The cultural impact of Batman: The Animated Series is outsized compared to its 3-year, 109-episode run. The series brought together many disparate elements of Batman stories over the years and turned them into one cohesive, stylish product that shaped the way both fans and culture at large view the Dark Knight. The tone of Batman has shifted over the years, but the Animated Series leaped off the back of Tim Burton’s gothic take on the character to make something that was mature and thoughtful without pushing away younger fans.
Mask of the Phantasm is maybe the pinnacle of the version of Batman envisioned by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini and brought to life by the late Kevin Conroy, giving Batman one of his most emotionally resonant stories with some of the series’ best performances.
And yet, the movie has been mistreated over the years, with VHS and disc releases that offered up poor transfers and incorrect aspect ratios. With the 4K Blu-ray release of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, though, Warner Bros. is finally offering up a proper release that we can put proudly on our shelves despite some notable flaws.
Packaging & Extras
This is where most of my complaints lie. It’s not that this stuff is bad, it’s just anemic. The packaging is a standard Blu-ray case with a cardboard sleeve. There’s just one disc inside with a digital code. The cover art is gorgeous but not what I would’ve gone for–I would have loved to have seen something more heavily stylized to match the look of the show.
On the disc itself, there’s exactly one extra. That’s a little disappointing, but it’s largely saved by the fact that it’s an excellent one. The half-hour retrospective on Kevin Conroy, Kevin Conroy: I am the Knight, is a loving look back at the actor’s immeasurable contributions to the character. It features many of the principal creatives from the movie and series, including art director Bruce Timm, writer Paul Dini, and casting director Andrea Romano, as well as a few actors who worked with Conroy, like Michael Rosenbaum and Melissa Benoist. If you have the kind of love for Batman that has you watching the animated series even now, this short but sweet documentary will leave you sniffling.
But again, it’s the only special feature. This disc is for people who specifically want a physical copy of the movie itself, and it doesn’t make a great sales pitch for people who just want to watch the movie and can find it on places like Max or Prime Video.
Image & Sound Quality
Note: Images in this review are not sourced from this new release.
This is truly a disc for fans of Batman: The Animated Series who want to see the show treated with the love it deserves. Here’s a line from the press release for the disc from the Warners:
“The 4K HDR 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.”
Blu-ray.com notes that previous animated releases from Warner Bros., such as Max Fleischer’s Superman, went overboard with clean-up that removed not just dirt but film grain. This is a much more authentic feeling restoration, then, that gives a clean presentation that lets you see the care taken in production without also forcing you to feel its age.
This disc features Mask of the Phantasm in its theatrical 1.85 aspect ratio, as opposed to the 1.33 ratio seen on the previous Blu-ray release, and all the film grain and cel dirt mentioned in the blurb above is there to be seen. The movie is bright and stunning thanks to HDR implementation, and there’s gorgeous detail everywhere. The texture of airbrushed backgrounds pops in nearly every scene, making environments feel that much more real, and the extra love the characters were given by the animators is easy to see.
Even the flaws of the original are easy to see, but that’s not a bad thing–it just makes it feel that much more authentic. More than once during the movie, you can see layered cels shifting independently of each other, such as a hill shaking during one of the film’s myriad graveyard scenes. Yes, it shows a bit of a flaw in the animation capture process, but it also reminds you that these frames were drawn by real humans on actual cel sheets–it’s the kind of imperfection that is quite literally impossible with today’s animation methods.
The 4K release of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is undoubtedly the best way to watch one of the strongest entries in Batman cinematic canon, whether live-action or animated.
This is the case from the audio perspective, too. The disc features not only the original 2.0 audio mix but a brand new 5.1 mix remastered from that original one. The surround track makes it easy to get immersed in the movie, with the storms and the Phantasm’s theatrical entrances surrounding you throughout.
What else is there to say about Mask of the Phantasm that hasn’t been said? Watching it as a 41-year-old adult, I can see how the movie could’ve benefitted from another 10 to 15 minutes of story to get deeper into Bruce’s (Kevin Conroy) emotions and to connect some events a little bit better. At just 76 minutes, Phantasm is barely longer than a three-parter of the animated series, and it necessarily has to move quickly.
The movie is a mix of a fully-formed Batman in the present and a much younger one on the cusp of figuring out who he is. Just as Bruce was getting his vigilante project off the ground, he met a woman named Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delaney), visiting the grave of her deceased mother. The two begin dating, only for Andrea to disappear with her father very suddenly. In the modern day, set some years later, a skull-masked being with a blade hand and smoke bombs that would impress Mysterio is killing aging mobsters, incidentally making Batman look like the culprit in the process.
Bruce’s relationship with Andrea is so deep and affirming that he begins to question his commitment to his quest. He’s barely gotten started by this time, having not even found the Batcave or designed his iconic suit. It’s undoubtedly set around the same time that Batman: Year One would be, but instead of being gritty and dark it’s a somber and emotional story about the Batman that we almost never met.
Bruce kneeling at his parents’ grave, begging them to release him from his bow is a classic, timeless moment for the character, and a true testament to just how much range Kevin Conroy brought to the character. In that documentary, they talk about Conroy treating Batman less like a superhero and more like a Shakespearean protagonist, a tragic man doomed by his own obsession to live a double life. This story delivers on that, finding both darkness and light in one of the most painful moments of the character’s life.
When Andrea leaves him the first time, Bruce is heartbroken, but it reaffirms for him that he has a job to do. When she returns, the old wound is opened all over again, but when Bruce discovers that Andrea is the one behind the mask, it re-colors his perception of her and how that reflects on him.
Having met her unmasked, Bruce asks her, “Andy, what will vengeance solve?” She cuts right through his suit down to his heart when she replies, “If anyone knows the answer to that, Bruce, it’s you.”
Andrea disappears in the huge explosion of the World’s Fair grounds, and later Batman is back in his cave talking to Alfred. Seeing his adopted son’s pain, Alfred offers up this reminder: “Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce. I’ve always feared that you would become that which you fought against. You walk the edge of that abyss every night, but you haven’t fallen in and I thank heaven for that.”
Mask of the Phantasm is an excellent, compact study of who Batman is and who he could’ve become without his promise and his code forcing him to stay true to himself for so long.
There are other great performances too that are worth mentioning. Dana Delaney’s Beaumont had to be believable as a mirror to Bruce’s quest and as someone strong enough to make him rethink it. Mark Hamill’s Joker is at his best here, too, though my favorite moment doesn’t actually come from the voice work. There’s a shot where Joker is feeling around for a weapon to fight back and he ignores a cleaver in favor of a big sausage because the sausage is the much funnier answer. I love it.
Kevin Conroy is the star of the show here, though, reminding us even 30 years later that no one will ever top his Bruce Wayne or his Batman. He brought both to life and made them separate people who happen to live in the same body; they’re as separate as they are connected. When he shifts between the two voices, especially in this movie, it’s just stunning to listen to. No other actor, whether in animation or live-action, has come even close.
If you’re a Batman fan, you already know you need to pick this up. Heck, if you don’t have a UHD Blu-ray player, here’s your excuse. This is Bruce Timm’s iconic Batman at his very best.
Disclaimer: This 4K UHD in this review was purchased with personal funds.
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