Siskel & Ebert’s Rave Review of ‘Batman: Mask of the Phantasm’ [Video]
As these unfortunate events tend to do, the recent passing of influential film critic and pop culture icon Roger Ebert inspired his legions of readers and fans to reflect on the work he did that entertained them the most or had the biggest impact on them personally. Naturally I found myself re-reading (or in some cases, reading for the first time) many of his thoughts on films based on comic books. Although Ebert's opinions were sometimes divisive, I think I agreed with the late critic more than not, but never more strongly than in the case of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
Along with his late partner Gene Siskel, who passed away in 1999, Ebert included the fan favorite animated feature in a mid-'90s episode of their widely watched television show. What's remarkable about this is that not only did both of these famously disagreeable critics agree that they loved the film, they basically apologized for not reviewing Mask of the Phantasm when it was released in cinemas a couple of years earlier.
According to the film's co-writer Paul Dini, who shared some remembrances of Ebert on his Facebook page, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was "so poorly distributed" that Siskel and Ebert missed it when it was released theatrically. Dini said that Ebert would later tell him that he'd wrongly assumed the film was merely a compilation of previously produced scenes from Batman: The Animated Series, the hit television show that Warner Bros. Animation was producing concurrently, as in the style of Warner Bros.' various Looney Tunes "feature films" of the then-recent past.
While Siskel didn't care for Mark Hamill's performance as the voice of the Joker (???), he and Ebert otherwise had nothing but effusive praise for Mask of the Phantasm, especially its plainly phenomenal art direction -- supervised by directors Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski -- and the uncommonly intricate and noir-influenced story about a lethal Batman imitator, the Phantasm, who's causing trouble for the Dark Knight while a long lost love returns to Gotham to reopen some old emotional wounds for his alter ego, Bruce Wayne. Featuring a magnificent vocal performance by Dana Delany as Batman's old flame Andrea Beaumont, variously thrilling and chilling music by the late Shirley Walker, and the typically excellent work of the Batman: The Animated Series voice cast, Mask of the Phantasm remains some fans' pick as the best Batman theatrical film ever made.
Indeed, Ebert hailed the quality of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm as another demonstration of why animation is not an artform whose audience must necessarily be limited to children. This notion of "adult" animation still wasn't an especially common viewpoint back in the mid 1990s, but it's the kind of progressive and enthusiastic perspective that Ebert was known for, and one he also applied to live-action films based on superhero comics, as in his review of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.
With respect to Phantasm, the critic remarked, "It's interesting that they really did have a story; more of a story than the [live-action] movies. The characters pause and they think and they have feelings and motivations and you get involved in it!"
"I wish Warner Bros. would produce more animated features from this same production team," Siskel added. "I'm sorry we caught up with this picture a couple of years late."