Retrospective

Often considered not only one of the best animated Batman films but also one of the best Batman films period, Mask of the Phantasm didn’t receive all of the love and attention that the other theatrical Bat-flicks did. The decision to turn it theatrical came well into the film’s production and as a result the film wasn’t originally conceived to be as “epic” as it could have been. Still, fans were delighted and critics generally loved it, although the eventual box office intake would prove to be disappointing, despite receiving a Christmas Day release. Marketed simply too much towards children, the film never had a hope of attracting the more mature audience it deserved based solely on the trailer.

In fact, that may have been the film's biggest issue. The trailer, which can be viewed here under the “Backstage” area, is perhaps one of the worst conceived in the history of film. Horrible cutting, unfinished sound effects and dialogue and just an overall shoddy production made this film look truly like a giant waste of time. It’s not even worthy to be a trailer for a DTV, which it was originally conceived to be, as it simply made for some truly head-scratching viewing; why is Batman’s “greatest danger” followed up with a clip of him turning the corner and looking at an empty door and why are random clips thrown together with no cohesion? Why is Phantasm his greatest threat? What exactly is this film even about? You wouldn’t get an idea of that from the trailer and parents likely didn’t want to suffer through what they assumed would be a lifeless film, so they simply chose not to go.

Then again, the budget for this film couldn’t have been much more than three or four episodes, as the animation didn’t receive any real bump in quality, so the $5.6 million it did make at the box office probably more than covered the entire production and marketing budget the film received. Of course, to me the fact this film had anything to do with Batman was more than enough and my six year old self was dying to see it. My household was strict on what we were allowed to watch and the animated series was off limits due to all of the reports that my parents read about the violence level and as a result I wasn’t allowed to see it during its original theatrical run. Yet for some strange reason when it hit VHS down the line, my dad bought it for me and to this day I can still remember going to Wal-Mart to buy it and taking it home to watch it. I remember the exact spot I sat down to watch it and while I don’t remember much from my first viewing, I do remembering just loving it. And also being kind of confused as to what was going on with all of the flashbacks and whatnot, but what did I care? It was Batman and I’d finally gotten to see it after all of these years. From then I would watch the film a ridiculous number of times, wearing out the VHS tape and putting creases in the cover, spine and pages of the accompanying comic book adaptation that was included with the original VHS release. In many ways I ate, slept and dreamt Phantasm for years as that was the only animated Batman I was allowed to watch, which is quite baffling and a testament to how screwed up my parents censoring of what my eyes saw was: Phantasm was leagues in violence and scary imagery past what you saw on the animated series itself, so in essence I’d already seen the worst that the show had to offer before anything else.

But, as I said, I was six at the time. This is all retrospect and, thus far, has jack squat to do with the film itself. In the course of doing this retrospective I knew I’d get off track and talk about my own experiences with the film rather than the film itself, but that’s what helps you appreciate these things more, isn’t it? Growing up with them and then dissecting the hell out of them later on if you’re so inclined. Many of my strongest memories of Batman as a kid stemmed from this film, whether it was the aforementioned first viewing of it on the upstairs 13” TV that sat in the corner or finally finding the Phantasm figure produced in the toy line. In fact, I picked her figure up before I even saw the film and I can remember being surprised by finding out that it was a woman underneath the costume based on the figure alone. For months I looked for that damn figure and I would always come up empty, with a sea of Batmen from the line and the occasional rocket pack Joker to be found, but never Phantasm. Then there she was one day (also at Wal-Mart…that was a truly great store to me when it came to fueling my childhood desire for everything Batman) and I was really ecstatic to get her. The figure then of course became the “every female” each time I played with my figures, since Kenner’s ability to make female action figures was nearly non-existent. “They never sell!” they say. Sure, then why did it take me forever to find Phantasm? Quit putting one to the case and maybe kids would’ve had something more to play with…

But enough about my play habits as a kid (I could go on, really…my best friend and I had some truly memorable times with the myriad of figures and batmobiles I had). Phantasm, in essence, is really what started my entire love affair with the animated series. While it would be Return of the Joker that brought me to The World’s Finest and, in essence, that’s the reason why I’m even writing this today, Mask of the Phantasm is the “one” that started it all. As I grew up and continued to watch the film, I picked up on the adult tones that went over my head when I was young and began to watch it for more than just the violence of it. I slowly began to unravel the intensity of the relationship between Andrea and Bruce and by my teen years I’d already seen the film well over two dozen times. At that point it became second nature to me that I’d watch it repeatedly simply because it was like a tradition.

