DirectorEric Radomski/Bruce W. Timm
Release Date(s)1993 (September 12, 2023)
Studio(s)Warner Bros. Animation (Warner Home Video)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: C+
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm may not be as well-remembered today as some of the other Batman feature films that followed in the wake of Tim Burton’s landmark Batman in 1989, but it’s one of the most significant versions of the character ever to reach the silver screen. That’s because it was based on a television series that was no less of a landmark, not just in the field of animation, but also in terms of comic book adaptations in general. When executive producer Jean McCurdy assembled a team that included Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Eric Radomski, and Alan Burnett in order to develop an animated show to capitalize on the success of Burton’s film, none of them had any idea just how influential that the results would be. Batman: The Animated Series changed the face of television animation, but more importantly, it offered the definitive Dark Knight as personified by the late great Kevin Conroy. It was inevitable that Warner Bros. would want to expand the world that they created into a feature, but that process wasn’t without a few hiccups along the way.
The script for Batman: Mask of the Phantasm by series veterans Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, and Michael Reeves borrows liberally from the books Batman: Year One and Batman: Year Two, while still telling its own distinctive tale in the process. The series had provided a few glimpses into Bruce Wayne’s past throughout its run, but it never directly addressed Batman’s origin story. Mask of the Phantasm used the existing mythology from the series, as well as bits and pieces of the books by Frank Miller and Mike W. Barr, in order to forge its own version of how Bruce Wayne became Batman. Rather than creating a prequel in the mold of Year One and Year Two, the writers opted to handle Batman’s origins in flashbacks. They created a new character, Bruce Wayne’s old flame Andrea Beaumont, and used her as the hook in order to provide glimpses into Wayne’s memories of his early days. As a result, the story for Mask of the Phantasm alternates between the present-day hunt for the mysterious Phantasm, and Batman’s own shadowy past.
That approach wasn’t without a few minor flaws, but most of those are by virtue of the fickle nature of the film’s development process. Mask of the Phantasm was originally intended to be a direct-to-video release, but partway through production, Warner Bros. decided to upgrade it to a theatrical release instead. That decision resulted in some last-minute practical changes, like having to recompose the animation for widescreen. More importantly, it really should have required a different working methodology. The story had been pieced together by the various writers, with multiple directors working on different segments: Kevin Altieri, Boyd Kirkland, Frank Paur, Dan Riba, Eric Radomski, and Bruce Timm. That process worked fine for the leisurely nature of a DTV movie, but a theatrical feature would have benefited from a more streamlined pipeline with a clearer central vision for the story that it wanted to tell.
As a result, Mask of the Phantasm isn’t as tightly focused as its follow-up, the DTV feature Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero. While SubZero lacks the production values of Mask of the Phantasm, its narrative flows a bit more smoothly due to a better sense of direction, and it arguably offers the single most emotionally satisfying moment in Batman history during its bittersweet coda. However, that moment will only be rewarding for fans of the series who can understand what it truly means. Mask of the Phantasm works far better as a standalone tale, and it’s a great introduction to the DC Animated Universe for anyone who has never experienced what it has to offer. The series had opened cold with its first episode On Leather Wings, dropping viewers into an already established Batman universe, but Mask of the Phantasm offers the background that some viewers may crave.
Fortunately, while the upgrade to a theatrical release did change a few elements of the production, the classic voice cast remained intact. Series veterans Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Bob Hastings, Robert Costanzo, and Dick Miller all returned, joined by the likes of Dana Delany, Hart Bochner, Stacy Keach, Abe Vigoda, and John P. Ryan. (Delaney would end up becoming a recurring member of the DCAU family, voicing Lois Lane for Superman: The Animated Series.) While Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and all the rest deserve their fair share of credit for bringing Batman to animated life, casting and vocal director Andrea Romano remains arguably the single biggest genius behind the entire series and all of its follow-ups like Superman and Justice League. Romano had a knack for teaming up actors who had never worked in animation with seasoned voiceover artists, and creating an environment where they could all do their best work together. Plus, she’s the one who’s responsible for gifting Kevin Conroy to the Batman universe, and that fact alone has secured her place in history.
