BATMANIA!: MASK OF THE PHANTASM (1993)
At times, it feels too late for Mask of the Phantasm. The movie came out Christmas day in 1993 and failed miserably, only making its six million dollar budget back in eventual home video releases. But Mask of the Phantasm did very well critically, and those who’ve seen it frequently cite it as one of the best Batman movies. At least they did before Batman Begins in 2005. So what exactly is Mask of the Phantasm today?
A lot of the same things are said over and over about this movie, usually citing the same Siskel and Ebert review from 1995 and basically regurgitating the Wikipedia article. So let’s get this out of the way, shall we?
1. It was intended to be direct-to-DVD, but Warner Bros suggested a theatrical release on only an eight month schedule (compared to the typical two-year development animation requires). The marketing was rushed and meager and the movie failed. No other animated DC movies have since been released theatrically.
2. Gene Siskel said in 1995 that it’s “just under” Batman 1989 in terms of quality.
3. Supposedly this movie has a cult following.
There, got it? Let’s move on.
Mask of the Phantasm is a prequel to Batman: The Animated Series which ran from 1992 to 1995. The movie examines Bruce Wayne’s decision and ambition to become Batman through a series of flashbacks that tell the story of Bruce Wayne and his great love, Andrea Beaumont. Andrea, invented purely for Phantasm, is probably the best female character Batman has met on film. So much more than just a love interest, Andrea becomes a mirror to Bruce and even Batman as their story progresses.
We first meet Andrea in a cemetery, where Bruce overhears her talking to her mother’s grave. These circumstances, where Bruce and Andrea are both visiting their deceased loved ones, sets up these two parallel characters. Bruce Wayne, only on the verge of becoming Batman for the first time, is intrigued by Andrea and their relationship begins.
Despite Bruce’s promise to avenge his parents (by becoming the at-the-time unrealized Batman), Bruce falls in love. This is a major difference between the Phantasm story and the story we eventually saw in Batman Begins. Nolan’s Bruce Wayne, when we meet him, is shunning everything that made him who he was. In Phantasm, Bruce Wayne is still a self-respecting man. He is successful, but deeply saddened, and isn’t sulking as a shell of himself. In addition, his vendetta against the injustice is driven by grief, not anger, which is the exact opposite of Nolan’s origin in 2005.
When Bruce Wayne meets Andrea, he sees an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to heal and opportunity to grow past the death of his parents. Like Ra’s al Ghul shows him a path to becoming Batman in Begins, Andrea in Phantasm shows him a potential path to just being Bruce Wayne. The most poignant moment in the film, and perhaps one of the most in all of Batman’s filmography, is Bruce Wayne apologizing before his parents’ grave.
Bruce Wayne’s monologue at this point is the movie at its best. He lists the ways he can still try to help the city, but says ashamedly that things are different for him now. He breaks down, kneeling before the grave, explaining that he never planned on being happy. That line is what makes this Batman the most tragic of all.
(Pro-Tip: The speech starts at 57 seconds)
Tim Burton’s Batman never seemed very vulnerable, and that sense of weakness diminished continually through Shumacher’s movies. Even Nolan’s Batman, with his anger and motivation is always clear, doesn’t seem to truly ache emotionally. Nolan’s Bruce Wayne is a man who’s pain has left him numb and bitter. The Bruce Wayne we see in Phantasm is almost the one you don’t want to become Batman at all. You hope it gets better, you don’t want him to hurt anymore, and by the time his relationship with Andrea ends and Bruce Wayne has nothing left, his first suit-up as Batman is haunting.
Even after accepting Bruce’s marriage proposal, Andrea leaves him a vague goodbye letter and disappears for years. In her absence, Bruce Wayne has become Batman, and our story begins when Andrea returns to Gotham City.
That is merely the backbone of this movie. There is a mysterious villain, including The Joker, and some well staged action sequences that serve the story well. There’s a twist, albeit a predictable one, and the ending actually gives some tender perspective with which to view the entire Animated Series. Phantasm is a compassionate study of the man beneath the mask. Because unlike Nolan’s character, Bruce Wayne always exists. Batman is, in fact still a man. A man who was so close to happiness and normalcy. Becoming Batman, for this Bruce Wayne, is much more about dealing with his own sadness than becoming a symbol all criminals fear.
Overall, The movie is excellent. It’s an easy recommendation. But unfortunately, as I said before, it might be too late for Phantasm to really reach an audience.
Mask of the Phantasm is an old movie that, especially after Nolan’s films, will probably be forever seen as the “cartoon movie” they made in the early 90s. The large-scale epic that was Batman Begins makes Mask of the Phantasm seem small and outdone, especially since Phantasm only clocks in at 77 minutes long and doesn’t much transcend the aesthetic of the television program. At the time, while known, Batman’s origins and the Bruce Wayne element had never been studied cinematically. The origin story unfolded by Nolan in 2005 changed the industry, and now every movie is an origin story, with Batman’s being one of the most familiar. Another version, in a smaller animated form, is not going to resonate with mainstream audiences. What was once new and fresh has now been reduced to somewhat of a supplement to Batman as a whole. The story certainly isn’t canon to the current popular Nolan-verse and the result is a self-contained origin story that doesn’t lead to anything else.
But you should watch it anyway. You should watch it and be amazed that this existed in a time where Warner Bros was camping up the Batman franchise into cartoony action comedies. The irony is that the actual cartoon, Mask of the Phantasm, is one of the most real portrayals of Bruce Wayne we’ve ever gotten in theatres.
On a final, somewhat irrelevant note, Mask of the Phantasm isn’t watered down for the benefit of a younger audience. There are some steamy make-out scenes, guns and cigars, mobsters getting assassinated, and really intricate romance that probably would have bored the Hell out of me as a thirteen year old boy. Looking back, that’s a good thing, because this movie bombed anyway. So better have an excellent and mature piece of character cinema than some adolescent cartoon that would have no enduring reputation. Like, you know, all the other Batman animated movies.
Posted on July 16, 2012, in Animation, Batmania, Reviews, Television, TV and tagged Batman, Batman Begins, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Batman: The Animated Series, Joker, Mask of the Phantasm, Phantasm, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Warner Bros. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.