What kept me coming back to Mask of the Phantasm, even after watching the entire animated series and the subsequent New Adventures and Batman Beyond was that it was a truly unique Batman story for the series. Never again did we see Phantasm (well, we did later on, but I’ll get to that) in the animated world and it really made the film feel “special” in that regard. It was such an adult focused story, with nary a line thrown in for the kids outside of Joker’s segments (oddly enough, he was just about the only ray of light in this film), that it managed to distance itself from some of the goofier animates stories seen in the series itself. Phantasm was a unique character and we never saw Batman’s emotions breakthrough in the same way again. No doubt Alan Burnett, who devised the story, is the one really responsible for this as the six stories he wrote for the animated series were some of the most emotional and darkest episodes of the entire series. Not to say no one else had the same impact that he had, but if Burnett hadn’t devised this film with the love story driven plot, I doubt it would have much resonance as it does among fans of the series.

Then of course there is the animation for this film. While it’s not remarkably better than what we see from the animated series (and in fact isn’t even as good as some of its best), the whole tone and construction of the film in terms of visuals is astonishing. Some of the city shots as well as the graveyard sequence are elements that were never again seen in the film and Gotham itself came alive like we hadn’t seen previously either. Often in the series we saw more of the “slum” areas of Gotham, but in the film we saw the grander, more expansive Gotham. In fact, I dare say we saw more of downtown Gotham in this film than we ever had, with the daytime sequences with Arthur Reeves and Salvatore Valestra showing off a side of Gotham we’d never seen previously. While it’s definitely not incredibly impressive because of the animation included, the inclusion of various new background plates and locations still remains to this day as the film’s most unique elements that set it apart from the rest of the series. Graveyard, highway, downtown, the “World of Tomorrow” and even the end sequence with Andrea on the boat showed pieces of Gotham that were never again seen. Just about the only thing that was similar was the batcave, but that’s to be expected. Oddly enough the fact that this film was later re-framed from 4x3 to 16x9 doesn’t even crop up and I have a hard time deciding whether to grab the 4x3 version as opposed to the 16x9 since there’s more animation to be seen in 4x3. Truth be told I actually grabbed both, but ended up using the 4x3 version only on the website; perhaps if we ever get a new remastered release I’ll include widescreen shots as well, as the current transfer available for this film on DVD is grainy as hell.

As riveting as the visuals or action of the film is, however, nothing can compare to the character of Phantasm herself. A solid mystery is kept and it’s one of few films that can genuinely string the viewer along as to the true identity of Phantasm and this same device was later used in Return of the Joker with the red herring being a character played by Mark Hamill (who obviously also voices The Joker). Though I may be glamorizing it with my memory of it as a child, but the revelation of Phantasm never seemed all that obvious, even if I did already have an action figure telling me who it was. On top of that everything about the character was deeply emotional, from her relationship with Bruce to her reason for becoming an assassin. As rushed as this film’s production apparently was, I am truly surprised by how tight the plot is in this film; none of it feels half-assed or unfinished and I truly feel that this is still one of the best efforts from the crew of the animated series. Could it have been better? Yes, everything could have, but even looking at the film with rose tinted glasses on after all these years of watching it, I still fail to find anything wrong with it. And that’s actually very hard for me to do, especially in terms of animation, as after loading the image database on this site up with images from each of the animated series, I’m still able to watch Phantasm without picking up on glitches or story quirks that feel odd to me.

Truly, everything from the story itself to the performances by the voice actors here (and all of them do an absolutely fantastic job) help make the film what it is and what it continues to be today. But another driving force for my enjoyment of this film was the soundtrack, composed by the late and absolutely wonderful Shirley Walker. This was one of few animated CDs released for the various DC animated series (and, only recently have we received a soundtrack release for BTAS after all of these years) and it was one I repeatedly listened to when I was young. As previously stated, Phantasm was everything to me at the time and I picked up the soundtrack to it pretty early on. I probably listened to this score about as many times as I watched the film and everything from the opening chant to the climatic final music of the Phantasm/Joker/Batman battle still gives me goosebumps to this day. Words cannot express the level that Walker’s score alone brought this film up to, as it not only set itself apart from the animated series, as the settings of the film itself did, but the composition of everything period just blew me away. Down the line I had the chance to listen to the extended score for the film and was surprised by how much music was left off of the official soundtrack release (and I’m also listening to it as I type this and find it interesting how I can follow the entire film along, shot for shot, including audio effects, by listening to the isolated score). Hopefully we can see a full official release at some point, but I’m just glad that the films score itself was made available as it is some of the best music to ever grace the beautiful animation that this series consistently brought us. In an odd twist, there is also a song with lyrics that accompanies this film and is performed by Tia Carerra, most known for her role as the girlfriend in the Wayne's World films. An odd place for her to perform to be sure, yet the song itself is rather touching and fits the tone of the film. I couldn't imagine it playing during the film itself, but as an end credits piece it works.

