Overview: Batman hunts for a mysterious figure killing mobsters and remembers a life before he put on the cowl when an old flame returns to Gotham.
Synopsis (spoilers ahead): The film opens with Batman breaking up a counterfeit ring run. One of the mobsters, Buzz Bronski, makes his escape only to be killed under Batman’s nose by a shadowy figure dressed like the Grim Reaper, the titular Phantasm, with Batman mistakenly blamed for the death and a city councilman, Arthur Reeves, lobbies for Batman’s arrest.
A party scene at Wayne Manor then kicks off a series of flashbacks involving a young pre-Batman Bruce Wayne meeting a young woman named Andrea Beaumont while also showing his first night of pre-Batman crime fighting, with less than successful results. A second mobster, Chuckie Sol, is murdered by the Phantasm in a graveyard. As Batman begins to investigate and learns that Andrea Beaumont has returned to Gotham to handle some old family finances. Batman watches Andrea have dinner with Reeves, who used to work for Andrea’s father, prompting another flashback where Bruce and Andrea go on a date to the Gotham World’s Fair and then meet Andrea’s father, Carl Beaumont, at his office, where they are interrupted by mobster Sal Valestra, who is in business with Andrea’s father. Bruce and Andrea then come across a gang of bikers stealing from a street vender and Bruce goes to intervene, but gets distracted by Andrea and is injured by the bikers as they escape. Bruce realizes that he can’t have someone he cares about in his life if he’s out risking it every night and goes to his parent’s grave in the rain to ask his parents to let him forget his vow so he can be with Andrea.
In the present, Reeves is confronted by the now elderly Velestra over the mobster murders, hinting that Reeves has some connection to the mobsters. Batman continues to investigate the murders, finding a picture of Andrea’s father with the dead mobsters, leading into another flashback where Bruce proposes to Andrea and then drops her off at home. Bruce and Andrea find that her father has a late-night meeting, as a thin man in a dark suit leans against a car outside the house and leers at Andrea. The next day Bruce finds Andrea’s engagement ring has been returned to him with a note saying that she’s leaving Gotham forever and a broken-hearted Bruce dons the cape and cowl for the first time.
In the present, Valestra goes to the now run-down World’s Fair grounds and meets with the Joker, offering to pay the Joker to kill Batman. The Phantasm then appears at Valestra’s penthouse, only to find Valestra to have been murdered by the Joker and the penthouse wired to explode. The Phantasm escapes only to run into Batman, and the two fight on the rooftops before police helicopters arrive and the Phantasm escapes. Batman narrowly escapes the police with the help of Andrea. Bruce and Andrea then speak at Wayne Manor, where Andrea explains that the night of Bruces proposal she walked in on her father being threatened by Valestra for embezzling from the mob, and that she was forced to flee the country. Andrea tells Bruce that the Phantasm is her father out for revenge against the mobsters and that she has come back to Gotham to stop him. Bruce and Andrea share a kiss and spend the night together, leaving Bruce to wonder in the morning if they have a future together before realizing the thin mobster in the dark suit pictured along with Beaumont and the rest of the mobsters is the Joker.
Reeves finds himself visited by the Joker who proceeds to poison him. A hysterical Reeves is visited by Batman in the hospital, and he admits that he helped Beaumont and his daughter leave town and after Beaumont refused to help finance his first campaign for city counsel, Reeves sold Beaumont’s whereabouts to the mob. Batman goes to Andrea’s apartment when the Joker calls to speak with Andrea as a remote-control plane from the World’s Fair speeds wired with explosives flied towards the window, which Batman narrowly avoids. The story then moves to the World’s Fair grounds where one final flashback reveals that the Pre-Joker Thin Man murdered Andrea’s father and the Phantasm, Andrea in disguise, goes to murder the Joker. A final confrontation between Andrea, the Joker, and Batman ends with Batman injured and looking on as Andrea disappears along with the Joker as the World’s Fair exploding around them. Batman has a quiet conversation with Alfred about the consuming nature of vengeance before finding that Andrea has left him a locket with their picture from happier days and Andrea is found alive, leaving Gotham on a cruise ship. The movie ends with Batman brooding on a rooftop when the Bat-Signal appears and as the theme music swells, Batman fires a grappling hook and swings off into the night.
Analysis: I think its fair to say that everything that can be said about this film has already been said, so in speaking about the actual film, I’ll be brief. What I’ve always appreciated about Mask of the Phantasm is how its Batman remains the focus of the film. Remember that this movie was made in the Tim Burton era of Batman films. I love Batman ’89 and have a soft spot for the sheer lunacy that is Batman Returns but let’s face it, Batman isn’t really the focus of either film, playing second fiddle to the villains in the story. This film is nothing if not a character study of both Batman and Bruce Wayne. The scene of Bruce pleading over his parent’s grave to take back the vow he made so he can be with Andrea is heart-wrenching. The cast, especially Kevin Conroy and Dana Delany, sell the emotion of the story and Mark Hamil’s Joker has never been better than he appears in this movie.
While I could go on and on about the film itself, this isn’t a review of the film. After years of waiting, Warner Archive Collection has finally released this film on Blu-ray in high definition 1080p. The disc itself is bare bones, with the only extra feature being the inclusion of the original theatrical trailer. Bruce Timm recently spoke at San Diego Comic Con about the Blu-ray release and stated that the entire budget was spent on remastering the movie, leaving no room for extras. It’s a shame that Warner didn’t include more on the disc, as I’d love to watch a documentary on the making of the film. I can’t imagine that loading existing content, such as a few episodes of the Animated Series, would have been terribly costly and the lack of their inclusion seems like a missed opportunity.
In speaking about the remastering, its actually very helpful that the filmmakers included the theatrical trailer as in comparing it to the finished film, you can see precisely how much work went into remastering the film. By in large the film looks fantastic. In the CGI opening of the film, buildings have more texture to them. Similarly, in the film itself the painted backgrounds seem more detailed and the colors are more vibrate. The remastering isn’t flawless, with some of the character animation becoming slightly blurry and you can make out what looks to be debris on the actual cells of animation in some of the brighter scenes of the film. There are also some errors in the original animation, such as a Batman’s gloved hand being flesh colored for a moment, that remain in the film. It’s hard to know if that’s a function of not having the budget to correct every flaw or if it is just as good as it can be given the quality of the original print.
Final Thoughts: Let me be clear here, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm takes from the very best of the Animated Series it spins out of, but rather than simply tell a 75 minute episode, Phantasm ups the stakes to tell a serious and adult story that ranks among the very best Batman stories to be told in any medium. If I was reviewing the actual film, it would be an easy five out of five.
While it’s clear, when compared to the original print of the film, that much effort went into remastering the film, the remastering is far from perfect. That coupled with the lack of extras on the disc makes this release not nearly as great as the film itself. One would assume that one day, Warner will get around to remastering the entirety of Batman: The Animated Series, and I hope that, given the massive undertaking that it would be, that the producers take the time and money to release something truly special, instead of what’s presented here. If you own this movie already, either digitally or on DVD, there’s really no reason to spend the money on upgrading to Blu-ray and I’d recommend saving your money. If you’ve been waiting for HD or just have never gotten around to watching this movie, pick it up, the film itself is worth the price of admission.