtrack re-release. Regardless, the lack of knowledge about the movie further sets it apart from certain fans, who may be too young to know about this movie. If you happen to have a copy of the film, in whatever format, do not throw it away. Keep it, save it, prominently display it with your video collection, whatever. Oh, and re-watch it now and again.

Simply put, Mask of the Phantasm, as many fans of the movie have stated before me, is a film (and soundtrack) that deserves far more public attention than it gets. It’s also, perhaps, the darkest movie Warner’s animation team has ever made and it works. Christopher Nolan wasn’t the first filmmaker to use the darker side of Batman to his advantage, and its something people might give him credit for if they’re unaware of Phantasm.

Like it’s main character, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm sits in the shadows to this day, waiting, a myth to many, but to those who know it a very real masterpiece.

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