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1992 was a good year for Batman. He’d just been realised on the big screen in Batman Returns and Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series was proving a hit with critics and audiences alike (indeed, BTAS could be the best adaptation of Batman to date). As BTAS reached the end of the first season, Warner Brothers ordered a straight to DVD feature length movie from the creative team. They decided to tell a story away from the general Rogues Gallery, and make it a love story, since most Batman stories didn’t deal with that kind of material.
Early in the production stage, the project changed from a straight to DVD film to one scheduled for release in cinemas. Due to the last minute change, the film was a box office bomb and largely unseen. But critics and the audiences that did see it viewed Mask of the Phantasm favourably. Released in 1993, alongside The Lion King and The Nightmare Before Christmas, it didn’t get the audience it deserves. Which is a damned shame, because it’s arguably the finest Batman film ever made.
The animated Batman of the 1990s is closer to the comics than other screen adaptations, spiritually similar to Christopher Nolan’s gritty and realistic vigilante, but still retaining that element of the fantastic that brought Tim Burton’s films to life. Mask of the Phantasm eschews the fantastical elements for a somewhat dark, gritty and introspective movie, exploring the dichotomy of Bruce Wayne and Batman and his motivations to become the Caped Crusader, while ignoring the ‘origins’ and telling a solid story in the process.
While Christopher Nolan would call his Dark Knight “Heat with psychopathic clowns”, Mask of the Phantasm is akin to Citizen Kane. Both films tell much of the story in flashback, and invoking a film noir feeling of foreboding and dread while exploring a powerful, tormented man and his emotional struggles. But while Citizen Kane followed Charles Foster Kane to his destruction, Mask of the Phantasm follows Bruce Wayne on his path to becoming a hero.
The plot revolves around the Phantasm, a Grim Reaper-like masked vigilante who is murdering mobsters in Gotham. Due to his resemblance to the Batman, both the police and the mob are hunting him down, and he is forced to clear his name. But the real focus is on Bruce Wayne’s relationship with Andrea Beaumont, the girl who got away, who’s just returned to Gotham City. Unlike the extreme relationship with Selina Kyle, and the somewhat dull romance he has with Rachel Dawes, his love affair with Andrea feels genuine.
They meet in the cemetery where both of their parents are dead. Unlike Bruce, who becomes obsessed with the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne, Andrea has made peace with their deaths, and serves as a sign that Bruce might be able to move on. Not a femme fatale or a damsel in distress, Andrea is a believable woman who connects with Bruce on an emotional level - so much so that Bruce is even willing to renounce his mission to fight crime in Gotham.
Many Bat-fans believe that Bruce Wayne is the mask and Batman is the real man. Obviously, he wasn’t born the Batman, he became the Batman, and the process of the Batman taking over Bruce completely is seen here. We didn’t really see that in other films, even Nolan’s exceptional Batman Begins, and it’s fascinating. This film was taking a psychologically complex and open approach to Batman’s psyche a decade before Nolan got his hands on the Bat.
The heart of the story is Bruce’s choice: be at peace with Andrea, or follow “the mission”. Of course, we know how it ends; it’s about the journey. Bruce struggles between happiness or vengeance. There’s a great scene during a stormy night, where Bruce kneels at his parents’ graves, begging his parents to show him which path to take. He wants to give up his “plan” so he can be happy, but that would mean breaking his promise to avenge his parents.
“It doesn’t hurt so much anymore”, he says. That all-encompassing pain isn’t quite as all-encompassing, but he chooses it anyway. He deliberately rejects happiness and goes down a darker path. His parents would want him to reject those years of training and the obsession with crime for the love of a woman. That’s a tragic element to the character that hasn’t been seen in, basically, any other version. Nolan’s Batman might have had a chance at happiness with Rachel Dawes, but she took that chance away. This was Bruce’s choice. And that makes it all the more painful.
And it only gets worse. Bruce asks Andrea to marry him, but after the mob attacks her family, she returns the engagement ring, leaves a Dear John letter, and disappears. Heartbroken, Bruce dons the Batman costume for the first time. His happiness was destroyed. Bruce Wayne dies the moment Andrea leaves. And thus the Batman is born. When superheroes don their costumes, it’s supposed to be a triumphant moment. But the chilling music, and Alfred’s “My god!” say it all. This is not a good thing.
However, Andrea has changed too, when she returns to Gotham. As most people probably guessed, Andrea is the grim reaper vigilante, the Phantasm. How she became the Phantasm is never addressed, but we know she’s back to kill all the mobsters responsible for the death of her father. Death has taken over her life, so she dons the costume of death. If someone who made peace with the death of their parent could still become a murderous vigilante, then Bruce never really had a chance at happiness, did he? That’s another sobering point the film makes.
One of the classic Batman arguments is addressed through Andrea’s violent acts. She isn’t evil, but is the villain because she opposes Bruce philosophically. He’s a hero, and she’s a vigilante. But is Batman’s stance on killing better than Andrea’s willingness to kill those who commit murder? Is she a better hero because she will cross the one line that Batman won’t? She murders, but she only murders the bad guys. Is she a hero using extreme methods or a villain using a tragic past as justification for her crimes?
The climax takes place in the ruins of the World’s Fair, a place supposed to symbolise the bright hopes of the future, and a place Bruce and Andrea visited while engaged. But now the place has fallen to ruin. Time has forgotten it and the future is bleak. But even better is that the World’s Fair is the lair of both Batman’s greatest enemy, and the man who ruin Andrea’s life by killing her parents, for they are one and the same. Mask of the Phantasm’s final ace up its sleeve is the brilliant way it includes the greatest villain of them all, The Joker.
Including the Joker further connects Bruce and Andrea symbolically, while also proving The Joker will forever be a plague on Batman’s life. Despite all the innocents The Joker has killed, Batman still stands between him and Andrea. His code of ethics prevents him being killed. It might make more sense to kill The Joker and save future lives, but he won’t cross that line. The Joker has effectively turned former lovers into ideologically opposed vigilantes of the night. She desperately wants to kill The Joker, to kill the pain she feels, but Bruce won’t let her, and any slight glimmer of a hopeful future they had is crushed.
It’s a tragic story, but it’s not all tragedy. Outside of the wonderful character development - brought to life by the always excellent Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and The Joker, with Dana Delaney (Body of Proof) playing Andrea Beaumont - there are gorgeous visuals, fantastic music, and some well executed animated action sequences (in particular, the climax at the World’s Fair), proving that animation can truly be home to the most imaginative action in cinema and television.
It has everything a Batman story should. Great characters, great action, great villains, and a great storyline. And it told this great story without major alterations to the Batman mythos, which both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan were forced to do, rather than risk their creative visions and comfort zones (Burton perhaps too fantastical, Nolan perhaps too realistic, to truly capture the Batman). Paul Dini (behind the Arkham Asylum and Arkham City games) and Bruce Timm didn’t need to. And that’s why, despite Nolan’s terrific Dark Knight trilogy, this is the best Batman film to date.