HEAT VISION

The Triumph and Heartbreak Behind 'Batman: Mask of the Phantasm'

Mark Hamill, Kevin Conroy and more look back at what happened 25 years ago when the film opened to disappointing numbers but went on to become one of the Dark Knight's most critically acclaimed movies.
'Batman: Mask of the Phantasm'   |   Photofest
Mark Hamill, Kevin Conroy and more look back at what happened 25 years ago when the film opened to disappointing numbers but went on to become one of the Dark Knight's most critically acclaimed movies.

On Dec. 25, 1993, it truly was Christmas with the Joker.

That day marked the theatrical release of Warner Bros.’ Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, an animated film with the voice talent and art deco design of the Batman: The Animated Series. It overcame a rushed production, a nearly nonexistent marketing campaign and its director losing her job title midway through to become what's now considered one of The Dark Knight's finest film entries. 

In Mask of the Phantasm, Batman (Kevin Conroy) chases down the Phantasm, a grim reaper-like figure, who is assassinating the notorious mobsters of Gotham City. The police consider Batman the prime suspect and pursue The Dark Knight as he tries to stop the murderous vigilante. At the same time, Bruce Wayne’s one true love, Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany), returns to Gotham after several years abroad with her father. Through flashbacks, we learn that Bruce nearly gave up his quest to become Batman for a life with Beaumont.  When their engagement plans ended, Bruce fully dedicated himself to becoming Gotham’s savior.

Ahead of the 25th anniversary, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the key players involved, including Joker actor Mark Hamill and Conroy, who revealed new stories from the frontlines.

THERE WERE NO "LINES AROUND THE BLOCK."

Hamill ventured out to a New York cinema Christmas day 1993 with his wife, Marilou, and their young children (the couple celebrated 40 years of marriage this month). He recalls it was definitely not a packed theater. 

“We were living in New York at the time and I was so excited,” Hamill tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We got to the theater and there were maybe 12 people! The people that were there were all die-hard fans of the animated series and they recognized me.”

Hamill recalls the fans giving him a warm greeting while remaining a respectful distance. 

"I remember sitting there and realizing how cavernous the theater was. I said, ‘Hey, you guys wanna sit together?’" recalls Hamill.

The fans converged on the Hamill clan, filling up the middle two rows of the theater. While Hamill was impressed with the finished product, he was "disappointed that it wasn’t packed with lines around the block.”

Hamill attributes the less-than-packed theater to the odd path that brought the film to cinemas. It was originally conceived as a direct-to-video release, but Warners executives upgraded it to a theatrical release very late in the process.

“I don’t know how many months into production Warner Bros. decided to make this a theatrical release, but the entire film had to be altered, switching the aspect ratio from television to that of a movie screen,” Hamill says. “Apparently from start to finish, it only took eight months, which is crazy to me. Most animated films take at least two years.”

Hamill doesn’t believe the film suffered in quality due to its rushed productions schedule, but he does recall its virtually nonexistent marketing campaign: “There weren’t any ads on Saturday Night Live or any of the normal places you’d see a film advertised.”

The film went on to earn $5.7 million at the box office and continued life on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD and now Blu-ray. The film is included in the remastered Batman: The Animated Series box set, which hit stores in October.

Hamill felt fortunate that the writers chose to include the Joker in Mask of the Phantasm, as Warner Bros. was moving away from the usual suspects in the Batman rogues' gallery.

“This film tells the origin of Batman through the tragedy of losing his parents and the tragedy of losing the love of his life,” Hamill says. “But, it’s also an origin story for Joker, too. You see him as part of this criminal gang. He’s not a leader, he’s more of an enforcer.”

The Joker is used sparingly in the film, not making his appearance until 37 minutes into the 72-minute film.

“I really like that he wasn’t the film’s main antagonist,” Hamill says. “It was a risk putting him in the film at all because he’s such an overpowering character, it could’ve easily felt like the writers were repeating themselves.”

Hamill, critics and fans alike concluded that the gamble paid off quite well.

“The fact that the Joker is integrated so well with the crime family backstory,” Hamill says. “It really helped me find the right level to play the Joker…starting out more subdued and then reaching full madness by the end.”

