Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm review

 Warning - This review will contain spoilers.

    Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is one of the best Batman stories ever told. Which is a big claim to make and one I used to be hesitant on. After all, Mask of the Phantasm lacks a lot of the iconic moments which Batman (1989), Batman Begins, The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, Knightfall, and [I could be here all day with examples so I'll stop now] are famous for.

    Yet, it sticks with me.

    My initial impression of the movie wasn't all that favorable. It didn't have the same staying power to me as even some episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. The origins of Two Face and Mister Freeze remain in my head years later. I wasn't overly impressed with the Phantasm and wondered why the first animated movie was focused on a new character.

    But the story stuck with me.

    It buried itself in my subconscious.

    Growing. Growing.

    Becoming all-consuming.

    Now I love it.

The Phantasm is a beautifully designed villain.
    The premise is a well-worn but classic one. A new vigilante has shown up in Gotham City who doesn't have Batman's hesitation to kill. Batman is framed for their crimes, the police suspecting he's going over the edge. Meanwhile, an old flame of Bruce's returns to Gotham City and he struggles with his memories of how she almost made him forget about being the Batman. These two stories collide in one of the most tragic tales of the Dark Knight.

    On a basic level, Mask of the Phantasm is another retelling of Batman's origins but it stops to take a serious moment and ask, "Could Bruce Wayne have found some better way to channel his energies?" Usually, the answer is no. Batman would always be Batman and the world would be an objectively worse place if he didn't exist.

    Mask of the Phantasm argues maybe not.

    The story attacks not the idea of Bruce Wayne being a hero but that his crusade had to consume him utterly. Bruce Wayne and Andrea Beaumont are people who become so angry, they can't do anything with their lives but channel that anger. They're both heroic people and, together, they might actually have become heroes of a different stripe. Perhaps a new Thomas and Martha Wayne using their wealth to help the city prosper or helping in other ways. I like to think they'd become a duo like Black Canary and Green Arrow.

    But we know history won't let them.

Andrea and Bruce are cute in the way only two emotionally damaged comic book characters can be.
    The action scenes are well-handled with the Phantasm's first appearance in a graveyard, Bruce Wayne's disastrous first attempt to fight crime, and the final confrontation with the Joker but it's really the quiet moments I came to love. Scenes where Andrea talks to her dead mother's grave, the confrontation where Andrea recognizes Batman's pain as Bruce's (and her own), plus their picnic interrupted by bats is all very moving.

    I could try and discuss the movie's twist but it's not exactly a secret that Andrea Beaumont is the titular Phantasm. Any discussion of the movie's themes and story would be without purpose if you don't acknowledge this fact. It would easy to say that Andrea Beaumont is just a female Batman, albeit one who kills, but that is missing the point. Andrea is the only sort of woman who Bruce Wayne could fall in love with--one who understands his pain enough to appreciate it.

    There's some genuinely classic moments in the film like when Bruce realizes he can't risk his life like so many police and firemen if he feels he's going to subject his love to the same pain he knows, like Bruce realizing he can't become Batman if he doesn't have the pain driving him forward, and Alfred's silent approval at the possibility Bruce's twenty-year-obsession is being defeated by the power of love.

Andrea is one of my favorite action girls in the DCU.
    The movie is surprisingly complex with lots of twists, turns, interrelationships, and dense plotting. The amazing thing is it all gets explained perfectly clearly without bogging down the narrative. Everyone except the Joker has reasonable motivation for their actions as well as understandable method to accomplish their goals. The Phantasm may seem to have too many supernatural powers to explain away by theatrics but this is quibbling.

    The animation in the movie is similar to that of the Batman animated series but smoother as well as crisper. Kevin Conroy could do Batman in his sleep even then but brings an amazing amount of emotion to the material. Dana Delany also succeeds in creating a tortured, fascinating performance with Andrea Beaumont. She's a actress who I love both as Andrea and later Lois Lane and could easily have carried her own superhero show. Mark Hamill, well, is Mark Hamill and allowed to give his most terrifying performance ever as the Joker.

