Batman: Mask of the Phantasm - The Best Dark Knight Movie No One Saw

The Dark Knight was not the first great Batman movie. Neither was Batman Begins - in fact, years before Warner Bros. brought Christopher Nolan in to revive their marquee franchise, another group of talented film-makers delivered what is still, to many, the definitive on-screen version of the character. And if you're a fan of the character and haven't seen Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, you should be ashamed of yourself. Right now seems an ideal time to bring this topic up, as Batman: The Animated Series just celebrated its 20th anniversary (completely unmarked - for SHAME Warner Bros.) on the 5th of this month. And this show deserves serious recognition. Desperate for a quick kid-targeted cartoon to support their Batman brand in-between movies, WB landed on animation vets Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski to run the new show, and gave them a surprising amount of creative freedom to go with an enviable budget. Drawing inspiration from the Tim Burton Batman films as well as the Superman cartoons of the 1940's by Max Fleischer, the show adopted a retro-future vibe with an art deco Gotham, vintage designs for props and vehicles (including police blimps), and black-and-white title cards. The decision was also made to paint the show on black paper, giving rich dark tones to the images, the likes of which hadn't really been seen in kids' shows before. In fact, The Animated Series (or TAS) was unlike traditional children's cartoons in many ways. There was none of the product-driven toy focus of 80's shows, and very little of the naked sermonizing of 90's 'toons. The show just focused on telling compelling Batman stories, often with serious (if sometimes simplified) psychological underpinnings and many times featuring "lesser" members of Batman's expansive rogues gallery. The amount of violence and "adult themes" really pushed the envelope for a "kid's show" at the time. Then with Mask of the Phantasm, Timm and Radomski really got to cut loose. Phantasm was initially planned as a direct-to-video collection of a three-episode spin-off of TAS, but partway through the project the decision was made to up the budget and go for a theatrical release. The script was a huge step up from the show, combining elements of Frank Miller's Year One comic with romance and a mystery centered around an original antagonist. Batman is getting blamed for the deaths of mob bosses (committed by an unknown cloaked figure) even as he deals with the return of "the girl that got away," and we see flashbacks of his one serious romance inter-cut with his first steps into crime-fighting. And into this mess steps the Clown Prince of Crime himself. All this wrapped in a lean, sublimely-paced 73-minute running time. Interestingly, Phantasm employs many ideas that The Dark Knight Trilogy used more than a decade later: Bruce's early attempts at vigilantism and his search for a way of striking fear into the hearts of criminals. The war on the mob and Batman being hunted by the police for a string of murders related to it. A loyal manservant who desperately wants his master to put aside his grief and anger and live. A woman who plays a defining role in the choice to become the Batman. Hell, long before Nolan's films spelled it out, voice actor Kevin Conroy understood that Batman is the "real" personality, Bruce Wayne is actually the disguise. Conroy's performance gives Bruce a light, cheerful tone that utterly vanishes when he's not in "public" - he sounds like Batman when he's talking to Alfred, whether he's in the suit or not. And Conroy's hardly the the only talented vocalist in movie. Dana Delaney (Lois Lane from Superman: The Animated Series) is a great romantic foil as Andrea Beaumont, and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. is stunning as Alfred. And by now no one should have any excuse for not knowing the other role that Mark Hamill is most famous for. I'll be honest, I've never cared for certain live-action incarnations of the Joker. Ceasar Romero's was a shade too goofy (and mustachioed) for my taste, even in the context of the whacky Adam West series, to be a credible thread. And as fun as Jack Nicholson is, his Joker was just Jack in make-up finding new ways to be "craaaaaaazy!" Not until Heath Ledger's legendary turn as the character did I see a live-action Joker that really inhabited the character so dangerously. And - once again, for the sake of posterity - the gold standard I was comparing him to was Hamill's interpretation of the legendary criminal. It's not just his distinctive voice, though the fact that you could go decades without ever knowing that the guy who played Luke Skywalker also voiced the Joker says tomes about Hamill's vocal range and talents. But there's something about his Joker that almost makes you want to laugh along with him, an unhinged contagious mania that underlines