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Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is an Origin Story for the Ages

This poster fucking rules
This poster fucking rules
Image: Mask of the Phantasm movie poster (Other)

Something that unites everyone on the TAY forum is our love of discussing what has influenced us from pop culture. Video games, anime, board games, and the nostalgia in media is worth dissecting, discussing and discoursing with each other over and over again. We all have that thing that makes us light up. That thing that makes us want to create accounts for the reader-run portion of a video game news website and write about it.

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For me, that thing will always be Batman: The Animated Series. I’m a person of a certain age (31) who grew up on reruns of this show. To me, this is peak Batman. It’s exciting without being overwrought, simple but still smart, and nuanced in ways that aren’t immediately apparent. This show was a major feat in animation in the early nineties and still holds up in some pretty major ways.

I grew up playing my cousin’s NES and SNES and eventually had a Game Boy Color, Nintendo 64, GameCube and Game Boy Advance of my own. Throughout high school, I played video games less and less frequently as I became more involved in after-school activities like church and theatre. I would always love them, but they were less of a priority heading into college. Sure, I’d play Smash Melee pretty much every night and even dabbled with having a DS Lite, but my video game habits were nothing like they were.

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Somewhere in the middle of all this I heard about the development of Batman: Arkham Asylum. It must have been a stray copy of Game Informer or something (approximately half of anyone who has ever set foot inside a GameStop in their lifetime will sporadically receive issues of Game Informer in the mail despite never remembering actually signing up for it). All the pieces were there: much of the original voice cast, the original writers and producers of the show were involved, a team that cared passionately about how Batman and the mythos were represented. It seemed like a slam-dunk.

Fast forward ten years or so and the Arkham trilogy has become one of my favorites. Something to return to when I don’t know what to play next. A constant in a life that has not been so stable lately. But between rewatching the show and replaying the games, there’s another piece of the puzzle that I completely forgot about: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

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My wife and I were doing our favorite quarantine activity- scrolling through Netflix, what did you think I meant?- when we saw Phantasm. My wife mentioned that she’d never seen it, but that it looked like the cartoon. I said yeah, it’s a movie based in the universe of the Animated Series. I had probably seen it once or twice as a kid; I’m almost certain I had an action figure based on the villain of the movie, the titular Phantasm, or I knew someone who did. So we decided to give it a shot.

From the opening seconds, this movie sets a tone and sticks with it. The credits do a tremendous amount of work for everything to come, similar to how the intro for the Animated Series sets up every episode. I assumed that the music for Phantasm was composed by Danny Elfman, who also did the intro for the Animated Series. Turns out it was Shirley Walker, who just completely knocks it out of the park soundtrack-wise.

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This movie feels like the ur-origin story for Batman. I was impressed by how it’s all in here: snarky Alfred, great action, the best Joker of all time, great Bat-vehicles... Having consumed a lot of Bat-media over the years I wasn’t sure how Phantasm would hold up. It does.

There are two scenes in particular that stick out to me. This first is pretty early on, and it’s not a scene that even has Batman in it. Bruce Wayne is hamming it up at a charity ball in his mansion, and women are throwing themselves at him. But then a woman walks up and throws a drink in his face, and just lays out what’s wrong with Bruce. Obviously he’s acting nonchalant, but the way the lines are delivered, you can tell what she’s saying stings him. Most Batman movies have a scene like this but for me, the writing of this particular scene feels honest, straightforward, and effective in a way that serves the characters and the themes of the movie.

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The next is legitimately one of the best and most tense scenes in animated Batman history: this short hospital scene. Maybe the best example of Joker toxin ever put to film. Yeah, it’s a trope at this point, Batman sneaking into hospitals to interrogate patients who wouldn’t otherwise talk to him, but this scene hits every note perfectly. It’s a little funny, a little scary, and it moves the plot forward; just perfect all around.

At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about the Joker just being a random gangster who just becomes the Joker; but at the end of the day, this works for me. I’ve always liked the fan theory that Heath Ledger’s iconic portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight probably spent some time in the military; in this animated world, I get the sense that yeah, this Joker probably did come up from the streets. Of course, it helps that it’s Mark Hamill, and anytime he voices the Joker I’m pretty much instantly on board.

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I don’t have much else to say beyond “good movie is good” but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed rewatching Mask of the Phantasm. The pacing is a little slow but it feels intentional. I love the animation; to me the Bruce Timm character designs will always be my favorites, but I get how he’s not for everyone.

My wife loved it too; she’s a Batfan as well but this movie welcomes all comers. It’s both a perfect introduction to what made the Animated Series so special as well as a great movie in its own right. If you’ve got an hour and twenty minutes to kill and want to hear an amazing nineties-era slow jam in the end credits, do yourself a favor and check out Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

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