This feature-length movie, based on the critically respected animated BATMAN television show, is entertaining enough when viewed as an extended episode of the series, but neither its plot nor its visuals are impressive enough to justify the brief theatrical release that BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM was given back in 1993.
The story sees a mysterious, masked vigilante killing off criminals in Gotham. Initially mistaken for Batman, the character turns out to be the Phantasm, who is actually an old girlfriend of Bruce Wayne with a score to settle against the denizens of Gotham’s underworld, including the Joker. The script shoe-horns in flashback’s to Wayne’s initial foray into crime-fighting (before he donned the Bat-costume), but the scenes have little impact other than to impress nerdy fans with the filmakers’ dedication to and knowledge of the Batman’s history.
The voices are good, and the storytelling is serious — a big improvement over the campy television series of the 1960s. But the production values are no match for the live-action feature films (even if those were somewhat bloated and ill-conceived). The character animation here is no match for Disney (it’s not even in the ballpark), and the action scenes are no match for Japanese anime. In fact, the whole thing just looks stretched a bit thin — a direct-to-video film trying to look like a theatrical feature.
The one truly great visual moment occurs during the climactic fight between Batman and the Joker, which takes place in an abandoned world fair that includes a scale model portraying a vision of Gotham City in the future. As the Dark Knight and his nemesis push each other into the miniature structures, they briefly (all too briefly, unfortunately) look like outsized titans in a Godzilla movie, battling to the death.
In the end, after this brief flash of brilliance, even the story disappoints, as the Phantasm and the Joker disappear in a puff of smoke, leaving the story totally unresolved. We know the Joker will be back, and we see that Bruce’s old girlfriend survived the struggle (and may return as the Phantasm again), cheating the audience of a dramatic ending. What the film needed was a MALTESE FALCON-type conclusion with Batman sending the girl off to prison even though he loved her: “I don’t care who loves who — I’m not going to play the sap for you…. You’re taking the fall… Chances are you’ll get off with life. That means you’ll be out again in twenty years. You’re an angel. I’ll wait for you…. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”
BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM began life as a direct-to-video feature, before Warner Brothers decided to make it a theatrical release.
Some of the story elements are lifted from the graphic novels BATMAN: YEAR ONE and BATMAN: YEAR TWO. For example, YEAR ONE shows Bruce Wayne’s initial attempt at fighting crime incognito, before hitting on the idea of disguising himself as a bat.