every monstrous acts he commits. And while Hamill doesn't go quite as dark in Phantasm as he did later in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (another must-see), he does some genuinely terrible things in a PG family movie. Frankly, the film as a whole goes courageously dark for what was ostensibly a "kid's cartoon." While not graphic, there's quite a bit of violence in the film including on-screen killings, dead bodies, blood, and some very obvious implied sexuality. A lot of more adult elements are subtext (there's nothing like the infamous "pencil trick"), but these grim edges really ground the stakes of the film, even though it on ever existed on ink and paper. Striking a consistent tone is tough enough to do in any animated movie, but Phantasm is approaching some Pixar-level heavy stuff (years before Pixar themselves got this heavy), and does it with a deft hand, always mindful of its entire potential audience. There's also some very clever symbolism to be found - I don't want to give away too many plot points for the uninitiated, but the finale of the film is simply too brilliant not to mention. The themes of past, present, and future play heavily in the movie (a good third of it takes place in flashbacks), and in the third act everything comes to a head in the dilapidated ruins of the old Gotham World's Fairgrounds where a "Gotham of the Future" exhibit has fallen into decay. In its heyday it played host to a romantic sojourn of star-crossed lovers Bruce and Andrea, but now is lair to the Joker. He is the linchpin in the tragedy of their relationship, working to destroy them even as he detonates the Gotham Fairgrounds with a mass of high explosives. He literally and figuratively sets their future on fire. The movie was a financial disappointment upon release, making a paltry $5 million at the box office and do this day hasn't seen a Blu-ray release (seriously Warner Bros., do SOMETHING for its 20th Anniversary next year!). But Phantasmhas gathered a passionate cult following, largely made up of fans of the show, who place the film on equal (if not better) footing with anything in Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy. And I'm one of them - this movie has held up remarkably well over the years. While many 90's cartoons (shows and even some animated movies) show their age, Mask of the Phantasm has aged gracefully with smooth animation, clean, iconic character designs and what is, for my money, still the best soundtrack ever to grace a Batman movie. This film and the series that birthed it deserve a better legacy than being forgotten, lost in the wake of Nolan's movies and WB's new scramble to match profits with Marvel's unprecedented continuity experiment. The popularity of the Bruce Timm shows found its way into comics that inspired them - the character of Harley Quinn originated in the cartoon and is now DC "canon." And video games like the Arkham series traded heavily on the involvement of series writers like Paul Dini and returning voice actors in key roles. It's even arguable that Batman, Superman, and the other shows that made up the DC Animated Universe are what kept superheroes popular enough to be financially "worthy" of continued live-action blockbuster films. WB had managed to cinematically destroy the Batman brand by the time Batman and Robin was released, and hadn't had success with a Superman project since the early 80's. Not only did Batman and Superman thrive in their animated forms, but the move that Bruce Timm made to bring together multiple animated properties to create Justice League and Justice League Unlimited more or less pulled an "Avengers" years before Marvel began their own team-up franchises. But aside from all that, the movie itself is just really damn good. Since the end of Justice League Unlimited, Timm and company have been exclusively doing direct-to-DVD animated movies for WB/DC - and while some of them have been very good indeed (a couple are even great), none have yet surpassed this nearly two-decade-old freshman effort. So if you're one of the uninitiated, definitely give Batman: Mask of the Phantasm a watch. If nothing else, it can can help provide a caped crusader fix while we wait for WB inflicts their inevitable reboot on us.
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Brendan Agnew has held jobs as a salesman, a fraud investigator, a credit card supervisor, and a teacher, but writing is always what's kept him sane. He's a life-long film/TV and literature enthusiast, a lover of interactive entertainment (that's a pretentious way of saying video games), and a full-time nerd. The only thing he enjoys more than immersing himself in all things nerdy is the opportunity to drag someone else in to the wide world of geekdom, kicking and screaming if necessary. If you don't think your daily feed is bloated enough already, you can follow him on Twitter: @BLCAgnew

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