And were back going through Batman's cinematic history. This time with what I consider to be the 2nd greatest Batman film ever Mask of the Phantasm.
In 76 minutes Batman: Mask of the Phantasm tells a better story about the Dark Knight and does more for the understanding of him than Batman(1989) and Batman Returns(1992) ever did.
Originally Mask of the Phantasm wasn’t supposed to get a theatrical release. It was just supposed to be a direct to video release but Warner Bros pushed it for a theatrical run, releasing it December 25, 1993. This direct to video origins is noticeable with the most obvious difference between the movie and the animated show was the CGI opening run through Gotham City. Its meager beginnings ultimately help the story and focus of the movie when compared to its live action counterparts. The animation quality isn’t noticeably better than the Batman: The Animated Series. Other than it being in a bigger aspect ratio nothing seems big and epic. The movie itself is largely a two to three man show with a small supporting cast. All of this punctuated by the opening theme written by Shirley Walker. The entire score for this film gives everything a filmic quality.
An angel of death has come to Gotham City. Like the ghost of christmas future it is singular in purpose going after Gotham's underworld. Mobsters are starting to be picked off one by one all by this hook wielding freak. Desperate times call for desperate measures as one of the few remaining mobsters turns to the Joker to kill this freak of nature. All the while Bruce Wayne is caught in the middle chasing after new and old ghosts.
My biggest complaint about the previous Batman films (Batman and Batman Returns) was the lack of character development or exploration for Bruce Wayne and Batman. In both films he was there to be Batman at the end and defeat the bad guys. This is not the case as Bruce Wayne and Batman are the centerpiece of Phantasms story.
With the arrival of the Phantasm Batmans early days are brought up as Bruce Wayne remembers his relationship with Andrea Beaumont, which might be connected to the deaths of the mobsters. When he meets Andrea in the cemetery he already has his plan. The training is done all that is left is to put it into motion. We get to witness an early attempt by Wayne only for him to conclude that he must induce fear in his enemies from the start. The best plans often fail though as Wayne suddenly finds himself in love with Beaumont and even happy, none of this was in the plan. Things finally reach a head with Wayne begging for his parents to release him from his promise, allowing him to live a normal life.
Bruce: "It doesn't mean I don't care anymore. I don't want to let you down, honest, but... but it just doesn't hurt so bad anymore. You can understand that, can't you? Look, I can give money to the city; they can hire more cops. Let someone else take the risk, but it's different now. 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."
Batman might not of happened if things had gone well between Wayne and Beaumont, Wayne is shown proposing to her soon after the cemetery scene. In a bit of foreshadowing though they are both frightened by a flock of bats escaping the caves beneath Wayne Manor. Things do not end well between Beaumont and Wayne. Alfred awkwardly returns Waynes engagement ring to his master with nothing more than a trite note. With Beaumont out of the picture Wayne gives into his plan and dons the cape and cowl. Seeing all this informs viewers as to why Bruce is driven by his guilt.
The Phantasm is best described as a “wraith”. Wraiths are described as an apparition seen people right before they die, an angel of death. This manifestation appears before mob bosses Chuckie Sol,Buzz Bronski. It tries to do the same thing to Sal Valestra but the Joker beat him to it. The attempt at Sals life also marks a shift from how the Phantasm is treated in the movie. Up until that point the Phantasm was treated more like a legitimate supernatural being, a major departure from how Batmans rogues are treated, while a bunch of freaks they are just mere mortals. Once the Joker sees that the Phantasm isn’t the Bat and simply a man the Phantasm loses all of its mystique. Now we see it for what it really is, Andreau Beaumont in a mask.
Without the need for this to be a summer blockbuster and its meager budget allowed Phantasm to escape the blockbuster tropes seen in Batman and Batman Returns. One of the main facets of the previous Bat films is the inclusion of a love interest played by someone relatively famous at the time. Dana Delany is not Kim Basinger or Michelle Pfeiffer, she has had a fairly successful career in television.
The Wayne-Beaumont relationship is far more interesting and believable than previous on screen romances. For the simple reason that they are shown falling in love, developing that future baggage. Through flashbacks we see their initial meeting and first kiss and then a little farther in at the world's fair leading up to a marriage proposal. Unlike the compressed timelines of Batman and Batman Returns Mask of the Phantasm is a story that takes place across years. If they didn’t make the viewer care about this relationship than the climax would have hardly any impact.
