Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) Review

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) Directors: Eric Radomski, Bruce Timm

“Your angel of death awaits.”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Based on Batman: The Animated Series, which is widely hailed as the pinnacle of Batman mythology on television, Mask of the Phantasm was one of the first theatrical releases of Batman. It gives a new origins story for the Dark Knight, as well as a murder mystery filled with nuance and complexity. Heavily influenced by art deco and film noir themes introduced in the Max Fleischer Superman cartoon (as well as the films of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock), the animation in this film, as in the accompanying series, is jaw-dropping. It begins ominously –the credits roll against the backdrop of an operatic score (by composer Shirley Walker) over the shadowy spires of Gotham City. A group of mobsters is devising a money laundering scheme when Batman (Kevin Conroy) invades and disrupts the meeting. One of them named Chuckie Sole escapes with the money in his briefcase where he is encountered by a ghostly hooded figure (the “Phantasm”) who grimly remarks, “Your angel of death awaits.” It leads to a high stakes car chase which sends Chuckie’s car crashing into a building, killing him.

Later, at a high-brow party Bruce Wayne is surrounded by a trio of floozies when he bumps into Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany) and her sinister paramour Councilman Arthur Reeves (Hart Bochner). This leads to a flashback as Bruce Wayne meets Andrea Beaumont while they both visit their parents’ graves (only Andrea’s mother has died), we also see scenes of Bruce Wayne making his first attempts at fighting crime before creating the image of the Batman. He soon realizes that criminals actually do not fear him.

A romance blossoms between Bruce and Andrea –they both bond over jiu-jitsu and a visit to the Gotham World’s Fair together—and soon, Bruce proposes marriage despite feeling conflicted about whether not to become a husband to Andrea or else build his new alter ego as the Batman. He is forced to choose between happiness or vigilantism. In one particularly emotional scene, Bruce weeps at his parents’ grave asking for the burden of the Batman to be lifted from him (“I know I made a promise, but I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t count on being happy”). Then, Andrea mysteriously flees with her successful businessman father who appears to be caught up in some shady dealings with Salvator Valestra. She leaves Bruce with a brief and vague goodbye letter announcing her departure. And after a period of sorrow, Bruce decides to finally fulfill his promise to his late parents and assume the role of Batman.

As it turns out, Salvatore Valestra is mixed up with the Joker (Mark Hamill). He offers the Joker $5M to take out Batman, but the Joker simply kills Valestar and leaves him in a horribly transfixed position –with a disturbing smile on his face and a bomb strapped to his chest. He is actually found by the mysterious hooded Phantasm who again remarks, “Your angel of death awaits.” The body of Valestra explodes, Batman arrives while the Phantasm escapes, leaving Batman to take the blame from the police. After a brutal shootout, Batman is conveniently rescued by Andrea Beaumont and they rekindle their romance when she recounts the story of needing to flee with her father when he owed a significant amount of money to the mob. Later, he is murdered by the Joker who was also a member of the gangster group prior to becoming the Joker.

As it turns out, Andrea has been the Phantasm, exacting vengeance on all the mobsters who killed her father. She and the Joker duel at his lair located amidst the ruins of the old fair (the carnival at the old fair serves as the perfect metaphor for the decay of Gotham in contrast to the optimism portrayed in Bruce’s flashbacks), but Batman arrives to save Andrea. He battles the Joker until a series of explosives laid by the Joker destroy the whole area. Andrea and the Joker disappear into the mayhem while Batman is forced to flee. In the end, Bruce wonders if Andrea survived when he spots her locket glinting inside the Batcave, meanwhile Andrea is later shown aboard a boat at sea, alongside a drunken Arthur Reeves. She acknowledges that she is “alone.”   

Mask of the Phantasm is simply the peak of animated Batman, fulfilling the dream of every comic book fan the world over. The film explores the nature of revenge in a complex intertwined romance of Bruce Wayne and Andrea Beaumont –Bruce assumes the alter ego of Batman in order to seek vengeance on the criminal underworld of Gotham for the death of his parents, whereas Andrea assumes the alter ego of the Phantasm in order to assassinate the mobsters who extorted and killed her father. Is there a moral difference between Batman and the Phantasm when both pursue vengeance for the sake of the greater good?

Unfortunately, despite rave reviews, the theatrical release of Mask of the Phantasm was not a box office success, in part thanks to a lack of marketing by Warner Bros. With a runtime of slightly over an hour, the film plays out like an extended episode of The Animated Series, portraying the origins of Batman through a series of bittersweet flashbacks. This is an inspiring addition to the Dark Knight lore.      

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