It was about a year ago that I saw some very cool Batman news in my Facebook newsfeed. Because I follow various Batman and Warner Bros. Facebook pages, one day I was delighted to see that one of my favorite Batman movies, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, would be distributed for the first time in Blu-ray Disc format. While the movie did release later on in 2017, I didn’t pick up my copy until earlier this year.
Truthfully, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is my favorite Batman movie of all time. I daresay I regard it as the best Batman movie set to film. Moreover, I would assert that this particular Batman is also the best on-screen portrayal of the character in regards to both animation and live-action movies.
First of all, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is an extension of Batman: The Animated Series. The film is directed by Bruce Timm with a screenplay written by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, and Michael Reeves. Moreover, there’s a brilliant score by the late Shirley Walker, and the voice talents of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, Batman/Bruce Wayne and the Joker, respectively, are featured prominently. What’s not to love?
This film tells the story of the Batman’s origins. Think Batman Begins, years before that movie came out, through a series of flashbacks. The main premise is that a murderous spectre known only as the Phantasm has appeared in Gotham City, targeting and slaying the city’s most notorious crime bosses. The film opens with the Phantasm’s first victim getting his comeuppance. Unfortunately for the Dark Knight, as he investigates the brand new crime scene, a nearby group of onlookers mistakes him for the murderer. After years of indulging the Batman’s vigilantism, one councilman makes it his personal mission to put a permanent stop to Batman’s supposed heroic deeds.
Yet, at the same time, the film also acts as a character study of the duality that is Batman and Bruce Wayne. Years after this movie came out in 1993, there was an episode of Batman Beyond called “Shriek”. In this episode Terry McGinnis (the Batman of the future) asks an old Bruce Wayne:
Terry McGinnis: Tell me something – why were you so sure those voices weren’t coming from you?
Bruce Wayne: Well, first, I know I’m not psychotic.
Terry McGinnis: I hope your other reason is more convincing.
Bruce Wayne: The voice kept calling me “Bruce.” In my mind, that’s not what I call myself.
Terry McGinnis: What do you call yourself? [Bruce just looks at him for a moment] Oh, yeah. I suppose you would. [Batman voice] But that’s my name now.
Bruce Wayne: Tell that to my subconscious.
That gave me shivers. Shivers because at some point in his life, Bruce Wayne decided to truly become a mask. Batman is the face and true name of the watchful guardian of Gotham and the body that bears the mantle of the Batman. It resonates with me especially so, considering that Batman Beyond exists in the same vein as Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
The Bruce Wayne in Mask of the Phantasm appears visibly tired during one of his first moments on-screen. Arguably, what I love most about Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is that the movie is very adult in nature. Look, I was five years old when I saw this movie in theaters. My mind, at the time, was only caught up in the visual splendor of it all. This was my Batman: The Animated Series but on the silver screen! My childhood is blurry here and there, but never will I forget being blindfolded and taken to a local Carmike theater by my parents, smelling and hearing fresh popcorn being made, and having my blindfold removed to see “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” on the theater’s marquee.
Gee, I got sidetracked by nostalgia there. What I’m trying to say is that, growing up, and watching this movie throughout the years, I came to respect it for the masterful piece of storytelling that it is. You see, in the flashback sequences we see a young Bruce Wayne still haunted by the brutal murder of his parents. He visits their graves regularly. One day Bruce comes across a woman who nearly became his happily ever after. Her name is Andrea Beaumont, and I’m willing to say she was the only person who got even remotely close to “saving” Bruce Wayne, and became a bonafide love interest far above the likes of Selina Kyle, Talia al Ghul, and even Wonder Woman herself.
When the pair meet, Andrea is also visiting and “talking” to her deceased mother. Bruce has a quizzical look on his face when Andrea remarks, “Hey, you’re not the only one who talks to their loved ones.” When Andrea asks what Bruce was “talking” with his parents about, well, leave it to Kevin Conroy’s velvet smooth voice to send shivers down your spine when Bruce replies, “I made a vow.” “What vow?,” Andrea teases. “… A secret one,” says Bruce. Goosebumps.
With each flashback we also see just how much of a great impact Andrea has made on Bruce’s life, to the point that she brings out a profound, and sadly unexpected, joy in him. Bruce could not be happier it would seem. Sounds too good to be true, and that’s exactly the mindset that Bruce Wayne secretly harbors deep down in his soul. He begins to question if he even deserves something this good, going so far as to tell Alfred Pennyworth, “What am I doing, Alfred? This was never part of ‘the plan’.”
