By Jarrod Jones. Enter into any manner of discussion about the Batman, and invariably the conversation will steer towards what is potentially the most contentious argument any two fans of the character will ever have: what is the superior Batman film? What makes a superior Batman film?

While there are few who will throw Joel Schumacher’s much-maligned Batman Forever and Batman & Robin into the ring of favored opinion, directors Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan have both secured their own seminal interpretations of the Caped Crusader – Burton has his monstrously gothic Batman while Nolan has weaved a morally complex and arresting tapestry in The Dark Knight. Both films have strident, zealous disciples in their respective corners, and the films that surround them – Burton’s Batman Returns and Nolan’s Batman Begins – add more froth to both camps’ protective rhetoric. It’s an argument that may never see an end.

This fervent squabble contributes to why Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm feels like an underdog in this nerdy dispute, mostly because – in spite of the seemingly innocuous, kid-friendly animation – it’s a film that just might be (yes, let’s put this in italics) one of the best Batman movies ever made. Consider this: Mask Of The Phantasm was a film originally meant for the straight-to-VHS market, suddenly pumped into theaters to little fanfare on Christmas Day, 1993. It’s a film that flew so far under the radar that even the most ardent fan of Batman: The Animated Series seems surprised when they’re told the movie actually had a theatrical run. (Even Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert missed it when the film hit mulitplexes.) When it had every reason to be forgotten and tossed into the murky well of nostalgia, Mask Of The Phantasm remains one of the most beloved Batman movies ever made. When one watches the film, it’s easy to understand why.

In telling a story that ties in to the wider DC Animated Universe while heightening its more adult-oriented sensibilities, Mask Of The Phantasm takes the formative years of Bruce Wayne and drags them disastrously into his crime-busting present – think Frank Miller’s Year One by way of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane by way of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. (Even the film’s villain appears to be modeled after – as Mark Hamill’s Joker puts it – “the ghost of Christmas Future.”) It’s a story where even the slightest suggestion might trigger a flashback, a plot device that is utilized to such brilliant effect that it never feels repetitive or redundant. There’s a vital strength in the film’s ability to navigate such a tricky narrative minefield, and Phantasm‘s writers – Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, and Michael Reaves, all Batman: The Animated Series alumni – unravel the film’s mysteries tightly, confidently and briskly. (Seriously. How they tackled a movie with this much intrigue in just under 77 minutes boggles the mind.)

Mask Of The Phantasm drops the viewer right in the middle of the heightened art deco reality of Batman: The Animated Series (dubbed “dark deco” by the show’s creators), a world where the Batman (Kevin Conroy) has been firmly established as a horrible creature of the night with a less-than tenuous relationship with Gotham City’s police force (given form by Robert Costanzo’s Detective Bullock and Bob Hastings’ Commissioner Gordon). There’s a comfortable, by-the-numbers feel to Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm’s confident direction, and everything from small scenes featuring Bruce and Alfred (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) palling around in the BatCave to the animated fluidity of Batman smashing a counterfeiting ring is depicted with the same kinetic energy that was frequently on display in the classic television show.

With the filmmaker’s creative freedom and a feature length’s narrative room to play around in, these workhorse animation veterans show how concise the medium of an animated film can truly be, and because of this, there is a seeming effortlessness to Mask Of The Phantasm. The story is succinct and trim, but never sparse: we start in present day, where the Batman is stymied by a nameless, ghostly nemesis whose ratty robes strike a passing resemblance to the Dark Knight’s own winged capes, which causes a problem for the crimefighter when witnesses keep spotting a caped figure standing over the carcasses of Gotham’s most notorious gangsters. A city-wide manhunt for the Batman is led by devious councilman Arthur Reeves (Hart Bochner), who has ties to Bruce Wayne’s former flame (and would-be fiance) Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany, who would go on to be Superman: The Animated Series‘ Lois Lane), and Andrea’s morally and financially compromised father, Carl Beaumont (Stacy Keach).

Andrea’s return to Gotham City creates a dilemma for Wayne, who realizes that even though his career as a crimefighter has all but killed the possibility for a normal life, her very presence brings all kinds of long-repressed emotions to the forefront of his thinking. (Fresh from years of training but still toeing the water of vigilantism, the film’s sequences depicting a younger Bruce Wayne falling in love with Andrea make Wayne’s metamorphosis into the Batman all the more damning.) Causing further distress to our cowled hero is the slow, creeping feeling that Andrea and her MIA father are more closely linked to the masked killer than anyone can know.

Compounding the Batman’s plight is the Joker (Mark Hamill), an effective foil whose hilariously haphazard appearances keep the film from lapsing into overt melodrama. But the Clown Prince of Crime is never used for simple broad humor; thankfully Hamill’s Joker is as fearsome and malevolent as any other interpretation of the character. This Joker isn’t shoehorned into the movie.  He kicks the door in and makes himself at home. (The screenplay even makes the borderline blasphemous move to infer a vague, but sinister, genesis point for the Joker that fits snugly into the film’s inner workings without betraying the core concepts of the villain.) As the plot begins to forcibly swirl around the malevolent mirth-maker, everything and everyone careens toward an inevitable (and surprisingly violent) showdown that makes victims out of everyone. By the time the film ends, no one is left unmarred.

Even with its cackling, murderous clowns and flying Bat-jets, Mask Of The Phantasm will never be confused for light entertainment: the film’s themes evoke moods of a more sophisticated fare, perhaps of the ancient, sordid film noirs of yesteryear that obviously inspired the look and feel of Phantasm‘s lurid saga. That’s one thing directors Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski got right about Batman that most other filmmakers never understood: in the world of noir, much as it is with Batman, there isn’t much room for happy endings.

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