On Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

Serving as part of the DC Animated Film Universe (Batman vs Robin, Teen Titans: The Judas ContractBatman: Under the Red HoodSuperman vs the EliteJustice League vs Teen TitansJustice League: Throne of AtlantisAll-Star SupermanBatman: Bad BloodBatman: Mystery of the BatwomanJustice League: Gods and MonstersJustice League DarkBatman Beyond: Return of the JokerBatman & Mr. Freeze: SubZeroSuperman/Batman: Public EnemiesBatman: The Dark Knight Returns,  Son of BatmanWonder WomanGreen Lantern: First FlightJustice League: Crisis on Two EarthsJustice League: The Flashpoint ParadoxJustice League: WarJustice League: Doom, Green Lantern: Emerald Knights), neo-noir themed Batman: Mask of the Phantasm serves the first official film within the DCAU, as a continuation of Batman: The Animated Series. Given a theatrical release, the film’s plotline was inspired by Mike W. Barr’s Batman: Year Two comic book story arc, but features an original antagonist, the titular Phantasm, in place of The Reaper.

Additionally, according to the Deep Focus Review:

In terms of animated features, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm represents a leap beyond the traditionalized cartoons from companies like Walt Disney by telling an adult story in a medium normally reserved for children. But there’s nothing childlike about the picture, released theatrically in 1993 following the success of Batman: The Animated Series. Warner Bros. Animation placed its top talent from the early-to-mid 1990s television program on an intended direct-to-video movie, later deemed good enough for theaters. Little could Warner Bros. imagine that it would surpass 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns in dramatic scope.

Giving an emotion background to Batman’s origin, the story begins with our hero long since established as Gotham City’s dark knight. Bruce Wayne (voice of Kevin Conroy), hardened and seemingly unsentimental, wavers when former lover Andrea Beaumont (voice of Dana Delany) returns after years of absence. Shown in flashback, they shared a loving relationship in a time when he was most vulnerable, before Bruce had discovered his alter-ego, but was certain he must fight back against Gotham’s criminal sprawl. She made him happy, when his life was otherwise consumed by the vow made to his murdered parents: to stop crime and injustice from afflicting others. He tries to choose between his vow and his pursuit of happiness. In one scene, the film’s most affecting, he falls to his knees before the Wayne gravestone, begging his parents to allow him closure.

The film’s writers (Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Michael Reaves, and Martin Pasko) construct a love story, which by the very nature of Batman must end in tragedy. Indeed, at the same time Andrea returns, a number of notable figures in organized crime are murdered by a masked vigilante known as Phantasm. Having abandoned Bruce long ago after their engagement, Andrea left him crushed, his only outlet to become Batman. But she leaves with her father, who went into hiding after being targeted when a deal with mobsters went wrong. Now those mobsters are being slain one by one. And next on the list is the Joker, voiced with maniacal levity by Mark Hamill, who epitomizes the character’s homicidal irrationality with a bright cackle and murderous wit.

Bearing grave themes directly linked to Batman’s origins, the film remains rooted in the hero’s very structure—why he does what he does. His motivation is never put aside for a sunnier approach, actionized yarn, or campy entertainment. Instead, the filmmakers have created an animated drama wherein the comic book hero has more tangible emotion than most live-action performers. Complex emotions are conveyed in simplistic terms, allowing even young children to grasp the dramatic undertones, while adults feel right at home basking in a superhero story at last handled seriously.

The film is unlike any cartoon you’ve ever seen, at least one primarily advertised to children. Surprising violence marks the story from the first scenes, wherein crime boss Chuckie Sol is murdered by Phantasm—not merely arrested or thrown in jail, but murdered in a car wreck. Another boss is killed when crushed by a gravestone. Joker loses a tooth after getting a Bat-boot in the chops. Whereas earlier cartoons avoid bullets and death to circumvent parents’ angry letters, here cops and mobsters both use bullet-firing guns, versus laser weapons as shown on programs like G.I. JOE. Animators even depict Batman bleeding after a nasty encounter with Gotham’s police, who believe the hero responsible for Phantasm’s murders. It’s all handled with the utmost sincerity, making one see where Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher went so absolutely wrong.

