Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Story by Alan Burnett
Screenplay by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, Michael Reaves
Directed by Eric Radomski and Bruce W. Timm
Original Release Date—December 25th, 1993
Plot: When a new vigilante starts killing gangsters, Batman is suspected of the crimes. While the police lead an all out manhunt for the caped crusader, mob boss Sal Valestra turns to the Joker for protection. Meanwhile, Andrea Beaumont, Bruce Wayne former love, returns to Gotham, sparking memories of a time Bruce almost chose not to become Batman.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is in many ways a distillation of the themes, plots, and tropes of Batman: the Animated Series. It’s a story of long delayed vengeance that uses flashbacks featuring important moments in Batman’s origin, like “Robin’s Reckoning” and “Night of the Ninja.” Bruce has a crisis of faith over whether his parents would want him to be Batman, as he did in “Nothing to Fear” and “Perchance to Dream.” The police hunt down Batman for crimes committed by a different weird figure of the night, as they did in “On Leather Wings.” Bruce seeks the approval of surrogate father figure Carl Beaumont, Andrea’s dad, as Bruce has done... well, a lot. And Andrea Beaumont, for her part, is a combination of all of Bruce’s love interests so far, a socialite who’s secretly a supervillain, an old flame who reminds Bruce of a moment of joy in his life, and a hyper competent fighter who is maybe too attached to her father. And, of course, the Phantasm is the archetypal example of the most common recurring trope of the Animated Series, the dark reflection of Batman.
Mask of the Phantasm is the revenge origin in its purest form: Batman fights a sympathetic vigilante whose methods he finds too extreme. The Phantasm (who is never actually called “the Phantasm” within the film) is almost exactly the same as Batman. Similar motivating event (the death of her father), similar civilian identity (rich socialite), even an almost identical costume, with the inversion that Batman is a devil who saves lives, while the Phantasm is an angel of death. The Phantasm could just as easily have ended up being another hero like Robin or Batgirl, except, thanks to the looser standards and practices for a movie rather than a network show, that the Phantasm kills, and Batman does not.
The directors, series creators Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, really take advantage of their freedom by ramping up the violence and sex. After watching sixty five episodes where the “deaths” mean falling into water, never to be seen again, three people explicitly killed, including one Jokerized corpse, is viscerally shocking. Batman bleeds, a lot. The Joker loses a tooth. The whole thing is much more brutal than usual, but never slips into gruesome. While the Phantasm has a razor-sharp scythe, she never cuts human flesh with it. In the other direction, Bruce and Andrea definitely spend the night in bed together. Their courtship in flashback is also a lot more sensual than the series can usually get away with (Poison Ivy excluded). Andrea falls on the grass and her skirt lifts in a suggestive, leg revealing manner just before Bruce jumps on top of her. Bruce even manages to tell someone “you know where you can stick it.”
But the real advantage of the movie over the series is the budget. Mask of the Phantasm started as a direct-to-VHS production, but when Warner Bros. studio executives saw how popular the cartoon was, they gambled they could use Batman to break into the lucrative theatrical market for animation that Disney had a stranglehold on. So they bumped up the budget to six million dollars, almost all of which went into the animation. Spectrum and Dong Yang put in their best work yet here. From the computer generated opening credits (which were fancy and expensive in 1993) to the harried chase through the construction site to the final, knockdown, dragout battle between the Joker and Batman in the remains of the World’s Fair, each frame of this movie is gorgeous, and the motion is fluid and dynamic.
In terms of acting, Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Bob Hastings, and Robert Costanzo are the definitive voices for Batman, the Joker, Alfred... blah blah blah. They all do a fine job with their parts, but honestly none of them really turn in a better performance than their usual high quality work. It’s with the guest stars where casting director Andrea Romano shines (Jesus, did I really review 65 issues without mentioning Romano? Bad reviewer! Bad!) She fills the members of Sal Valestra’s gang with great actors from gangster B-movies, Abe Vigoda, Dick Miller, John P. Ryan, and Stacy Keach Jr. She even got the asshole from Die Hard, Hart Bochner, to play the jerk of a councilman, Arthur Reeves. The great cast of heavies plays on a central metaphor of Batman, the ordinary gangsters overshadowed by the introduction of supervillains.
The standout, of course, is Dana Delaney as Andrea Beaumont. Her flirty encounters with college age Bruce Wayne and her angry clashes with the Batman of today demonstrate a complicated, whip-smart, driven woman with secrets of her own. It’s easy to see from this performance why Delaney would be cast as Lois Lane later on. However, as good as she is when she’s playful or emotionally distraught, Delaney’s not quite as good when she needs to be the cold machine of vengeance Andrea becomes in the final act.
