On Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

Related to Batman: The Animated Series, and preceding Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is considered the “best big-screen iteration of Batman.” The animated feature does include great storytelling devices, as according to ReelRundown‘s review:

Though it’s not just inner conflict that’s at play in this film. It gives the audience a good foil to Bruce and Batman. The two characters aren’t so different, which is something that not only The Phantasm believes, but that Alfred does as well. At least to a point, considering that both characters are out for vengeance after their parents were killed. But that’s where the similarities end as Batman has his rule of no killing and The Phantasm has no qualms about doing so. Alfred masterfully points out the differences between the characters when he notes to Bruce that the soul is blackened by vengeance and that he has always feared Bruce as Batman would become the monsters he fights. Yet, Alfred also states that he toes that line every night, but has never crossed it like Andrea did.

The film also has some very well-done symbolism revolving around the amusement park that Andrea and Bruce go to in the flashbacks and where Joker is hiding out in the climax of the film. It’s called “World of the Future” and it’s a great metaphor for the future of Bruce and Gotham city. When he and Andrea are visiting in the past, it’s up and running, presenting a bright, hopeful, and idealistic vision of the future, coinciding nicely with the path Bruce and Andrea were on before she left. However, in the present day, the park is very run down. It’s decayed, dark, and quite cynical with Joker using it as a base. It shows how Bruce and Gotham have fallen, with the latter now having a thriving criminal underworld and the former having no hope or happiness for anything. Further, once Andrea shows and states how she fully intends to kill Joker, the dynamite under the park goes off and destroys it.

There’s also some good foreshadowing that happens throughout the film. For one, Bruce’s proposal is interrupted by a swarm of bats coming from the cave below them and there’s also the self-defense classes Andrea took, allowing her to take on Bruce. One very notable point of foreshadowing is how Joker is confronting Reeves in his office and drops hints that the two of them have plenty of knowledge about the Beaumonts. This is the scene where he finds out who The Phantasm is as he would know that The Phantasm isn’t her father, as Bruce suspects, because he killed him before becoming the Clown Prince of Crime.

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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