Few pop culture figures have had as many ups and downs in popular esteem as Batman, a character who, in one guise or another, can always capture people’s imaginations but tends to wear out his welcome. He seems to have hit another rough patch in the current decade, after the acclaim for Christopher Nolan’s film trilogy stagnated into a dull and thuggish idolatry. Imagining superheroes in a “realistic” world, a perennial temptation, ultimately leads to uncomfortable questions of someone like Batman: what to make of such a spectacularly wealthy individual and his peculiar methods for bettering the world? A full decade before Nolan tackled this question, some storytellers in an overlooked medium crafted perhaps the definitive take on it. The irony is so juicy that it’s practically conventional wisdom now, but Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, an animated film, might be better than any of the live-action entries, at least in terms of character development for the Caped Crusader himself (Batman Returns, a great piece of cinema in its own right, is a different animal, or two). With the film just now passing its 25th anniversary, and with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in theaters, it might be time to reclaim animation as the ideal medium for superheroes.
The film was conceived and released as an adjunct to the television cartoon Batman, created by the film’s directors, Eric Radomski and Bruce W. Timm. The show’s aesthetics were an inspiration, combining Art Deco architecture with expressionist shadows, but without going so far as to be inappropriate for kids. It was an inexpensive but effective kind of animation, perfectly suited to the small screen. Blowing it up to cinematic proportions certainly reveals the style’s limitations, especially considering Phantasm‘s rushed eight-month production. With the exception of a computer-animated title sequence, the movie looks just like the show. There was no need to reinvent the wheel, and in fact Warner Bros. upgraded the film from a direct-to-video release to a theatrical film in the middle of the production. All the pressure to get the movie into theaters by Christmas 1993 left no time for anything but telling a good story.
Like any worthwhile inquiry into the character of Batman, Phantasm ponders the distinction between vengeance and justice. A Batman imitator arrives in Gotham and starts systematically killing off mob bosses. This figure could be referred to as “The Phantasm,” although no one in the movie uses that name. The killer is so good at meting out violence and vanishing from sight that people start to assume it’s Batman, and that Gotham’s protector has lost his inhibitions with regard to murder. So, as usual, the hero has to go on the run, even as he continues his work as an independent detective and gangbuster. Even before the new character’s backstory is revealed, the Phantasm is set up as Batman’s shadow, the merciless avenger that he’s tried to stop just short of becoming for his entire life.
“Backstory” is the operative word for this film, as a good portion of the script is taken up with flashbacks. From Tim Burton to Joel Schumacher to Zack Snyder, filmmakers have often resorted to flashbacks to avoid rehashing Batman’s entire origin story in the conventional way, while still getting the necessary emotional jolt from it. Phantasm doesn’t depict the deaths of Bruce Wayne’s parents, instead showing his early years as a crimefighter, struggling to craft a memorable persona and wrestling with self-doubt. This is the most significant idea in the film. Often, it’s taken for granted that a single childhood trauma turned Bruce Wayne into Batman. This film suggests that he needed one final push, many years later. Before that push finally came, he faced the classic superhero dilemma: whether to continue facing danger in the fight against evil, or to settle down with a family. Complicating that choice is the vow that Bruce made to his parents’ memory, a vow that his mission would, essentially, never end. Obligation to one’s spectral ancestors elevates the whole situation beyond any ordinary vendetta into something mythic. Bruce Wayne’s alter ego is a thing of destiny, or perhaps a curse — best illustrated by the scene in which a swarm of bats erupts from a rift in the earth just after Bruce proposes marriage. This is his life, and any attempt to evade it will only bring tragedy.
Citizen Kane is often mentioned as an inspiration for the story structure of Phantasm, but the more apt comparison is Casablanca. As with that classic, the flashbacks here tell of a blissful romance that comes to an abrupt end, with the man receiving a note from the woman cutting off all future communication. The experience hardens him into the icon we all know and love today, but by the time the present-day narrative has run its course, he will have a full picture of what happened and won’t be so quick to judge the woman for what she did to him.
All those flashbacks could easily be seen as filler, and indeed the most effective criticism of the film is that it’s more or less a padded two-part episode of the show. The entrance of the Joker halfway through is a case in point. It’s hard to complain about Mark Hamill’s Joker, such a vivid and entertaining take on the character. He might be on hand mostly to keep the kids from getting too bored with all the brooding, but it’s a welcome distraction. At any rate, his chosen headquarters add an important dimension to the story. The decrepit ruins of a forgotten World’s Fair fit perfectly with the story’s ideas about lost dreams and crooked fates. The Phantasm emerges in a cloud of smoke, a Dickensian harbinger. Despite Batman’s best efforts to hold things together, demolition is inevitable.
The writers and animators of Batman: The Animated Series and this movie had strong dramatic impulses and a witty approach to each and every supporting character. Their big-budget, live-action counterparts have sometimes confused size with emotional investment, trading spectacle for story. If nothing else, Mask of the Phantasm holds up as the most romantic of all Batman movies, a bar that almost none of the others have even glanced at reaching. Kevin Conroy’s Bruce and Dana Delany’s Andrea Beaumont have a charming rapport, a joyful surprise at having found each other. As per the norm with serial storytelling, there’s never any doubt that he’ll revert to the status quo by the end of the film, but the journey is affecting nonetheless. For all the Wild West solitude, film noir torment and martial arts stoicism of the character, Batman is at his best when he has something to fight for, not merely against. He needs to have a heart.