Classic, Film, Netflix, Other, Superhero

A blast from the past: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is nearly 30 and still going strong

There are not many new shows and movies out right now. Especially new animated content. I know we’ll get some stuff soon – I’ll be reviewing the new season of Infinity Train after it concludes this Thursday and the third season of Aggretsuko is also due later this week. But there haven’t really been any new franchises coming out.

Films that were supposed to be released in theaters are only available on demand for $30 charges on top of the streaming service subscription – and even though it’s a fuck-ton easier to produce animated shows while quarantined – it’s a process, a lengthy one. So that stuff is probably in production or in planning stages.

So, since I will be reviewing some new stuff in the upcoming weeks – I thought it was high time to visit a truly classic film. A true cult classic. And one of the best-animated superhero films of all time: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

If you like Batman: The Animated Series or Justice League – then you’ll like this. You’ve may have seen the film already. Even though it takes place within this continuity, I don’t ever remember watching the movie when I was young.

True, it came out two years before I was even born – but still. You would think I would have seen on television at some point. It’s definitely my favorite cinematic portrayal of the Caped Crusader. Mostly because it’s one of the few I’ve noticed that uses the film to explore his inner character and doesn’t rely as much on the “superhero action.” I think it’s the only film that focuses more on his identity as Bruce Wayne rather than him as Batman.

It’s unclear where this film fits within the wider continuity of this world, but that’s not necessary. Around half the film takes place in the film’s present-day, whatever year that might be. There’s no mention of the Justice League, Harley Quinn and the police are a bit too easy to mistrust Batman than I remember.

The other half of the film takes place a decade prior – told via flashbacks – that show what finally led Bruce Wayne to take on the Batman persona, permanently. No, not his parents being killed – I’m talking about the point of no return.

The plot is straightforward: Ten years after his fiancée, Andrea Beaumont, left him, Bruce runs into her in Gotham. Around the same time, a mysterious masked phantom begins killing local mobsters. Due to the Phantom’s appearance, Batman is blamed for the deaths.

When it becomes clear matters are complicated, one former mobster hires the Joker to take out Batman.

Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne also has to deal with the emotional fallout of his ex-fiancee returning into his life – after her sudden breakup led to him deciding he had no other choice than to be Batman.

The movie also chronicles Bruce’s and Andrea’s relationship up until her sudden departure. It’s very much a tragic film, that isn’t too focused on huge action scenes or apocalyptic world-ending villains.

Instead, it’s a very intimate peek into a hero, whose fans often don’t quite understand the hero. And that makes it both darker, more realistic, and emotional than any of the live-action films.

Who is the Monster and Who is the Man?

In the Batman mythos – the identities of Batman and Bruce Wayne are inextricably intertwined. It isn’t a title like the Flash, Green Lantern or Captain Marvel that can be passed on. Sure, you have Terry McGinnis in Batman Beyond – but that’s an outlier. Nobody asks who is the most deserving of the title: it’s because it is always Bruce Wayne who becomes Batman.

Not everyone can wear the cowl.

In many the Batman movies, we’re focused on the super-heroing. That’s because we all know that Bruce Wayne is just a character to fool the public. The vengeance-driven, grief-stricken mad-man is the person audiences want to see. But Batman is deeper than that.

And that’s what many the live-action films miss.

Bruce Wayne is a broken man. He wants to ensure that what happened to him as a child NEVER happens to anyone else. And by dressing up as a superhero he isn’t only a figure for the people of Gotham to look up to…he’s being the hero he needed as a child. And that’s why the mask is so important to him.

If he takes it off, he has to deal with the reality that he’s still that scared little boy who stood over his parents’ corpses, who couldn’t do anything. And he simply cannot bear it. And he can’t let anyone else know it either.

Most of the media has defined split between the two personalities: after his parents die, it’s a training montage that takes place over a decade or so, and then he’s Batman. Nobody cares about the Bruce Wayne in between.

But that’s where the Mask of the Phantasm stands out. During the flashback scenes, the man is right on the edge. He’s been training, and he’s trying to figure out who Batman is – but he’s still trying to be Bruce Wayne too.

He knows the second he takes on the Batman persona he won’t be able to go back to who he was. He’s teetering on the edge.

