Batman: The Animated Series and its role as the starting point for the DC Animated Universe are well-known and fondly remembered by its fans. Decades later, the various shows that formed the DCAU have ended while others have come and gone. Even now, fans are more concerned with DC’s live action interconnected film universe and the next movie starring Ben Affleck’s as the Caped Crusader than what was done more than twenty years earlier, despite its superior quality. For example, the first DCAU movie set in the same realm as Batman: The Animated Series, Mask of the Phantasm…
You could be forgiven for not knowing of this film, although that would mean you had not experienced one of the best Batman stories of any medium. It doesn’t approach Grant Morrison’s acid type encyclopedia-obsessed run with the character, nor Scott Snyder’s blockbuster arcs pushing the mythological aspect of the property. Instead, this is a film that shows who human Batman is, while at the same time what pushes him beyond human strength and weaknesses.
Released in 1993, Mask of the Phantasm was following Tim Burton’s Batman films as well as continuing what the cartoon had done with the character: deep characterization, stark color hues, and complex stories. To a ten year old, the movie was an introduction in post modern storytelling with numerous flashbacks, failed romances, corrupt public servants, and callous villains. To modern viewers, this would seem much more common yet no less well executed.
This post is not meant to be a review of the movie, nor examine its psychological analysis of the character such as Michael Mazzacane did last week. Instead I wish to illustrate why its important outside of Batman: The Animated Series or even Batman himself: it was the peak of the DCAU films, and has never been topped.
In fairness, this movie had the talent behind the best Batman cartoon ever and wasn’t even supposed to be given a theatrical release. Yet, it had both and an argument could be made that this is the greatest Batman movie ever. However, both are beside the point. The DCAU continued long after Bruce Timm and company had been depicting Batman in his solo adventures, and in its current state is a poor man’s exercise in adapting DC’s New 52 stories.
Comprised mainly of straight-to-DVD releases, the DCAU films “officially” run from Superman: Doomsday to the recent Teen Titans: The Judas Contract (which is not a New 52 story, but is set in a similar continuity like its predecessors). While a step up from other offerings from other companies, the objective quality of the DCAU films varies so wildly that I often scrutinize if each one is worth my personal time viewing.
Mask of the Phantasm represents a genuine attempt by its production team to tell a stand-alone story of Batman, in human terms of loss, revenge, and letting go; without the desire to set-up sequels or other in-Universe synergy. As such, its a quality film even twenty four years after its release and easily surpasses every film that has preceded it in the DCAU. While its story components have been used before (Joker as the villain, a violent vigilante paralleled with Batman, a love interest that divides Bruce Wayne and Batman, etc) and since, they’re singularly used in the film to craft an engaging tale that feels original.
The DCAU teams have certainly done enjoyable films after Mask of the Phatasm, and there should be no question of their individual talents in making animated features, the fault that they haven’t been as good as one made two decades ago is more than likely the fault of Warner Bros. for not giving them an opportunity to make one.
If there’s any consolation to be had, Warner Bros. has re-released Batman: Mask of the Phantasm on Blu-Ray so that it can be enjoyed by fans old and new. With any luck, fans will show support by buying the film in the hopes that executives will see the untapped potential in their animated film division, and how it can deliver stories truly fitting of the characters.