As far as animated Batman flicks go, few endure and endear the way 1993's Batman: Mask of the Phantasm so clearly has. Explosive, propulsive, and evocative — this gorgeously rendered adventure outlives and outlasts so many of the Batman films that came before and would come after. What's more, the film is further bolstered by knockout voice performances by Kevin Conroy and #MarkHamill, two titans who have become the definitive iterations of Batman and the Joker, respectively.
Mask of the Phantasm serves as a suggestion, an expertly given piece of advice to every filmmaker tasked with adapting the Caped Crusader for any screen. Bruce Timm and Paul Dini are seasoned yarn spinners, but it's Hamill's Joker and Conroy's #Batman who do most of the heavy lifting here. They bring such fun, such fervor, to their roles that it's difficult to imagine a reality where they turned down the parts for other things. The two share a chemistry that borders on magnetism; they're incredible apart, but together they cannot be stopped.
Despite the fact that she plays second banana to the Joker in the film's final act, the Phantasm manages to cement herself as one of the most iconic Batman villains ever conceived. A ruthless killer who haunts her victims before granting them a swift exit, she represents an evil that Bruce Wayne helped create.
At first the Phantasm resembles an enigmatic spirit straight from a very corny, very dated Scooby-Doo cartoon. The whole “vanishing in a cloud of smoke” thing has been a trademarked exit strategy for villains for as long as films have been a thing. However, it quickly becomes evident that none of Scooby's adventures, not even the best ones, could possibly boast the complexity of the Phantasm.
Here is a villain cut from the same blood-stained cloth as the greatest, most memorable antagonists to have ever graced the silver screen. Her relationship with Bruce deepens the intrigue; their history functions as a necessary device that helps make her transition into the Phantasm more believable and tragic.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm showcases a Joker performance of such caliber, such quality, that it's difficult to imagine anybody else tackling the role and doing as great of a job. Hamill's take on the Clown Prince of Crime is frequently lauded as one of the most compelling versions of the character in any medium, and it's absolutely because of displays like this one.
An archetype of cartoonish menace, Hamill's interpretation keeps his schtick kid friendly while still indulging the darkness that helps define the character. The balance he strikes is a difficult one, but he pulls it off with all the competence and confidence necessary to nail the role. He brings passion and panache to a performance that requires neither but benefits greatly from both.
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While this Joker was originally tailored to children, his villainy extends far beyond what was considered appropriate fare for youngsters. Beneath the gags and giggles lurks something so subtly sinister, so viciously vile, that Hamill's layered performance becomes incredibly important in shielding adolescent viewers from the downplayed (but still present) hate that characterizes this #Joker. The kids enjoy and embrace the silliness while the adults immediately pick up on the less obvious, less appropriate aspects of the character.
Because #MaskofthePhantasm functions as a silver-screen supplement to the animated series, it's not unreasonable to expect more of the same from everyone involved. That's not a bad thing, but it definitely explains the surprise many felt when they realized that this movie, this masterpiece, puts itself in a league of its own and brings us a Joker performance that differs greatly from the one seen in The Animated Series.
Here is a Joker who can adapt to and evolve with a story's tone, especially when a tonal shift acquaints viewers with a new side of him. He's come a long way since the “Christmas with the Joker” episode, which saw him rocketing through the roof of #Arkham Asylum on a Christmas tree while his fellow inmates looked on in awe.
Even with the added dynamic between Batman and the Phantasm, it's difficult to tear our love (and attention) away from Hamill's Joker. He shows up halfway through the movie, but his commanding presence and darkness are as shocking as they are welcome.
Batman's long, storied relationship with the Joker is fraught with complications and conflicting motives. It's a decades-long dance that will likely stretch on as long as comics exist, and Mask of the Phantasm simply functions as another song. A beautiful song.
What can I say about #KevinConroy's Batman that hasn't already been said a hundred times before? His voice, clear and strong, is as iconic now as it was 20 years ago. Why? Because it helped paint Batman as a hero who was strong yet vulnerable, stern yet kind, and angry yet subdued. Conroy tackles the difficult job of conveying Bruce's inner torment with aplomb, leaping between moments of deeply felt sadness and barely contained anger with the skill and savviness of a master.
Phantasm functions as a searing, sophisticated event film that shines a telling light on Bruce and his inner machinations and motivations. Never before had the character been depicted in such a dark way, and never before had Conroy been tasked with delivering a performance that was as powerful as it was nuanced.
Like every great Batman story, Mask of the Phantasm bleeds. It bleeds for its emotionally battered protagonist, whose commitment to justice begins to look more like masochism that anything else. It bleeds for its “villain,” who embarks on a quest for retribution against the diabolical Joker. The film's taut narrative packs itself tight with carefully conceived twists, compelling characters, and heavy themes that all merge into a beautifully made, emotionally satisfying film with the staying power of a bona fide classic.
Tell me about your favorite Batman and Joker iteration in the comments below.