Hamill notes that Phantasm’s upgrade to a theatrical film meant that they got away from broadcast standards and practices, which allowed for more creative freedom and adult themes.

“We certainly broke a lot of TV rules,” Hamill says. “The action scenes had blood, the Joker lost a tooth, characters were being killed off.”

Hamill compares the group voice recordings, led by Emmy winner Andrea Romano, to a band’s jamming session. “Being there with all the other actors was such an advantage, we could play off each other and the different line deliveries,” Hamill says.

"I COULDN'T BE CREDITED AS VOICE DIRECTOR"

For Romano, the recording process felt like an extended episode with her cast. Romano had high praise for Hamill’s turn as the Joker — a role that has netted the actor several awards, including a BAFTA in 2012 for Batman: Arkham City.

“Mark had a really good sense of the two sides of the Joker, where he’ll go from fun and light to scary and dark,” Romano says. “You never knew if Mark was going to end on a light or dark note, which makes it so compelling.”

Despite already being a veteran in animation, Romano was surprised to learn that a guild rule prevented her from retaining her title as voice director. The news came with a time-sensitive ultimatum for choosing a new professional title. 

“I’ve always been credited as voice director, or voice direction by Andrea Romano,” she says. “Because Phantasm was changed to a feature film, other SAG rules applied…. I remember getting a call from Warner Bros.’ feature department, saying that I couldn’t be credited as voice director.”

The term director was reserved for someone in the Director's Guild of America. Romano barely had time to process the news when she was given two hours to choose a new title.  “This woman said, ‘I’m leaving on vacation and this has to be finished by 6 p.m. today.’” Romano recalls. “Ultimately, I chose Voice Supervision, but it was a very frustrating process because I was the director.”

Mask of the Phantasm introduced several new characters to Batman’s animated universe, including love interest Andrea Beaumont voiced by Dana Delany.

“Dana Delany was someone I admired for a long time before I cast her,” Romano recalls. “She was so brilliant in this film that we ended up casting her as Lois Lane in our Superman [animated] series.”

Romano hired Die Hard actor Hart Bochner for the antagonistic role of councilman Arthur Reeves, a rising politician with ties to the Joker and the mob. One of the film’s most iconic scenes features a poisoned Reeves in the hospital, who can’t stop laughing from Joker’s toxin.

“The scene was so beautifully crafted on the page…the Joker’s toxins have completely overtaken this character, who is having a tense face-off with Batman,” says Romano. “He’s crying, weeping and laughing despite being scared out of his mind.”

Bochner astonished the room with his interpretation of the material. “We did the whole thing in two takes, it was incredible what he did,” Romano recalls. “He came in months later for background moans and laughter, and he flawlessly matched those to his original performance.”

During Romano's first meeting with Bochner, she shared with the actor that she'd hired his father, Lloyd Bochner, to voice Mayor Hill on Batman: The Animated Series. It was then that Romano learned that the two men had been estranged for quite some time.

“When I mentioned the shared connection to Batman, I could tell that it wasn’t received well, but we quickly moved past it," she says.

Romano cites the rehearsal period as critical to Phantasm’s success, allowing the actors to hear what their costars are bringing to the table. “When Dana heard Kevin’s Bruce Wayne and Batman voices, it helped her define her relationship with both personalities,” Romano says.

Romano recalls working opposite Godfather actor Abe Vigoda for the role of mobster Salvatore Valestra.

"Abe's mobster character had horrible emphysema from years of smoking. Abe delivered all those coughing sounds organically because he was really having respiratory troubles," Romano shares. "We were all worried he wouldn't be around for ADR, but he lived another 23 years."

The name of Batman’s love interest, Andrea Beaumont, was actually a nod to Romano. 

“Whenever I work with Kevin or any actor, we set levels before we record,” Romano says. “The actor will read dialogue, or with a role like Batman, he’ll do various groans and fainting noises. Very early on I fell in love with Kevin and his voice.”

After several sessions, Andrea felt comfortable enough to make a request of the Juilliard-trained actor.