The severe tone carries over from the television show, which aired between 1992 and 1995, creating the ultimate Batman narrative tenets in the process. Conceived by Bruce Timm, Batman’s world was never more stylized to suit his dramatic needs. Set in a daringly dark 1940s-looking Gotham City trimmed with Art Deco structures, the cartoon’s environment has a timeless appearance decked out with vintage car designs and period clothing. Cops and crooks alike appear in long film noir coats, guns tucked under every arm, hats tilted down for an ominous shadow. And yet, futurist gizmos are had by Batman and his cavalcade of villains.

But more than simply an impressive conceptual achievement, Batman: The Animated Series maintains its legacy by having reinvented the hero’s mythology into stories since repeated in the very comics that inspired it. Created for the show, Joker’s perky, fatalistically-in-love assistant Harley Quinn has become a beloved character of Batman fans, carrying over into comics, and oft-rumored for a live-action film appearance. Furthermore, the show’s revisions of rogues like Mr. Freeze and Clayface resonate with inherent heartbreak, their roles becoming more than just villainesque, but fleshed-out individuals worthy of sympathy.

Every episode of the show raised the bar on seventy years of established storylines, amassing a catalog of new principal characterization and stylization for the legend. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, embodying the show’s complete and focused creative abilities, plays like a dream for those desiring more from their superheroes. When so many comic book stories are reduced to brainless entertainment, this film indulges both adults and children with a maturity that few works of this kind can equal.

According to The A.V. Club review:

It was the Lagrange Theater, where we would catch last-run movies for $2 before they hit videotape. Where they didn’t care if a bunch of kids jumped from movie to movie, which is probably why they couldn’t afford to have someone clean the place. Unlike most movies, I didn’t see Batman: Mask of the Phantasm with my gang of cousins but with my mom. She clearly had no interest, but she stayed and watched the entire movie with me, rather than sneaking off to the latest Meg Ryan feature in her usual fashion. Good thing, too, because Phantasm’s introduction in the parking garage scared the shit out of me. I like to think she stayed because of the film’s tragic core romance, but it’s more likely that she stuck around out of a parental obligation to comfort her whimpering chicken shit of a son. Timm’s Phantasm design—the emotionless death’s head mask, tattered hood and cape, razor-sharp hook-blade— was Grim Reaper meets Jason Voorhees meets Captain Hook and all-terrifying to my 6-year-old self.

This is the first time I’ve watched Mask Of The Phantasm since its theatrical release, and seeing it with a stronger understanding of its Batman: The Animated Series’ context makes me appreciate it all the more. Directed by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, it’s the ultimate creative expression from two of the series’ creators, and they craft a film that expands on their specific universe while providing insight into the Batman mythology as a whole. Story writer Alan Burnett, whose “Two-Face: Part One” set the standard for psychological storytelling on the series, creates a sweeping romantic tragedy with the all-stars of the B:TAS writing team contributing to the screenplay. “Feet of Clay” writer Michael Reaves gets his big Joker moment in the DCAU, writing the climactic showdown between Batman, Phantasm, and the Clown Prince, and with broadcast standards and practices finally off his back, he has the Joker kicked in the groin, get his teeth knocked out, and generally bleed a lot. Martin Pasko, the comics veteran whose “See No Evil” was one of the series’ few successful attempts at creating an intriguing original villain, contributes most of the flashback segments. And Paul Dini, he of “Heart Of Ice” and “Joker’s Favor,” fills in “holes here and there,” according to Batman: Animated. Together, they tell the story of what happened between that night in Crime Alley and “On Leather Wings,” and like most great detective stories, it started with a girl.

