What makes the most money is more often than not an inaccurate barometer for quality. Combing through the top ten lists in film, music, literature, and television often yields the most broadly appealing and easy-to-digest material but rarely the most influential and timeless. With exceptions of course. Box office failure is also a poor gauge of quality because, frankly, we as consumers make mistakes too. Some of the greatest artists in history across all mediums didn’t find their audience until their time had passed. So, let’s shine a light on those which lost the short battle but have come out on top in the long run.
Previously: Fight Club
It can’t be stressed hard enough how much of a game-changer Batman: The Animated Series was. The Emmy-winning show became the definitive version of Batman for an entire generation of youngsters, and it spawned iconic performances from Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne and Mark Hamill as his psychotic nemesis, The Joker. It eventually became the foundation for an entire interpretation of the DC universe, cementing this version of the Dark Knight as a landmark iteration in the character’s decades-long history.
A year into the show’s run, creators Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski were given the opportunity to make a feature-length film based on Batman: The Animated Series. Excited at the prospect, Timm and Radomski pulled together some of the best writers from the series — Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, and Michael Reaves — and set to work on creating a film that would act as a partial origin story for their version of the Caped Crusader.
Delighted at how immensely successful the show had become both critically and financially, the executives at Warner Bros. decided that Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was going to be released theatrically. The filmmakers originally had planned for a home video release, allowing them a much longer time in production. With the decision to give the film a wide release, the production schedule was jammed into eight months instead of the normal twelve the team would have had. Even worse, Warner Bros. now had to come up with a marketing strategy for a theatrical product that would be out before the end of the year. The result was a campaign that sold itself purely on the name recognition of the character instead of the story he was a part of. You can see this obscured approach in the theatrical trailer:
By the time the film was out in theaters, audiences were barely aware of its presence. Coupled with the previous year’s disappointing response to the overtly Gothic Batman Returns, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was stuck in a terrible place. It was a movie that was seen as a children’s flick due to its animated nature, but the subject material and presentation put off an air of darkness that alienated a lot of parents. It didn’t project the kind of large scale prestige that the Burton films had capitalized on, and despite the film garnering lots of critical praise, it was an enormous flop at the box office.
Today, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm has become a fan favorite, garnering tons of love for its cinematic enhancement of what made Batman: The Animated Series so special. Speaking personally, I think Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is the best Batman feature film ever made. To clarify, there have been better made films that feature Batman, but none of them get as many elements of the character and his world as right as Batman: Mask of the Phantasm does; embracing the character’s horror trappings (the villainous Phantasm is downright spooky), giving Batman a central mystery that takes full advantage of his skills as a detective, and managing to balance the character’s dark and silly qualities perfectly. Batman: Mask of the Phanatsm simultaneously features the scariest Joker sequence in any Batman film (“Makes you want to laugh, doesn’t it, Artie?”) and a fight between Batman and the Joker in a miniature city, spoofing kaiju films like King Kong vs. Godzilla.
When the trailer for The Lego Batman Movie came out, it rattled off all the various theatrical Batman films but neglected to mention Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. It’s not a movie that deserves to be forgotten, especially by those who call themselves fans of the character. As time continues onward, I believe the incredible quality of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm will be more remembered than its lackluster financial performance.