Superheroes: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

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Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is in interesting entry in the world of long-form cinematic Batman stories for a few different reasons.  First, it manages to do what the Burton movies were unable to — make Bruce/Batman the protagonist of his own story.  Second, it’s primarily a detective story as opposed to an action story.  Third, at least half of the story is told in flashback, a parallel-action setup ambitious for a movie thought of as primarily for kids.  Lastly, the story it tells is rather emotional and internal — Bruce/Batman broods a lot in this movie, even by his own standards.  The action sequences feel perfunctory and tacked-on.  The two that come to mind — a truck chase and the explosive finale — are poorly motivated and don’t advance the plot in any meaningful way.

Since Batman Begins it doesn’t seem like that big a deal to tell the story of how Bruce Wayne almost didn’t become Batman, but it was something of a surprise when Mask of the Phantasm was made.  The cinematic Bruce Wayne seems to always be tussling with the "problem" of being Batman, something I don’t remember from the comics.  It seems that Bruce can either pursue his career as a dark agent of justice, or else he can get laid — but not both.  For the first time in his cinematic history (but not the last), his girlfriend is a redhead. 

(The tally so far, for those keeping score, is: blonde, blonde, blonde, redhead and — gasp — brunette.  The interesting thing about the brunette, Rachel Dawes, is that she is the only one of the bunch who was attracted to Bruce first and not attracted to Batman at all — the others get their heads turned by the cape, and only later find Bruce interesting as well.  Which would seem to argue that Bruce can’t solve his Batman problem as easily as he thinks — it’s nice to have billions of dollars and all, but apparently one must have billions of dollars and dress like a bat in order to get anywhere with the ladies.)

Another thing I don’t remember from the comics, quite the opposite really, is Batman constantly juggling his love life and crime-fighting life.  The Riddler has a scheme involving a giant typewriter, who would have time to worry about dating?  That’s probably why the Adam West Batman makes so much sense to so many people — he’s got Robin with him, he’s obviously gay, they go fight crime together.  Maybe they don’t even have sex, maybe they sublimate their sexual energy into beating up criminals.  It would explain why they’re so utterly flummoxed by seductress villains like Catwoman and Poison Ivy — they can’t punch a woman, and what’s more they have no desire to punch a woman — what are they supposed to do?

The detective half of the movie involves a new villain, the titular Phantasm, who is on a killing rampage, murdering old-time Gotham City gangsters.  People come to think that the Phantasm is really Batman, which causes a certain amount of trouble.  The appearance of the Phantasm also sparks a memory in Bruce about a woman named Andrea, who he fell in love with while he was still making up his mind about whether he wanted to spend his life avenging his parents’ death or not.

The detective half of the movie demands an answer to the question "Who is the Phantasm?"  The answer to this question is, alas, painfully obvious from the beginning, which downgrades the suspense quotient to a considerable degree.  The screenplay makes a feint toward a red herring or two, but ultimately it comes back to who we knew it was all along.

Because the "new villain no one’s ever heard of killing off a bunch of old men" story apparently seemed to be lacking something, the Joker also shows up halfway through.  The Joker, it turns out, was once part of the old gang that is now being murdered, and is thus now smack in the middle of the story — as a potential victim instead of a villain.  By the third act, though, as the Phantasm turns sympathetic, the Joker advances to lead-villain status, with all his gag-related weapons and improbably well-organized booby traps.  At the climax, the Phantasm has turned so sympathetic that Batman must protect the Joker from his/her/its wrath.

There is a larger problem with the Phantasm, however, which is that he/she/it isn’t a good fit in the Batman universe.  It’s neither a nutcase like Two-Face nor a monster like Clayface — it’s some kind of weird sci-fi Dr. Doom sort of villain, with a metal skull mask and a flowing cape.  The Phantasm is bulletproof, glides around in a cloud of self-produced fog and sports a whirring knife for a hand, none of which seems particularly interesting or thematically resonant in Batman-villain terms.