Freed from the constraints of Broadcast Standards & Practices, Mask of the Phantasm is much darker and far more violent than the television series ever could have been. Multiple characters are actually killed off during the story, which is something that wasn’t allowed to happen on the show. Among other things, viewers were finally treated to the fatal results of Joker’s laughing gas rather than simply having victims laugh themselves into a coma. Freed from artificial constraints of network censorship, the stakes feel higher here than they ever did before. The box office failure of Mask of the Phantasm in 1993 may have been partially due to audiences dismissing animation as "kid’s stuff," which is ironic considering the directions that Joel Schumacher had taken the live-action films in that era. Mask of the Phantasm is far more mature than either Batman Forever or God help us, Batman & Robin.
Of course, animation has always been just as capable of telling of any kind of story that live action can. It’s an art form with limitless possibilities. Bruce Timm and company had already proved that repeatedly with Batman: The Animated Series, and that’s why it remains a landmark in television history. They proved it again theatrically with Mask of the Phantasm, producing one of the best representations of the Dark Knight to date in any media. It’s essential viewing for film fans, animation fans. and comic book fans alike. Batman remains a remarkably resilient character, capable of being molded into different forms to suit the needs of the popular zeitgeist at any given moment, but this iteration remains one of the most truly timeless of them all.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was produced via traditional cel animation and photographed on 35 mm film by Sung-Il Choi. Just like the television series, the actual animation was handled overseas, in this case primarily by Dong Yang animation in South Korea, with some sequences handled by Spectrum Animation in Japan. A few elements were rendered digitally before being output to film, and the entire Gotham City flyby during the opening credits was also digital, but the bulk of the work was cel animation. While the full 35mm frame was exposed for home video releases at 1.33:1, it was matted to 1.85:1 for theatrical release. Previous widescreen DVDs and Blu-rays reframed that to 1.78:1, but for the first time since LaserDisc, it’s presented here at the correct 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. (More on the subject of aspect ratios in a moment.)
While Warner Bros. doesn’t always provide much detail about their restorations, in this case, their press release states that “the 4K HDR/SDR remaster of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was sourced from the 1993 Original Cut Camera Negative and was scanned at 4K resolution. Digital restoration was applied to the 4K scans to remove dirt, scratches and additional anomalies, but special care was given to not touch the film grain or the animation cel dirt that was part of the original artwork.” That’s an accurate representation of the work that was performed, because there are no remaining signs of any actual damage to the original elements, but all of the cel dirt and other animation artifacts have been left intact. (At one point, there’s even a small hair or other fiber that moves from frame to frame during the shot, but it was left alone since it’s always been there.) As an animated production, there aren’t necessarily extreme levels of pictorial information visible in 4K since the artwork itself wasn’t quite that detailed, but the textures of the materials themselves have been rendered beautifully. Under the supervision of designer Ted Blackman, the background paintings were done on black paper instead of white, and the artists utilized airbrushes and even sponges to create extra texture on the paper. Those textures really stand out in 4K, and combined with the film grain, they serve to create an image that feels more tangible than many other animated productions. Note that there are shots all throughout the film that were zoomed in optically in order to create different framings, so those appear softer than the surrounding material, but that’s how they’ve always looked.
The High Dynamic Range grade (only HDR10 is included on the disc) accentuates the colors without exaggerating them. Some of the reds. blues, and purples look slightly more intense here compared to the old SDR Blu-ray, but not in a way that deviates from the original design. The black levels are genuinely deep, and while the expanded contrast range offers better defined gradations between light and dark, make no mistake: there’s no hidden detail within the blackest parts of the screen, and that’s by design. Welcome to the real Dark City of Gotham.
