Mask of the Phantasm wasn’t supposed to endure like this. It wasn’t even supposed to be a theatrical film. And still, just under 24 years later, from a blink and you missed it December release, the film endures with a cult following that greeted the announcement of a Blu Ray release on July 25th with cheers. Mask of the Phantasm is different kind of movie.
Mask of the Phantasm isn’t like other theatrical Bat-films, besides the obvious difference in production medium. In the 75 years of existence Batman has been a potent and mutable symbol. The ’66 Batman: The Movie and television series casts the dynamic duo as counter culture authority figures. Tim Burton’s duology of films empathized with loner aspect of the character, and the equally lonely villains. Joel Schumacher attempted a surprising fusion of camp aesthetics with a desire to interrogate the psychology of Batman. Christopher Nolan with The Dark Knight Trilogy reduced Batman down to a primal symbol as part of a morality play that interrogated the American soul after 9/11. None of those films are, however really about the ‘man’ in Batman. Mask of the Phantasm is, framing the cost and temptation of the inherent fascism within the cape and cowl against the emotional life of Bruce Wayne. By interrogating the man underneath the cowl, Mask of the Phantasm is able to tell a quintessential Batman story. Surprisingly, perhaps controversially, it’s closest spiritual sibling is the recent Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition wherein an older, cynical, Bruce Wayne’s personal failings cast a dark shadow over his symbol as he deals with the presences of this Man of Steel.
On its surface, Mask of the Phantasm bears resemblance to the rest of the Bat-oeuvre. Batman hunts down the new costumed villain in town. There’s a Joker. He tangles with the tendrils of corruption between the State and organized crime. Andrea Beaumont, while among the upper echelons of one off love interests, is still figured as an avenue towards normal domesticity. But, it’s how writers Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, Michael Reaves and co-directors Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm use this collection of plot points and tropes to tell this story that sets it apart.
To illustrate how disinterested the film is in Batman, we must realize how utterly powerless he is in it. A somewhat ironic narrative choice considering Batman was born from a feeling of powerlessness. He does not affect the plot at all in this film, that’s Andrea’s job, but is instead continually impacted by it. Detective stories are characterized by the chase and eventually catching up and over taking, Batman is perpetually one step behind. Bruce Wayne is the better man, the one who catches up. He draws the Joker’s smile on the photograph and races off to attempt to save the soul of Andrea Beaumont.
With Batman displaced, the film can explore if not the tragic the fatalistic quality of Bruce Wayne and his promise. He is a haunted figure spurred by an eternally looking for supernatural validation from his murdered parents. A twist of fate (read: meet cute) encounter with Andrea Beaumont, however, throws that entire order into disarray as he begins to question not just if he could be Batman but should he. He prostrates himself before his parent’s grave this time not seeking validation but emancipation from the chains the Batman promises now puts on him, in Kevin Conroy’s best work as the character. video
The reason this scene has such an emotional impact on the viewer is because of the vignette flashbacks, that effectively condenses a yearlong courtship into the key moments. More importantly, audiences are shown why both parties would find companionship in one another. Death hangs over both of them, tying them together in a way that will eventually break them apart. Other Bat-ships are more one-sided affairs. Viki Vale and Dr. Chase Meridian both looked at Bruce Wayne/Batman with a pathological interest. Each actor playing Bruce in those cases looked right back with all the charm of leading Hollywood men, and none of the chemistry that makes these nothing more than rote performances of heterosexuality. Both version of Selena Kyle seen on screen, are something for Batman to save, not form a union with. Other than Andrea Beaumont, the next best Bat-ship is with Chris O’Donnel’s Robin through Forever and especially in ’97 Batman & Robin – where Batman is over protective with his partner in the field.Continued below
Phantasm is one of the few stories that does what Tom King is currently attempting to do in the comics, a story that gives “him love and joy, that combines with the tragedy of his past into something new”[i]. While perhaps not something wholly unique, Phantasm’s creators use this new potential to illustrate and verbalize the “why” of Batman better than any other film. In confronting the Phantasm, Bruce tangles with a dark mirror of himself and in the reflection, decide how far he’s willing to go.
In confronting the “why” of Batman, a full survey of the character is required, dredging up darker aspects within the character. There is an inherent fascism to the superhero, it is part of their origin story. They were created to symbolically fight the rise of European fascism before the U.S. entered the WWII theater, with the heroes subsequently being marshalled for more openly propagandist means. But slowly, in the 70+ years since “Action Comics” #1, conventions and structures slowly built up to support this new genre. In building these supports structures on top of this foundation, audiences slowly repressed, but not erase, the fascistic quality in these characters. By repressing these aspects, they are displaced into the unconscious and bubble up, haunting, broader tropes and motifs.
