The two things superhero movies often struggle with are retelling the title character’s origin story and finding an interesting way to insert a love story into an action-packed blockbuster. Writers often fail to find a way to put a fresh spin on these heroes well-worn origin stories. And the romantic plots often seem superfluous, like they were reluctantly added to the mix in order to appease focus groups and studio executives. What’s surprising about Mask of the Phantasm – the theatrical film spin-off of the much-loved Batman: The Animated Series – is how well it handles both of these facets of its story.
The film is set in a time when Batman (Kevin Conroy) is already a well-established entity, but it flashes back to his origin story. However, instead of retelling the part we already know – that his parents were gunned down outside of a theater when he was a child and he devoted his life from then on to fighting crime – it adds a new twist to the story. The flashbacks focus on a time when a college-aged Bruce Wayne was just starting out his life of crime fighting, before he had created the Batman persona. But right at that pivotal time, he accidentally meets a girl, Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany).
As he falls more in love with Andrea, he begins to doubt the path of vengeance he’s set out on. Bruce knows he can’t fight crime and have a stable relationship with the girl he loves because the risk is just to great. So he must choose one life of the other. This struggle is really a gripping one and it’s something rarely seen in a Batman story. His vow to avenge his parent’s death is a self-imposed one, but it’s one he feels he can’t break. Seeking his own happiness and putting the pain of his parents’ death behind him feels selfish and wrong to him. This conflict is far more entertaining and original than any love story I’ve seen in any other Batman film. It also helps that Andrea Beaumont feels like an important part of the story instead of just an ancillary character. Dana Delany injects a lot of personality into her voice role and the character is written well enough that you want to see more of her on-screen.
In the present day, Batman is preoccupied by a new masked vigilante who is going around killing gangsters. The Phantasm is a mysterious killer who wears a gray hood, a metallic skull mask and gauntlet with a deadly sharp blade attached to it. Making matters worse for the Dark Knight is the fact that the general public mistakes The Phantasm for him, thinking that he’s finally snapped and has started killing people. This puts him in the cross-hairs of the police and an overzealous district attorney, Arthur Reeves (Hart Bochner).
Andrea resurfaces in the present day to further complicate things. And The Joker (Mark Hamill) enters the mix with his own brand of chaos. All of these stories intertwine in a really intriguing way and the film does a good job building up the mystery of who The Phantasm is.
It also helps that the film is incredibly beautiful. The clean animation style pioneered by Bruce Timm has always looked great, but in this film they had a bigger budget to make Batman and all of the other characters truly shine. The gothic backgrounds are lovingly painted and all of the cars and other props have a really wonderful vintage style to them.
The voice cast is really great as well. In addition to Conroy, Hamill, Delaney and Bochner, Stacy Keach has a role playing Andrea’s father and Abe Vigoda plays a gangster named Salvatore Valestra. I can’t say enough good things about Conroy and Hamill’s work throughout the entire animated series and Delaney is a perfect addition as Andrea. Bochner, who is best known for his role as the slimy Harry Ellis in Die Hard, is equally slimy and entertaining in this film. Keach and Vigoda are both also as entertaining as you’d expect them to be.
This is an often overlook film in the Batman canon, but it really shouldn’t be. It’s a wonderfully told story that is drawn beautifully and acted well. And a gets right a lot of things that other superhero films have struggled with. If you have never seen it, it’s definitely worth seeking out.
- Retro Review – The Dark Knight (2008)
- Retro Review – Batman (1989)
- Retro Review – Batman Begins (2005)
- Retro Review – Batman Returns (1992)
- Retro Review – Batman Forever (1995)