Pretty much everyone of a certain age remembers watching Batman: The Animated Series as a kid, and rather a lot of them continued watching it into adulthood; after all, why shouldn’t they? With a tone that was a great blend of the darkness of Batman with the more silly, comic book-y moments, (case in point: the episode Heart of Ice) a great voice cast and a fantastic main writer in Paul Dini, it’s often considered one of the best cartoons ever, and indeed one of the best versions of Batman ever. As such, more of this in the form of the feature-length Batman: Mask of the Phantasm can only be a good thing. It takes everything that was good about The Animated Series and does it bigger and better; it may not be the equal in spectacle of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, the success of which prompted the creation of The Animated Series, but it is overall a more satisfying film.
As the film begins, a new vigilante, the eponymous Phantasm, has appeared in Gotham and started murdering crime bosses. Because no one ever gets a good look at him and he wears a cape, people assume that Batman (Kevin Conroy) has finally snapped and started killing people. Despite Commissioner Gordon’s refusal to believe that Batman is a killer, the police force are actively looking for him, forcing Batman to deduce the identity of the Phantasm before he kills again, and clear his name in the process. Meanwhile, the last of the major crime bosses turns to the Joker (Mark Hamill) for help.
If that were all there was to the story, then Batman: Mask of the Phantasm probably wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as it is. What makes it really work is the flashbacks to early in Bruce’s career as Batman, and specifically his meeting and falling in love with Andrea (Dana Delany). The result is that we get to see a side of Batman that we almost never do: a happy Bruce Wayne. The fact that we know that, one way or another, he will become the lonely, tormented Batman makes the happiness we see him enjoying all the more tragic, especially when he considers giving up being Batman so that he can be with Andrea. The scene where, weeping, he begs his parents to release him from his vow to avenge them is genuinely up there with the tragedy of Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight in terms of pulling emotional strings.
It’s this focus on Bruce Wayne, rather than Batman, which means we get the richest characterisation that had ever been in a Batman film until Christopher Nolan arrived. It’s also one of the things which makes Phantasm more satisfying than Burton’s Batman. Now, Burton’s version is a great film in its own way, and the visuals in particular are fantastic, but the characterisation of Batman just isn’t very good: he’s barely a character at all, and has almost nothing to do in his own film, spending all his time reacting to what the Joker does; it is here, in making Batman a believable character, that Phantasm really shines.
And speaking of the Joker, it would be wrong not to mention Mark Hamill. As weird as it may seem to have cast Luke Skywalker as the Clown Prince of Crime, he is, for many people, the definitive version of the character. It isn’t really fair to make comparisons between him and Heath Ledger because they’re very different takes on the character, but it is fair to say that Hamill’s Joker remains one of the very best, perfectly balancing the funny and the frightening sides of the character. Ledger’s was the braver and more iconoclastic performance, but Hamill’s is possibly more iconic: if nothing else, it’s his voice I have in my head when I read The Killing Joke.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm bombed quite badly on release, but has since found a cult following on DVD; if you like Batman and you haven’t seen it, you really ought to. It may not be the equal of Nolan’s trilogy, but it’s not far behind; and while it isn’t as dazzling and compellingly weird as Burton’s films, it is better overall.