Now, back to the subject of aspect ratios. Since Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was originally intended as a DTV release, the project began with everything framed for 1.33:1. When that plan changed midstream, it was still framed at 1.33:1, but with the image protected to work matted at 1.85:1. That means that some shots do seem too cramped at 1.85:1, but others have dead space at the top and bottom of the frame at 1.33:1. It’s not even quite that simple, either, since while the 1.33:1 version does show more information at the top and bottom, the 1.85:1 version has more information at the sides. All of that means that regardless of personal preference, there really isn’t a perfect aspect ration for Mask of the Phantasm. The DVD and Blu-ray versions offered separate versions at 1.33:1 and 1.78:1 in order to let people choose for themselves, but this 4K restoration was performed for the theatrical 1.85:1 version only. If it had to be one or the other, Warner Bros. made the correct choice to prioritize the original theatrical release. While it would have been nice to have had both, a separate full frame 4K version would have entailed extra expense, and frankly it’s amazing that Mask of the Phantasm has received a 4K release at all, especially one this good. We’ll take it.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, as well as French and Spanish 2.0 Dolby Digital, with optional English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles. The 2.0 track is the original Dolby Stereo mix from 1993, meaning that it’s a four-channel mix matrix encoded into two. The 5.1 track is a new discrete remix using the original sound elements. While the dialogue and many of the effects were anchored to the center channel in the Dolby Stereo version, they’ve been given added directionality in 5.1. That’s readily apparent as soon as the opening credits end, when the camera pans right toward a building on the side of the frame, and the voice of Chucky Sol (Dick Miller) can be heard panning left toward the center as the camera locks in on the building. In the Dolby Stereo version, his voice is centered the whole time. Sound effects have also been repurposed to create split surrounds instead of Dolby’s mono surround channel. Thunder can be heard coming out of the right or left surround channel, and when the bats fly free from under Wayne mansion, they pan around the viewer. While it’s possible that some new effects have also been added, for the most part this is simply an expanded version of the original mix. Purists may insist on sticking with the 2.0 track since it’s the theatrical audio, but please do give the new 5.1 version a listen before passing judgment. Regardless of which one that you choose, the late great Shirley Walker’s score is reproduced equally well. (As a side note, the opening choral version of her classic Batman theme from the television series may sound like Latin, but it’s actually the names of her support crew and various members of the animation staff with the syllables sung backward.)
The Warner Bros. 4K Ultra HD release of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is UHD only—there’s no Blu-ray included in the package, although there is a Digital Code on a paper insert tucked inside, as well as a slipcover that matches the new artwork on the insert. While the Blu-ray release of Mask of the Phantasm was bare-bones aside from a trailer, this time a single new extra has been added:
- Kevin Conroy: I Am the Knight (HD – 26:08)
With Conroy having passed in late 2022, offering a new a tribute to him was the least that Warner Bros. could have done. Conroy appears via archival interview footage, joined by the likes of Bruce Timm, Andrea Romano, Eric Radomski, Paul Dini, and Dana Delaney. There are also appearances by Justice League voice actors George Newbern and Michael Rosenbaum, producer/writers Michael Uslan, Geoff Johns, and Jim Kreig, plus publisher Paul Levitz and Supergirl actor Melissa Benoist. It’s a nice overview of the impact that Conroy had on everyone with whom he worked, to say nothing of what he meant to his legions of fans and admirers. They also discuss his status as a gay actor working at a time when it was still difficult to be open about such things. At one point, the featurette displays a vintage photograph taken during the recording sessions from the television series, showing the old gang clowning around together: Conroy, Mark Hamill, Paul Williams (The Penguin), Aaron Kincaid (Killer Croc), Arleen Sorkin (Harley Quinn), Diane Pershing (Poison Ivy), and Richard Moll (Two-Face). The Nineties doesn’t seem like that long ago, but Kincaid, Conroy, and now Sorkin have already left us by this point, so it’s a sad reminder about the implacable march of time.
I Am the Knight isn’t exactly the full making-of documentary that Mask of the Phantasm deserves, but it’s still a big step up from the previous Blu-ray and DVD releases. As always, of course, the film’s the thing, and in this case Mask of the Phantasm has never looked or sounded as good as it does here. The fact that the 1.33:1 version hasn’t been included may be disappointing but it’s still understandable, although Warner Bros. could have at least partly staved off criticism by including the previous Blu-ray in the package instead. That disc is still readily available, however, and the odds are that most people who are considering buying the 4K version already own the Blu-ray anyway. Hang onto it if you prefer 1.33:1, but if you’re a fan, don’t pass on this 4K UHD. It’s a definite upgrade, and it’s the best version of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm that we’re likely to get. Highly recommended.
- Stephen Bjork