Ask a Batman fan of a certain age what their favorite Batman movie is and there’s a good chance their answer is Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. However, move down the age spectrum a bit and ask a younger Batman fan about the film and you may find that they haven’t even heard of it. While it’s not unusual for iterations of a long-beloved character like Batman to resonate most strongly with the generation they first appeared, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm seems to be a particularly unique case.

Spun out of the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series, the feature length Batman: Mask of the Phantasm boasted the same voice cast and creative team behind the animated TV show, including directors Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, writers Paul Dini and Alan Burnett and voice actors Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker. It debuted in 1993 and to this day remains the only Batman animated movie ever released theatrically.

It’s shocking how different and sophisticated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm seems by today’s animated film standards. On one hand, its traditional animation and straightforward (almost old fashioned) approach to action seem downright quaint, and the fact that it features the original designs of the characters, all of whom were later redesigned when the animated series relaunched in 1997, may throw a few fans. However, as a super hero crime caper—the very core of what most Batman stories are—it’s second to none.

The film introduces the character of Andrea Beaumont, voiced by Dana Delaney (who would later go on to work with much of the same crew on Superman: The Animated Series as the voice of Lois Lane). Andrea is a former love interest of Bruce Wayne who returns to Gotham and restarts her romance with Bruce right as a mysterious new vigilante called the Phantasm begins killing off crime bosses.

The fact that the Phantasm shows up at the same time as Andrea is a pretty big hint as to whom he actually is, but that’s okay as the mystery’s not the point here. Instead, the film chooses to use Bruce’s relationship with Andrea and the difference between Batman and the Phantasm’s approach to crime-fighting to illustrate key truths about both of Bruce’s identities. It’s a much more nuanced approach than is often taken with Batman, and fans may be surprised at what they see when Bruce drops his usual mask of a cold, driven crusader. (The fact that the Phantasm’s mask is called out in the title probably isn’t a coincidence, as both physical and emotional masks is one of the movie’s themes.)

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is the relationship between Bruce and Andrea. As a character who doesn't let many people get even remotely close to him, let alone become objects of genuine affection, it's downright jarring to see Bruce going on dates to the Gotham World's Fair and getting down on one knee to propose. Yes, Bruce genuinely loves Andrea, and responds to Andrea's reappearance much like anyone would when someone who broke their heart all of a sudden enters their life again. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm questions whether it's possible for a crime fighting super hero to stay true to the mission when they have someone they love waiting at home for them. But even more startling, it suggests that given the choice, Bruce would have chosen love. His path to becoming the Dark Knight was only secured after Andrea unexpectedly left his life, leaving a heartbroken, grieving Bruce to instead find meaning in the his mission of cleaning up the streets of Gotham


However, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm holds importance that goes far beyond its entertaining story. It was followed by two more animated Batman films that were set within the animated series’ continuity, neither of which would likely exist were it not for the critical and popular success of Phantasm. These three films (the other two were Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero and Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman) were an important part of the foundation upon which Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment’s current line of animated films and TV shows were built. If you’re a fan of movies like Justice League: War and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, you should tip your hat to Batman: Mask of the Phantasm as it’s hard to imagining either of those recent hits existing if Timm, Dini, Radomski, Burnett and the rest of the Phantasm team hadn’t gone there first.

While Batman: Mask of the Phantasm hasn’t been released on Blu-Ray, it is still available on DVD (including a double feature disk that also includes SubZero). If you’ve seen it, chances are you already own it. But if not, it’s well worth a purchase or rental, whether you’re a fan of animation or just a fan of Batman films.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a stellar example of both.