In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, he talks about one of the best things Tim Burton’s Batman influenced—Batman: The Animated Series—and its big screen tie-in, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
The best adaptation of Batman into another medium wasn’t Tim Burton’s Batman films. It wasn’t Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight either. It wasn’t the 1940s serials and it most certainly wasn’t the Joel Schumacher sequels.
No, the best adaptation of the Caped Crusader was the Batman: The Animated Series which first aired on Fox in September 1992. And the contest isn’t even close.
Produced by men whose names would become legendary in the field of animation—Bruce Timm, Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, and Eric Radomski—the series was inspired by the Burton films, yet were an entirely different animal. Both were incredibly stylized, but while Burton’s vision had a gothic post-punk feel to it, the cartoon mixed art deco and film noir, with a healthy dose of the Fleisher Superman theatrical cartoon shorts from the 40s thrown in for good measure.
While the cartoon had a distinctive style, it remained remarkably true to the spirit of the source comic books. Many of Batman’s little known rogues made it onto the small screen, and they were presented perfectly. Tweaks were made here and there, certain costumes were changed, characters presented in a slightly different way, but there were pretty much no weak links in any portrayal.
The voice casting was also excellent, including Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker. The show itself won two Emmy’s and was a critical favorite both with mainstream and comic book critics.
The show had a successful back and forth with the line of Batman comics. A number of changes that the animated series made in the Batman mythos, namely the changes in the Riddler’s costume and Mr. Freeze’s origin, made their way into the comics, as did popular characters created for the cartoon such as Harley Quinn and Detective Renee Montoya. Those two characters became vital parts of the DC print universe and are still appearing in comics today.
The comics also had a tangible effect on the carton as well. Several popular storylines from the comic books, including “Demon’s Quest” taken from Detective Comics #232 and “The Laughing Fish” from Detective Comics #475, were adapted into the show. Another storyline from the comic books inspired the plot of the feature film that spun off from the animated show.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was originally planned for a direct-to-video release, but Warner Brothers, citing the popularity of the Fox cartoon, decided to bump it up to a theatrical release. This caused the production to be rushed along twice as fast as a normal television episode, but the studio gave producer Alan Burnett and his team more money and creative control as a trade-off.
The film is loosely based on the “Batman: Year Two” storyline from Detective Comics #575-578, written by Mike W. Barr and drawn by Alan Davis and the then-up-and-coming young artist, Todd McFarlane. Flashbacks featured in the movie were inspired by Frank Miller’s “Batman: Year One” from Batman #404-407.
The plot involves an old paramour of Bruce Wayne’s by the name of Andrea Beaumont, returning to Gotham City just as a costumed vigilante with a ghost motif that goes by the name of “The Phantasm” starts killing high level Mafioso. Bruce must deal with the reappearance of a woman who broke his heart while as Batman trying to stop The Phantasm before he kills his next target—the Joker.
The film played like 76 minute episode of the TV series, which meant that it was very good and would receive much critical acclaim, but that might have also kept people away. Why go to a theater and pay money to see a story set in the Batman animated universe when they could see one every weekday on Fox for free? The film was released on Christmas Day of 1993 and came in 11th its opening weekend. The film’s total take of $5,617,391 came in just shy of its estimated $6 million budget.
The film would be followed by two, direct-to-video sequels Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (1998) and Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (2003). The TV series would run for another two years, coming to an end on September 1995. However, the series would inspire the “DC Animated Universe,” which would consist of Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited and The New Batman Adventures. Even to this day, Batman: The Animated Series is recognized as one of the best animated programs of all time and one of the best comic book adaptations.
Next up, the Batman film franchise goes downhill fast with Batman Forever and Batman and Robin.