Bruce Wayne grieves for the loss of his parent’s immensely. I could not respect this as a child. You see, Bruce’s guilt is his cross to bear for life. Bruce is practically convinced that he shouldn’t be allowed a happy existence in order to properly honor (and avenge) the deaths of his parents, and that touches my heart. What breaks my heart, however, is that, in his early days as a vigilante (before the rise of the Batman), Bruce desperately wants a way out of this doom, but he feels so beholden to and grief stricken over his parent’s deaths that he’s nearly torn apart.
Anything less than something self-sacrificial would be an insult to his parent’s memory, seems to think Bruce Wayne. This is evident many years later when Bruce has been Batman for sometime in the Animated Series’ episode: Two-Face. When Harvey Dent suffers a horrific accident that scars him and makes him transform into the titular villain, Bruce feels an intense amount of guilt that he could have spared his friend that pain, but he was too late to stop it. One night Bruce has a nightmare in which he, as Batman, tries to save Harvey again. Suspended above a rickety bridge, Dent chastises his friend, “I thought you were my friend. Now look at me (revealing his scarred face).” The bridge collapses before Batman can save Two-Face, who screams, “Why couldn’t you save me?!” When Batman gazes into the abyss that swallowed Harvey Dent, he sees the ghostly figures of his deceased parents, who look up to him and eerily ask, “Why couldn’t you save us, son?”, just before Bruce awakens from his nightmare, gasping for air. To say that Batman feels guilt is putting it bluntly. Guilt is a byproduct of absolute failure for him.
Now, in what is perhaps the greatest scene in the entire movie, on a stormy night, Bruce goes to the graveyard to beg his parents for one last way out. “It just doesn’t hurt so bad anymore. Please… 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.” Good lord, I tear up every time I see this. The premise, the imagery, the music, the dialogue and Kevin Conroy’s melancholy delivery, it’s all perfect. What follows immediately thereafter, and throughout the course of the movie, I will not spoil for you. It’s something that all Batman fans should witness- No- should feel for themselves. At this point the Batman still does not exist. What exists is Bruce Wayne’s vengeance but it does not yet have shape or form; hasn’t been focused. Truthfully, it’s not his dead parents that Bruce is talking to and asking permission for relief from darkness (they would want him to be happy), but it’s the greater (and darker) half of his being that desires retribution. Yet the vengeance in Bruce Wayne’s soul will yield to absolutely nothing. It’s so moving and so powerful and, daresay, wonderfully disturbing.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm destroyed Bruce Wayne so very, very well; that we could appreciate and love it when Gotham’s destiny shows his true face for the first time in an equally spine-tingling moment. In other words, it’s an animated movie that made Batman more human, more fleshed out, more identifiable, and more relatable than any other adaptation of the character. Unlike some of the popular, or more recent portrayals of the character, this Batman looked for a reasonable excuse to not be the Batman. Consider, if you will, that living a life of vigilantism, whose foundation was built on the murder of one’s parents, and born out an oath to spare future victims from such an atrocity, would come with its own death sentence. To don the mantle of the Batman is also to ask oneself to die. Would you not also beg your conscience, or ghosts, for permission to enjoy some semblance of happiness?
In actuality, there’s way too much to love about Batman: Mask of the Phantasm to keep going on. Humor, for instance. Don’t even get started on Mark Hamill’s disturbingly good performance as the Joker, because we could go on and on. However, that’s not the focus of this article.
Perhaps what it comes down to is your personal definition of Batman. Mine has a tortured soul, who harbors an intense anger for even the smallest inkling of evil, who teeters on the edge of an inescapable abyss every dark night without falling in. Maybe your Batman is one with snappy one-liners and comes armed with shark repellent, and all kinds of hysterical gadgets to save the day (and isn’t afraid to go out in the middle of the day), and that’s alright.
I think there’s a Batman for everyone. There’s a Joker for everyone, except for Jared Leto (not in a million years). There’s even a Batman movie for everyone. If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, I sincerely hope you can track it down. I like to think that while Batman: The Animated Series is a fantastic show that can allow us to enjoy the Dark Knight, it’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm that helps us to understand him.
Thank you for taking the time to read this piece. Have you seen the movie before? What was your favorite part? How about your favorite Batman or Batman movie? Let us know in the comments below! Keep your eyes on Mammoth Gamers for more opinionated articles from our other writers.