The Alcott Analysis: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

0017g4w6 The Alcott Analysis: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is in interesting entry in the world of long-form cinematic Batman stories for a few different reasons. First, it manages to do what the Tim Burton movies were unable to — make Bruce Wayne/Batman the protagonist of his own story. Second, it’s primarily a detective story as opposed to an action story. Third, at least half of the story is told in flashback, a parallel-action setup ambitious for an animated movie thought of as primarily for kids. Lastly, the story it tells is rather emotional and internal — Bruce/Batman broods a lot in this movie, even by his own standards. The action sequences feel perfunctory and tacked-on. The two that come to mind — a truck chase and the explosive finale — are poorly motivated and don’t advance the plot in any meaningful way.

The cinematic Bruce Wayne seems to always be tussling with the “problem” of being Batman, something I don’t remember from the comics. It seems that Bruce can either pursue his career as a dark agent of justice, or else he can have a satisfying romantic relationship, but he cannot do both. For the first time in his cinematic history (but not the last), his girlfriend is a redhead. (The Batman Movie Girlfriend tally so far, for those keeping score, is: blonde, blonde, blonde, redhead and — gasp — brunette. The interesting thing about the brunette, Rachel Dawes, is that she is the only one of the bunch who was attracted to Bruce first and not attracted to Batman at all — the others get their heads turned by the cape, and only later find Bruce interesting as well. Which would seem to argue that Bruce can’t solve his Batman problem as easily as he thinks — it’s nice to have billions of dollars and all, but apparently one must have billions of dollars and dress like a bat in order to get anywhere with the ladies.)

0017hcgy The Alcott Analysis: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

In the Batman movies, Batman constantly juggles his love life and crime-fighting life. In the comics, not so much. The Riddler has a scheme involving a giant typewriter, how could Batman have time to worry about dating? Perhaps that’s why the Adam West Batman makes so much sense to so many people — Batman has Robin, they’re both obviously gay, they go fight crime together. Maybe they don’t even have sex, maybe they sublimate their sexual energy into beating up criminals. It would explain why they’re so utterly flummoxed by seductress villains like Catwoman, the Siren and Poison Ivy — they can’t punch a woman, and what’s more they have no desire to punch a woman. What are they supposed to do?

The detective half of Phantasm involves a new villain, the titular Phantasm, who is on a killing rampage, murdering old-time Gotham City gangsters. The good people of Gotham come to suspect that the Phantasm is really Batman, which causes a certain amount of trouble. The appearance of the Phantasm also sparks a memory in Bruce about a woman named Andrea, who he fell in love with while he was still making up his mind about whether he wanted to spend his life avenging his parents’ death or not. The detective half of the movie demands an answer to the question “Who is the Phantasm?” The answer to this question is, alas, painfully obvious from the beginning, which downgrades the suspense quotient to a considerable degree. The screenplay makes a feint toward a red herring or two, but ultimately it comes back to who we knew it was all along.

Because the “new villain no one’s ever heard of killing off a bunch of old men” story lacks an audience-pleasing hook, the Joker shows up halfway through. The Joker, it turns out, was once part of the old gang that is now being murdered, and is thus now smack in the middle of the story — as a potential victim instead of a villain. By the third act, though, as the Phantasm turns sympathetic, the Joker advances to lead-villain status, with all his gag-related weapons and improbably well-organized booby traps. At the climax, the Phantasm has turned so sympathetic that Batman must protect the Joker from his/her/its wrath.

Aside from plotting issues, there is a larger problem with the Phantasm character, which is that he/she/it isn’t a good fit in the Batman universe. The Phantasm is neither a nutcase like Two-Face nor a monster like Clayface — it’s some kind of weird sci-fi Dr. Doom sort of villain, with a metal skull mask and a flowing cape. The Phantasm is bulletproof, glides around in a cloud of self-produced fog and sports a whirring knife for a hand, none of which seems particularly interesting or thematically resonant in Batman-villain terms.

0017fdda 1 The Alcott Analysis: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

The flashback half of the movie involves a tender love story between the not-yet-Batman Bruce and this Andrea person. Andrea is, up to this point, the least messed-up woman Bruce has dealt with — she’s strong, capable, feminine and has lipstick that glows in the dark. Bruce comes very close to forgetting all about his parents’ deaths and living a happy, full life, but we all know how that one turns out. It’s interesting — when Superman is tempted to give up Supermanning for the love of Lois Lane, it seems like such a blind, tragic loss — ah nuts, he’s going to give up flying and melting things with his vision for a dame? — but Bruce Wayne giving up Batmanning is always seen as a liberating, light-filled possibility — Bruce is born to suffer for society’s sins and Batman is his curse. Short on action and outlandish schemes, and long on misery and regret, Mask of the Phantasm is more grown up, more adult, than either of the Burton movies, to say nothing of the extended giggle-fests to come.