And Andrea complicates matters. At the beginning of these flashback scenes, he’s telling his parents about his decision –to be Batman. But when he is deciding whether to propose, he’s struggling with it – not because he’s not sure if he loves Andrea, but because he’s not sure if he’s deserving of the peaceful life of billionaire Bruce Wayne.

In the present, we never really see Bruce Wayne – we don’t see a man in normal clothes lounging about. When he is around others, he’s awkward and uncomfortable. He’s only confident when the mask goes on.

When it’s clear that Andrea knows that Bruce and Batsy are one and the same, we see something more come out of both sides of his persona.

Andrea and the Phantasm’s personalities also begin to combine as she too is consumed with grief. She wants to avenge him – and that overtakes her personality. But I think the difference comes in how their parents meet their ends: Mr. and Mrs. Wayne were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mr. Beaumont worked with the mob. They specifically went after him.

So, Andrea’s anger is directed at certain people. Bruce’s anger is at the world. Both have let their anger consume their lives. But I would say Andrea had far more of a choice than Bruce did. 

Much like Owl Man in the Crisis on Two Earths -Andrea looked into the abyss and blinked. Batman did not. Bruce is well aware of how his actions have affected others – but strives to ensure that nobody is ever hurt except himself.

In the flashbacks, his struggles over becoming Batman is mostly over the fact that he feels as though he’s not allowed to be happy. He loves Andrea and being with her means giving up Batman. It means being happy – but he thinks he doesn’t deserve that.

During the flashbacks, Bruce Wayne is still Bruce Wayne. He isn’t Batman. Not until the end when he puts on the cowl for the first time. James Reaves, one of the writers on the movie, said, 

When Bruce puts on the mask for the first time, [after Andrea breaks their engagement], and Alfred says ‘My God!’ he’s reacting in horror, because he’s watching this man he’s helped raise from childhood, this man who has let the desire for vengeance and retribution consume his life, at last embrace the unspeakable,”

He didn’t have to be Batman. He felt like he had to. But there was always a choice.

Andrea knew she had a choice. And still made the wrong decision.

And supposedly, the film was supposed to be the series finale – which does make sense, but then it got more episodes.

Is this…for kids?

Seriously.

Sure, the whole of the DCAU is pretty dark – with the Batman series being the darkest. But, it wasn’t really visually graphic. Instead, the series made full use of the implications, or the creative use of camera angles – since they couldn’t show blood or dead bodies.

I also think we can all agree that being a victim of the Joker’s gas when you’re left in a near-catatonic state unable to stop laughing with a hideous grin on your face, is scarier than dying. The showrunners got creative with how they could portray this reality. And it worked.

And yet despite this movie’s PG rating, which was the same as the series. They were allowed to be much more graphic and explicit.  They were basically allowed full creative control. And it still matched the tone of the series.

They don’t exploit their freedom. They use it very carefully and effectively. For example, a car is driven out a building and nosedived into another building across the street – shown very graphically. They don’t show the body – but it’s obvious what happened was terrible.

There’s even blood in some of the scenes. Not a lot but Batman gets visibly injured a few times and can’t just shake it off.

There’s even an honest to goodness corpse shown on the screen in all its glory. I think the last time a dead body stunned me in a cartoon was when they showed Professor Zei’s mummified corpse in Legend of Korra.

They show the body, sitting on a chair, with pallid skin, basically in rigor mortis, with one of those Joker smiles plastered on his face. I didn’t realize those things could look worse when the wearer is dead. And it’s clear he died in pain.

I don’t know exactly how – but they drew an excellent corpse and I’m pressed they showed the whole body – rather than making it look like he was sleeping or only showing part of the body. Part of what makes the movie is the shock value.

All of it is stuff we’ve seen in movies before – but it’s all about the looks and timing. It’s not just shock value. There’s a lot more to it than that. The movie understands what most shows geared towards adults don’t understand about violence and sex.

It’s more impactful, the less you use it.

Though the other big murder by the Phantasm isn’t graphic, it’s frightening to witness the death from the perspective of the victim – as a huge gravestone tumbles on to him while he stands in an empty grave.

Also…they’re not very shy about the relationship between Bruce and Andrea. Some of it –I’m not sure how they got away with it, with only a PG rating. The film was originally supposed to be made-for-TV, but at some point, they decided it would be a theatrical release.

