07/21/2024

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Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is the Best Batman Movie

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is the Best Batman Movie

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is the best movie about Batman. That’s not because it has the most villains with the most memorable superpowers, or the flashiest gadgets, or the most extravagant vehicles. Instead, it is the best one about Batman because it is the one which makes the greatest use of him as a character. It grounds him in visual and narrative tropes from film noir and gothic literature to unlock his fullest potential and dig into his psychology in a way which no other film ever quite achieved. In doing so, it provided a singular portrait of one of the world’s most iconic superheroes and demonstrated the strengths of animation as a medium to tell adult stories.

This film gets its name from a mysterious vigilante known as the Phantasm (the voice of Stacy Keach), who has become notorious in Gotham City for killing gangsters. Both cops and criminals mistake The Phantasm for Batman (Kevin Conroy), which leads the caped crusader to investigate the murders to clear his name. As he sets about trying to solve the mystery of the Phantasm, which ends up involving everything from political corruption to his famous foe The Joker (Mark Hamill), Batman also has deals with an unexpected challenge in his life as Bruce Wayne (also Conroy). His old love Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delaney), whom he once loved enough to consider not becoming Batman, returns to Gotham. Wayne reckons with the question of whether he could still have a romantic relationship with Beaumont as she discovers his biggest secret and harbors one of her own, which could destroy whatever is left between them.

The thematic material listed above may sound ambitious for a 76-minute film, especially one that is animated and based off a character from DC Comics. But none of this would be a surprise if you’re familiar with Batman: The Animated Series, which takes place in the same world as Mask of the Phantasm. That TV show was serious enough that former president of Warner Bros. Animation Jean MacCurdy referred to it as “an animated drama.” Episodes weren’t afraid to delve into different sides of Wayne’s tortured mind (sometimes literally as in the episode “Perchance to Dream) or tell morally complex stories, like the one about Mr. Freeze which Mask of the Phantasm co-writer Paul Dini told in the Daytime Emmy-winning episode “Heart of Ice.” These were also things that Mask of the Phantasm would do, but to an even greater extent.

It would also do them through a reliance on techniques from other genres. One of the most overt is film noir. So much of Mask of the Phantasm’s look – the night sequences, the architecture of Gotham City, the costumes worn by its villainous gangsters – feels like it is paying homage to noir films from the 1940s, which was the first full decade in which Batman existed. That imagery also helps express this film’s darker take on its central character who, like many other noir protagonists, is a detective.

Many of the live action films about Batman focus on his talent for using brute force to fight crime. But this one depicts his intellectual side as well. Throughout the film Batman does such classic detective things as find clues and perform chemical analyses on them, investigate shell companies to find suspects, and even surveilling said suspects with binoculars. Beaumont may refer to him jokingly as the “World’s Greatest Detective” (which is also his title in DC Comics), but like many jokes, it lands because it contains some truth.

But, surprisingly, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm arguably uses just as many tropes from gothic literature as it does from film noir. The Phantasm is a self-described “angel of death” who always appears out of a fog and haunts the film’s band of aging gangsters like a ghost. The design for Wayne Manor makes it seem like a castle that could’ve been in a Brontë novel. More importantly, one of the most iconic locations in gothic literature is a cemetery, which is where many of the most important scenes in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm take place. But aside from an eerie sequence where the Phantasm commits their second murder, cemeteries serve a purpose in this film which owes less to horror and more to romance and revelation. Wayne and Beaumont meet for the first time in a cemetery after he notices her habit of talking to her mother’s grave. The vivacious Beaumont explains that she does that because it makes her feel like she can imagine what her mother would say to her, as if she were still alive. It’s almost as if the presence of the dead forces the characters to reveal their secrets, like a later one where Beaumont deduces that Bruce Wayne is Batman when she sees him standing by his parents’ grave in his costume. In addition, it is in a cemetery where Wayne bares his soul in one of the most heartbreaking scenes he has ever had in any form of media.

That sequence owes its power primarily to Conroy’s performance. He was famously the first actor in animation to use a different voice for Batman (the tough and gritty one that he did in his initial audition for the character) than he did for Bruce Wayne, which is lighter and captures the “playboy philanthropist” that is famous throughout Gotham. But while Conroy does use both voices in this film, that’s not the one he uses in this scene. Since it takes place in a flashback, Conroy uses a voice that is subtly distinctive from his other ones to demonstrate that this is a younger Wayne than the one in the film’s present-day timeline. Wracked with confusion and perhaps inspired by Beaumont, Wayne talks to his parents’ grave and begs them to release him from his vow to avenge them. Composer Shirley Walker’s score blares as a choir which sounds like it is singing ecclesiastical Latin (thought it’s really just the names of the orchestra members sung backward) makes this moment feel like a holy one for Wayne in which his very soul is at stake. As lightning strikes, Wayne ultimately says, ““please…I didn’t count on being happy.” It’s a moment which displays his vulnerability in a more direct way than any other Batman film and served as a high water mark for Conroy, whose performance so moved voice director Andrea Romano that she gave him a hug.

But while that scene culminates in a tender moment between Wayne and Beaumont, it’s clear that it cannot last. Fate is a recurring theme in both film noir and gothic literature (whose characters were often bedeviled by omens they could not escape), and it is an important one in Mask of the Phantasm. The filmmakers deal with fate most directly through the symbolism of the “Gotham World’s Fair.” In flashbacks, the Gotham World’s Fair (modeled after a similar one in New York City in 1939) promises its attendees a “a bright tomorrow filled with hope and promise” and “a vision of a shimmering utopia where we will all spend the rest of our lives.” But in the present timeline, the World’s Fair has become abandoned and dilapidated. Its “House of the Future,” instead of becoming a model for people to live happier lives, is now the home of The Joker. When Batman fights The Joker there near the end, in one of the many battles they have had, it’s clear that this is what his future has become. But it also feels like one which he would always have, because when he visited the World’s Fair in flashbacks he wasn’t attracted to its dreams of hope. Instead, he was impressed by a car which resembles what would become the Batmobile. Perhaps if things were different, he might have chosen Beaumont over being Batman. But the film makes it clear that he was always intended to fulfil his dark fate.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, with its combination of generic elements from two genres often associated with older people, is a great reminder that animation has been, and always will be, a medium for telling stories geared at people of all ages and not just a means of entertaining children. While this film’s box office success was somewhat modest, it was appreciated by critics, even belatedly. In 1995, when Batman Forever was in theaters, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert praised Mask of the Phantasm on their TV show, with Siskel noting that he was sorry he didn’t see it during its initial release. He even ranked it just under Batman (1989) in terms of his favorite movies about that character. Ebert’s enjoyment of this film centered primarily on its technical elements and led him to declare that “animation could do some things live action can’t do,” like lighting imagery in a brighter way and playing with perspective in a way that you couldn’t do in live action. Their warm comments about it foreshadowed the ecstatic critical reception that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), another innovative animated superhero film which used tropes from film noir (it’s not that hard to imagine Spider-Man Noir feeling out of place in Mask of the Phantasm’s world) and gothic literature (Miles Morales meets Peter B. Parker for the first time in a cemetery) to construct its story, would receive.

While the general public may not know as much about Batman: Mask of the Phantasm as it does about Into the Spider-Verse or its sequel, that somehow feels appropriate. There’s something poetic about this film having a ghostly aura like the one the Phantasm exuded, as if it were so good that it cannot help but haunt every animated superhero movie which came after it. More than that, its excellent mixture of different tropes from disparate genres and keen psychological insights into the price of being its protagonist will haunt anyone else who sees Batman: Mask of the Phantasm for a long time to come.