The flashback half of the movie involves a tender love story between the not-yet-Batman Bruce and this Andrea person.  Andrea is, up to this point, the least messed-up woman Bruce has dealt with — she’s strong, capable, feminine and has lipstick that glows in the dark.  Bruce comes very close to forgetting all about his parents’ deaths and living a happy, full life, but we all know how that one turns out.  It’s interesting — when Superman is tempted to give up Supermanning, it seems like such a blind, tragic loss — ah nuts, he’s going to give up flying and melting things with his vision for a dame? — but Bruce Wayne giving up Batmanning is always seen as a liberating, light-filled possibility — Bruce is born to suffer for society’s sins and Batman is his curse. Short on action and outlandish schemes, and long on misery and regret, Mask of the Phantasm is more grown up than either of the Burton movies, to say nothing of the extended giggle-fests to come.


52 Responses to “Superheroes: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm”
  1. moroccomole says:

    People always cocked an eyebrow at me when I told them that Mask of the Phantasm was better than any of the pre-Nolan live action movies. I’m glad to know I (and ) am not alone on this one.

  2. laminator_x says:

    Things to love:
    -Voices top notch across the board.
    -Bats and the Joker working the same mystery from opposite angles, and Joker solves it first! (though he did have more inside info)
    -Homages to Year One, Godzilla, and Akira.
    -The longer-form allows for richer reaction shots, framing sequences, and the like than we usually get fron the animates DCU.
    -Pseudo-paleo-futurism, followed by ruined Retro-pseudo-paleo-futurism!

    • Todd says:

      The whole Gotham-used-to-be-great-and-now-it’s-just-crappy aspect of Batman’s life seems to come from Burton’s re-imagining of the property, or perhaps Miller’s. Whatever the case, we are led to believe that Gotham was a shining city on a hill before Bruce’s parents died, and now it’s a steaming cauldron of corruption and crime, teeming with monsters and psychopaths. Obviously this is a projection of Bruce’s — Gotham is, after all, a city, and cities always have crime and grime, it’s just that Bruce never noticed it before his parents died, and now that he’s Batman it’s all he can see.

      • laminator_x says:

        In this case, the World’s Fair also serves as a metaphor for Bruce and Andrea’s love and lives. The promise of the life they might have had together has been replaced by an empty shell infested with violence and madness.

  3. gdh says:

    Heath Ledger may be the “best” Joker, but Mark Hamill was the unquestionably the funnest Joker.

    • Todd says:

      I would also argue that the Bruce Timm Joker is the closest to the Joker of the comics — he’s both a psychopath and a jester.

      • jvowles says:

        A. It’s the car. Chicks dig the car.

        (I know, it’s a line from The Val Kilmer One, which could have been interesting but well you’ll go into that later and I haven’t seen it in ages…)

        B. Most often the Batman stories are one of several standard types of stories — detective, action, conquering personal demons, etc. — but rarely do we see the cost to Bruce’s real life. Every now and then we get a reminder that this is a guy who really could have had anything, but while he retains the wealth and power and gains the gadgets and fame, his personal life is a very sad mess. Other men with lesser means have become heroes, but Bruce effectively gives up on every truly personal aspiration. He sacrifices himself. Without moments like this, to remind us what Bruce *doesn’t* have amidst the best butler in the world and the cool toys and money: a life.

        That is why his longstanding romantic tangles with Catwoman resonate, that is why even in the Burton movies Alfred shoves women at him — and that is why we needed to create Rachel in the Nolan version. She is a stand-in for the family, the friendship, the partnership, and the love he abandons to become the Batman. And since she didn’t exist, they created Andrea for PHANTASM and Rachel for BEGINS/DARK KNIGHT. Andrea leaves, but Rachel actually dies in a way that makes Bruce question everything about his choices.

        That’s why I’d like to see Catwoman in the next Nolan movie — a Catwoman who arrives while Bruce is recovering from Rachel’s death gives Bruce all the wrong reasons to fall for her, to see a potential partner in her that can keep up with the Bat stuff, to have a reason to keep letting her go. It’ll put him in conflict with Gordon, and possibly Alfred as well. And if they go with a less sordid angle — the environmental PETA type in the Animated Series, for example — she can also put the question of the means by which one strives for one’s noble goals.

