The development of a new Batman animated series had begun prior to the release of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, but it was the success of that film (as well as 1992’s Batman Returns) that allowed the show to further develop and reach TV screens in the fall of 1992. Batman: The Animated Series maintained enough of the darker tone of Burton’s films while still being acceptable for children’s programing (but with more sophisticated storytelling and thematic complexity). Under the guidance of producers Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, the series was an immediate success, which soon led to the development of a feature-length film. I didn’t get to see the film when it was originally released, and it would be more than 20 years before I got my chance. I finally got to see it on the big screen recently at a midnight showing at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York City, and the wait was certainly worth it.
1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm finds Gotham City being haunted by a new masked vigilante called the Phantasm, who has started to knock off certain crime bosses. Batman (the alter ego of Bruce Wayne) is mistakenly accused of the killings and goes on the run from the police, trying to track down the mysterious new vigilante. Wayne must also deal with the return of his former fiancée, Andrea Beaumont, and the implications of rekindling their romance. Then there’s the maniacal Joker, who’s got some deadly tricks up his sleeves in his ongoing battle with Batman.
An excellent voice cast was assembled for the film. Kevin Conroy reprises his dual role of Bruce Wayne and Batman. Other cast members from the TV show include Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (as Alfred), Bob Hastings (as Commissioner Gordon), Robert Costanzo (as Detective Bullock), and Mark Hamill (as the Joker). New voice cast members include Dana Delany (as Andrea Beaumont), Stacy Keach (as Carl Beaumont), Hart Bochner (as Arthur Reeves), Abe Vigoda (as Salvatore Valestra). The production design matches the already established look of the TV series; a 1940s art deco inspiration (often referred to as “dark deco”) that creates a Gotham City that looks both old and new. Shirley Walker, the head composer for the TV series, was brought onto the film and turned in a terrific score, complete with an expanded orchestra and choir.
The screenplay by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, and Michael Reaves deal with themes of revenge, lost love, and embracing your destiny. The Citizen Kane-like flashbacks (a nice touch) show a young Bruce Wayne torn between being with his first love and keeping the promise he made to his dead parents. The film was originally conceived as a direct-to-video film, but Warner Bros. decided to give it a theatrical release instead (this actually shortened the production schedule, which caused the filmmakers to rush to complete the film for its Christmas 1993 release). The film has a lot of violence for a PG-rated animated film (not a complaint), and the subtle (and not-so-subtle) humor hasn’t lost any of its strength. It’s a shame Warner Bros. didn’t put a lot into marketing this terrific film (that and the Christmas release date caused it to underperform at the box office). Had it done better, we could have had more animated Batman films (and perhaps all of those DC Universe animated films could have had theatrical releases as well).