“This is The Batman we’re talkin’ about here.”
In 1992 Batman: The Animated Series hit television sets all over the country. It was perhaps the biggest comeback for the Dark Knight since Adam West went camp with the cowl in the 1960’s. Yes, the Tim Burton film and its sequels went a long way to bringing the bat back into the popular culture, but the series is what took the fans by storm. Kevin Conroy became, for many, the definitive Batman when he was hired to voice the series, and Mark Hamill finally got out of the shadow of Luke Skywalker with his voice rendition of the Joker. The show was a hit, and around the early years it was decided to do a direct-to-video movie called Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm. Somewhere in the production Warner Brothers had a change of heart. They decided to roll the dice on a theatrical release of the animated feature, likely assuming the series fans would flock to their multiplexes in droves. That didn’t happen, and the film lost money even on a modest budget. But in video release it did become a hit. The studio didn’t understand that the generation that loved the show would appreciate it more in that setting. It also doesn’t help that the mid-production change meant changes to aspect ratios and other animation work that had already begun production. The end might have been a mess at the box office, but it’s a solid film that now enjoys a modest upgrade to UHD/4K. The results are admittedly mixed.
The script of the film was written by a handful of writers but is mostly based on the comic runs of Batman: Year One and Batman: Year Two. And you’ll find many elements of both runs in the film. You also get a rather nice split perspective as the film covers really two related stories over two different time periods, and the method, while awkward at times, gives it a bit more depth than just a double episode of the series, which it was also once considered for.
There’s a new vigilante in town. He’s been killing mob guys, and witnesses claim that it’s Batman. Councilman Reeves (Botchner) decides to make political capital out of the public outcry and sets out on the hunt for Batman. He’s not the only one hunting for Batman. Salvatore Valestra (Vigoda) is the don of the mob that is being taken out. He’s running scared and also trying to stop the killings because he suspects he’s on the list, and he’s right. Of course, it’s not Batman (Conroy). Batman must find a way to clear his name, and the case takes him back to the days before he became Batman. No, we’re not going to get a rehash of the shooting of Bruce Wayne’s parents (thank God). What we do find is Bruce still grieving and promising to avenge the murders. At the cemetery he meets up with Andrea Beaumont (Delany), and the two grow closer. Beaumont’s father is Carl Beaumont (Keach), who we discover made a deal with Valestra that came back to haunt him. Bruce is finding ways to put these pieces together, and these flashbacks to the past are helping him gain the perspective he needs.
These early days give us a glimpse of Bruce’s early attempts to fight criminals as a ski-mask-wearing vigilante. He’s good and can kick some bad guy can, but they’re not afraid of him, and he has to fight more because they won’t take him seriously. We watch him discover the form of the bat and really understand the moment when Alfred (Zimbalist, Jr.) sees the costume for the first time. It’s a powerful moment in the film and for me one of the most powerful moments in the many screen adaptations of the Dark Knight. All along Andrea is there, and she is also in on the secret, and that makes for another powerful moment in the film’s “present” when they meet again for the first time in many years. For an animated feature there’s a lot of chemistry here, and Kevin Conroy appears to really connect with Dana Delany, who would continue to play in the DC Animated Universe after her strong performance here.
At first the filmmakers wanted to avoid adding the Joker (Hamill). But Hamill’s voice work here was a huge part of the success of the series, so they wrote the character in as a rather small but pivotal part. Valestra hires the Joker to take out Batman, but it’s the Joker who discovers that the vigilante isn’t the Caped Crusader. It’s a good part, because that’s one character who knows Batman so well that he knows instantly that this masked figure isn’t his arch-enemy. I think it was a clever way to include the character without it looking like it was pandering to the audience.
The film can be considered as the first in the DC Animated Universe, and it certainly helped to prove the concept enough for nearly 30 films that have followed since that time. It’s an older film and doesn’t necessarily hold up visually to the more modern efforts, but it’s a nice piece of Batman history that surely belongs in the collection.
Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The ultra-high-definition image presentation is arrived at with an HEVC codec at an average of 70 mbps. The image is completely faithful to the original release, but I admit it is sometimes too good. The film was changed throughout because of the change in plans, and that leads to some interesting framing and some resolution changes. Warner Brothers has even released a statement that it was scanned in 4K from the original negative and some restoration was done but were careful to avoid messing with the grain and original production intent. This is also the first time the film has been released in its 1.85:1 aspect ratio since the theatres. With that disclaimer, there is a bit of print artifact, but I agree with the decision not to intrude too much, because I like the organic nature of the grain. The HDR delivers a nice boost in the color. It’s not a bright or vivid film, so don’t look for color to necessarily pop, but it’s solid and as close as the film source material will allow. Whatever limitations you may find here, this is as faithful an adaptation as you’re going to find, and I hope it’s appreciated. I’d like to see this be the example going forward instead of all that DNR to create a fake glossy look that removes so much character from what was originally there.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio presentation is a giant step up from both the earlier video release and theatrical presentation. Both were just 2.0, and this is a case of not messing with the mix, but bringing it alive. Improved subs give the film more depth on both action and dialog. Surrounds are not aggressive, but again are there to provide a nice depth to it all. If you want the original 2.0 track, it’s there for your selection.
Kevin Conroy – I Am The Knight: (26:08) Fans of Conroy’s Batman work will find this tribute alone is worth buying the disc. Folks from all over the comic scene talk about Conroy and his contribution to Batman and comics in general. He passed recently, so there won’t be any more from him, and this is a very emotional and fitting goodbye to one of the great ones.
I have enjoyed these animated features more than many of DC’s live-action films in recent years. This can be pointed to as where it all may have began 30 years ago. So pick it up and go back in time … “That’s it. That’s what I want to see, a nice big smile.”