While being originally influenced by Tim Burton's Batfilms, Warner Bros. Animation's Batman: The Animated Series has eclipsed most live-action interpretations of the character in reputation and quality. Indeed, the qualifier used to describe just how good the series is is usually "it's the best version of the character, except for Nolan's".
High praise for certain, and that kind of praise is also directed towards the 1994 feature-length adventure Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Originally intended as a direct-to-video feature, Warners bosses were so impressed with the work-in-progress that they demanded it be released in cinemas, which unintentionally put a tremendous amount of pressure on the filmmakers, from creator and co-director Bruce Timm down.
Mask of the Phantam uses its larger canvas to tell a multi-faceted story, concentrating on the deadly Phantasm as he kills mob bosses across Gotham, Batman's ensuing chase, the Joker's own mysterious involvement, and also a look back at the first time Bruce Wayne put on the cowl. Throw in a love story and some truly giant-sized setpieces and you have a story fit for, well, the big screen.
An effortless extension from the television show, Mask of the Phantasm is somewhat unique amongst Batman movies of that time because its main focus is on Batman and Bruce Wayne, albeit threaded amongst the identity and movements of the Phantasm. The story is compelling on its own, but its impact is doubled in the way it's told, moving backwards and forwards in time and juxtaposing key events in Bruce's life. And because it's about becoming - and living with being - Batman.
In this film, a crucial new element is introduced in Bruce's transformation into the Dark Knight - a broken heart. We see several scenes of Bruce training and fighting crime as himself, including a Year One-esque scene where he goes out in a balaclava, and he is utterly focused on becoming Gotham's deliverer of justice. But that focus is pulled when he meets Andrea, a similarly lonely (and beautiful) girl who also talks to her mother's grave. Bruce's plan is distorted, and there is a moment where he kneels before his parents' towering tombstone, asking for forgiveness, saying he can give more money to the police and "it just doesn't hurt as bad. I never counted on being happy."
The smitten Bruce proposes, only to receive the ring back with a brief message saying she's moved with her father to Europe. This moment is crucially placed, and it's a final reminder; it's clear to him now. He isn't supposed to be happy. His only place is upon the dark rooftops of Gotham City, alone. His role is no longer Bruce Wayne the bachelor, the philanthropist, the lover. His role is now Batman.
And this film knows what a momentous and torturous decision this is, and it's played beautifully. Lit in shadow, Bruce puts on his outfit as Alfred watches in a mix of fascination and horror, at seeing what Bruce Wayne has come to, at the path he is about to tread. Bruce puts his hand out and Alfred trepidatiously hands him the cowl. Turning, Batman now faces Alfred, whose only reaction is one of absolute shock. His only words: "My god!" The sequence is played almost like a classic Universal horror picture, with moody lighting and heightened emotions and reality, supported by the powerful choir chanting the theme as he becomes the Batman.
In fact, the whole film has a dreamlike quality only emphasised by the flashbacks. The Phantasm himself is a ghostly apparition who appears with a wisp of smoke across misty cemetaries and deserted car parks, his voice a mix of Jacob Marley and Darth Vader. The film's (and series') retro-futuristic feel with technology in shadow adds to this, with a World's Fair from years gone by seen both in its past as a shining beacon of the future and an influence on Bruce (the concept of the Batmobile originally being a concept car may be a nod to George Barris' 1966 TV Batmobie) and in its present as a deserted ghost town, home to only one person (two if you count his animatronic wife).
Batman's brutal fight with the Joker amongst a minitaure city is a highlight, with the pair fighting like Kaiju, two giant icons on an neverending battleground with the prize being Gotham. There is no way this metaphor is accidental, given the juxtaposition and the clear understanding of the filmmakers of Batman's nihilistic relationship with the Joker.
There are other effective action scenes: a fight between Bruce and some motorcycle thugs; an intense chase scene with the Police and SWAT teams hurtling after Batman, only to be cleverly outwitted by him; not to mention the climactic Joker/Phantasm/Batman scene, which involves the Batbike and the world's biggest electric fan. But amidst all the action, the characterisation remains strong. The relationship between Bruce and Andrea is broad but works, especially when she comes back after all those years. She's able to cut to the bone of Bruce instantly, when he confronts her as Batman with suspicions about her father, with her retort "The only person I can see who's being controlled by their parents is you."
Some of the animation feels a bit rushed and sloppy, which is somewhat understandable given the production timescales. The revelation of the Phantasm's identity can be seen a mile away, but there's some clever plotting in identifying another villain using a red pencil. THe music score is wonderful, rich in scope and colour, with gothic texture and a beautiful love theme. And the voice acting is superb, with several of the actors performing in roles which still define the characters to many, especially Kevin Conroy's Batman and Mark Hamill's Joker.
Until Christopher Nolan got his hands on the caped crusader, many saw this as Batman's finest hour on the silver screen, much as the preceding series defined the dark knight for a ton of people. It's actually a fine mix between Burton's gothic fantasy and Nolan's grounded drama, with the characters - and the audience - treated as adults. Is it still the best Batflick around?
Only Batman knows for sure.