Monday, February 27, 2023

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

“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.”
When I reviewed Batman: Mask of the Phantasm back in 2012, I said that it was “impossible” to compare it to The Dark Knight, finding Phantasm to be “quintessential.” Four years later, in my first expansion of my Personal CanonMask of the Phantasm made the cut – and yet I had said it was “imperfect... the resolution doesn’t quite hold up after repeat viewings.”
Reader, I was wrong. This review could have been so many things – an edition of “Take Two Tuesdays,” a continuation of my 2017-2019 reviews of Batman: The Animated Series, or part of my heretofore undeclared attempt to review every movie on the Personal Canon. Even before rereading my original review, I wanted to revisit Mask of the Phantasm because it deserved so much more than just 250 words in that “Monday at the Movies” format – especially on the occasion of its 30th anniversary this year. Whatever I was thinking in 2012, Phantasm has never truly let me down.
The Batman (Kevin Conroy) is a wanted man, wrongly accused of the murders of some of Gotham’s most notorious mobsters. Batman is hot on the trail of the real killer, The Phantasm (Stacy Keach), when an old flame returns to town – Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany), whose past relationship with Bruce Wayne is explored in heartbreaking flashbacks, even as the plot marches inexorably toward a final confrontation with The Joker (Mark Hamill).
I always forget that Phantasm is as brief as it is. In the neighborhood of 75 minutes, it’s hard to find a film that hits all the bases like this one does: suspense, romance, comedy, heartbreak. Between dynamite action sequences and deeply human character work, Mask of the Phantasm includes no fewer than three origin stories across two timelines, telling an indelible and original story about Batman. It’s a tale that has cast its own shadow over Batman in the past thirty years, with fans constantly asking, “When will the Phantasm show up?” (The Phantasm appeared in Batman Beyond comics circa 2015 and in 2020’s Batman/Catwoman; over on film, we got a name-only tease in Batman v Superman, while the Phantasm is frequently name-checked in wishlists for the inevitable sequel to The Batman.)
Yet the reason I’ve never quite sounded the call for more Phantasm stories is because this one is perfect. The comics did a semi-sequel to the film in Batman & Robin Adventures, in an issue that could only be called “Shadow of the Phantasm.” While it’s a fun romp, it’s not indispensable, and it essentially leaves the characters in the same place where the film did: separated, exiled, and presumed dead. I’m being cagey about spoilers, even though the film is thirty years old and the action figure infamously unmasked the Phantasm just in time to disappoint kids on Christmas. My spoiler-phobia is largely due to my quasi-religious devotion to stories and the art of storytelling, but it’s also because the mystery isn’t entirely the point; if you know how tragedies work, you’ll plot this one out in short order.
Because the key to Phantasm isn’t that it’s a mystery; it’s a film noir about brooding avengers and the dark shadowy antiheroes who love them. It’s a tragedy about what happens when people let their pasts define them, but it’s also about the inescapability of the past, of chickens coming home to roost when it’s least convenient. Indeed, the past looms as large as the heavy tombstone on which the WAYNE family name is inscribed, and the real pain of the film is Bruce Wayne’s inability to escape that destiny he pledged for himself. “The way I see it,” Andrea snipes in one incisive moment, “the only one in this room controlled by his parents is you.”
Phantasm is somewhat unique for a Batman origin story in that we never see the murder of the Waynes, that random act of devastating violence that set Bruce Wayne on a course of dark vengeance. Instead, the film takes their loss as a given and sets the real origin story as a choice – Bruce Wayne chooses his vow over his own selfhood, and when he dons the cape and cowl for the first time, it’s not a moment of triumph. Alfred intones, “My God!” and recoils. The music swells, but even that refrain is sobered and pained. From that moment on, Bruce Wayne is the performance, a careless playboy charade who has to hide himself away from others lest they see through his façade.
The Phantasm, too, is a performance, reciting the ominous refrain, “Your angel of death awaits,” like some grim prophecy that explains everything. Outfitted with a theatrical costume and an insistence on dramatic violence, the Phantasm is wrestling with demons that have nothing to do with framing Batman for murder. Meanwhile, the mobsters – most notably Sal Valestra, voiced by Abe Vigoda – are stuck in their roles, playing out cheap imitations of The Godfather while their past catches up to them. The casting of Vigoda is inspired, mired in the genre’s past while playing on the arrested timelessness of Vigoda’s permanent old age.
Paradoxically, only The Joker is perfectly liberated. If you didn’t know he was in the movie, his first appearance reads like something out of a nightmare; the film takes a hard pivot and bends around his manic gravity. At first, the mobsters try to recruit Joker to protect them from Batman, but the incorrigible Joker can’t help but take over the plot for his own purposes, bumping off as many gangsters as The Phantasm does. He even seems to grasp the cruel irony of the film’s finale, laughing with gleeful abandon as he, Batman, and The Phantasm stare down certain death. Indeed, throughout Joker plays the Shakespearean fool, commenting on the coincidences of the plot, calling out red herrings about Phantasm’s identity, and cracking wise with a sense of humor best suited to the gallows of Gotham.
I haven’t said anything about the voice cast because the scripting is so impressive, but suffice it to say that Kevin Conroy remains the definitive Batman, giving us no fewer than three takes on the character (costumed vigilante, fresh-faced bachelor, and jaded philanthropist). He can plumb the depths of grief or crack a wry one-liner, and he’s the voice I’ll always hear in my head for any comic book. Ditto for Mark Hamill, whose Joker is so good that you forget he was ever a farmboy from Tatooine. Hamill has a knack for uncomfortable punchlines like “That’s what I want to see, a nice big smile.” Then there’s Dana Delany, who has to be the emotional heart of the story while keeping her own feelings clenched beneath a cool exterior. She can keep pace with both Bruce Wayne and Batman, and using nothing but her voice, she convinces us that she’s Bruce’s true star-crossed lover.
Ultimately, the reason people want more Phantasm isn’t because there’s more to say. It’s because this film is so good, so perfect, that 75 minutes feels criminally brief. We want to hear Conroy and Hamill riffing on each other until the end of time. We want to chase happiness just like Bruce Wayne does, and we want to revel in the bittersweet fatefulness that finds Bruce pursuing a darker calling. Or maybe we just want to live in that glorious art deco Gotham, painted on black with red skies, with a breathtaking Shirley Walker score to make sense of it all. (I know I do.) It’s an agonizingly human story, heightened by the presence of elaborate costumes and a certain Clown Prince, and as in the best films no one wants to see it end.
I don’t know what I meant in 2012 by “doesn’t quite hold up,” because Phantasm is a movie that has held up – and it has held me up when I’ve felt down about storytelling, disappointed by my favorite genre, or just grim about life itself. It’s almost like a calculated distillation of a superhero narrative, sweeping from start to finish, from origin story to never-ending battle. It’s not a movie that necessarily makes one feel good about humanity, but it does make one feel good about being alive. What life is worth living if you don’t have Conroy and Hamill narrating it?

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
 is rated PG for “animated violence.” Directed by Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm. Written by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, and Michael Reaves. Based on the DC Comics. Starring Kevin Conroy, Dana Delaney, Hart Bochner, Stacy Keach, Abe Vigoda, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., and Mark Hamill.

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