As a Batman fan, I was sadden to hear of the passing of Kevin Conroy due to intestinal cancer on Nov. 10. As an openly gay man, he appeared in many movies and TV shows throughout his life. But in 1992, he was tapped to voice Bruce Wayne/Batman in the landmark Batman: The Animated Series which proved that an afternoon cartoon series didn’t have to be all fun and giggles. The show was an immediate hit with critics and fans.
And it was only a matter of time before Warner Brothers, who owned the rights to the franchise and other DC comic characters, ordered an animated movie, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t a big success earning just $5.6 million on a $6 million budget. It was originally supposed to be released on the home video market but at the last minute, WB made the decision to release it theatrically, not giving it much marketing.
But even if they had, I’m not sure if the movie would’ve been a big success because WB released it during one of the busiest time. It was released on Christmas Day in 1993 and that Christmas season was a brutal one which saw such anticipated movies like Schindler’s List, Mrs. Doubtfire and The Pelican Brief all wanting a piece of the box office prize. There were also highly anticipated sequels Beethoven’s 2nd, Wayne’s World 2 and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit released.
It was a busy, busy holiday season, so it was very easy that a movie like Phantasm would be lost in the sea of cinephiles. I would argue some of the backlash over Batman Returns from the summer of 1992 may have kept some audiences away. That movie was considered too dark and McDonald’s canceled a marketing tie-in promotion. Phantasm would find its audiences among Batman fans on the home video market as well as cable TV.
The premise has Batman dealing with a more violent, lethal vigilante known as the Phantasm who people suspect is the Batman. A young hot shot D.A. Arthur Reeves (voiced by Hart Bochner) is wanting Commissioner Jim Gordon (voiced by Bob Hastings) to bring Batman in for murder. However, Gordon knows better and knows Batman isn’t a killer and this isn’t his work as high-ranking mob bosses around Gotham City turn up dead.
At the same time, Bruce Wayne is revisited by an old flame, Andrea Beaumont (voiced by Dana Delany). Bruce and Andrea were a couple when they were younger and it was getting very serious. However, one day, Andrea abruptly left him with just a note given to Alfred Pennyworth (voiced by Efrem Zimbalist Jr.). Andrea’s father, Carl (voiced by Stacey Keach) was one of the top lawyers in the city but had gotten involved with several mobsters and embezzled their money. When Sal “The Wheezer” Valestra (Abe Vigoda) asked for his money back or else, Carl and Andrea went into hiding.
Along with the mobsters having to deal with the Phantasm, The Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill doing his evil best) is brought in to question Reeves, who worked for Carl as a young lawyer. Joker feels the corrupt Reeves is behind the Phantasm. But anyone with any intelligence probably knows who the Phantasm really is behind the mask.
What makes this short animated movie (clocking in at 78 minutes with credits) work is how Conroy and the rest of the cast handle the material. Directors Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm paint a Gotham City that is trapped in a time wrap. Even though it’s set in modern times, the look and style is similar to the old Art Deco noir style that was in the early comics and Tim Burton’s Batman with a touch of post-WWII decor amidst the Cold War. The script by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko and Michael Reaves gives the movie a fun, exciting but character driven plot.
Conroy would go on to voice Bruce and Batman in the equally great series Batman Beyond in which Bruce Wayne is an older man training a protege Ted McGinnis in a cyberpunk then futuristic Gotham City set in 2019. The series proved so popular that at one time, a live-action version was being considered before Christopher Nolan was hired to work on Batman Begins. Conroy did the voice work in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker which is notable for its vision of DC characters in middle-aged. That movie was notorious for a scene that I’m not going to give away having to be changed following the 1999 Columbine Massacre.
Conroy would continue to voice Bruce/Batrman in several direct-to-video movies before he and Hamilly reunited for Batman: The Killing Joke based on the popular comic by Alan Moore. The comic had a darker tone including Joker shooting Barbara Gordon to the point that she is paralyzed going from Batgirl to Oracle. It is also implied that Joker sexually assaults Barbara something the movie takes a little bit further even though much happens off-screen. Still, the movie received an R rating.
Hamill had said that doing the Joker’s voice had been hurting his vocal chords and he would only agree to do the Joker if it was for The Killing Joke. Despite the highly anticipated adaptation, the comic which details an origin for the Joker as a failed stand-up comic turning to a life of crime, got a lot of negative reception. A lot of the criticism was on a prologue written for the movie in which Barbara as Batgirl (voiced by Tara Strong) and Batman, deal with a high profile robber but suddenly find themselves having sex, off-screen.
While this was done mostly to make the movie longer as it clocks in at 77 minutes with credits, some people felt the whole Barbara plot wasn’t necessary. Along with an implied sexual assault, the movie ups the language adding some profanity. Unfortunately, it’s a less than stellar swan song for both Conroy and Hamill in these roles as they had been doing this for almost 25 years.
While the DCEU is still in limbo with many people wondering what will happen with the Aquaman sequel as well as The Flash, since Ezra Miller has made a lot of noise off screen. Hopefully, with James Gunn and Peter Safran put in charge of all DC movies, the live-action adaptations will have some better movies.
But true fans will never forget the work and talent Conroy brought to the role. He saw what Adam West from the TV show and Olan Shoule, who voiced the character in cartoons most notably Superfriends, had done with the role and build on that. I’d say he brought depth to the character of Bruce Wayne some of the live-action actors couldn’t. And his Batman voice was different from Bruce but he didn’t go to extremes. It seems Christian Bale sounded like Clint Eastwood constipated, while Michael Keaton had a gruff whisper.
What do you think? Please comment.