While this film was originally being produced under the auspices of a direct-to-video feature, it still managed to feel a great deal more powerful than the standard animated episode of the series. The general animation, yes, was about the same, but the story, characters, music and locations of the film were all unique and are elements that help make this film continue to be the classic it is. Sure, I’m romanticizing this all and probably trumpeting up the film more than many others would, but that’s only because I essentially grew up with this film. More than Burton’s flicks or the Schumacher films that followed, Mask of the Phantasm influenced my love of Batman more than I ever realized. It wasn’t until I began work on this website did I realize how much time I’ve invested in just this film alone—and I haven’t regretted a single minute of it.

Of course, Phantasm’s reach didn’t stop at this film. There was an official follow-up in the “Batman & Robin Adventures Annual #1” (review) that continued her story. Not only was it written by Paul Dini, but it also featured art by the late Mike Parobeck, possibly one of the best artists to ever draw the animated Batman. The issue included a very touching letter from Paul Dini that discussed his time working with him and to this day it can bring a tear to your eye, as it’s clear from the special that a lot of time and effort was put into it and Parobeck’s work really shines. Of course driving the story was the return of Phantasm and it’s about as fantastic and exciting as you would expect, complete with a new mystery about the identity of a new Phantasm in Gotham. Admittedly if the film was a follow-up in animated form it may feel a bit weak, as I honestly believe that Phantasm worked best simply because she was a single appearance and never heard from again so the mystery surrounding her was kept alive.

Fortunately I’m about as fickle as the next bat-fan, so every appearance that she had after the Annual was still met with joy. Sadly there would only be two more appearances afterwards, with a three issue run in the fan-adored Batman Adventures (review) series by Dan Slott where she once again returned to Gotham and became a member of Black Mask’s gang before once again disappearing from Gotham. Finally she showed up in Justice League Unlimited’s “Epilogue” (review), which marked her return to animated form with the briefest of appearances. It didn’t matter though…any Phantasm was welcomed and her surprise appearance in “Epilogue” sent my jaw agape as it was something I thought I’d never see. True that whole episode was one giant fan-gasm after another, but Phantasm’s appearance really took the cake as it kind of solidified that she, in fact, did exist post-Mask of the Phantasm in the animated series. Considering she never existed outside of the comics, it was also a bit fishy where she fit in in terms of DCAU canon, but since the entire thing wrapped up with her in what was presumed to be the DCAU’s swan song, then it all felt right and brought a very satisfying cap to it all.

Even with her continued existence in DCAU comics and animation, I can’t help but feel a bit surprised she hasn’t cropped up anywhere else. Harley Quinn made the jump from animation to comic book canon effortlessly, yet Phantasm has yet to show up in the comics at all. Perhaps DC Comics has too much respect for the character (though considering how they’ve frankly bastardized others, I don’t think that’s really the case) to use her in a story arc, but I honestly think canonizing in the comic book would hurt nothing. It’d provide a believable story to use in the comics and since we’ve resorted to flat out killing Batman now, I’m sure they’re going to need something to get people to pick up the comic again (I know I’d rush out to pick it up, even if it was just a simple re-telling of the animated film).

But, again, that might just be me wanting more Phantasm, so who knows. I could very well be alone in thinking the above is a good idea.

In the end I don’t think you’ll find anyone who really has a bone to pick with this film. In all aspects it is quintessentially the “perfect” animated telling, with engaging and original characters, brilliant visuals, a great story and absolutely riveting music to accompany it all. With the film now fifteen years old this December 25th, 2008, now has never been a better time to get out your copy of Mask of the Phantasm to enjoy. I am of course saddened that we’ve only a lackluster DVD release from 1999 to watch, as Warner Home Video has curiously made no move to re-release this film. It is incredibly surprising that no effort was made this year, as not only was it celebrating its 15th, but the theatrical release of The Dark Knight would have been the perfect thing to tie this to. One can hope down the road we see a new DVD release complete with commentary and all that good stuff, but until then the near-ten year old DVD release will have to suffice. So before the year ends, sit back, pop in Mask of the Phantasm and help celebrate the films fifteenth anniversary. I doubt anyone would ever object to watching this film one more time.

-Zach Demeter
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