One of my favourites… BATMAN MASK OF THE PHANTASM
Many Bat-fans have mixed emotions when it comes to Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. On the one hand, it was the first time the character had appeared on the big screen, and fans were understandably excited about one of their favourite characters getting the blockbuster treatment. But on the other hand, the character that was presented in the film was nothing like the character from the comics. Michael Keaton, hot off the success of Beetlejuice, his first collaboration with Burton (in which he gives a performance that suggests he may have been a better choice for the Joker rather than the Batman), gives the character a crazy eyed menace that lends credence to the claims that the Batman is just as insane as his villains. He seems to have no issue with murder, killing Joker and more than a few of his goons. His Bruce Wayne seems just as unstable. In the Burton movie Bruce isn’t a known playboy living it up with models and socialites, he’s an odd recluse that nobody recognises, even at his own party. But whatever your opinion of the film, its success was undeniable. Its impact cannot be diminished, because without it there wouldn’t be a Batman The Animated Series. The show was launched in 1992 after the film became a world wide hit and Warner Brothers saw an opportunity to expand upon the characters popularity. Burton’s film is not without its problems, but BTAS is a masterwork and continues to influence work on the character to this day.
The show appealed to children and adults alike. Its visual style was heavily influenced by Art Deco, every building has a Chrysler Building style spire, and was lit like a 1940’s film noir. The Gotham of the cartoon was anachronistic in a way that really worked. Every car was old fashioned, televisions were black and white, but computers were highly advanced. It’s impossible to say what time period the show takes place in. Bruce Timm’s character designs are the definitive versions of many of the characters. The villains were bright and fun but also tragic and doomed. It took the best elements of the film (the theme song… That is all) and the best of over fifty years of comic book continuity and streamlined it all into one manageable whole. It took what was essential and dropped the rest to become the finest example of the character and his world in any medium.
Kevin Conroy IS Batman. His voice is strong and demanding, but still recognisably human. There is no silly Christian Bale vocal chord shredding gruffness here. Mark Hamill IS The Joker. Both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger gave truly iconic performances as the character, but neither came close to Hamill’s giddy turn. His Joker is both funny and terrifying in equal measure, but more importantly, he’s unpredictable. His schemes are much more unusual and unhinged than his movie counterparts, and can range from blowing up a bridge as a train approaches to attempting to sell his own line of Joker fish. So many popular characters are at their best in the show. Alfred is never as funny or as comforting. Harley Quinn was created to give Joker someone to talk to and proved so popular in her own right that she was brought into the comics. She is perhaps the most cosplayed character of all time. Mr. Freeze’s heartbreaking back story was something devised in the show, and was so much better than the character seen in the comics that writers retconned the comic book version to more closely resemble the one from the cartoon. The quality of the show did not go unnoticed, and it was successful enough to spawn its own movie: Batman Mask of the Phantasm.
The film opens with business as usual for Batman. He bursts in on a criminal organisation and proceeds to bust heads. The mob boss doesn’t have any intention of getting into a scrap with Batman, he knows better, and so sets off running to his car. He sees a dark shadowy figure approaching and shoots. The bullets pass straight through. The mobster curses Batman and the figure steps into the light. It’s not Batman at all. It’s a booming voiced grim reaper that walks through a constant cloud of fog and has a scythe for a hand. It’s a creepy character design that leans towards the supernatural, but the film is quick to establish that there is a flesh and blood human being behind that mask. After a brief action scene the mob boss ends up dead. Batman arrives too late and surveys the scene. Witnesses see Batman and mistakenly deem him responsible. The Villain is introduced and the plot and stakes are firmly established, all within ten minutes.
The bulk of the film deals with Batman’s investigation into who is behind the mask of the Phantasm, but that is its least interesting aspect, mainly because it’s obvious from very early on who it is. The real meat of the film deals with Bruce’s relationship with Andrea Beaumont, an old flame who has come back into town (SPOILER – yeah, it’s her). The film frequently flashes back to the days before Bruce had fully committed to his fight against crime and shows the beginning of his relationship with Andrea. These sequences are among the most successful in the film. At one point Bruce and Andrea visit a theme park called “The World of Tomorrow” which looks like what people in the fifties thought 2014 would be. Bruce and Andrea laugh and frolic as they explore the possible future. This isn’t subtle stuff, but it works regardless, Andrea, at that time, is Bruce’s possible future, if only he’d give up his vow to fight crime. What is surprising is that he wants to. Bruce falls to his knees in front of his parents’ grave, begging them to let him walk away, to give up on Batman, “I know I made a promise, but I didn’t see this coming” he explains, “I didn’t count on being happy”. It’s as humanising a moment as any in the character’s rich history. Bruce decides to give it all up for her and he proposes. She says yes, but her father is in trouble with a number of local mobsters (the mobsters the Phantasm is offing in the present) and she flees the city with him, leaving Bruce behind. It is only then that Bruce becomes the Batman. It gives his origin even greater shades of sadness, which is pretty heavy going seeing as it already involved a young boy witnessing the murder of his parents.
After two mob bosses have been killed (one of whom in a scene straight out of a horror movie. It’s surprisingly adult), the one remaining boss, who still believes it is Batman that is hunting him, reaches the point of desperation, and in that desperation he turns to a man he doesn’t fully understand: The Joker. Sound familiar? The problem with the Joker is he usually hijacks any story he appears in and quickly makes it the Joker show (this is especially apparent in the Burton movie), but here he works well, improving the film without outright stealing it. The reason Joker fits is that he ties so perfectly into many of the film’s central themes and questions. The fact the Phantasm looks so similar to Batman is not an accident on the creators’ part. The Phantasm is Batman if Batman gave into vengeance. If he killed. By making the Joker the final person on the Phantasm’s hit list, it makes it that much harder to agree with Batman. Is the Joker worth saving? For a children’s film it is not afraid to wade in morally murky waters. The fight in “The World of Tomorrow”, which is now in a state of terrible disrepair, between the Joker, Batman, and the Phantasm is not only thrillingly action packed, but an interesting call back to the theme parks metaphorical meaning earlier in the film. The future Bruce could’ve had is now in ruins, and the only future left for him involves brightly coloured psychopaths and bloodshed. But at the movie’s end, the Phantasm, having taken its vengeance, has nothing. Batman, who remains true to himself, has his mission, his city, and his soul.
Batman Mask of the Phantasm is a fantastic film that may just be the best big screen outing the character has ever enjoyed. Its influence on the Nolan films, particularly The Dark Knight, is clear and speaks to just how strong a movie it is. At the very least, it’s better than Burton’s.