Introducing new character Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delaney), Burnett reveals Bruce Wayne’s first serious relationship after his parents’ deaths and the ways that it completed his metamorphosis into Batman. It’s like Batman Begins, but with actual romance instead of Katie Holmes. The Andrea Beaumont/Phantasm reveal blew my child mind, as it was my first exposure to the girlfriend-turned-villain plot that I’d come to learn was fairly common in superhero stories. Joining the ranks of Elektra Natchios, Carol Ferris, and Madelyne Pryor, Andrea Beaumont’s mission to avenge her father’s death puts her in direct conflict with her former fiancé Bruce Wayne, bringing an added layer of emotional drama to the costumed action. Mask Of The Phantasm needs to be watched more than once for the full effect, as the knowledge of Phantasm’s identity changes Andrea’s scenes with Bruce and Batman considerably and adds even more layers of subtext.

Mask Of The Phantasm begins with a computer generated tour of Gotham City underscored by Shirley Walker, who outdoes herself with the opening theme. Incorporating choral chanting, she goes for a much grander sound than usual, and her score helps make Mask Of The Phantasm more than just another really long villain origin story. Originally planned to go direct-to-video, Warner Bros. decided for a theatrical release shortly into production, and while the animation makes some adjustments for the new widescreen format, the music is what really gives the film a cinematic quality. The choral sound is used to amazing effect, creating gentle transitions into the past or going in the opposite direction and heightening the emotion for the World’s Fair scene. Fun fact about those chants: They’re actually the names of the show’s composers and producers sung backwards. Shirley Walker, so brilliant.

The credits end, and the Gotham skyline appears in what could be Eric Radomski’s title card for the film, zooming in to show a meeting between Chuckie Sol (Dick Miller) and some fellow mobsters exchanging counterfeit currency. Batman breaks it up, and Chuckie escapes to the parking garage, where he encounters the Phantasm in her signature cloud of smoke. He drives off the side of the building, flying through the air in a beautiful widescreen shot before crashing into the neighboring building. His screaming stops. One down, three to go. Witnesses catch Batman surveying the scene, and with an appearance similar to Phantasm, he is accused of the murders by Councilman Arthur Reeves (Hart Bochner), who has a similarly antagonistic role for Bruce Wayne. While Joker may be the big villain of the piece, with Jack Napier killing Carl Beaumont (Stacy Keach) and setting Andrea on her dark path for vengeance, Arthur is the one that sold out Carl’s location to the mob. He’s just another example of Gotham’s non-costumed villains, the ones that operate in court rooms and city halls and probably do more damage than whatever plot Roxy Rocket has up her sleeve.

Arthur’s appearance at a Wayne Manor event revives Bruce’s memories of Andrea, and as he stares at the picture of Thomas and Martha Wayne, a gentle chorus takes us to the past, specifically a sunny day at the plot where Bruce’s parents are buried. It’s here that he meets Andrea, starting a relationship that ends up putting Bruce’s vow to his parents in question. In a beautiful, rain-soaked graveyard scene by Pasko, Bruce begs his parents to release him from his bondage, when he is the only one that holds the key:

Bruce: “It doesn’t mean I don’t care anymore. I don’t want to let you down, honest, but… but it just doesn’t hurt so bad anymore. You can understand that, can’t you? Look, I can give money to the city; they can hire more cops. Let someone else take the risk, but it’s different now. Please… I need it to be different now. I know I made a promise, but I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t count on being happy. Please… tell me that it’s okay.”
Andrea: “Maybe they already have. Maybe they sent me.”

When Bruce finally proposes, Andrea is forced to flee the country with her father, and Bruce loses the one chance he had at escaping Batman’s influence. He puts on the cape and cowl, much to Alfred’s terror, and sets out on his mission, one that will lead him back to Andrea in ways he could never expect.