The mystery of who is behind the mask of the Phantasm is fairly well done, but not done fairly. Certainly, there’s reasons to suspect the Phantasm is Carl Beaumont. Stacy Keach provides his voice and the voice of the Phantasm while masked. And Mask of the Phantasm is loosely based on Batman: Year Two, where the father of Batman’s love interest is the scythe-wielding vigilante the Reaper. Even if you guess that Carl is already dead, Arthur Reeves, who is eager to throw suspicion on Batman, has reasons to silence the Sal Valestra gang, and is a smarmy jerkface, makes a good red herring. However, having Andrea arrive in Gotham after the first Phantasm attack just isn’t cricket. Batman claims she specifically did that to give herself an alibi, but really, the only people who would be fooled by that is us, the viewing audience. Anyone in Gotham could have been fooled by a phone call and a little lie. It doesn’t help that the Joker ends up being a better detective than Batman. Even with inside information (that the three mob bosses are connected to Carl Beaumont and that Carl Beaumont is already dead), the Joker figures out who the Phantasm really is long before Batman does. It’s not clear that Batman ever figures out the Phantasm isn’t Carl until he sees Andrea in the costume.
The flashbacks create background not just for Bruce’s relationship with Andrea, but for the Animated Series as a whole. In line with “Robin’s Reckoning,” Mask of the Phantasm establishes that Bruce has been Batman for ten years. Borrowing elements from Batman: Year One, we see Bruce tried the sane (or saner) course of being a non-costumed vigilante before becoming Batman, but found people are not as scared of a dude in a balaclava as they are of a dude dressed like Dracula. And lining up with Tim Burton’s Batman, we see the Joker was a mob hitman before his dunk in the chemical bath. There’s also the suggestion that maybe Batman isn’t helping Gotham that much. Ten years ago, the World’s Fair was a celebration of how awesome the future is going to be, and now it’s a rundown hellscape that houses a literal mad man.
The very Batman: the Animated Series twist on Batman’s origin is how much Bruce does not want to be Batman. Batman, Bruce says, is the opposite of being happy. The opposite of having a family. Arthur Reeves says Bruce only gets involved in relationships he know will fail (hello, Selina), unknowingly implying Bruce does so because he does not want emotional entanglements to distract him. Certainly, the scene of Bruce putting on the Batman mask for the first time, and Alfred’s horrified expression, imply that once Bruce becomes Batman, he has given up the chance at a happy life. Except, we know Batman does have emotional attachments, to Alfred and to Dick Grayson, and those attachments make him stronger.
That brings up some questions of chronology. Except for the use of the Batsignal (installed in “The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy”) Mask of the Phantasm feels like it should take place before “On Leather Wings,” or maybe in place of it, “Christmas with the Joker,” and “Nothing to Fear” as the series’s pilot. The police suspect Batman of murder, Bruce still questions whether he’s making the right choices, and the only supervillain is the Joker. Batman questioning whether he can have a family after raising Dick as his son for nine years is a little weird. After the introduction of Batgirl and Zatanna, it gets downright nonsensical.
But the real problem with Mask of the Phantasm is the disappointing final act. Not that the brawl between the Joker and Batman isn’t spectacular—it is, probably the best confrontation they have in the whole series—but it’s not the final battle the film has been building to. The Joker isn’t even introduced until halfway into the movie. The central conflict is between Batman’s (comparatively) merciful, tempered version of crime-fighting and the Phantasm’s take-no-prisoners, kill them all approach. The final fight should have been between the two leads, with Batman in the uncomfortable position of protecting the Joker. But instead of that confrontation, which would have tested Batman’s commitment to doing the right thing, Batman sends a multiple murderer home so he can have a fight we’ve seen seven times already.
The film never manages to get around to explaining why killing bad guys, such as the Joker, is a bad idea. Alfred moralizes about how “vengeance blackens the soul” and Batman “hasn’t fallen in the pit,” but no explanation of what exactly that means in terms of masked vigilantism. In the final confrontation, Batman says he’s willing to kill both the Joker and himself if that’s what it takes to stop the Joker. So how is that different from what Andrea Beaumont is doing? In a moment of anti-climax, Batman hardly even tries to stop Andrea from disappearing with (and presumably beheading) the Joker before Batman accidentally escapes the exploding theme park by falling into a sewer.
The ending leaves so many questions. Apparently all of Gotham knows the Joker has set up shop in the abandoned World’s Fair, so why is Batman only going after him now? Why is Andrea only coming back to Gotham now to extract vengeance, if her father died at least two years ago (i.e. before the Joker became the Joker)? Where did she get power armor that lets her disappear in a cloud of smoke, cut through steel, and outrun the Batplane? In a half hour episode, such elisions make sense, but with 76 minutes to play with, you can spend a couple explaining the plot.
In the end, the anti-climactic ending robs Mask of the Phantasm of any meaning. We watched Batman fail to stop another vigilante from killing people, and I’m not sure that we’ve learned anything from the experience. Mask of the Phantasm is gorgeous. Mask of the Phantasm is well acted. It’s funny, and scary, and thrilling, but in the end it’s also kind of pointless. Why did we do that again?