As I type this, Warner Bros Discovery continues to make daily headlines for their almost impossible to believe decisions. Gutting HBO Max to killing every project they have, the company isn’t a hub of good PR right now. And the bad buzz began in earnest with the shelving of Batgirl, a basically completed film. It seemed impossible to believe the studio could kill a project related to Batman. How could they not know what to do with the easiest to sell property ever?
Well, this week I had the chance to rewatch B atman: Mask of the Phantasm, this time on the big screen for the first time. And I couldn’t stop thinking of what an epically botched release the 1993 film had. The film couldn’t even crack the top 10 on opening weekend. On a 6 million budget it only grossed 5.6 million. It was shunted to video and only there did it find an audience. There it became an all time classic hailed as one of not only the best Batman movies but one of the best adult animated movies ever. Why? Why did it flop? I want to examine this. So, join me in an intellectual exercise as I dissect why a truly important film bombed.
I have to begin of course by establishing that this movie didn’t flop because it’s bad. It absolutely is one of the finest comic book movies ever made. Which makes sense as it was the theatrical adaptation of the greatest Batman work ever: Batman: The Animated Series. The movie amounts to an expanded length episode of the show, telling a love story and a deeply internal story for Batman. The film is fundamentally a tragedy, focusing on the last chance of happiness that was stolen from Bruce Wayne, dooming him to a life as Batman. The film is a bitter, bleak study in the mythology that ultimately takes the most nihilistic view of Batman and Gotham. There are no victories in this world. On top of a phenomenal script, the film is gorgeously animated, albeit not far from the show. It’s got great action. And it’s 75 minutes long yet this rich. So yes, it’s great.
So what happened?
First, we must understand the film had a rushed production. It was planned for video then early on replanned for theaters. The film only had 8 months for production from start to finish. By all accounts it was a pleasant production though. The film the animators planned absolutely was what got made. In fact they even got to do more than they originally planned with bigger set pieces and stunning use of widescreen. But still, this was a rush job. Too bad it was a rush job for one of the most botched releases I’ve ever seen.
It begins with the trailer. I’ve never seen a less coherent trailer in my life. All that it tells you is that there is a Batman animated movie coming. There’s none of the big set pieces. There’s no plot. There’s probably as much text as animation. And it tells you right away nobody at the studio knew what they had.
The film came out on Christmas Day. I can’t stress enough what a bad date that was. For one thing, it was the second priority for the studio which had the monster hit of The Pelican Brief out. On the same day, WB released the hit Grumpy Old Men. This was third in line for them. And that’s ignoring that this was a moment with such films as Sister Act 2, Wayne’s World 2 and Beethoven’s 2nd out along with Mrs. Doubtfire dominating. Oh and Tombstone. But let’s study a related problem.
See, WB decided in their wisdom to not screen it for critics, just as Disney didn’t screen Tombstone, which also costarred Dana Delany. As you might guess, the film is now critically beloved. It has an 85% positive score. Siskel and Ebert loved it! But look, I was 9 when the film came out. I knew, no critic reviews meant a bomb. Again though, the film is 5/5 for me so I know it’s not.
And then there’s the botched exhibition. This is not on WB. It’s on theaters. Why was this movie only shown mostly during the day? I did a random sample of several newspapers. It played past 7:00 at one theater in Little Rock, none in Pittsburgh, and only twice in Houston. That’s the release Jetsons the Movie got. Theaters treated it as a kids only movie.
And here we come to the core problem. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm isn’t a kids movie. It played fine to them, sure, but it’s not a kids movie. It’s a deeply adult film. For one thing the plot is heavy on double crosses and a lot of very dull details kids don’t get. But mostly the film is so deeply nihilistic and bleak. It’s about the ethics of killing! It plays becoming Batman as a literal horror. Look, the adult films play at being mature but this film says trauma will ruin you and no matter what you do, unless you learn to move on from it, you’re destroyed. And it places Batman, an iconic superhero, hard in the latter.
This movie exposes that no matter how “mature” the live action films pretend to be, they’re not. The Batman is a great film mind you but it still has a somewhat juvenile perspective of good and evil. The Dark Knight Trilogy the same. The 89 run which this bisects? Very immature. None of these movies have the nihilism that this movie is burdened with which I think is the most honest approach to the character.
And yet this film was basically only sold to kids. It had the Warner Bros. Family Entertainment branding. It was sold on afternoon cartoons. It only got matinee screenings. This movie might have played to kids but it belonged to adults.
So I’m left with a thought. If I were at the studio, I had this film, and I had to decide how to play it, how would I have done it?
I’d start by moving the film to March of 1994. That was a desolate time for adult cinema. Imagine if in that wasteland you had a new Batman movie. I guarantee you, getting out of the hellish winter of 1993 when good movies struggled would have been a smarter decision.
I also would have decided that the animated part mattered far less than the Batman part. WB knew this was their big brand. So I would have emphasized that this was a Batman movie. I would have pushed the film with a campaign that sold it no different from say Batman Returns. Sure, no stars. But selling it as a Batman film with all that meant would have made a difference.
It’s a small thing but this got a PG. Nope. That was naked studio influence. Really only The Dark Knight felt as violent as this. PG13.
I also would tell exhibitors: Play this all day or no Maverick. Make it clear it was an adult film.
All of these are attempts I would make. But the bitter truth is this. In America, the only way animation is seen as adult is if it’s raunchy. That this was in fact a film for adults wasn’t going to ever be clear under the framework we had. This movie was doomed. A shame.
But it still lives on. By now it’s definitely gone into profit. It’s almost universally considered the best Batman movie. And it’s left its mark on a generation. Good.