After ages and ages, the first of the Batman: The Animated Series films, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, is cleaned up and on Blu-ray. Which means, among many other things, that you don't have any excuse not to own it anymore.
It's not a secret that Batman: The Animated Series is often considered to be the pinnacle adaptation of the Dark Knight, thanks to creators like Bruce Timm, and actors like Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy. And, there's an argument to be made that Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is one of the best stories to come out of that Batman era.
In fact, Mask of the Phantasm is so singular in its execution of a Batman story, that I think everyone involved in Ben Affleck's forthcoming Batman movie ought to watch it immediately and take copious notes.
There's a lot the DCEU Batman could learn from Mask of the Phantasm. And, just to get them started (we're very helpful), here are FIVE specific aspects of Mask fo the Phantasm worth cribbing from.
Spoilers, obviously. In fact, if you haven't seen Mask of the Phantasm before (or even if it's just been a while) stop reading this immediately. Go. Watch Mask of the Phantasm. And then immediately come back to read this very, very important article.
BIG NAMES IN SMALLER ROLES
The Phantasm isn't a main Batman baddie. However, the Phantasm is inexorably tied to a much better known Batman villain: the Joker.
And what's so brilliant about Mask of the Phantasm is that Hamill's Joker is, through flashback, always lurking in the shadows. You, as the audience, just don't realize it. The Joker doesn't become a more active participant in the narrative until about halfway through.
The best part of the Joker's presence, though, is that he's not leading any charge. This isn't a Joker story; it's just a story that happens to have the Joker in it. So what you get is a very atypical experience where Joker is more of an informant, albeit a very unreliable one. Plus, even though this isn't Joker's story, you actually learn something about who he was before he became the Joker.
Having a better known villain as a constant threat in the periphery of a brand new narrative gives a chance for some of the older elements of Batman's world to feel new again.
BRUCE WAYNE IS MORE THAN THE BAT
Mask of the Phantasm is, in a way, an origin story for Batman. A large chunk of the story takes place in the past before he has officially donned the cape and cowl.
Mask of the Phantasm, in part, is the story of Bruce Wayne's decision to accept the role of the Dark Knight. But rather than play it as a foregone conclusion, as something pre-destined, Mask of the Phantasm suggests that Bruce very nearly abandoned the idea of being a masked vigilante.
Here we meat Andrea Beaumont, a woman who has also lost a parent. Andrea is someone Bruce can relate with, but she's also someone who, unlike Bruce, has found a way to move on with her life despite the losses she's suffered.
I think the best scene in the entirety of Mask of the Phantasm is the one where Bruce goes to his parents' grave and begs them to let him abandon his vow for vengeance. He simply never thought he'd ever be happy again. And that happiness, naturally, erodes Bruce's desire to eventually become The Batman.
What makes that great is that it reminds us that Bruce hasn't always been (and thereby must not always be) one and the same as Batman. I think it's a mistake to say that Bruce is only being his true self when the mask is on. I think he has to choose to be Batman more or less every time. And I think Mask of the Phantasm, as the story that shows us the first time he makes that choice, reminds us of how human and flawed Bruce Wayne is.
Mask of the Phantasm tells us that Bruce almost lived a normal life. It's so heartbreaking, but it also makes you realize just how strong Bruce has to be to wake up and become Batman every day. It's the strength in the weakness of Batman: a story I think is rarely told and should be more often.
ONE-AND-DONE VILLAINS DONE RIGHT
Andrea Beaumont is one of the best villains Batman has ever produced and you 100% never need to see her again after Mask of the Phantasm. Andrea plays this huge role in Bruce's past, she has a bit of a parallel journey where she also loses a parent through violence and also becomes a vigilante, but she goes down the path Bruce can never go down: she becomes a murderer.
Everything about who Andrea Beaumont is lines up so well with what Bruce (and we as an audience) understand of what it means to be devastated human soul in Gotham City.
And what I like best is that Andrea doesn't die. She just... leaves. Andrea gets her revenge, she kills the men responsible her father's death, she beats the heck out of the Joker, and then she peaces out on a boat never to be heard from again.
Comic book characters rarely ever see finality, rarer still the kind that doesn't involve their death. Death is practically meaningless in the world of comics, so Andrea stands almost entirely alone as a member of Batman's Rogue Gallery that knew well enough not to stick around.
Not every Batman villain has to be Catwoman or the Joker. Sometimes you only need one dance with the devil in the pale moonlight.
FLASHING BACK EFFECTIVELY
Flashbacks don't always work. In fact, one of my least favorite TV tropes is the episode that starts with a character seemingly dying and then a smash cut to "24 hours earlier." Rarely does that work as a story structure for me.
However, and I say this as someone who has watched Arrow to present day, the first two seasons of that show used flashbacks to PERFECTION. The idea of seeing a parallel between what Oliver is doing as the Arrow and what he endured on the island gave Oliver so much more depth. You'd see him struggle with how to be a good vigilant in the present, and then be rewarded with backstory that helps you better understand why he's struggling.
We know who Batman is. We know why Batman is Batman. But rare is the time we see the moments of doubt and the moments that reaffirm Bruce's need to be Batman.
Mask of the Phantasm uses flashbacks to simultaneously show us a time when Bruce nearly abandoned the Bat before he ever put the cape and cowl on for the first time, and it mirrors that with the present where he must grapple with the phantasm (get it) of that doubt.
LETTING THE BATVERSE BE SCARY
The creepiest part of Mask of the Phantasm comes from a very quiet place. It involves a scummy guy (who you are definitely led to believe might be the Phantasm) who is in the hospital after being affected by Joker gas. The character, Councilman Arthur Reeves, cannot stop laughing as Batman interrogates him. We discover the sinister actions Reeves is guilty of but, moreover, we see a man who has always struggled for control completely lose it at the hands of the Joker. We don't see Reeves die, but there's a likelihood that he will. He has been poisoned after all. Reeves is also terrified of the Batman. He laughs through an "oh, no" when he sees the Dark Knight and there's something incredibly unsettling about that.
Batman's world is a scary place. The villains are scary looking, the hero is scary looking, and chances are whatever you hold most dear will be ripped away from you.
Reeves loses his sanity, Andrea loses her family, and the gangsters of Gotham lose their lives because a woman with a skull mask and a knife for a hand is brutally murdering them one-by-one.
Very rarely do Batman movies go for scary, but Mask of the Phantasm proves they really should.
Anyway, blah, blah, blah, Mask of the Phantasm is really great and you should watch it all the time, especially if your name rhymes with Schmaffleck or Schmeeves or Schmyder. Or, uh... Schmeff Schmohns? I trust you grasp my schmublety.