It’s ironic how this animated feature appears more “human” when fleshing out the origin of The Batman than Christopher Nolan’s otherwise live-action retelling from Begins (2005). Sure, this classic superhero formula of balancing and ultimately prioritizing between two identities or two desires is 101 exploration for the genre, especially when looking at this movie today, but isn’t that kind of scenario almost unavoidable when put practically? If a masked superhero existed in our own world, wouldn’t that have to be something they’d be required to deal with? Therefore, the romantic, almost In a Lonely Place (1950) formula of tragedy, is warranted in position with Bruce Wayne choosing between being the Batman and this other desire, and that sort of intimate integrity in Mask of the Phantasm, for which all people go through, lacked a bit for me in Nolan’s adaptation when it comes to how it showcases Wayne disassociating his arising desires with a code of justice inspired by partially misguided love for his parents.
Personally, it’s difficult to judge or to seek entertainment from this movie without constantly paralleling it to all the other cinematic Batman material that has been produced. For one, it’s unavoidable to deduct how similar Mask of the Phantasm is to Tim Burton’s Batman Returns: the whole concept of trauma being the burden that disables people from being happy, the joining of similar caped crusading minds who have the potential to be together but instead choose their identities in a rage to seek vengeance and fulfill a completion in their vigilante roles — oh, and Batman being framed part a-million by one of them. Yet, Returns also had more to it as well, for better or worse depending on who you are.
Obviously, it’s hard for me to overlook how creative and resourceful the animation is for a 90s Warner Bros production, especially in its action sequences, but the fairytale look of Burton’s set aesthetic and composition is just too strong for me not to prefer. More importantly though, there is more diversity to the types of characters Returns has, one being that they all commit terrible things that are however terrible for different reasons, and it leaves that sort of moral confusion up for the audience to debate themselves. Mask of Phantasm has two of these going on, and while they’re arguably clearer and further defined than Returns’ scenarios and will impress many fans especially with its one on Wayne, Returns in this case just has more of those character dissections going on behind the scenes, which some could argue is me preferring messiness for mature clarity, but I guess I’m just drawn to the cluster of Returns rather than the orderly of Phantasm. This is a rare case where the abundance of quantity rings as quality to me.
Apologies though that this review basically turned into a comparison between this and Returns, but Burton’s sequel did happen to have come out a year prior, and I didn’t necessarily gain anything new for myself in terms of added Batman lore besides the fact that Mask of the Phantasm neatly exclaims its themes through a much more digestible storyline where the roles, arcs, and revelations are defined with huge red circles over them. So, in reality, the shock that this is a “kid’s movie” is understandable, since it’s so serious, but at the same time, it’s also the more accessible version of Returns that makes its intentions lucid, and in a way, can be seen as the better movie for kids when it comes to understanding themes. From that perspective, I can respect the existence of this movie for up and coming adolescent Batman fans.
So in other words, this is just Batman Returns but for children or less pretentious people.
“Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm” is now available to stream on HBO Max.