What the Max Flesher Superman cartoons in the ’40s did for the Man of Steel’s image, the 1992 Batman: The Animated Series did for the Caped Crusader. Anyone who’s played Batman: Arkham Asylum has seen this, especially with Kevin Conroy’s baritone-voiced Batman battling one-time Luke Skywalker Mark Hamill’s maniacal Joker. Released theatrically in 1993, right after the cartoon’s introduction, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is an oft-overlooked must for any Bat-fan.
Mob enforcers are dropping like flies around Gotham at the hands of a mysterious vigilante named Phantasm (Stacy Keach). Unfortunately, the “mysterious vigilante” bit has the police thinking Batman (Kevin Conroy) is responsible, and now the Caped Crusader must dodge Gotham’s finest while searching for answers. And if Bruce Wayne’s double life wasn’t complicated enough, an old flame (Dana Delany) from before his days as the Dark Knight has returned to town. But Batman isn’t the only one hunting Phantasm, as the Joker (Mark Hamill) is also lining up his sights on the violent anti-hero for reasons of his own.
Apparently originally conceived as a two-part episode of Batman: The Animated Series, Mask of the Phantasm was instead brought to the big screen. As a result, everything from the music to the sound effects gets a cinematic overhaul while still remaining true to the show’s stylized animation. The voice talents of Batman regulars Conroy and Hamill are as identifiable to fans as those of Christian Bale and Heath Ledger.
The film also benefits from some guest stars, including Delany as Bruce’s one-time beau Andrea Beaumont. Presently the star of ABC’s Body of Proof, Delany would actually go on to voice Lois Lane in Superman‘s animated series. Stacy Keach gives the Phantasm an equally ominous sound to complement his ghastly figure.
Even stronger than this film’s technical achievement is its own legacy. Mask of the Phantasm was succeeded by two direct-to-DVD sequels, Batman: Subzero and Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman. Years later, the direct-to-DVD series of releases hit its stride with Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (which itself is a review for another day). After the Justice League animated series tied up a number of subplots started in Batman: The Animated Series (including a cameo from the Phantasm in the third season), DC and Warner Bros. started periodically releasing animated features direct to DVD with professional voice acting and animation (their latest offering is Green Lantern: Emerald Knights starring Nathan Fillion, Jason Isaacs, and Elizabeth Moss). None of this would have happened, however, without the box office success of Mask of the Phantasm.
If you’ve missed out on this classic cartoon, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is your best bet to sample this stylish Bat-Signal, especially when it’s only five bucks at Wal-Mart.