An 20 anniversary poster by Mondo and belated screening, I’m shocked into realizing that this film was already twenty years old. Now I attempt to look back and see what it is that has made Mask of the Phantasm an enduring part of the Bat cannon.
Twenty years later, Batman Mask of the Phantasm still stands near the top of the Caped Crusaders films. Why is that? It runs nearly half as long as its contemporaries, 76 minutes total, barely passing the limit of a feature. The production started out as a direct to video animated feature and found itself pushed to a theatrical release during production for a Christmas 1993 release. When its run in theaters ended, the total was $5,617,391, a respectable but by no means financial success. Yet it endured critically: 81% on Rotten Tomatoes, Empire Magazine calling it the best animated film of the year, Siskel and Eberteventually got around to and called it one of the best Batman films of the time. Now twenty years later here we are and one wonders what is it.
Mask of the Phantasm almost didn’t make it to theaters. The feature was originally planned to be a direct-to-video feature. According to writer Alan Burnett “The decision to make this a theatrical release came pretty early – way before we had a finished film. To my knowledge the decision was based solely on an opening title sequence of Gotham City in CG, which co-producer Eric Radomski had created. One of the executives saw that and suddenly the DVD was put on a movie track. The irony, of course, is that the rest of the movie is 2D.”
“Well, they had been talking about it as a possibility, and they kept going back and forth onit. We ultimately said it probably wasn’t going to happen. There weren’t a lot of direct-to-videos that got theatrical release. The Aladdin movie was one of few that did, but that was Disney. We just thought, “Ah, there’s no way Warner Bros. is actually going to release this theatrically. They’re just not into it to that degree.” Eric Radomski and I were in Japan going over the storyboard with the animators in detail, explaining what we wanted with it, when we got the call from the States that they were definitely going to release it theatrically. It was just…oh, man. Because the storyboard was done and were in that 4:3 TV format. It was really late in the production stage—we were handing it out to the animators—“Now what the hell are we going to do?” So I sat there with a piece of paper and an exacto knife and made a little 1.85:1 template and laid it over the storyboard and said, “Well, okay, it’s not going to be that difficult.” We had to go shot by shot, laying that template over it. “Is the shot going to work? Do we have to make it wider? Do we have to adjust the frame up or down?” Most of the shots work without too much tweaking, but it was a nerve-wracking thing to have to do at the last minute.”
Phantasm is a densely layered film for its 76 minute runtime. On a surface level it is your quintessential Bat film. A murdering sociopath, The Phantasm, is picking off Gotham Cities gangsters one by one and the Batman is taking the blame. The two sides of Batman’s rogues gallery are being served, the organized crime and the super villainy of masked criminals. The film even manages to work in the origins of the cowl and an extended reference to Batman: Year One in unobtrusive fashion. At its heart, the film is a meditation on the cost of vengeance. All of this is than wrapped in possibly unreliable memories as the past comes back to haunt Bruce Wayne in unexpected ways. Phantasm crams more of what it means to be Batman and a Batman story than all of its contemporaries.
An overlooked fact of Phantasm despite his name being in the title, this isn’t really about Batman. It’s about Bruce Wayne and his many crucibles. Ironic for the creators of the much beloved animated series, who consciously had actor Kevin Conroy use two voices, one for Bruce Wayne and the other Batman to blur the lines and show such favoritism. It brings much needed attention to the character that both Burton films never really explore (or his alter ego), turning him into more of a late game plot device than character. The two Schumacher films that followPhantasm give it a try but are so flawed it is lost in the myriad of failures that are Batman Forever and Batman & Robin.
Phantasm pushes the orphan billionaire to try and change his fate after making his promise, not fully realizing the cost keeping it would mean. It is straight out of Hamlet. At the start, Wayne is the opposite of the pensive Prince of Denmark, so cocksure and committed to his vengeance against Gotham Cities criminal element, not fully realizing that the path of vengeance can only lead to more violence and solitude. Cock sure, until he meets Andrea Beaumont, someone who has also lost a parent, someone who could empathies better than most. Director Christopher Nolan hits on a similar note in The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne, so certain that his quest of vengeance ends in his white knight Harvey Dent. Until and unknowable and allegorical evil called The Joker comes to town and shows him how foolish he is to think his fate could be changed.
