Batman Cinematic Universe Retrospective: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the release of The Dark Knight, (nearly) the best superhero movie of all time – it not only legitimized the genre in the eyes of the wider movie landscape, but also delivered the most iconic villain in cinematic history in the form of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Due to this anniversary, I could be forgiven for skipping ahead to writing about The Dark Knight, adding my own thoughts to the multitude of articles that have appeared over the last few days, all of which are saying the same thing. In the face of something like Batman Forever I may be forgiven for taking that shortcut, but this week is Mask of the Phantasm’s turn. The only Batman movie that, in my very personal opinion, is better than The Dark Knight, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is the main reason I began this Batman retrospective in the first place.

Sure, going through all the versions and permutations of the Caped Crusader has been a lot of fun, but this was the one I’ve been waiting for. So, without further ado, let’s talk about Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

Mask of the Phantasm was, until the release of The Killing Joke, the only animated Batman movie to get a cinema release. It follows the version of the character that starred in Batman: The Animated Series, which is a perfect place to begin. The Animated Series creation was a direct consequence of the success of Tim Burton’s live-action movies. Despite this fact, and that it’s theme is based directly on Danny Elfman’s wonderful score, the show took a very different approach than the Burton movies. The show is comparatively softer than Burton’s version – well, less horny, at least – but that doesn’t mean that it lost any of the character’s edge. The simple truth is that in the format of a television series the show’s creators, Bruce Timm, and Eric Radomski, gave us a Batman, Gotham, and rogues gallery that could be explored in ways that cinema can’t, due to the time restrictions of telling a cinematic story. The series format was very simple: Batman battles one of his enemies, using a mixture of detective work (the version of the character that utilizes this the most) and fighting prowess to defeat these
enemies. Oh, and most of the episodes end with explosions. Lots of explosions.

Mask of the Phantasm was itself a direct result of the success of the show, with the original plan for the film being a feature-length story that would get a video release (remember videos? Man, what a time to be alive). While the film did get a limited cinema release, few people saw it due to the rushed nature of this decision. It was on video
that myself and my brother first saw it  (then another 49 times at least since I rarely watch it without him) but, as with the Burton movies, it took years for me to realize just how good Mask of the Phantasm truly is.

In researching this article, I was delighted to see that there are many writers and video essayists around my age who have rediscovered the movie for themselves. It’s like finding buried treasure after losing the map years before. Michael Keaton is my live-action Batman, but the Batman of the show, and its spin-off movie is my clear favorite, and Mask of the Phantasm is this character’s finest hour.

Directed by the show’s creators and written by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko and Michael Reaves, Mask of the Phantasm has Batman face-off against the titular villain, a grim reaper-type who has been murdering Gotham’s biggest mob bosses. On top of this, Bruce’s old girlfriend Andrea Bowman comes back to Gotham, bringing back memories of their relationship and how it connects to Bruce’s decision to become Batman, with The Joker thrown in as the perfectly-cast classic wildcard. It is revealed that Andrea is really the Phantasm who is killing the people behind her own father’s murder, including a pre-acididized version of the Joker.

So let’s cobble together what this movie really is. For starters it’s an origin story for this version of Batman, it’s the origin story of how Andrea becomes the Phantasm, it’s a tragic love story, a serial killer story (because Andrea is a fucking murderer, there’s no way around that), and it’s about Bruce’s failure to save Andrea from the same darkness
that almost consumed himself. All of this takes place in just over 70 minutes with a non-linear structure that elegantly balances all of these different components which culminate in an explosive battle which suggests the death of the Joker at Andrea’s hands. This movie is fucking awesome.

I should mention that as far as the TV show is concerned, Mask of the Phantasm is only vaguely part of that continuity. Bruce’s origin story is probably cannon, but this was the creator’s chance to tell a darker story than would have been allowed in a Saturday morning cartoon. So, while the Joker is probably dead at the end of this movie, his reappearance in the second season of the show suggest that Phantasm is mostly a one-off, non-canon piece.

Much like Burton’s movies, and most Batman stories in general, Phantasm is about the transformation that comes from trauma. Bruce’s trauma is obviously the death of his parents, and we see him as a young rookie here, taking on criminals in a ski-mask and practising mixed martial arts in his backyard. It’s on one of his broodingly silent trips to his parent’s grave that he meets Andrea, who is there visiting her mother. That’s right, this movie’s meet-cute takes place in a cemetery. In a few scenes the more positive Andrea brings Bruce’s psychological defenses down; not only do they share grief over lost loved-ones, they can look past this grief when they are together, just enough for Bruce to question his plan to become Batman. The perfect symbol of the life they could have is their date at Gotham’s World Fair and the city of the future exhibit. It’s shiny and full of possibilities, enough possibilities that Bruce is put in crisis over his Batmanning because of his love for Andrea.

