Mask of the Phantasm 4K Review: Batman Unfocused

In the years before Christopher Nolan, most comic-book fans would prove their cred by saying that Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was the best Batman movie. Though it briefly appeared in half-empty theaters circa Christmas 1993, probably because general audiences figured they had that same animated Batman on network TV at home, it has only gained respect since.

Nowadays, fans are more likely to cite Nolan’s The Dark Knight as tops, but the truth is Mask of the Phantasm is still better in many ways and certainly the truest Batman movie to the comics, or at least the comics as they existed at the time. It’s been out on Blu-ray for a while now, by itself and as part of the complete animated series box set. At last, it’s 4K’s turn.

Tears in the Rain

Mask of the Phantasm probably wouldn’t have passed muster with producers as a live-action Batman flick, for all its imagination, emotion, and careful plotting, largely because it’s kind of a bummer. A beautiful bummer, but nonetheless a movie in which Batman essentially fails, and nobody gets what they want: not him, not the Joker, and not the new villain Phantasm. It offers up the best and most to-the-point Batman origin (and even a sort-of Joker origin) without showing Martha’s damn pearls yet again, and makes for a textbook example of how to bring new characters into the story so that, unlike in, say, The Batman, we don’t automatically know that the bad guy has to be either a Sal Maroni or Carmine Falcone because they always are.

If directors Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm and writers Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, and Michael Reaves had specifically planned to appeal to dateless teen boys (as I was at the time), they couldn’t have done much better than to offer up a plot in which young Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) gets cruelly, casually dumped so hard that he leans all the way into the life of a scary loner hero. Superhero stories are power fantasies for the disempowered, and while the live-action movies at the time depicted Bruce finding love and family figures, Mask of the Phantasm makes him, and by extension the viewer, feel stronger with fewer attachments, even as there’s a heartbreak at the root of it.

Cape vs. Cape

Loosely based on elements from the comics Batman: Year One and Batman: Year Two, whose villain the Reaper served as a proto-Phantasm, the movie sees Batman challenged by a spooky, new caped vigilante in town who kills people, leading many to believe Batman’s gone nuts. The victims all connect to the father of Bruce Wayne’s former true love Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany). She promptly shows back up in Gotham to manage dad’s affairs and stoke sparks with Bruce once more. This time around, as she well knows, he’s kind of married to the cape, so the connection is not so easily restored. Just to make things even trickier for all involved, one of the mobsters on Phantasm’s hitlist has since become the Joker (Mark Hamill, darkly channeling Cesar Romero in a manner that most fans seem to like more than I).

One of the better scenes from the 4K (image approved for this review by Warner Bros.)

Stacy Keach, Abe Vigoda, and Dick Miller are among the special guest voices, and exactly the sort of character actors you’d hope would show up in any kind of Batman movie. Conroy remains the definitive study in how to do different voices for Batman and Bruce Wayne without sounding throat-impaired, and he delivers both the most vulnerable take on Bruce and his most forcibly controlled Bat-facade, only occasionally lashing out at Alfred (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) because he can get away with it.

Mistletoe Can Be Deadly

Perhaps because we see the unhappy ending and awkward reunion as well as the sexy beginning, the Bruce-Andrea matchup remains the most convincing Batman love story in any movie. Sure, we’re once again forced to believe that he has yet another ex out there who knows his secret and will never tell, but this particular Batman already had a track record that told us this isn’t the norm for him, as it had become with the Burton-Schumacher take.

The opening credits offer up a CG version of the Animated Series Gotham City, simply because they can. The rest of the movie, however, is strictly 2-D, with no obvious, incongruous intrusions of clashing styles. The Bruce Timm designs for the characters and city remain consistent with the noirish animated TV show that spawned the movie, and while DC arguably overused that style in subsequent cartoons, the Max Fleischer-meets-Tim Burton look works for this story. It’s matched by Shirley Walker’s not-quite-but-nearly Danny Elfman score; a far superior thematic companion to the O.G. than Elliot Goldenthal’s work on the Joel Schumacher films.

Er, Just One More Thing…

So the movie’s still great, and you can still get hipster cred for naming it the best one. But is the 4K worth it, especially since most fans of this Batman likely already have the Blu-ray? Sad to say — but perhaps happily for your disc-buying budget — the answer is no.

According to the press release, “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. This is the first time since its theatrical release that it is presented in its 1.85 aspect ratio.”

That’s hard to believe when you watch it. While not unwatchably so, plenty of shots are slightly blurry. It looks like they did try to scrub the grain and made slightly out of focus moments even more so as a side effect. That, or they blew up the Blu-ray transfer. The overall palette has also been muted, with the reds, for example, less bright and eye-hurting, but the Joker scenes suffer for it. All the recent DC 4Ks, including the restored Fleischer Superman shorts. look much sharper. It boggles the mind that we can’t get this movie to look better than WWII-era cartoons.

Almost Bare Bones

As for the extras, there’s a bonus Justice League Unlimited episode on the Blu-ray featuring a Phantasm cameo and a new documentary tribute to Conroy that focuses on his initial audition, his process, Mask of the Phantasm in particular, and the way his life as a closeted gay man helped him relate to the whole secret identity duality. (One wonders, in hindsight, why Joel Schumacher couldn’t tap into that at all). It’s a worthwhile watch, but the only movie-related extra for a disc that deserves a commentary track and much more. Conroy may be gone, but most of the other key players remain, and their insights in light of what came later might be significant.

The best Batman movie? Perhaps. The worst theatrical Batman movie 4K home presentation? Definitely.

Movie: 5/5

Disc/extras: 1/5

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is now available on 4K disc.