        • Todd says:

          I get the whole “I can’t have a normal life because I’m Batman” thing, what strikes me as odd is that “Batman suffers” has become the center of the character — as though dressing up as a bat, driving a cool car, beating up people and swinging from rooftops isn’t a desirable thing to do. Batman has been doing this stuff for fifty years — obviously he must get something out of it.

          • quitwriting says:

            I think you got that backwards: He’s Batman because he can’t have a normal life. He doesn’t see the world the way everyone else does. Everyone else is slightly deluded: they think things are better than they are. Bruce sees the world for what it truly is: an unfair shit hole. At least, that’s his perception of things. The truth is somewhere between the two points of view. The world’s really not as shitty as Bruce makes it out to be, and the world’s not as great as most people force themselves into thinking it is.

            My opinion is that the over-arching question of Batman is, has always been, and will always continue to be: what is sanity? Joker is merely the purest expression of this question.

            Anyway, that’s my two cents.

      • greyaenigma says:

        Likewise, The Timm Batman is my favorite of the Batmen.

        • Todd says:

          If only from a design point of view. When I show my son other depictions of Batman, he says they look “wrong.”

          • greyaenigma says:

            Again, sharp kid.

            But it’s not just the design. I remember thinking during a recent viewing of Dark Knight how much I prefer Kevin Conroy over Christian Bale. Of course, a lot of that acting is actually animators, as well.

          • stormwyvern says:

            Speaking of which, have you and the kids been checking out “Batman: The Brave and the Bold”? The design is certainly different and in my younger days, I might have rejected it for not looking like the Timm designed shows. But it’s a really enjoyable show in its own right and doesn’t skew nearly as young as I initially thought it would. As I said previously, the shows version of the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne just hurts, possibly more than any other depiction of it I’ve seen.

            • Todd says:

              The kids love Brave and the Bold — it’s smart, funny and well-written. And not so violent and misery-laden as the Timm version.

      • gdh says:

        I’ll never care about anything being “close to the comics”, at least not with mainstream superhero comics. With, say, a Transmetropolitan movie I would care, but Batman? The comics themselves were so all over the place, over a period of, what, 70 years now, that it’s almost nonsense to ascribe any one particular tone or feel to them. They ranged from Silver Age silliness to Frank Miller brutality. Adam West’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s Batman are both arguably spot-on faithful to the comics, depending on what era of comics you’re looking at.

        Bruce Timm’s take on The Batman is probably my favourite version of the character in any medium though. And, if nothing else, he gave us Harley Quinn.

        • stormwyvern says:

          I completely agree. There was a time when I would look at certain takes on the character and say “That’s not Batman,” but nowadays I’m willing to accept a lot more ideas of who Batman is, as long as they’re done well. The Timm/Burnett/Dini shows are my favorites as well, probably due in part to the fact that they were one of my first introductions to Batman. If you just say “the Joker” to me with no particular context, I’m hearing Mark Hamill at the very least. Same for most of the other characters; it’s my default version of Batman’s world.

    • laminator_x says:

      Something that struck me way back then was that Hamill was chanelling the Big Blue Meanie from Yellow Submarine.

  4. mitejen says:

    Wasn’t there some crossover between this story and the ‘Long Halloween’ graphic novel? I might be completely mixing up this with the show–although I remember watching this years ago and thinking ‘Damn, this is awesome’ even if none of the details of the story are coming back to me.

    THIS, is a job for–My Netflix Queue!

  5. mitejen says:


    Is your current project’s focus completely on Batman, or are you looking into Superman, too?

    I ask because I recentely watched the animated ‘Superman:DOOMSDAY’ (it’s up on the Netflix instant watch queue) and while it brought some interesting points to light wasn’t terribly good. Although Luthor’s violently conflicted man-crush on Supes was certainly a sharp observation.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Also:

      I’m a fan of the original Doomsday story, and I found that I actually couldn’t finish watching the movie, although I can’t remember why.