This leads to one of the most heartbreaking scenes in a movie full of them, where Bruce visits his parents’ grave once again as he tries to come to terms with the fact that he is happy, and happy even without them: something he’d never counted on. This scene speaks volumes about Bruce Wayne as a character; he has been so affected by his grief that a happy future never even entered his mind. Of course, this doesn’t last as Andrea and her father, who has been embezzling from the mob must go on the run, leaving Bruce heartbroken. Without Andrea Bruce gives into the darkness inside him and becomes Batman.

We have seen this transformation a few times in film, most notably in Batman and Batman Begins, both of which frame this transformation as something triumphant, but Mask of the Phantasm frames it as it really is: a tragedy perfectly encapsulated by Alfred’s gasp of horror when the boy he raised turns around in full costume as the embodiment of justice – if not the embodiment of vengeance.
That role goes to Andrea who, as the ethereal Phantasm, is one of the most complex villains Batman has ever faced. The best type of Batman story, or my favorite, is when Batman isn’t the main character but instead is the force that is trying to pull the real main character out of the darkness that nearly consumed Bruce himself. This was done extremely well in Batman Returns with Catwoman, it’s the basis for many of the best episodes of the animated series (most notably with the Two-Face two-parter) and it’s
his function in Mask of the Phantasm as he tries to stop Andrea avenging her father. What makes these types of stories so damn good is that Batman usually fails, rendering the story as a tragedy but also re-confirming the strength that he holds onto that keeps him on the right side of the moral divide.
Then there’s the Joker. Much like The Dark Knight, the Joker is introduced to the story through a crime boss, who thinks that Batman is the one killing his colleagues and hires the Joker to take him out . Instead the Joker kills the crime boss, and quickly finds out that the Phantasm is the one responsible for killing his old bosses. It’s not a word of exaggeration here to say that the Joker is at his best here. With screentime a little over ten minutes, the Clown Prince of Crime grabs the movie by the throat and starts laughing in its face. With the safety wheels off, Phantasm could up the ante with the Joker, making him a murderer that the TV show always hinted at but couldn’t show. While the Joker enters the movie fully-formed and familiar, he also goes through a transformation. He’s the last piece of the puzzle in Andrea’s killing spree as he was the one who murdered her father, and this leads to the climactic confrontation in the remains of the Gotham World Fair.

Like Bruce and Andrea, the city of the future that held so much promise has been corrupted and destroyed by age and the Joker’s presence. After a brilliantly conceived fight between Batman and the Joker as they tower over a miniature Gotham, Andrea seizes her opportunity to kill the Joker, who in a real nod to the series, has armed the entire place with explosives. With destruction reigning down and Andrea fulfilling her
mission of revenge with a helpless Batman looking on the Joker laughs his fucking ass off. Looking into the eyes of death herself, the Joker sees the funny side of things and I think I have at least three reasons why.

The first reason is that he doesn’t give a fuck, which is what I believed for years, but that’s far too easy for something as complex as this movie. The second reason is that his death is here not for anything he did as the Joker, but what he did before, and that is some solid dramatic irony. The third, and my favorite, is that he is laughing at Batman’s defeat. Even if the result is his death, the Joker loves that Batman has failed to save Andrea, that in the simplest terms, the Joker has won.

If Mask of the Phantasm was made into a live action movie today it would be praised in the same way The Dark Knight has been. It’s a Batman story were the characters are real people with needs, desires, and flaws that help form the alter-egos that consume them. Mask of the Phantasm is a tragedy: Bruce and Andrea’s love and the potential for happiness was destroyed by the actions of the Joker before he was the Joker who was following the orders of criminals that would come to fear each one of them. In direct consequence, all three became things to be feared with their human faces becoming their masks.

The reason that Mask of the Phantasm has resonated with me for all of these years is because it was the first time I saw Batman fail. He failed to save the woman he loved from herself, and he failed to save the Joker because every life counts for this version of the character. In response to this failure he did the only thing he could – he went back to being Gotham’s defender with his principles intact and mistakes to learn from instead of becoming a recluse with a gross depression beard.

If you enjoyed this retrospective, please be sure to tune in next week for our look at the first Joel Schumacher Batman movie. You can also take a look at our other cinematic universe retrospectives, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Jurassic Park movies! And, as ever, if you enjoyed this and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting us on Patreon.

By Kevin Boyle

(header image courtesy of SlashFilm)

 

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