Batman was born when the Waynes were gunned down in Crime Alley, and the years Bruce spent training and studying around the world are the childhood years of Bruce’s new identity. The flashbacks in Mask of the Phantasm are Batman’s adolescence, as he goes through an identity crisis sparked by emotional confusion and sexual desire. Batman reaches adulthood when Bruce puts on the mask for the firs time, conceding to the influence of the cape and cowl. The present-day action forces Bruce Wayne back to the surface when Andrea reenters his life, but unbeknownst to him, she has undergone a similar transformation. When Batman sees Andrea at her mother’s grave, a dark mirror of their first meeting years ago, she has already fallen into the abyss by having killed Chuckie Sol. Andrea builds up a lie that suggests her father is the man behind the killing, but she can’t fool the world’s greatest detective, and as the World’s Fair where she fell in love with Bruce is engulfed in flames, she sees her life burn away with it. When Buzz Bronski goes to leave roses at Chuckie’s grave, Phantasm strikes again, crushing Buzz with a giant statue in an open grave. Once Bruce and Andrea reignite their relationship, Phantasm stops killing, as Sal Valestra (Abe Vigoda) hires the Joker to take care of Batman but ends up getting a smiling face full of Joker’s poison, killing him faster than the cigars he smokes throughout the movie.

Mark Hamill nails every one liner the writers throw at him (I tried to get as many as I could in Stray Observations, but I’m sure I missed some), and his signature Joker laugh is used to chilling effect throughout the film. When Phantasm discovers Sal Valestri’s dead body (the first time someone has died from Joker’s poison in the DCAU), Joker laughs. When  Batman realizes Joker’s civilian identity Jack Napier is the man with Carl Beaumont and the mobsters, Joker laughs. And when the World’s Fair is exploding all around him and Batman watches his greatest love slip away, Joker positively loses his shit.

Dong Yang and Sunrise handle the animation for the Mask Of The Phantasm, and while it’s certainly on the high-end of the spectrum, it doesn’t quite meet the quality of “Feet of Clay: Part Two.” Considering the time constraints and the short notice on the theatrical release, it’s completely excusable, but for a big screen animated feature, the animation doesn’t meet the sort of high standards that were being set by Disney at the time. The big action sequences look incredible—the rooftop chase between Batman, Phantasm, and the GCDP; the World’s Fair climax—but the quality takes a slight dip during the moments with less drama, as the characters appear less-defined, their actions less smooth. The explosions look great, and Phantasm’s smoke effects, especially when she’s running across the rooftops, look awesome.

Andrea Beaumont makes one more appearance in JLU’s “Epilogue,” penned by the late Dwayne McDuffie, a silent cameo revealing her role in the origin of Bruce’s legacy, Terry McGinniss. After injecting Terry’s father with nanites that turned his sperm into perfect genetic copies of Bruce Wayne’s, Amanda Waller hires Phantasm to kill Terry’s parents when he’s 8-years-old, recreating the event that sparked Batman’s creation. That Amanda Waller sure is an evil bitch. Andrea has a last-minute crisis of conscience and convinces Waller to abandon her Batman Beyond project, and her actions not only give Terry those extra years with his father, they ensure the existence of his younger brother.

Mask of the Phantasm ends with two powerful epilogues, one with Alfred consoling Bruce after losing Andrea, the other with Andrea accepting the consequences of her actions. When Bruce put on the Batman mask for the first time earlier in the film, Alfred gasped in shock but also fear for his surrogate son. In their final scene, Alfred tells Bruce, “I’ve always feared you would become that which you fought against. You walk the edge of that abyss every night, but you haven’t fallen in, and I thank heaven for that.” Merriam-Webster describes “phantasm” as “a product of fantasy as delusive appearance.” That could easily describe Batman. The mask of the phantasm is the mask that Bruce Wayne puts on every day, and if he falls into the abyss, he risks a life like Andrea’s: completely alone.

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