Big props go out to the team behind Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, the same talents who guided the highly influential Batman: The Animated Series. More than any other Batman feature, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm respects the character of Batman and winningly combines personal drama and clever themes with intrigue and action to tell a story in keeping with Batman's classic comic adventures. That said, the 77-minute Batman: Mask of the Phantasm—produced for the direct-to-video market but released to theatres—can't compete with the scope and spectacle of the Tim Burton films.
Animated Batman vet Kevin Conroy once again lends his gritty stylings to the Caped Crusader. In this adventure, Batman's attempts to clean up Gotham's organized criminals are disrupted by the Phantasm, a dark wraith that begins determinedly offing selective members of the mob. The police mistake the Phantasm for Batman making the vigilante a target of the media and a grudging Commissioner Gordon (Bob Hastings), both serving at the behest of hostile Councilman Arthur Reeves (Hart Bochner), a political opportunist. Meanwhile, Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany)—the ex-fiancee of Batman's alter ego, Bruce Wayne—returns to Gotham and instantly stirs up old memories.
Batman's past has always refused to stay buried (his drive to fight crime stems from the murder of his parents by a two-bit hood), but flashbacks instigated by Bruce's old flame allow writers Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, and Michael Reaves to delve into an untold chapter of Batman lore: how the Darknight Detective almost gave up his incipient life as a crime-fighter for the love of a good woman. Thus, we get to see Batman's first, tentative nocturnal outing (clad in a ninja-like outfit) and to entertain the human, emotional demands on the usually stoic superhero. Graveside, he shares a rare sentiment with his parents: "I didn't count on being happy."
The opening credits of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm accompany a computer-generated "helicopter shot" through Gotham City, but thereafter directors Eric Radomski and Bruce W. Timm revert to the familiar animated style of the animated series. By film standards, the animation is rudimentary, but the "dark deco" designs are strong, influenced by both the Golden Age Batman comics and the 1940s Superman cartoons of the Fleischer brothers. The design team gets plenty of kicks out of the Gotham World's Fair: in flashback, an optimistic symbol of the shining future and in the present day, a crumbling reminder of past glory. Overall, the dynamic action sequences and interplay of color and shadow serve the story well. (Batman fans will want to take note of Radomski and Timm's signage shout-outs to Bronze Age Batman talents Denny O'Neill and Neal Adams.)
The abandoned World's Fair, as appropriated by the villainous Joker, also takes on a sinister tenor; the shadowy past of Batman's greatest foe links him to the men on the Phantasm's hit list. As definitively voiced by erstwhile Luke Skywalker Mark Hamill, the Clown Prince of Crime is funny, but also the ruthless, insane murderer to which the comic's fans are accustomed. As such, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm isn't appropriate for younger kids, who will find the intrigue difficult to follow (economical plotting packs plenty of information into 77 minutes) and decidedly scary, with its death-dealing Phantasm and knife-wielding Joker. The dark take of the Batman animation team also eschews sunny resolution.
The assembled talents contribute to the film's heft: Shirley Walker (Danny Elfman's orchestrator and conductor on Warner's first two Batman features) delivers a knockout score, and the voice cast includes veterans Stacy Keach, Abe Vigoda, Dick Miller, and—reprising their series roles—Robert Costanzo (Detective Harvey Bullock) and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (Alfred Pennyworth). Delany stands out as Beaumont, a fiesty warm-up for her later voice role of Lois Lane on Superman: The Animated Series. In a low-rent version of the live-action feature style, Tia Carrere performs "I Never Even Told You" during the final credit scroll.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm admirably adds a proper and entertaining chapter to the Batman mythos. The resourceful detective uses his brains as well as his brawn, demonstrates the conflict of his tortured soul (the tainted vengeance of the Phantasm reflects painfully on Wayne), and concludes—much to the relief of Gothamites and Batman fans everywhere—that heroism is his tragic destiny.