I love Batman. Who doesn’t, right? He’s a great hero. In the last few years, The Internet (hello, you!) has loved to talk about how he’s the hero of an adolescent, how he’s an emotionally stunted, selfish sociopath who takes his problems out on poor people. That way of looking at Batman got a lot of traction since the rise of the ‘We are the 99%’ movement.
It’s easy to oversimplify him into a rich sadist. It’s also easy to oversimplify him into a lunatic badass only out for thrills. The Batman I knew, and the Batman I know, is neither of these things. He is a guy trying to do his best – trying to do some good and fight crime. It’s the same for Bruce Wayne. That Bruce Wayne, and that Batman, is the hero of Mask Of Phantasm. Welcome to my childhood.
Mask Of the Phantasm is an animated movie released in 1993. It was the product of the same studio that made Batman: The Animated Series. Initially, the movie was planned as a straight-to-video production, but Warner Brothers changed their minds and decided to release it in theatres. The news flattered the production team, but put a lot of pressure on them. In all, the 76-minute masterpiece took eight months to produce.
When I was a child, what go to me about this story was that it had so many dimensions. Loosely paraphrasing IMDB: The police believe Batman is responsible for a series of murders. The victims are mob bosses, actually killed by a new vigilante. This doesn’t really scratch the surface of what the whole thing is actually about, but I’ll try and toe the discursive line without spoiling it for people.
Essentially, Batman has to deal with the murders and his implication while managing some old wounds. The story flashes back to his formative years and experiences as a crime-fighter in a way that seriously rivals Christopher Nolans’ trilogy. When I was a lot younger, I couldn’t see the depth for what it was, but I could feel it. The comics Batman: Year One and Batman: Year Two heavily inspired the narrative, and it shows. That era of Frank Milers’ writing is excellent. Before I revisited this movie, I remembered feeling scared, thrilled and saddened. I remembered feeling confused at who the new vigilante is (because they look like Batman) and I pictured a few moments that might have gone over my head.
How does it hold up? Would it surprise you if I said very well? I didn’t think so. Sitting down to watch Mask Of Phantasm was a pure joy. Modern Batman (and indeed a lot of modern heroes) can indulge too often in grimness. Self-involved and deeply tortured with moral conflict, our heroes are too busy now questioning themselves to get anything done (Daredevil Season 2, anyone?). This Batman is Batman at his purest. He knows who he is and why he does what he does, and we get to look at the moments where he wasn’t so sure thanks to those flashbacks. In general, the sensibility of the narrative stands out. You get the feeling that the team knew the character and wanted to take him somewhere.
Highlights include seeing the first time our hero puts on his cowl, some nasty barb-trading with an ex-lover, classic Alfred humour, genuine happiness, and some real menace. This Batman is both mature and immature, and that tension is great. Often, Batman stories fixate on the death of Bruce’s parents (which feeds the man-child reading of the character). In Mask, younger Bruce has some choices to make about his future, and older Bruce has to cope with those choices.
That’s another great thing about this movie: Bruce Wayne. We’re used to seeing Bruce as Batman’s disguise. If he’s in public, he’s an arrogant playboy or rich socialite. In private he’s just Batman out of costume. This movie plays with the facets of Batman and Bruce and asks if they can co-exist without putting a grey filter on it.
Lastly, the structure of the story struck me. Like a lot of the Batman: Animated Series, the story begins as a cool ‘whodunnit’ story with a Gothic feel but escalates to a heartbreaking set-piece in the third act. I love this movie so much it’s in my bio for this site. I want to say more and tell you everything but I won’t. This movie is just as good to me personally as it was when I was a child. In fact, I can find even more to appreciate now. This one will quietly stand the test of time. Go watch it.