The Joker versus Andrea is a terrifying confrontation. Especially as Bruce is severely tempted just this ONE TIME to let him die.
     The confrontation with the Joker in the World's Fair-inspired theme park is a beautifully constructed climax. In this storyline, I'm quite happy to think of it as the Joker's final fate. The Joker serves as an excellent representation of the chaos which can strike lives like Andrea's and Bruce's at any given time.

    In a way, I'm tempted to say the Joker's presence wasn't necessary despite the fact thsi is probably Mark Hamill's best performance as him. We didn't need the Joker to get between Andrea and Bruce but I respect the artistic choice. Andrea isn't one of the many obsessive vigilantes out there like the Red Hood or Ra's Al Ghul's League. This is the sort of movie where the two leads might have been able to talk it out. Given this is a comic book movie, that simply will not do!

    Also, it's a nice reminder Gotham City's criminals are not exactly helpless prey for someone who would cut them down like wheat. I also liked the fact they returned to the origin of the Joker as a gangster as I've never been too terribly fond of the idea of him as an innocent victim of Batman's.

Alfred's reaction to Bruce's costume is probably the best moment in the film.
    What's interesting is that a lot of the movie is based on the inferior Batman: Year Two. That book had been one of my least favorite Batman storylines yet the writers took the basic premise of the Reaper and his daughter before adapting it to something great. This is a sign of what a good editor and rewrites can do.

    In conclusion, Mask of the Phantasm is an outstandingly good movie which only gets better with re-watches. It is the height of the animated series and something with a lot of great personal moments. It's not exactly a fun movie but it's a great one.


  1. As always excellent commentary Charles.

    Had a feeling you would have interesting things to say about Mask of the Phantasm, and your thoughts match my own on the film.

    I love how the film shows that deep down Bruce really doesn't want to go through with the plan, that there is another way for him to get the justice that he feels he owes his parents.

    This film really shows how conflicted Bruce is on many levels, and I think when you watch this film in light of what's to come for Bruce in the DCAU timeline, it makes Bruce's eventual fate by Return of the Joker all the more tragic and potent. Especially in light of what happened to Tim in that film, this film was the start I think of Bruce becoming more colder, ruthless and less sympathetic to the people he fights, I mean watch Bruce in BATAS and watch him in the New Batman Adventures episodes, his demeanour has become much more cold, vice versa for Batman Beyond where by then he is so cynical to the point it's scary (all very noticeable in Kevin Conroy's superb voice acting of him, listen closely and you can notice the nuance of his voice change in each series). That JLU episode where JL Batman meets with his future self contrast the two very well.

    Andréa is a character i feel is worthy of being added to the comic universe if she hasn't already. The way she and Bruce contrast and yet are similar is quite tragic and makes the film all the better. Plus even though she kills she still holds a measure of respect for Bruce's way, and this showed when she refused to kill Terry's parents when Waller wanted her to create the next Batman.

    Hamill as always knocked it out the part with the Joker, and he's only in it for around half the film. The city set fight is one of my favourites of the DCAU. Just works so well.

    Mask of the Phantasm is a film for all Batman films to watch at least once, it in my view more than holds it's own to the live action films and some of the classic Batman comic stories in my view, even if it takes stuff from a few like what you have mentioned.

    1. I'm not sure Andrea Beaumont works outside of the DCU Animated-verse because of the simple fact she's such a big, important and vital character to Bruce Wayne's characterization that you can't just "slide her in" without potentially diminishing who he is. Which is a shame because, as mentioned, she would have made Year Two so much more interesting than the actual comic it was.

      As you say, this is a story which illustrates Bruce Wayne isn't happy at being Batman. Batman is his way of coping with the pane, loneliness, and horror of his existence--and the best thing to do would to be NOT Batman. Something a lot of comic fans would miss but I think is a great concept. Spiderman and Superman get to enjoy their status--Bruce endures.

      I will say how much I admire the production staff for creating a story arc for Bruce Wayne which isn't your traditional happy ending. The Dark Knight Rises had its own take on how Bruce Wayne would end his journey and while I'm happy for that incarnation of him--it did feel slightly on the maudlin side. Whereas the "Bruce Wayne retires in bitterness" is perhaps a bit more honest even as Terry manages to pull him out and prove to be the son he always wanted.

      I definitely agree, though, that this is one of the most artistically meritous Batman movies. It's just a beautiful story and it's both a tragedy as well as a triumph.