Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Directed by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski
February 23-24 at Nitehawk
Swooping into theaters almost 20 years ago, barely detected between Tim Burton's gothic-freak Batman movies and Joel Schumacher's camp-spectacle revamp, Mask of the Phantasm remains a stealth contender for best Batman movie ever. Its flashback-intensive structure, nesting the story of a young Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) and his nascent vigilante days within a mystery tied to the return of his ex-girlfriend Andrea Beaumont, certainly foreshadows the more sophisticated approach Christopher Nolan would bring to the material years later. This sophistication also involves rejecting the tendency of other 90s Batman movies (save Batman Returns) to turn Bruce Wayne's girlfriends into quick-fix psychological solutions; Andrea, tartly voiced by Dana Delaney, has her own set of motivations and complications. The movie also weaves in the Joker (Mark Hamill, giving his most vital non-Skywalker performance) as a supporting character, rather than a movie-stealing supervillain.
Mask of the Phantasm began as a direct-to-video feature, spun off from the popular Batman: The Animated Series, and its value-priced roots show. The animation, while stylish, falls somewhere between TV and theater-ready; it's nicer than the former but not always up to the standards of the latter: art-deco Gotham appears underpopulated, but maybe the lack of cartoon extras is meant to underscore Bruce Wayne's loneliness and solitude, which are surprisingly foregrounded for family-friendly entertainment. The animated setting and a 77-minute running time (trim for a feature, mega for a half-hour show), do allow Bruce Timm and company, even with budget constraints, to mount bigger, more striking action sequences, like a climactic melee set at the abandoned (again with the solitude!) Gotham World's Fair.
For all of its success in short-form animation, both with Looney Tunes in the 40s and 50s and the 90s TV revival that supported Batman, Warner Brothers has never found its footing in feature animation. Mask of the Phantasm suggests an alternate reality of adult-friendly animated action dramas—a niche seemingly taken over a decade later by live-action.
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