Batman is hardly the fear inducing Dark Knight once he knows Andrea is back in town, spying on her and Arthur Reeves dates. Less so once he works out that she is the Phantasm. Once this is known his edge is dulled becoming the love lorn Bruce Wayne, constantly reminiscing about past love in a past life.
Memories are how writers Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, and Michael Reaves frame the subplot for Phantasm, the origin of the cowl. Little symbols trigger recollection and nearly a 15 minute jaunt to the past. It’s an effective device to draw easy themes and symbolism out. For Bruce these memories are just that and while warmer than the dark winter setting of the present, there is barley a hint of dwelling on them, fetishizing them. That’s where Andrea falls into the abyss, her recollection of the night her and her father, Carl, emphasizes on her father’s promise to get even with the gangsters threatening their lives. It becomes the only force for her existence. “Look what they did to us! What we could have had! They had to pay!” she implores Bruce in justification of her murders. Both now clad in theatrical costumes controlled in some amount by promises made to their parents.
“But Andy... what will vengeance solve?” a funny response for the pop culture avatar of vengeance.
The design of the villainous Phantasm is perfect for film built on memories. It is a wraith a vengeful ghost, appearing before its victims proclaiming itself the Angel of Death. Or according to The Joker, the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, the dead future between Bruce and Andrea.
On the effects a path of vengeance brings, Phantasm, rightfully points out that while Batman is an agent of vengeance, he is striving towards justice a higher ideal. With Andrea being on the other side of the coin, a person who has fully given into a quest for revenge, there is no high minded ideal to serve. As the Batman franchise continues it is useful to see how other entries hit on similar themes. I’m drawn to another version of Batman and The Joker.
The Joker: Don't talk like one of them, you're not! Even if you'd like to be. To them, you're just a freak, like me. They need you right now. But when they don't, they'll cast you out, like a leper. See, their morals, their code... it's a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you, when the chips are down, these... these civilized people? They'll eat each other. See, I'm not a monster, I'm just ahead of the curve.
The Joker: You have all these rules and you think they'll save you!
The Joker is right; Batman is just a freak like him. Unfortunately, Phantasm never gets to dramatize the restraint that makes Batman different from the freaks costumed or otherwise. Only tell you about it, in comparison to Andrea.
Fate is a tricky subject in drama; it can easily come off as a cop out. A character who bemoans fate for putting him or her in this untenable situation does not except his o her responsibility for their actions in the drama. Sure they have spiraled out of control in ways the character doesn’t comprehend in the moment, but it still falls on their head. In examining vengeance, Phantasm traps its two leads on paths neither fully understand in the moment. Only the acceptance of their fate does Wayne and Beaumont some kind of salvation. For Wayne he accepts that Batman is who he is intrinsically and can no longer walk back and be like the nearly married Bruce of memory. Beaumont accepts that like the imagined idyllic future she imagined for herself and Bruce, she cannot buy it back with blood money. She gives into the shade her costume represents.
In the mythic world of superheroics, fate is more readily accepted. It can allow for writers to contextualize their modern myths with older ones. The inclusion of The Joker could have come off as shoehorned, much like the origin business. Then again, it always seems like the two always are tied up in one another’s creations. And why would you not want to use Mark Hamill as much as possible. Who perfectly walks the line between comedic clown and menacing psychopath.
Mask of the Phantasm has endured because of its exploration of the Batman myth. The novelty of animation and ties to a twenty year old Saturday morning cartoon would have worn off by now, if there wasn’t legitimately well done executions backing it up.
If you’d like to look more into the Mask of the Phantasm I’d highly recommend checking out the World Finest 15 Anniversary mini site they’ve maintained. Hosting several interview, early poster designs, an excellent gallery of screen grabs, and a look inside the style guide. There’s also my other look at the film in BATMANBATMANBATMAN Vol. 1