      • mitejen says:

        Re: Also:

        I remember reading the graphic novel, and certain parts of the movie seemed familiar, but overall it was pretty roaringly mediocre. There were also some logic leaps that I just wasn’t willing to take.

  6. amara_anon says:

    I know Mask of the Phantasm is very acclaimed among fans of BTAS, but I find it slow-moving and boring almost to the point of being unwatchable. Probably because it was the show-runners’ first go at a longer format. I much prefer The Batman/Superman Movie and Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker.

    • Todd says:

      Of the Batman animated features, I prefer Sub-Zero and even Mystery of the Batwoman to the slower, more internal Phantasm. Return of the Joker I watched once to see if it was all right for my son to view, and, well, let’s just say I haven’t watched it since.

      • amara_anon says:

        I have not watched Sub-Zero in years, but I remember really liking it when I saw it. Haven’t seen Mystery of the Batwoman yet. Return of the Joker I mostly just like for the flashback scene–which only really works for me in the unedited version. Otherwise, not a fan of the Batman Beyond series.

      • chronoso says:

        yeah. uh, it’s not. it’s pretty amazing, though..

    • curt_holman says:

      This very week I watched ‘The Batman/Superman Movie,’ which apparently originated as three episodes of ‘Superman: The Animated Series’ (but probably with the intention of video release). It’s very nifty and satisfying, with a romantic triangle between Lois Lane, Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne (or possible a Lois pentagon with Lois, Clark, Superman, Bruce and Batman). At one point either Bruce or Clark says “She likes Bruce and Superman, but doesn’t like Batman and Clark.” And I think Bruce says “Too bad we can’t mix and match.”

      • Todd says:

        I once sketched out an idea for a Superman story where it turned out that Superman and Batman were actually the same guy, inspired by one of the World’s Finest stories where they put on each other’s costumes to fight crime or keep a date or something. In my story, Superman travels to Gotham City to investigate the mystery of the Bat-man and finds, to his horror, that it is himself. It was kind of a Super Fight Club kind of story.

  7. blake_reitz says:

    It’s interesting that you think of the Phantasm isn’t a good fit for the Batman universe. I feel the design was more of a “pulp avenger”, the kind of dark character that was killing off creatively disfigured mobsters before Bruce ever donned the pointy ears (ala the Shadow or the Spider.

    To this day, Mask of the Phantasm is my favorite Batman theatrical release. Are you planning on reviewing any of the direct-to-DVD animated features? Not that you should, outside of Return of the Joker (which requires a working Batman Beyond knowledge), the rest are pretty bland.

    • Todd says:

      I get the Phantasm’s roots in pulp culture, and while Batman sprang from that same root, the Batman universe developed its own distinct personality. The Phantasm showing up in the Batman universe feels as strange as the Shadow showing up.

      • woodandiron says:

        I don’t know. I think the episode of Batman: TAS that involved a Shadow clone called “The Grey Ghost” was a truly fantastic one and didn’t really feel that strange. I know it’s my favorite to this day. Also, the Ghost was voiced by Adam West.

        I think I really liked how much it was a meta comment on the legacy of Batman.

        • Todd says:

          “The Grey Ghost” is my favorite episode. I love how it turns out that the bad guy is a maniac fan who happens to look like Bruce Timm. And is voiced by Bruce Timm.

          • blake_reitz says:

            There was a story where the Shadow shows up for a team up. And it does feel…off. But as woodandiron points out, the Grey Ghost works perfectly. Anyway the point is I’m now vouching for Bruce Timm to the the villain in the thrid Nolan Batman. Not a villain a lot like Bruce Timm, and not an actor playing Bruce Timm.