Within Batman these specters appear when focusing the character on the difference between “justice” and “vengeance.” This schema transforms the moral quality of a hero into a fetish object, allowing audiences to disavow these darker tendencies while still keeping them abreast. With the figure of Batman by semi-ironically pushing the BatGod moniker or his status as the ultimate prepper illustrated in stories like “Tower of Babel.” All of this is processed through a weighted language that at once recognizes, but twists away the psychically uneasey meanings within the words.
In the case of Mask of the Phantasm, the moral struggle is between by Andrea and Bruce. The former now revealed to be not just the wraith-like but wrathful figure of the Phantasm. Like Bruce she made a promise to her dead parent, but it has led her down a darker path.
Andrea Beaumont: They took everything, Bruce. My father, my friends, my life, you. I’m not saying it’s right, or even sane but it’s all I have left! So either help me, or get out of the way!
Batman: You know I can’t do that.
Andrea Beaumont: Look what they did to us! What we could have had! They had to pay!
Batman: But Andy… what will vengeance solve?
Andrea’s dark odyssey is revealed to be driven by nostalgia and desire to re-obtain the happiness they had together. But that happiness has passed, like Bruce she is now chained to her own potentially insane promises.
Bruce, of course, cannot consciously be a part of this, Batman cannot be about vengeance lest it lead him down a dark path (see: Batman v Superman). That doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of slippage. Such as when he wrestles with the Joker in the jetpak declaring “whatever it takes” to stop the man whose killing sent helped send Andrea down this dark path. Questions of personal vengeance and civic justice, like the fascism and superhero, are inexorably linked by this point. It’s an incredibly human moment in an otherwise spectacle driven sequence. Other films take the “goodness” of the superhero as a given, assumed empathy by the audience, it’s only when questions of that quality are verbalized and pondered is the tension, and uncertainty, revealed.
Bruce never gets a chance to give a definitive answer, the fairground explodes as Andrea chooses symbolic destruction and vengeance. Batman is thrown into the sewage system and symbolically washed (by the albeit dirty water). The tension within the Batman figure may not have slaked, but with the destruction of Andrea, audiences receive a lens with which to consider the soul of Bruce Wayne and figure of Batman through. We now know what this Batman is not.
As intellectually and thematically intriguing as these concepts are, they wouldn’t ring as soundly in a different setting. Staging the climatic showdown at the now derelict Gotham World’s Fairgrounds, allows for the setting to become potent terrain as Bruce and Andrea work through their commitments. What was the sight of a key turning point in their relationship, where Bruce Wayne realized that he might not just love again but for the first time, has decayed. Rundown, strewn with rust, garbage, and, at the heart of it in the home of the future the Joker.Continued below
All of this due to the unique nature of Gotham City, a city without a map. In his essay “The Batman’s Gotham City: Story, Ideology, Performance” William Uricchio argues that the best way to square the multiple, incoherent, geographies of Gotham City is through a non-representational model of geography[ii]. Non-representation geography is the cartographic process of mapping a space by what happens (experiences) instead of by the places that demarcate a space (streets and buildings). Without the need to keep a strict map, Gotham City becomes a psychic symbolic playground for storytelling where each place is marked by what happens and what that means. of the piece. This lends itself to the melodramatic aesthetic that is etched into the film, where cemeteries are ominously, suddenly, over taken by ill winds and lighting. Shirley Walker’s classic Hollywood score emphasizing an emotional note at every turn instead of hummable melodies.
Mask of the Phantasm is, as Siddhant Adlakha says: “Batman laid bare[iii].” By stripping away the cowl to tell a human story about anger and loss, Bruce is forced to reckon with his own darkness and possibilities within the Batman figure and come out a better man for it.
Alfred: Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce. I’ve always feared that 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.
i Arrant, Chris “BATMAN #24’s Big Moment Revealed (And It’s Huge) – SPOILERS.” Newsarama,
ii Uricchio, William. “The Batman’s Gotham City(tm): Story, Ideology, Performance.” Comics and the City: Urban Space in Print, Picture, and Sequence. Ed. Jörn Ahrens and Arno Meteling. New York: Continuum, 2010.
iii Adlakha, Siddhant “Mask of the Phantasm: Batman Laid Bare” Birth.Movies.Death.
World’s Finest also has an excellent 15th Anniversary subsite with several interviews and other interesting objects from the film.