The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
For DC fans looking to find solace in a better era, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm hits 4K UHD in a modest special edition this Tuesday thanks to Warner Home Entertainment. The 90’s animated series – theatrical outing originally hit theaters in 1993, where I caught it at my local dollar theater – remember those? The film came out about a year into the life of the animated juggernaut that ran for nearly a decade, and was originally intended as a direct to video adventure for fans of the show. But given the show’s success, a last minute decision was made to release it theatrically, where it stumbled at the box office due to this last minute change. The film has since found its audience on home video, where it became a mainstay for fans of the series who, like myself, see it as one of the best Batman origin stories ever committed to film.
The film is a love story of sorts, that has Batman (Kevin Conroy) trying to figure out who is killing big crime bosses in Gotham. The problem for Batman is the killer is a fresh masked vigilante in Gotham called the Phantasm, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Batman’s black caped appearance. Because of this, those that have been waiting for the vigilante to break his code of never killing, think he’s finally lost that restraint and is now on a killing spree and needs to be stopped at all costs. This just so happens when Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany), a mysterious woman from Bruce Wayne’s past returns to Gotham after having to flee when her father got in over his head with the Gotham mob before Bruce put on the cowl. While Batman gets to the bottom of the Phantasm’s reign of terror on Gotham’s underbelly, we get a flashback of the origins of this Batman showing us how close he was to hanging up the bat-suit thanks to Andrea.
What I think makes this one of the best origin stories is, for one we aren’t forced to watch pearls scattering in an alley while a young boy looks on, like we’ve seen countless times. Instead we watch a young man who after unexpectedly falling in love is being forced to make a choice of whether or not to keep a vow and a course he set before he thought happiness was an option. I think not only is that choice a bit more relatable, it’s played against Bruce looking back on this after he’s made a name for himself in Gotham. While Kevin Conroy’s iconic Batman is definitely the star here, Dana Delany’s Andrea Beaumont is a formidable presence in the film, as someone who could have changed Bruce’s life and we as an audience actually believe that compared to some other leading ladies in this canon. While the Phantasm is what got butts in seats, the tragic romance of Wayne and Beaumont and how that plays out sealed the film’s status as one of the best.
The 4K UHD presented by Warner is the best case scenario in my opinion when it comes to a traditional animation’s visual presentation. No recoloring/touch ups have visually been done and instead Warner’s attention was focused on capturing the best image possible from the source, which looks to be the original negative. This is from the color, to the contrast to the grain still present, along with brush strokes. I love when I am watching an animated film and I can make out the way a cell was painted, or the cell layers or the composting tricks used in a shot. That kind of clarity is on full display here and given the animation and art style of the show, there’s a lot to take in. The only special feature is a doc on Kevin Conroy, which is a posthumous look at his influence he’s had on the role while voicing Batman in almost every media you can imagine.
At 76 minutes Batman: Mask of the Phantasm manages to do more than most 3 hour super hero epics, because it just focuses on the humanity of these characters and that’s where most superhero films falter. While it is this story of the new big bad coming to Gotham, which alone could be a plausible narrative, it’s the love story that highlights how Bruce Wayne got here that drives the heart and soul of the film and that’s not an easy task in this sub-genre or animation. Bruce Wayne feels his most human here, since the love affair transpires before he’s been hardened by decades of patrolling Gotham and he hasn’t completely given himself over to the bat. I think that what if and seeing how Bruce found the character of the Batman makes this a different origin story. Because while he has made the vow and he has decided to fight crime, in the flashbacks the idea of Batman is just that, and it just so happens when he meets the love of his life.