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Forget The Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is still the best Batman movie adaptation

Matt Reeves’ The Batman finally brought to the live-action theatrical space an iteration of DC Comics’ beloved, brooding superhero that honed in on the crime-noir detective aspect of the character, but Mask of the Phantasm still reigns supreme as being the truest to the character.

It’s the first time a live-action adaptation made his “World’s Greatest Detective” epithet just as important as being the “Dark Knight,” even if Robert Pattinson’s grimy and grounded take is still learning what his symbol should mean. However, Mask of the Phantasm — and the animated universe Paul Dini and Bruce Timm co-created that paved the way for it — remains the deepest dive into what makes Batman tick while honoring his swathes of comic book mythos.

The Batman brand of “dark deco”

Art of Gotham City by night in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

Before Mask of the Phantasm itself, Batman: The Animated Series was lauded for being the first on-screen gold standard of what a true-to-source adaptation of the character should model itself on. It struck the perfect balance of the comic book medium’s inherent vibrancy with stories exploring more nuanced themes so that practically every age group could take something engaging away from it.

It’s what effectively made the show, the successor shows that followed, and Mask of the Phantasm a timeless piece in Batman’s history in pop culture media. Just as well, this complete package of an adaptation was wrapped in a tantalizingly stylish crime-noir take on art deco. Affectionately dubbed “dark deco,” this Bruce Wayne’s Gotham City was one that dripped with pulpy noir tones that harked back to the hero’s roots.

Mask of the Phantasm arguably leans even harder into it, turning itself into something of a superhero-themed ’40-era period piece. It’s one of the best depictions of Gotham City in all of the Batman-related media, as this creative blend of art directions practically made it synonymous with the character.

And as cheesy as it might sound now — especially after Matt Reeves’ pulsating and wonderfully neo-noir incarnation of the city — but Gotham City is almost as important of a “character” in Batman’s world as the hero himself. The ’40s artistic aesthetic complements Mask of the Phantasm‘s gloomy atmosphere seamlessly.

Exploring the tragic psyche of the Dark Knight

The shadowy silhouette of Bruce Wayne donning the Batman mantle.

Christopher Nolan’s revered The Dark Knight Trilogy and Reeves’ The Batman have both explored the dark and tragic inner machinations of Bruce Wayne’s mind — the latter especially — but Mask of the Phantasm has arguably still delivered the most emotional and poignant take.

Batman has helped push forward the concept that people who dress up in crazy costumes and beat up bad guys can also be psychologically fascinating and complex, and this movie dives into the tragic elements of his mind in terms of what is it that drives his vision. It powerfully hammers home how the character can be so fiercely committed to his mission — even to the point of self-destruction — without losing any of that aforementioned sense of nuance.

That theme is tastefully weaved in as a compelling plot point to Bruce’s past and present struggles with the Joker, the mysterious titular antihero, and the reappearance of his old love Andrea Beaumont. Each of these pieces of the plot works together perfectly to illustrate this, particularly since Mask of the Phantasm is as much of a tragic romance as it is a superhero movie.

To this day, seeing the flashbacks of Bruce donning the mantle of the Batman for the first time and of him pleading at the gravestones of his parents to release him of his promise are some of the most emotionally hard-hitting moments in anything the character has featured in.

“I didn’t count on being happy,” said the traumatized young man at the foot of Thomas and Martha Wayne’s graves. On one hand, the way this character is written to take hits of tragedy on the chin and march on toward his goal of ensuring no child feels compelled to turn into another Batman is inspiring, but this deeply intimate moment also shows what many superhero modern superhero movies scrap: the toll of being a superhero.

It’s something that The Batman took inspiration from per Pattinson himself, and it was all the better for it.

A melancholy celebration of the source material’s mythos

Batman looking up at the Bat-signal in Gotham City.

Paul Dini and Bruce Timm have been praised as DC Comics legends for what they’ve lent to Batman’s corner of the world, and just about everything in Mask of the Phantasm is a loving blend and homage of the duo’s work in the DC Animated Universe and the dense lore from the comic book source material.

Phantasm and the universe it sprang from would prove to be influential beyond the early ’90s when it premiered, especially since the overtly zany and toy-commercial-like movies Batman Forever and Batman and Robin would force the IP into dormancy until Nolan came along. One of the greatest assets of the character is how there can be so many well-done interpretations of him, but the days of the over-the-top camp had long since expired.

Even before the maligned live-action movies from the mid-to-late ’90s, the Silver Age of Batman comics decades earlier were already showing their age by the end of the ’60s. It prompted comic book writer Denny O’Neil to reinvent the character to resemble a more modern version of what his original pulpy crime debut was, focusing on telling more grounded street-level stories.

This is where Batman arguably excels more often than not, and Phantasm simultaneously felt like a new milestone in the hero’s history that also a work that honored what came before.

Warner Bros.’ Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is available to stream on HBO Max.

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