This freedom from forcing Wayne to fall in love with someone allowed for the writers, mainly Martin Pasko to turn the love story on its head by placing it all in the past making it a tragic tale of love and lost. Both Wayne and Beaumont lose but Beaumont lost the most. She is forced to go on the run with her father, break up with Bruce Wayne and live in fear for over a decade. None of this was part of her plan, Bruce at least had his to fall back on. So when she says “They took everything, Bruce. My father, my friends, my life, you. I'm not saying it's right, or even sane but it's all I have left! So either help me, or get out of the way!” it comes as little surprise that she chooses to disappear with the Joker as the world's fair explodes around them.Revenge was the only thing she had control of.
Mask of Phantasm’s climax mixes the emotional and physical instead of going like with an either or as seen in the two Burton films. Batmans past and present come into conflict as he is forced to rescue Andrea from the Joker while simultaneously battle the both of them. As in Batman Returns Beamount is so close to fulfilling her vengeful goals only for Batman to stand in her way. At first Batman seems to have better success by getting her to give up her plan, allowing him to go fight the Joker yet again. Now with this being animation they are afforded certain liberties reality doesn’t have but Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski capture why exactly Joker is a physical threat to Batman. With various traps and deadly toys the Joker manages to bloody Batman, a first for him on screen. The Joker leaves Batman disoriented as he gleefully flees the scene warning his frienemy that in 5 minutes the entire fair will be blown sky high. Batman of course doesn't care and drags Joker back down to earth ready to let themselves both be killed in the explosion. Andrea returns dragging the Joker into the flames as he laughs maniacally, refusing to give up her vengeance for a possible life with Bruce. Viewers got a decent fight between the Batman and Joker sandwiched between the emotional climax of the movie. Batman once again loses a chance at a “normal” life but it wouldn’t have been the same as before. Andrea had already killed Chuckie and Buzz Bronski by that point she already gave into her vengeance. Like Spider-man even though Batman “won” he lost to.
Alfred correctly points out while counseling Bruce “I don't think she wanted to be saved sir. Vengeance blackens the soul”. Like Ms. Kyle, Andrea Beaumont died long ago only driven by thoughts of revenge. Providing a warning at what could've happened to Bruce if he gave in to vengeance, forsaking his rules and mission.
The Joker wasn’t initially set to appear in Phantasm, the writers didn’t want to have any sort connection to Tim Burtons Batman. While not explicit in his creation as Batman, the Joker appears as a nameless thug assassinating Andreas father, Carl. This once again links the two together. The inclusion of the Joker though was the right move "we then realized that we could make his appearance serve the story in a way that we never could in live-action." according to writer Michael Reaves. And he does having the Joker be inadvertently responsible for the death of his chance of a normal life ties the three of them together so well. His appearance also helps lighten the mood of an otherwise glum, sullen movie. Mark Hamill is on fire nailing his lines like “Don't touch me, old man! I don't know where you've been”. Even as he cracks jokes he never stops being menacing as he threatens and attempts to kill multiple people.
With its smaller scale Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is able to focus less on super heroics and instead what drives a person to become one. With a 76 minute run time writers were hard pressed to make every scene count in advancing the plot and our understanding of Bruce Wayne and Andrea Beaumont.
Now this is my go to soundtrack for any Batman film. Composer Shirley Walker, who conducted Danny Elfmans score for Batman, took Elfmans already excellent main theme and turned it into something else. The addition of the “Latin” chants takes the theme and film and pushes it to that theatrical quality. Those “Latin” chants, which I thought was some sort of Russian is actually according to her “made a chart by number of syllables of every music persons name backwards to use in creating the language you hear. 'Oh Nahlim Mot!', the phrase the score begins with, is Tom Milano, the music editor of most of my features, whom I originally worked with doing the Flash TV series.” Walker also composed for Batman: The Animated Series (1992–1995), Superman: The Animated Series (1996–2000), The New Batman Adventures (1997–1999), and Batman Beyond (1999–2000).
There are two versions of the OST for Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. The first was released in 1993 along with the theatrical run of the movie. The other was put out by La-La Land Records, who remastered Walkers score putting it into their "Expanded Archival Collection". This extended cut added new tracks and an extra 27 minutes.
Supplemental Reading List
- Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural IconIs Dr. Will Brookers PhD Thesis and a good in depth cultural read on the long lasting character. It ends in 1999
- Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batmanis Dr. Will Brookers follow up book 10 years later looking at the Nolan trilogy of films as well using them as a disscusion of the role of authorship and extra-textual sources inconjunction with the main text.
Batman, Time Warner, and Franchise Filmmaking in the Conglomerate Era is Kimberly Ann Owczarski's dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosphy
- Discourses of Cinematic Culture and the Hollywood Director: The Development of Christopher Nolan’s Auteur Personais Erin Elizabeth Hill-Parks dessertation looking at the rise of Christopher Nolan status as an Auteur in contempoary Hollywood.