Today, we take a look at the best Batman film to date, 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
If there were ever a reason to wake up early in the morning, 90s Saturday morning cartoons were far and away the best one. You had everything from great shows like Eek! The Cat and James Bond Jr. to timeless legends like X-Men, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and the Muppet Babies.
Standing atop the pile of these titans and claiming it’s rightful place at king of the lineup was the greatest Batman story ever told, Batman: The Animated Series. From its art deco visuals to its new and old characters, harsh shadows and quintessential Batman mystique, it still stands as the best comic book animated series of all time.
In 1993, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, the best Batman/Joker duo ever to grace the screen, took part in an animated movie based on the series that would capture my heart and refuse to let go. Even 23 years later, I can still remember my dad’s pirated VHS tape of “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” and how many times I watched the damn thing. While it was supposed to be a theatrical release, Warner Brothers decided to keep it extremely limited and it only really gained a cult status when it was released on VHS.
It’s a shame more people didn’t get a chance to see this masterpiece because it encapsulated everything great about the animated series and took it up several notches at the same time. Add brutal violence, an unforgettably dramatic score, and a terrifying villain to the already successful animated series recipe and you have the makings of an instant classic.
Today, we celebrate and discuss 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
To best describe the overall plot of the film, imagine Gotham city as you remember it in its animated form. Along comes a murderous vigilante in a metal, skull-like mask and tattered black shroud wielding an axe for a hand and appearing/disappearing via a mysterious mist. The Phantasm’s fantastic character design is wonderfully book ended with an amazingly haunting voice (Stacey Keach) and a penchant for serial killing.
Essentially, the Phantasm is killing off members of the mob in succession. Because of the character’s dark demeanor, everyone assumes it’s Batman who’s going on a murderous rampage. The police are after Batman who is after the Phantasm and the Joker is thrown in as an unpredictable wildcard. Like any good story, our protagonist Batman is caught in a constantly-unfolding crossfire.
Unlike most recent films about Batman, here there is an overt focus on his detective abilities. From interrogations to analysis, Batman is in top form. It always bothered me that this aspect of his abilities is so often overlooked in popular culture. Batman is one of the greatest detectives and scientists in all of comic book lore and content producers rarely, if ever, take the time to develop that aspect of his personality. I love seeing Batman’s brains and technical wizardry allow him to overcome impossible odds and help him find creative ways to solve cases and defeat villains.
Another new character in the film, Andrea Beaumont, is introduced as Bruce Wayne’s old flame. She was his one true love, back before he became Batman. The interesting Gothic aspect of the storytelling here is that, despite Andrea bringing him happiness he hasn’t known whatsoever since the death of his parents, he’s unable to embrace it. He feels guilty about loving someone and being happy because he doesn’t feel like he’s allowed to experience joy. His focus is palpable as he screams rain-soaked apologies at the grave of Ma and Pa Wayne.
Andrea has a dead mother and their first meeting occurs while the two of them are talking to gravestones. They’re a perfect match. She even has the confidence to call Bruce out on his mopey behavior, despite being a rich playboy.
Some of my favorite scenes from the film involve Batman’s early days when he’s just in a ski mask. None of the criminals respect or fear him and he’s a bit of a joke, despite his superior fighting ability.
Stumbling upon Bruce practicing Jiu Jitsu, Andrea shows that she can fight too. She’s cocky and playful and puts Bruce in his place. Who wouldn’t fall in love with a woman like that?
Their love story is told through flashbacks. When the scene shifts to the present timeline, we’re greeted with several of the Phantasm’s murders that are pretty gruesome for a kid’s cartoon show. I love when animators decide not to pull punches and give the stories a chance to grow and have impact. PG actually meant something back then. I always geek out when I hear the Phantasm’s proclamation of “Your angel of death awaits” before slaughtering some hapless gangster.
Andrea and Bruce, so many years disconnected, run into each other in Gotham one night. Their sexual tension is obvious and the embers of their former life together still remain.
As Batman observes his former love from a distance, we’re treated to another romantic flashback to Bruce and Andrea exploring a “Future World” amusement park together. This place returns later in the film as the stage for the climactic confrontation between the Phantasm, the Joker, and Batman. It’s a nice way to bring the story about full circle.
Later in the flashback, it is revealed that Andrea’s father is in bed with some members of the Italian mafia who are demanding money from him. Bruce is incensed by the confrontation and can’t let it slide. His anger grows as he sees some criminals fleeing a scene on motorcycles and decides to engage them. He’s defeated and embarrassed in front of Andrea who attempts to help. Bruce is annoyed by her attempt to care for him. I love that we get to see the beginnings of Batman’s vigilante tendencies as he struggles to balance his personal life and his burning inner purpose to punch faces and dangle criminals from skyscrapers.
