March 3, 2022 8:10:16 am
A stylish film noir with a tragic love story at its core, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is perhaps the most underrated theatrical film to ever feature the Dark Knight; a movie that has influenced not just Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, but also Matt Reeves’ reboot. That’s an enviable legacy for any film to have —most are forgotten days after release — let alone a 75-minute cartoon spinoff that wasn’t even supposed to get a big screen release.
And because the decision to release in theatres was so last minute, it bombed. People later blamed a half-hearted marketing push, and a rushed production. But the movie became a cult hit on home video, buoyed by the success of Tim Burton’s two live-action films, and Joel Schumacher’s much-maligned follow-ups, which, if nothing else, at least kept the franchise beeping. Originally conceptualised as a companion-piece to the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series—which, by the way, has aged like fine wine—Mask of the Phantasm boldly went in directions that the show had deliberately avoided.
Granted, this was three decades ago, and before we’d seen it play out multiple times on film, but Batman’s origin story was still quite ubiquitous. Mask of the Phantasm suggested a tantalisingly refreshing update to a story everyone and their mother already knew. Billionaire orphan Bruce Wayne became a crime-fighting avenger after his parents were killed by a crook. So far so familiar. But what if he suffered a crisis of faith some years later, not because he lost sight of his path, but because someone unexpectedly stood in his way. What if he needed a second origin story?
An hyper-stylised evolution of the visual language that popularly came to be as ‘dark deco’—a pun on the Art Deco architectural style that was omnipresent in the animated series’ vaguely defined 40s-era setting—Mask of the Phantasm owes a greater creative debt to films such as Citizen Kane and Casablanca than the comics that inspired the character. It’s a story about love and loss, about sadness and sincerity.
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In luxuriously detailed flashbacks, it tells the story of a rough-around-the-edges Bruce Wayne. He’s just about getting a hang of the crime-fighter stuff when, of all the parties in all the towns in all the world, Andrea Beaumont walks into his. She looks like an animator’s fantasy—a cross between Ingrid Bergman and Lola Bunny— and finds him at a point in his life when he seems to be ‘ready to jump off a cliff’. Sensing a kindred spirit in Bruce, she pulls him down from the ledge.
And he simply isn’t prepared for it. They bond, and before long, he’s head over heels in love with her. Wracked with guilt, he kneels before his parents’ graves and begs forgiveness. He’d promised to avenge them, he’d told them that their deaths wouldn’t be in vain. But he’d never expected to fall in love. Of all the possibilities he’d foreseen for himself in his thinly veiled suicide mission, regaining the will to live because he’d found someone willing to wait for him to come back home wasn’t something that he’d ever considered.
But then, without warning, Andrea sends him a letter. She must leave with her father, she says; away from Gotham City, away from him. Heartbroken, and finally emotionally unchained, he dons a cape and cowl; he becomes a masked vigilante, a silent guardian. He becomes the Batman.
Star Robert Pattinson, who will probably play the character for the next decade, cited Mask of the Phantasm as a key influence on his understanding of Batman’s psychology. He said in an interview to Premiere France, “In the comics, Batman is someone more… unstable. If you read between the lines, it’s actually very sad. Whereas in the cinema, it is always his heroic side that is put forward. The Batman does the opposite, we capture the inner bubbling of the character. In my opinion, the only other to achieve this is the animated film Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm. When I saw it, it clicked: being Batman is a kind of curse, it’s a burden.”
The ‘inner bubbling’ that Pattinson spoke about—the subtext—is perhaps too dark to be explored in what is ostensibly a comic book movie. Which is why it is never allowed to explode to the surface. But here’s my theory about what he means: Because Bruce Wayne was, and always will be, a deeply suicidal man, the reason he ventures into the seedy world of Gotham City, night after night, is because he knows that it will eventually kill him. He has made sure to never get too attached to anybody, and more tragically, he has never allowed anybody else to get attached to him. He doesn’t want them to feel what he felt after his parents died.
This is perhaps also why he never kills his enemies, and repeatedly deposits them in Arkham Asylum, knowing perfectly well that they will eventually escape. There’s no moral code. He’s just giving them a second shot at killing him.
It was a separation that sent Bruce Wayne down this path, and it was a second separation—this one even more cruel—and convinced him to carry on. It reminded me of a quote from the Anthony Bourdain documentary, Roadrunner. Towards the end of the film, reflecting on Bourdain’s death, someone says sadly, “He was a runner, he ran for a long time, but you’re not going to outsmart pain.” Bruce Wayne doesn’t chase darkness; the darkness chases him.
Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.
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