Hey look, I’m writing about Batman again! I didn’t expect this to happen so soon, but this time I am talking about an animated Batman movie, 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
Mask of the Phantasm is done in the style of the animated series that began in the early 90’s, simply called Batman: The Animated Series. It is my humble opinion that the show was one of the best interpretations of Batman that has ever been done in any medium, and Mask of the Phantasm featured all of the elements that made the show so great, while also providing a deeply moving emotional foundation to rest its story upon. Mask of the Phantasm is one of the most tragic and affecting superhero movies ever made, and as a big superhero fan, and with the plethora of caped heroes running amok in movies and on TV these days, that is not a statement I make lightly.
Here’s the story. A masked, caped figure has been killing mobsters in Gotham, and since Batman had been seen at the scenes of some of these murders, the populace assumes he’s started whacking bad guys instead of bringing them in, and the police turn against him.
Long story short, Batman hasn’t become a murderer. There’s a new player in Gotham, and he’s the one knocking off mob bosses.
While all of this is going on, the movie repeatedly flashes back to a time before Bruce Wayne became Batman, and tells of how he fell in love with a woman named Andrea Beaumont. Bruce’s relationship with Andrea complicates his efforts to figure out how to keep his promise to his dead parents. The film never states specifically what Bruce promised his parents, but it doesn’t need to. Anyone who knows anything about Batman knows that Bruce made a promise to his parents to rid the city of the evil that took their lives.
And he desperately wants to fulfill his promise, but he’s terribly conflicted because his romance with Andrea has led to something he didn’t expect to happen: his own happiness. In the movie’s most wrenching scene, he goes to his parents’ grave and pleads with them.
“It doesn’t mean I don’t care anymore,” Bruce tells them. “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!” At this point, lightning flashes across the sky and thunder rumbles.
“Please!” Bruce continues. “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…”
“Maybe they already have,” Andrea says from behind him. “Maybe they sent me.” Bruce turns to her, and they embrace in the rain.
Now I don’t care who you are or what you think about Batman in particular or superheroes in general, that is heartbreaking. It’s not that Bruce doesn’t still care about the promise he made his parents, or that he doesn’t still miss them, but the passage of time has helped dull the pain, and the introduction of Andrea into his life has led to him being happy in his life, and this kills me, because he didn’t expect this to happen. He didn’t count on being happy.
In the wake of his parents’ deaths, Bruce was so distraught that he didn’t think he could be happy again, and it took a person, Andrea, to show him he was wrong. And now that he has that happiness, he desperately wants to hold on to it, but he feels that to do so would be to let down his parents, which leaves him at a crossroads.
Man…just, man. This one scene in this one animated movie from 23 years ago is one of the best portrayals of grief I’ve ever seen. It’s also a brilliant deconstruction of the Batman myth, and shows heartbreakingly the sacrifice that Bruce makes to become Batman.
Bruce decides to change the plan and actually proposes to Andrea. She accepts, but their happiness is ruined when Andrea’s father gets in trouble with the mob, and the two of them go on the run. After she leaves, Bruce finally takes the plunge and becomes Batman, and doesn’t see Andrea again until she suddenly returns to Gotham years later, right around the time a mysterious masked figure starts bumping off mobsters.
Spoiler alert: it turns out that Andrea is the one killing mobsters, in revenge for their killing of her father earlier. In a further twist, it turns out the one who actually did the deed of killing her father was none other than the Clown Prince of Crime himself, the Joker, before he became the twisted villain we all love to hate. After she bumps off the other mobsters, she sets her sights on Joker, but in trademark Joker fashion, he isn’t going to make it easy for her.
I’m simplifying the story a bit here, but to me the real heart of this movie is about the relationship between Bruce and Andrea. Despite the genre elements, the relationship between them is complex and compelling. They both figure out the other’s secret, and Batman comes to her rescue when she bites off more than she can chew with the Joker.
But Andrea doesn’t want to be rescued. In some ways, maybe it’s too late for her to be rescued at all. “They took everything, Bruce.” She entreats him. “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!”
“You know I can’t do that,” Batman responds.
“Look what they did to us!” Andrea bursts out. “What we could have had! They had to pay!”
“But Andy,” Batman begs her, “what will vengeance solve?”
“If anyone knows the answer to that, Bruce,” Andrea replies, “It’s you.”
Wow. That exchange just floored me. Most blockbuster movies these days don’t have dialogue anywhere near that good, or emotional thrust anywhere near that powerful. Mask of the Phantasm is able to do in 76 minutes what some three-hour movies have difficulty achieving.
It’s also a very well-animated movie. Some animation from the early 90’s can look a bit dated by today’s standards, but the animation in Mask of the Phantasm holds up very well. It’s also surprisingly violent. The fact that it was a theatrically-released film probably allowed the filmmakers to get away with more violence than they would have been able to pull off in the TV series. It’s not gratuitously violent, but it’s still pretty noticeable (for example, late in the movie Batman kicks Joker in the face, which spurts blood and sends one of the Joker’s teeth flying).
The voice acting is also top-notch. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill will always be THE definitive voices of Batman and the Joker for me, and both are as excellent as always. Conroy lets you feel Bruce’s pain, and Hamill’s Joker is as unhinged as ever. He also gets to let out what has to be one of the all-time greatest Joker laughs. He just completely loses it.
Also strong is Dana Delany, who voices Andrea. Delany provided the voice of Lois Lane in Superman: The Animated Series, and she is great as Andrea. She has the kind of smooth, sexy voice that I could happily listen to read from the phone book, and she really nails the emotional ups and downs (mostly downs) of Andrea’s character.
Mask of the Phantasm is more than just a superhero movie. It’s a tragic romance. It delivers all of the things that made the animated series great: the story, the emotion, the (surprisingly brutal) action, it’s well-written, well-animated and the voice acting is superb.
I don’t think it’s been entirely forgotten, as I hope this post has demonstrated it still has its loyal fans. But it has been overshadowed somewhat by the bigger, flashier movies of recent years. It’s underappreciated these days, but still well worth checking out.
As a final note, the movie also provides one of the best explanations as to why I love Batman so much. After the final encounter, where Bruce fears he has lost Andrea forever, he sits despondent in the Batcave, and his loyal butler Alfred attempts to console him.
“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce,” Alfred says. “I’ve always feared that you would become that which you’ve fought against. You walk the edge of that abyss every night, but you haven’t fallen in and I thank heaven for that.”
That’s it right there. Batman walks the edge of the abyss, but he doesn’t fall in.
And I, too, thank heaven for that.