Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a film. It’s a fairly good film, quite solid even. It’s a standalone story based on the early 90s Batman cartoon, retroactively called The Animated Series, which delves into the past of its main character and how ghosts from that past have come back to haunt him and a handful of other people tied to that past.
Like the TV series, it’s a very classy affair with a real sense of atmosphere created through the soundscape, delivering mostly naturalistic vocal performances, showcasing quiet scenes that let things breathe, and punctuating the major moments with Shirley Walker’s dramatic and ethereal score. It does the same in its visuals, utilizing dark colours and pitch black shadows to convey a compelling moody tone. While the animation can often move a bit too much without purpose sometimes, there are plenty of scenes where the right expression is nailed or it’s saved by well-composed and even inventive shots.
It’s a very to-the-point film in its construction, utilizing a fairly small cast and cutting directly to scenes that clearly define what’s going on with the characters, though it’ll often leave that up to the viewer to realize for themselves. It’s also a film that seeks to feel hollow, with this sense of loss which permeates throughout the present, and contrasts with the more hopeful if tense flashback sequences peppered throughout. Things can’t end well, no matter what anyone might try. While it means that that it can be difficult to “enjoy” the film in a more traditional sense, it makes for a strong enough mood that has the potential to linger after all’s said and done.
It is also a film that I feel nothing for. I can observe what it’s trying to do, and how it does those things well, but I can’t muster up any passion for it. That goes for the TV series too; this isn’t some anomaly in terms of quality – it’s probably among the best, if not THE best, in terms of presenting what made this cartoon so compelling to the point of being annoyingly ubiquitous. But compelling to other people. Not to me.
Back in the early to mid 2010s, as part of my early days as a fan of animation, I spent a lot of time trying to get into beloved cartoons that I always heard people consider to be medium-defining classics. And for much of that time, it never really worked out like I hoped it would. Either the cartoons would be considerably more mediocre than I expected (which happened a lot since I was often digging into American toons from the 90s), or they’d be perfectly fine – even solid or maybe very good – but I’d have no personal passion for them.
Among the latter was Batman: The Animated Series. If you’re adjacent to even the furthest peripheries of American cartoons or super hero comic books, you can’t breathe for people bringing up this show, how much of a legacy it’s carried in the perceptions of either medium to this day, and how much they love it. I remember watching the series very briefly on a pair of VHS tapes and one DVD as a kid, and I was curious to know if I’d feel the same way since it sounded like it could be.
I did give it a good try as much as I was able to, with only the first 50-odd episodes available on an incomplete DVD release in the Ireland/UK area and a Mask of the Phantasm DVD to go on when I didn’t know how to pirate cartoons. But no matter how often I watched them, as well as listening to commentaries, and checking out making of videos and online reviews praising the series, they never resonated with me.
That bothered me a lot, along with the other shows I could clearly acknowledge were good yet felt nothing for. I felt like I was missing something, and for reasons I could never pin down. To this day, I still can’t quite figure out why the 90s Batman toon doesn’t endear itself to me. Back then, I was frustrated with myself over this, and was convinced it was a personal failing or a mistake: I’m supposed to like this thing and I don’t, which means I screwed up. Being a deeply self-conscious teenager with regular bouts of existential terror didn’t help.
As time’s moved on, things changed. I grew to better understand and accept that how I feel about things isn’t invalid just because it’s not what I’m expected to feel, and I did eventually find cartoons that I love and cherish in a way that other people love and cherish the Batman cartoon. I also took in other perspectives, more detailed ones that helped me to better understand what works and more open-minded ones which gave me new avenues to consider.
I have no interest in rewatching the TV series, but I was curious to see how Mask of the Phantasm fared as its own thing, after all this time. The opening paragraphs are what I observed from this latest attempt, and I hadn’t previously been able to think about the film like that. Why I ended up rewatching it at all is probably worth noting to, as it was something I felt I could comfortably watch with my dad.
For whatever reason (usually something from my own internal nonsense), I don’t often feel comfortable watching cartoons with my parents – but I was somehow okay putting this on. I think it’s because there’s a real dramatic flair, with its film noir-inspired stylings and grounded stories, that it pulls off with aplomb. Again, something that the 90s Batman toon frequently managed despite the often stodgy animation or occasionally middling episode, and I think that’s part of its enduring appeal.
The Animated Series is one of those shows that’s often recommended to people who don’t really watch cartoons, alongside the original Ghost in the Shell film, Cowboy Bebop or Avatar: The Last Airbender, because it does things that grab your average not-cartoon fan’s attention and could get them to see the medium in a whole new way. These cartoons never did that for me, but then I ended up finding cartoons which did reshape my perspective (and even my life) so it all worked out anyway.
I moved on from 90s Batman because I wasn’t passionate for it, and that’s perfectly okay. The only reason I should want to revisit anything from it is if I’m genuinely interested in giving it another shot, to see if I can discover something new. The worst that’ll happen is that nothing changes.
Nothing changed on this watch in terms of my pure passion, but I did find new things to appreciate or at least gave me a better understanding as to why other people love Mask of the Phantasm, and the 90s Batman cartoon as a whole, as much as they do. For the second worst thing that could happen, I’d say that’s pretty damn good all things considered.
FrDougal9000 writes for hardcoregaming101.net as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.