Comments

  1. Andrew Laubacher says:

    Despite its problems, MASK OF THE PHANTASM remains many fans’ favorite BATMAN movie, and I can understand why. It’s just too bad that the projects roots as a planned direct-to-video feature are so obviously apparent.

  2. Although new to the Batman Animated Series continuity, The Phantasm has her roots based in the Reaper, who was introduced in the mini-series Batman: Year Two drawn by Alan Davis.

    Plus she returned in the tail-end run of Justice League Unlimited, hired by Amanda Waller to take down Terry McGuiness from Batman Beyond before it was revealed that he had shared some of Bruce Wayne’s DNA.

    ~

    Coat

  3. “The good people of Gotham come to suspect that the Phantasm is really Batman …”

    No, the police and criminals assume it’s Batman based on an erroneous eyewitness account. No one suspects that Batman is the Phantasm, because (until the film’s second half) no one besides Batman knows that there is another player.

    “Plus she returned in the tail-end run of Justice League Unlimited …”

    She also returns in the BATMAN ADVENTURES annual, a story that ties up a few loose ends from MOTP.

    No offense meant, but this review/analysis shows a lack of understanding of the film. Did the reviewer even watch Mask of thre Phantasm? He diesn’t even correctly describe some of the plot points …

  4. Kevin Hynes says:

    Good review that I sort of disagree with on some points, objecting to The Phantasm fitting in with Batman’s rogues gallery etc, but fun as usual. I do agree with your criticism over the inclusion of The Joker, even though he is a huge bright spot in the film, but he does feel a bit shoe horned in since this was a theatrical release and it most likely needed a recognizable villian from the franchise.

    And yes, this is probably my favorite Batman film (much like The Joker and Batman for me while reading a comic will always have Mark Hamill’s and Kevin Conroy’s voices in my head).

  5. Dphunkt says:

    i hardly remember this story, but im gonna concede that i love the Batman Beyond movie better(Return of the Joker?). i do recall Batman bleeding here though. not something you ever found in the animated series.

  6. Batman got his face pretty well-bloodied in the first episode — Timm said in an interview they “used [their] whole quota” and were never allowed to do it again (at least on Fox).

  7. Cary says

    Plus she returned in the tail-end run of Justice League Unlimited, hired by Amanda Waller to take down Terry McGuiness from Batman Beyond before it was revealed that he had shared some of Bruce Wayne’s DNA.

    Not at all correct as she was hired by Amanda to kill Terry’s parents as Amanda was attempting to replicate the conditions that led Bruce to become Batman. She refused in the end to do so. Return of The Joker riffs off that idea as well of tragedy defining what a hero is.

  8. Thanks Cat.

    I was a little fuzzy on the details, but if I remember, Bruce Wayne was actually revealed to be Terry’s biological father at the end of that episode – that his parents were set up as a cover.

    Looks like I’m going to have to drag out that dusty old box of VHS tapes to determine whether or not, I’m winging this.

    ~

    Coat

  9. This is one of those movies where I preferred the comic adaption to the actual movie. When I finally got the chance to see the animation, I was rather insulted at how ham-fisted the action was compared to the subtlety of the “storyboard” version.

    Of course, it wasn’t entirely perfect. There were almost no clues to the scenes that were in flashback, save for the slightly curved panels, quite similar to some Manga flashbacks. Of course, Manga flashbacks are easier to figure out, since there’s usually a fade-out panel in between, or the surrounding panels are in black.

    I had to read it twice to figure out the flow of the story. It can be confusing for someone who thinks it’s all happening in chronological order.

    Also, I disagree with the claim that the Phantasm’s identity was obvious from the get-go. Bruce’s had HOW MANY different love interests in between his movies?

    Also, Rich, thanks for pointing out the comic epilogue.

  10. DanielBT-

    That’s right – there was a whole montage lifted directly from “Akira” involving Bruce running off from Andrea in trying to stop a few motorcycle punks from robbing a old man.

    ~

    Coat

  11. Mask of the Phantasm is definitely my second favorite Batman movie (behind Dark Knight but ahead of Begins) and here’s why: I really like the idea that Bruce almost gives up the mantle of the Bat right away to lead a more typical life. When that other life is snatched from him and he remembers what it was he set out to do in the first place, it seems to add another dimension to the anguish that drives Bruce to be Batman. As far as I know this is the only Batman origin story in which Bruce almost comes all the way back from his ledge before taking the plunge, and I dig that — because now he can’t just be mad at Joe Chill and all the random crime out there, he’s gonna be a little mad at himself too, for ever doubting the cause. I dunno, maybe it is a little maudlin but I think it works.

    Also – Kevin Conroy is definitely my favorite Batman, so another point for this movie.

  12. Khayal1O1 says:

    I wouldn’t say adam west Batman and robin were gay, Batman lost his parents at a young age so he could never grow up, so it makes sense to have a young friend with him. Because he still was a kid at heart, thats what the silver age Batman was to me anyway

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