Inevitably, whenever a new Batman-related project is announced, conversation swirls as to which of the prior actors to portray DC’s Dark Knight, a.k.a. The World’s Greatest Detective, is the best. Due to biases known and unknown, this so often turns into a shouting match as people identify their favorites with the kind of fervor best kept to issues of life and death or even, perhaps, morals and ethics. The personal choice is subjective, so any identification of Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale, Ben Affleck, or Robert Pattinson as the best can be quantified, but never wholly agreed on. There is one person, however, whom all agree is the definitive performance, even if not their favorite — voice actor Kevin Conroy, who started portraying the Batman/Bruce Wayne duality via Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS) in 1992 and served as the voice until Justice League vs. the Fatal Five (2019), though his last recording is for the upcoming Rocksteady game Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League. During his tenure as Batman, off the success of the animated series, Batman succeeded Batman Returns (1992) to theaters with the Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski (both of BTAS) co-directed Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, a film considered to be the pinnacle of Batman stories. Now, for the first time on 4K UHD, fans of Phantasm can enjoy the film in the highest quality of picture and sound, as well as enjoy a heartfelt exploration of Conroy’s contribution to Batman’s legacy.
When criminals dare to tread in Gotham City, they risk confrontation with the seemingly indomitable force known as The Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy). Though he’s developed a good working relationship with Commissioner Gordon (voiced by Bob Hastings), when several mobsters start dropping dead, rumors circulate that Batman has finally gone rogue. What no one realizes, not even Batman, is that what’s happening in Gotham today has been in the works for years.
First, a brief age check.
I’m old enough to have not only been a fan of BTAS in its original run (even getting scolded by my eldest brother for not recording on VHS the day’s broadcast episode when it was a rerun), but to have seen Phantasm in the theater. In my adolescent delusion, I did not enjoy it. Rather than being either a thrilling detective story or an action-packed adventure, it’s a pensive, thoughtful exploration of the schism that exists within Bruce Wayne. Plus, it gave a backstory to The Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill), which felt reductive to this chaotic version of the Clown Prince of Crime. I expected the thrills of a tight 30-minute episode or even the rush of a two-parter, yet the dourness and humanity prevented basking in what others have come to love passionately. As an adult, my expectations are tempered and perspective shifted, so that, while still not particularly exciting, I’m able to revel in the precise mood and atmosphere created by Timm and Radomski, I’m able to better understand what writers Alan Burnett (Batman Beyond: The Movie), Michael Reaves (Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman), Paul Dini (Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker), and Martin Pasko (Beauty and the Beast) sought to accomplish, and more deeply appreciate Conroy’s performance. This may not be the first BTAS legacy project I reach for when introducing these stories to my children, but I won’t hesitate to include it when the time is right.
So, if I’m not a fan of the film, per se, what can be said about the 4K UHD edition? A lot. According to the official press release, both the video and audio were remastered for this release with the original 1993 cut camera negative scanned in 4K resolution, after which, a restoration process took place to remove as much debris and abnormalities as possible. Specific care was taken to ensure that the film grain or dirt that was part of the original cell design remained. The changes are most evident when one compares the 4K UHD edition to prior released footage: the skin tone is more natural, the blacks are inky, the blues more deep, and the richness of Gotham’s red sky is plain. For the first time, I think I noticed the clear purple and green color scheme used in the flashback sequence taking place at the World of Tomorrow event Bruce attends with Andrea Beaumont (voiced by Dana Delany), a foreshadowing of The Joker’s presence to come. The older presentations are far more washed-out, the shadows present for a Batman tale, but as if they’ve been kept out in the light. This new 4K UHD presentation does maintain the matte-like art deco look of the source material, but does so in a way that uplifts the art and production design to impress from start to finish.
Regarding the audio, the press release indicates that it, too, was remastered. On disc, the options under the Audio heading are English (Remastered) and Original Theatrical English, so the assumption is that the remastered version is the 5.1 mix and the original version is the 2.0 mix. For this home release review, the 5.1 mix was tested and, while not totally an immersive audio experience, it is clean, balanced, and engaging. The press notes indicate that the remaster sought to remove various defects in the audio track, citing ops, ticks, dropouts and distortion specifically, none of which were noticed in the remaster. To that end, if you want the full, brand-new experience, go with the 4K UHD video and 5.1 remastered audio when you watch.
As for special features, there’s only one included with the 4K UHD set and it’s a moving documentary dedicated to Conroy, who passed away on November 10th, 2022, having lost his battle with intestinal cancer. Among the people interviewed for this are Timm, Radomski, casting director Andrea Romano (BTAS), Delany, George Newbern (voice of Superman in Justice League: The Animated Series), and others. Amid archived interview footage with Conroy, the participants share their stories of working with him, their memories of significant moments recording Phantasm, and what his legacy means to them. One interesting fact (having not done the math before) is learning how Delany was picked for the role of Andrea and how working with Conroy likely made the decision to take on the role of Lois Lane when the BTAS-related Superman: The Animated Series program was picked up. Ultimately, 25 minutes is a solid length for a memorial, though I doubt fans, such as myself, would’ve minded it being longer.
Be advised of two things before purchasing:
The standard retail copy is 4K UHD and only includes a digital copy. If you’re looking for more, you’ll need to pick up the Best Buy exclusive edition, which also includes the official graphic novel adaptation. This version is a few dollars more and doesn’t appear to include either a Blu-ray, additional features, or significantly special packaging.
Within the circles I exist, purchase of the 4K UHD was a matter of when, not if, upon its announcement. With that in mind, if you’re a fan of this film, this remaster is not going to disappoint you. The visual presentation is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was and the sound is finally compatible with 5.1 home theater systems. That combined with the Conroy doc is going to make for an easy decision to pick this up, if you didn’t pre-order already.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm Special Features:
- Kevin Conroy: I Am the Knight documentary (25:05)
Available on 4K UHD and digital September 12th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official WB Pictures Batman: Mask of the Phantasm webpage.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.