“After Kevin did a faint noise that I said, ‘Say Andrea in that deep beautiful Batman voice,’” Romano recalls with a smile. “The entire cast just laughed and laughed. From that point forward, every time we do a level Kevin ends with a very soft ‘Andrea.’”

Phantasm writer Paul Dini was tasked with writing a scene in which Batman is losing consciousness. The Dark Knight extends his arm and says his love interest’s name. Dini was still searching for the right name and he recalled Kevin saying "Andrea" all those times in the recording booth. That was the moment that Andrea Beaumont was born.

"THERE WERE A LOT OF UNRESOLVED EMOTIONS."

With more than 25 years portraying Bruce Wayne/Batman under his belt, Conroy has cemented himself as the longest running actor to play the character. So Conroy's words have weight behind them when he doesn’t hesitate to cite Batman: Mask of the Phantasm as his favorite film in the Dark Knight’s big-screen canon.

The actor's favorite scene features Bruce Wayne returning to his parents grave in the midst of a personal crisis. The troubled billionaire must choose between honoring his vow to his parents and becoming Batman or devoting himself to this romantic relationship with Andrea Beaumont.

“Bruce knows that he has to get out of this vow he made to his parents if he’s going to lead a normal life with Andrea Beaumont,” Conroy says. “He pleads with his parents at their grave to release him from the vow, and at that moment a flock of bats comes screeching out of the Earth. Bruce can feel his fate pulling him back down…he knows he can’t escape it.”

Conroy found a personal connection to the gravesite scene as he was recording it.

“When Bruce is pleading with his parents, something came up in me,” Conroy says. “I had a very problematic relationship with my father. He was a terrible drunk and I ended up leaving home at 17.”

Despite the contentious nature of that relationship, Conroy took care of his elderly father until he died.

“There were a lot of unresolved emotions there, and something in that graveyard scene brought all that stuff up,” Conroy says. “I don’t know why, as an actor you never know why a certain chord is hit. The key to being an actor is to be open enough to let any chord be hit.”

The emotional performance resonated with everyone present at the session, particularly voice director Romano.

“Andrea came in after the recording and grabbed me in a hug,” Conroy recalls. “Andrea said, ‘I don’t know where you went [emotionally], but it was a beautiful performance.’ She knew I was drawing on something.”

The film ends with Andrea Beaumont on a ship, having survived the confrontation with the Joker, but also having revealed her murderous side to Batman. When asked if Bruce could ever love her again, Conroy believes that Bruce Wayne could never love anyone again.

“After she left the first time, Bruce’s fate totally reclaimed him,” Conroy says. “He will be alone.”

As for the Joker, it’s unclear if he escaped during the chaotic explosions or if he joined the list of Phantasm’s victims. For Hamill, he’s perfectly fine with the Joker dying, as long as it’s understood that he won’t stay that way. “Sometimes you have to play the scene like he’s dying, but anyone that knows comics knows that he’ll never be completely dead,” Hamill says.

Hamill recalls the character’s various deaths on Batman the Animated Series. “I was falling off bell towers, out of airplanes, I even landed in shark-infested waters,” Says Hamill, who lays out his complicated thoughts in the introduction to the book The Joker: A Visual History of the Clown Prince of Crime. “I thought it was funny when the mainstream media picked up on when they killed Superman in the comics. All of us comic fans laughed, we knew they were just rebooting it and wanted attention, but that made it on the evening news!”

***

Late film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert once dedicated an episode of their TV show Siskel & Ebert to reviewing Mask of the Phantasm years after its initial theatrical release.

“The animated feature was made in 1993 and Roger and I never reviewed it, and as far as I’m concerned, we made a big mistake cause it’s terrific,” Siskel said. “I enjoyed it more than the current Batman picture that’s in theaters [Batman Forever]…. I got completely involved in it.”

Ebert was equally effusive with praise. “It’s interesting here that they really did have a story, more of a story than the [live-action] movies,” Ebert said. “The characters have feelings and motivations.”

Michael Uslan, longtime Batman movie producer, writes to THR of the film's legacy: “If, like me, you believe there are 10 elements that make a great film, and that they are: story; story; story; story; story; story; character; character; character; and story; then, arguably, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm may be the greatest Batman film ever in the media."

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