Which explains why the film doesn’t even hit the 90-minute mark and probably explains how the writers were able to push the envelope a bit more.

I don’t recall any of the other Batman movies released in the past 20 years, coming close to matching the level of darkness and realism in this film. We can talk all day about how the Dark Knight trilogy is gritty and “dark,” because the Joker is legitimately unpredictable. But in this continuity, it’s so much clearer as to what drove Bruce to become Batman – and a lot more understandable as well.

He’s loyal to Gotham. To the innocent citizens. He would never leave. And it’s that type of melancholic reality – that helps make the film so memorable.

Style, Substance and Art Deco

The one thing that absolutely sets the Batman part of the DCAU apart from the rest is the animation style. The whole series animation is influenced by the art deco style – which gives it an honestly timeless air. Because the style has been around since the pre-World War I days, which means even before most of the ideas that would influence modern-day pop culture were even developed – it never appears dated.

The timeframe is ambiguous. And combined with the different styles of cars, the technology used by civilians, and by Batman himself, it appears anachronistic. Which is a good thing. All the different elements from different times, fit together very well. And the highly stylized, mostly hand-drawn animation keeps the film also from becoming dated.

Good hand-drawn cartoons will always look good. But 3-D and CGI animated films will always look dated at some point.

What’s probably most impressive is this whole movie was made in EIGHT MONTHS. Most animated films take about two years from start to finish – and these guys didn’t even plan this film with the intention to produce a theatrical release.

This would also explain the short run time. I’m sure that if the studio wasn’t on such a tight schedule, they would have made the movie longer – but honestly, it didn’t need much more. It already had everything it needed.

Stop. Villain Time.

So…you can’t really have an animated Batman movie without a Mark Hamill Joker. I don’t make the rules. I just enforce them. Mark Hamill’s Joker is my favorite iteration of the character, and even though he wasn’t the main antagonist I really like how they use him in this film.

Because, well, he does tend to be the default Batman villain. And because the Joker has appeared in so many fucking movies so it ’s so nice to see him as a supporting character.

And the movie gives us sort of an origin story for him. An origin story, in that, we get just a little peek of who he was before he became the Joker. But we don’t learn how. And honestly, I like it better that way.

But it keeps his craziness and even though he used to be a lower-ranking member of the mob, everyone is scared of him. Also, by making him connected to the main antagonist, it’s less about what the Joker can do and more about why he’s involved.

Throughout the film, I don’t think Andrea’s persona is referred to as Phantasm once. And I’m okay with that. It’s clearly a reference to her – and how she, like Bruce, took on a persona that seemed larger than life, mythical, who only seems to appear at night.

Unlike Batman, Andrea is still primarily Andrea. The Phantasm isn’t her main identity in the movie – she’s always been just herself. A mask and cape are just the best ways for her to go about completing her goal.

And the Phantasm isn’t a direct threat to Batman. It’s the police and public who have mistaken the Phantasm for him – even though by now, you think they would know that Batman doesn’t kill people. Eh. Maybe CADMUS had something to do with it.

Either way, the villains and their motives are well-thought-out, and they’re all threats in their own way. The stakes might be relatively minor compared to even episodes of the television show or to modern-day movies, but you still can feel the tension and you want Batman to get his happy ending.

Even though you only meet Andrea here, you do want them to get together. They make each other happy. And Batman deserves to become Bruce Wayne once more.

After nearly three decades, I still think this film holds up to animated films of today and is even better than many of the recent superhero movies. (Obviously Into the SpiderVerse is not in that category.)

Films that had higher budgets and longer production periods from that time don’t hold up today. They’re cringy, they use humor nobody would dare use today, the plots are complicated, they have a terrible misunderstanding of the characters…the list goes on.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm’s dark, serious nature makes it a great juxtaposition to other notable Batman movies like Batman Ninja, or The Lego Batman Movie, which are also stylized but are brighter and campier. They all have different takes on the character, but they all truly understand him.

And that’s the scoop!

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Score: 9/10

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Info

Year of Release: 1993

Length: 76 minutes

Directors: Eric Radomski, Bruce Timm

Producers: Benjamin Melniker, Michael Uslan

Screenplay by: Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, Michael Reaves

Story by: Alan Burnett

Voice Actors: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Dana Delany, Hart Bochner, Abe Vigoda

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