            • reverenddean says:

              The Grey Ghost develops in the batman universes; there isn’t a whole lot revealed of the character so that he owns his own seperate piece of the batman mythos, so it feels Batman.
              When Batman teams up with another character, like the shadow or someone even more bizarre like swampthing or spiderman, someone is going to be out of their element. Two universes will not mesh so easily, and usually one of them gets overshadowed to the point of nonexistance or watered down to the point of being purposeless.
              The grey ghost works very well.
              Lobster Johnson in Hellboy – great.
              Lobster Johnson in Detective Comics – the suck; not that it will ever happen. wait… Batman did team with hellboy

              • blake_reitz says:

                That’s one of the things that I like about superhero comics. The strange crossovers work, at least some of the time. You can have a detective martial artist team up with an god-like alien, or a radioactive teenager team up with the Norse god of thunder. So, personally, I think Lobster Johnson teaming up with Batman would be great. This does make me think that maybe why the Shadow and Batman feels weird is because one comes from comics and the other from Radio, though.

      • I always assumed that the Phantasm’s look (and a good bit of plot) was lifted from the Reaper from BATMAN: YEAR 2.

  8. curt_holman says:

    “There is a larger problem with the Phantasm, however, which is that he/she/it isn’t a good fit in the Batman universe.”

    The Phantasm was apparently based on a character that dates to 1987 (which still probably counts as “young” in Batman-villain terms):

    I don’t find The Phantasm’s costume and shtick any less appropriate than, say, The Scarecrow, who uses a creepy costume and fear gas and other oooga-booga scares. And I think the Phantasm/Beaumont resonates by being a vigilante who kills criminals, crossing the line that Batman always kept sacrosanct. (I guess it’s sort of like Dirty Harry vs. the even more bloodthirsty rogue cops in Magnum Force, I think it is.)

    Do you recall the Phantasm/Beaumont’s cameo in “Epilogue,” the “Justice League Unlimited” episode that ties off some of the loose ends between ‘B:TAS’ and ‘Batman Beyond?’

    I re-watched this film with my daughter recently, but regretted it a little bit because of the scene with the close-up on the dead guy, teeth clenched in a ghastly rictus, who exploded shortly thereafter. Oops!

    • Todd says:

      The Timmverse Batman is filled with some unbelievable violence. In the Clayface origin story, there’s a moment where a bunch of Gangsters hold down Clayface and drown him in the gunk that turns him into a monster, and that’s bad enough, but Timm pans away to show the scene happening in shadows on the wall, making it twice as horrifying. My son watched that one when he was four, and it forced me to take a more active role in editing future Batman watching.

      • rootboy says:

        That Clayface episode first aired when I was an easily-spooked eight year old. When the show came on after that I would wait anxiously for drama masks on the title card in case I had to turn off the TV and leave the room.

      • jvowles says:

        The kicker is, they pan away so they don’t show the actual violence, thus appeasing the censors who worry about showing horrors to kids.

        But I grew up watching Creature Feature and Ghost Host and old Vincent Price and Hammer Studios movies with my folks. I knew instinctively that my imagination conjured up worse stuff than the fakery on screen. The monster you only glimpse is far scarier than the one you see full-on. Just as the half-dressed sexy body is sexier than the naked form.

    • stormwyvern says:

      My husband and I were literally squealing with delight when Phantasm made her appearance on JLU. (He recognized her first.) We figure that she was probably used because she wasn’t covered by the Bat-embargo (the show being prevented from using any secondary Batman characters after a certain point to avoid confusion with “The Batman”), but it was no less exciting for us to see her surprise cameo.

  9. Anonymous says:


    I love the hell out of this movie, even if the animation seems a little creaky when rewatching it. I saw it in a mostly-empty theater when it was released (and I recall a mother dragging her young children out of the theater when the Joker and Phantasm started beating the crap out of each other at the end.) Perhaps I was naive, but the reveal of the Phantasm’s identity shocked the hell out of me then. I had never seen a cartoon, not even an episode of the Batman cartoon, pull a bait-and-switch like that. If the villain’s identity was suggested to be someone, that’s who it always turned out to be. It was especially clever for them to have Stacey Keach play the Phantasm, so that even though his voice was modulated, you could hear a certain familiarity in it. Totally threw me.
    I also loved how they allowed Batman to seem a little crazy, shouting at his parent’s grave, “Why can’t things be different now?” as if his deceased parents are forcing him to be Batman. Awesome.
    –Alex Hart