After much internal dialogue, Bruce realizes how much he loves Andrea and decides to propose to her. She says yes, but the picturesque engagement is interrupted by a swarm of bats. Talk about your foreshadowing.
Unfortunately for Bruce, he gets his heart shredded into a million tiny pieces when Andrea blows off the engagement out of nowhere. All she leaves behind is the ring with a note. Immediately after his true love ditches him, we’re greeted with the most badass Batman scene I’ve ever seen. Alfred gazes in genuine fear as he witnesses Bruce don the Batman cape and cowl for the first time. The combination of the powerful score with Batman’s imposing shape and menacing scowl is cinematic perfection.
Fast forward to the present where the Joker gets involved in the Phantasm/Batman power struggle. The Italian mafioso are scare that they’re being offed by Batman. It’s really the Phantasm, but the mob’s desperation causes them to reach out to the clown prince of crime himself. Like most people who reach out to the Joker for help, however, it doesn’t end very well and he’s murdered with the Joker’s patented laughing gas toxin in order to set a trap for the Phantasm.
Meanwhile, Andrea is protective of her father who worked with these gangsters in the past and, when confronted by Batman, her reluctance to supply her father’s whereabouts drives a wedge between them.
Later, Batman confronts the Phantasm for the first time face to face on a rooftop, but he’s unable to learn anything of value. The Phantasm disappears in a cloud of smoke and a large police force surrounds Batman and throws everything they’ve got at him.
With a construction site showdown and lots of cool explosions, Batman makes a run for it, even going so far as to unmask himself in order to use his cowl and cape as a diversion. Luckily, Andrea is waiting at the end of the alley with a well-timed getaway ride.
She finally explains that the night Bruce witnessed Andrea’s father being hustled by gangsters, his life was threatened and he forced Andrea to run away with him for both of their safety. His idiotic business dealings were the reason for Andrea’s decision to bail out on Bruce’s proposal. It’s heavily implied that her father is probably the Phantasm, back to get revenge on the mobsters who kept him and his daughter on the run for so long.
All of this drama, honesty, and drumming up of the past ends up pushing Andrea and Bruce back into each other’s arms. Could be there finally be a chance for happiness for the lonely Brucey?
When looking at some old pictures of the Italian mafia and its constituents, Bruce realizes one of the gangster’s partners was none other than the Joker, pre-transformation.
Meanwhile, the Joker goes after a councilman to use him to get to the Phantasm. Fortunately for him, the councilman is saved from the Joker’s laughing gas toxin at a local hospital. He’s approached by Batman, in search of Andrea’s father, the councilman’s old business partner. It turns out the councilman had sold out Papa Beaumont to save his own skin. The Joker, pre-transformation, was the one who killed him.
The Phantasm then attacks the Joker the aforementioned “Future World” amusement park and reveals herself as Andrea.
A melee ensues and it ends with the Joker beating her in the face with a log of bologna. The Joker flees and uses a giant turbine to try and take her out. Batman shows up in the midst of everything and launches his motorcycle into the turbine, disabling it.
Andrea admits to Batman that her killings are solely motivated by revenge for her father’s murder. Batman can’t accept her motivations and sends her away, leading to a confrontation with the Joker.
There’s a particularly awesome scene where Joker and Batman fight each other in a miniature version of future Gotham. Joker beats Batman with pieces of buildings and sends his mini death helicopters to finish the job. The Godzilla fan in me geeks out over this kind of thing.
Joker gloats that the whole place is rigged with explosives and tries to escape via jetpack. Batman beats the shit out of him mercilessly and, when it seems like they’re both going to die in a tremendously theatrical fashion, the Phantasm arrives and holds Joker by the chest as the timer for the explosives ticks down. He lets out the most amazing psychotic cackle I’ve ever hear in my life. Mark Hamill should have won an Oscar for this scene alone. I can’t think of a more fitting sound for the Joker to make before his imminent death. It’s absolutely flawless.
Batman calls out to Andrea as the place explodes and he escapes death through a sewer drain.
As is typical of tragedy survivors, Batman is overcome with guilt. However, Batman comes across Andrea’s locket in the Batcave and takes solace in the fact that she’s still alive. She’s still alive, but she’ll never be his again.
Looking out over the city, a bombastic theme plays as he swings out into the night sky over Gotham.
There’s so much to love about this film.