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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Static Thoughts - Batman Mask of the Phantasm

There’s been a lot of superhero media these days focused on the well-worn trope of the murderous vigilante.  Batman: Arkham Knight’s titular antagonist is essentially a militarized version of Batman who’s willing to kill his foes and it was just recently announced that Punisher will be the main villain of Netflix’s Daredevil season 2.  With all that in mind now seems like the perfect time to revisit Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, the hands down best iteration of this particular storyline as well as probably the best Batman film all around.  For those of you unfortunate enough to be unaware of this film, Mask of the Phantasm was a 1993 animated feature that spun out of Bruce Timm’s award winning Batman the animated series (which is why this is a Static Thoughts article.)  The film deals with a mysterious new vigilante named the Phantasm who’s been killing off Gotham mobsters and letting Batman take the blame.  That’s the outward plot anyway; the deeper focus of the film is on the very definition of Batman and how he relates to personal loss, revenge, and justice.  


This review will contain spoilers so I’ll just say here at the start that Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a truly amazing film.  The storytelling is deep and meaningful while remaining enjoyable for both kids and adults.  The pacing is solid, the action well choreographed, the animation beautiful and the voice acting is superb including an incredible performance from Dana Delany who is the true standout of the film.  If you’re on the fence about seeing it I cannot recommend it enough and it’s only a little over an hour long, there will be spoilers from here on out. 
Where the real emphasis of the film emerges is in the character of Andrea Beaumont, a woman Bruce meets and falls in love during the time after his return to Gotham but before he’s fully developed the Batman concept.  Though Andrea returns to Gotham in the main narrative nearly half the film takes place in flashback, focusing on she and Bruce’s relationship as well as Bruce’s work trying to implement his plan to become a crime-fighting vigilante.  Though every aspect of Mask of the Phantasm has seeped into the Batman mythos in one form or another this area is one of the most influential and actually parallels a lot of key elements from Dark Knight.  This is easily the risky section of the film given that it’s essentially a romance that just happens to star Bruce Wayne but that’s actually one of its greatest assets.  This ties into an uncomfortable truth about Batman that not a lot of fans like to admit, namely that Batman is not actually a very interesting character.  The thing about Batman is that he’s very 1 dimensional, he has his struggle against crime but the simplicity of his quest generally robs him of depth.  Batman works so well because his villains are so interesting, dark reflections or inversions of his own persona.  Bruce Wayne, however, is quite interesting, especially with how much Mask of the Phantasm focuses in on the same truth that Batman Begins understood: that being Batman is Bruce’s coping mechanism.  

These two ideas, that Batman isn’t inherently compelling and that he exists as Bruce’s way of dealing with grief and loss, are generally pretty frowned upon in the Bat fan community.  Most bat fans dislike the idea of Bruce Wayne altogether, generally citing Frank Miller’s assertion that Bruce is the Mask and Batman is the real man beneath.  Mask of the Phantasm goes in the complete opposite direction, focusing on Bruce as a very real and defined person beneath the mask and the very idea of Batman being a crutch for the man.  So, when Bruce falls in love with Andrea he ends up conflicted, both because he suddenly doesn’t need the idea of Batman to feel better and because he feels he can’t risk his life everyone night with someone waiting for him to come home. 
As I mentioned earlier this idea is somewhat similar to Dark Knight, specifically the key Batman subplot of Bruce wanting to quit being Batman to get together with his childhood sweetheart Rachel Dawes, the central difference is confliction.  In Mask of the Phantasm Bruce ends up caught between his desire to be with Andrea and his desire to keep his vow to his parents.  It’s a great plot line that really highlights the very idea of Batman as a child’s power fantasy that Bruce clings to as well as how the memory of his parents can be both comforting and condemning.  It all culminates in an incredible scene of Bruce at his parent’s grave begging their permission to simply live a normal life that fully embodies Bruce as a human character.  This is something that writers all too often forget about Batman in the modern canon, far too often casting him as this stark, living embodiment of masculinity and purpose.  That Batman certainly has his place but that’s also the Batman that can only be defined by his enemies, only interesting because of who he opposes not who he is.   

Not that Mask of the Phantasm is without villains; in fact the villains play a vital role in the thematic identity of the film.  The film features a trio of primary villains; the titular Phantasm, the Joker, and Arthur Reeves, a city councilman who’s out to take down Batman.  All three of these characters are tied directly into Bruce and Andrea’s failed relationship and in particular way it fell apart.  It’s revealed that Andrea’s father owed money to the mob and rather than pay he took her and went on the run to Europe.  Eventually Beaumont’s former lawyer Arthur Reeves sells them out and the mob hit man who would become the Joker kills Andrea’s father, leading to Andrea’s return to Gotham as the Phantasm to enact vengeance.  Her return and killings gives Councilmen Reed a rallying banner to launch a full police task force to capture Batman while the mob reaches out to the Joker to try and stop the killing.
The point of making all these characters the villains is that they’re reflective of a much bigger enemy that’s been stalking Batman since before he even was Batman: loss.  Together with Batman each of these 4 characters represents a way we deal with loss or even the perception of loss.  For Councilmen Reeves it was the threat of losing his first campaign that drove him to sell out Andrea’s father to the mob, destroying two lives.  That decision defines his character as a man who uses the misery of others for his own goals and easily the film’s most despicable villain.  Conversely Andrea represents almost a completely collapse in the face of loss, losing herself and any future she ever might have had in her quest for vengeance.  There’s a very poignant line in the film’s climax where Alfred suggests to Bruce that Andrea didn’t want to be saved, that perfectly sums up her character.  For her the loss she’s suffered, not just the death of her father but the life she could’ve had with Bruce, is so incalculable that there’s no point to anything in her world but vengeance.  It genuinely seems like her plan was always meant to end with her own death to conclude her string of killings.  

And finally there’s the Joker, the living embodiment of the shattered lives and broken tomorrows that inform the entire cast.  The Joker is an instrument of loss, destroying Andrea, Bruce, and eventually even Reed’s life.  Additionally he represents how the force of loss can follow us even past its genesis point, shown in how the Joker transitioned from destroying Andrea’s life to becoming a prominent destructive figure in Batman’s.  Finally he’s the living embodiment of lost chances, taking up residence in the ramshackle and broken down World’s Fair that once represented Bruce and Andrea’s brighter tomorrow. 
Of the entire main cast Bruce Wayne is the only one who represents a positive means of approaching loss: accepting it.  That’s the central point to the idea of Bruce giving up Batman to be with Andrea only to return to it after she leaves him to go into hiding.   In this case being Batman for him isn’t about trying to undo his parent’s death or the inability to accept the meaningless of it, but rather to accept the life he lost with Andrea and build something else in its place.  He doesn’t fall into the pit of vengeance or scramble to reclaim what he’s lost using other people’s lives as stepping stones, instead he does what Batman always does, he turns heart break into strength and motivation.  That’s why Mask of the Phantasm is the best Batman film, it’s the one that truly understands the most important definition of the character, that Batman’s greatest strength isn’t his money, his training, or even his wits, it’s the ability to turn the awful randomness of life into something better. 

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