23 years ago, Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm (henceforth known as Phantasm) was released to critical acclaim and much fanfare. Building on the immense success of Batman: The Animated Series, Phantasm brought the animated version of Batman to a whole new level, and plays a tremendous part in DC’s continued success in the animation business.
Having recently re-watched Phantasm with my four-year old son Bruce (nope, not a coincidence), it dawned on me that the film would not only stand the test of one generation, but several. The details and elements in the film, such as a lack of supertech but an overabundance of creativity to the plot, make the story timeless and relevant now, and long into the future.
Phantasm is an emotional love story that keeps you engaged via a plethora of flashbacks, and is built on the back of a pseudo-origin Batman story in which Bruce Wayne is struggling to balance his personal love life, as well as determining how he wants to fight crime. Of course, those two aspects intertwine, and Bruce’s choice is taking from him when his fiancé Andrea Beaumont flees the United States for Europe due to events that will play a role in the present day storytelling.
The brilliance of Phantasm is not the two stories split into past and present, but instead how well they’re timed and feed off each other to reach a higher level of suspense. Hans Zimmer described his Joker score from The Dark Knight as being sounds that hints at insanity, as in the tones escalates in pace and eventually sounds like it’ll come to an end, but doesn’t, and keeps a high-pace, high-intensity sound running to the point where you’re at the edge of your seat. In terms of visual storytelling, Phantasm does the same. As each story progresses, it unveils a new image that shows exactly how deep the submerged iceberg of the whole story is. And when it all comes to a head, you’re left satisfied with how the two concurrent stories conclude: With lots of mystery and an open ending that only cements one thing: Bruce once again missing out on happiness, leaving him with the task of donning the cape and continuing his quest to save Gotham City.
The final shot of the Bat-signal lighting up the night, and for Bruce to respond by accepting whatever new problem has risen, is an acceptance of his fate and duty as the watchful protector.
My son has seen the movie twice, and a large chunk of time has passed between viewings. Yet, he remembered some of those small elements that made the film so satisfactory to watch. Bruce drawing the red lips on pre-Joker, that Beaumont revealed herself as the actual Phantasm, and even Bruce’s early struggles in the flashback when he tries to beat a gang of thugs wearing something resembling black guerilla gear. “That’s before Bruce knew he’d become Batman right, Dad?”
The film, lasting only 76 minutes, completely masters the balance of plot progression and character development, while simultaneously displaying nothing short of breathtaking animations and intriguing dialogue that always serves a purpose. Phantasm is about as efficient a film as any, animated or live action, and should serve as an example for filmmakers who doesn’t understand the value of killing their darlings.
Phantasm also adds to the experience by expanding on the animated series, by including murders and blood, albeit the latter is severely limited. More dramatic effects are taken into use, accepting up front that this differs slightly from the series, but remains in the same universe and carrying much the same tone and identity. Introducing vengeance via the means of murder automatically raises the bar for Batman’s involvement. There’s always a small safety net in the animated series due to lack of deaths, but here the stakes are higher which is introduced immediately as the Phantasm kills Chuckie Sol, and setting Batman up as the culprit at the same time.
Adding in an indirect pre-Joker origin would in many cases seem forced, and likely clunky. But it’s done so organically in Phantasm, that when you watch it for the first time, there’s a genuine moment of surprise when Bruce draws the lips on his picture.
Having seen the film roughly 50 times since then, there are obviously no surprises left. But doesn’t that in its own way make a point about the brilliance of the film and its presentation? It never forces a narrative, it allows itself to grow much like a seed, and the end result is a perfect flower which beauty lies not only in its appearance, but its blooming journey.
So how does it stay relevant? Notice again which elements are there, and which are lacking. There are no cosmic Justice League journeys, there are no lasers and advanced weapons, and the tech that is being used is limited to remote controls, basic database searches off a computer, and a Joker-driven drone carrying a bomb. These items exist in our world, and combined with the deeply personal storytelling and plot development, the film is grounded in a reality much like the one we know today, and will know for quite some time. It allows for older viewers as myself to enjoy the realism of it all, while having an iPad and PlayStation consuming four-year old sitting alongside me, carrying the same level of anticipation and appreciation.
Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm is at the end of the day a cinematic masterpiece that can rightfully challenge every film in history and hold its own ground.