Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

I have a few favorite Batman moments, but the one that trumps them all occurs in the first Batman animated movie Mask of the Phantasm. The comic books are full of contenders, of course — the iconic “legends can never die!” panel in Jim Aparo’s “Man Behind the Mask”, the more-iconic moment in “Hearts in Darkness” when Batman rises from the grave, or the most-iconic “fiend from hell” moment from “The Demon Lives Again!” (which we talked about in our rundown on Batman Begins). The feature films have some epic moments as well, like the introductory call-to-arms of Batman Returns or the final ascension from the pit in The Dark Knight Rises. But Mask of the Phantasm captures what many of these moments capture — the determination of Bruce Wayne, the -ness of the Bat — in a unique way.

Phantasm, of course, is more than just the best animated Batman movie — it might be the best Batman movie, period. It certainly stands with the live-action iterations of Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan, and getting over the fact that Phantasm happens to be animated (as if that’s a point against it) is just a necessary assumption akin to classing The Incredibles at the top of the list of Best Superhero Films. It’s easy to forget about The Incredibles amid the present torrent of live-action Marvel hero flicks, just as it’s easy to forget that Mask of the Phantasm is without a doubt a better Batman film than at least 6/10 live-action Batfilms. I’ll let you figure out which ones I mean.

Thematically, Phantasm extends beyond the typical “confines” of superhero animation (read: “it ain’t just for kids!”); show me a live-action superhero flick that uses Citizen Kane as a reference point, and I’ll bet the cartoon Phantasm uses it more maturely. Bruce’s past is more than just a big part of his character — the man is shackled to the tragedy of his youth, while the Bat is shackled to the charge of ensuring that tragedy is not repeated (he operates like Prot from K-Pax, more or less). The past exists in the present in both cases, and Phantasm‘s flashback scenes realize the significance of this paradox. Bruce’s “Rosebud” isn’t a fond memory of youthful innocence, but it’s a looming past all the same. Flashback scenes set at the World of Tomorrow fairgrounds (future! get it?) are juxtaposed against scenes in a graveyard (past! get it?). Bruce bemoans falling in love with Andrea because he can’t be with her and be the Dark Knight at the same time — that’s where Nolan’s Dark Knight got that arc with Rachel —and he begs at the foot of his parents’ grave to allow things to be different now. “Maybe they already have,” says Andrea, emerging from the shadows. “Maybe they sent me.”

When I watched that scene as a kid I didn’t quite grasp all the ramifications of this, and I probably still don’t. But it was evident even then that Phantasm is more than just another episode of Saturday morning superhero smackdown. To be frank, we’re very nearly moving from “ain’t just for kids!” territory into the land of “ain’t for kids at all!”

But thats not the All-Powerful Batman Moment to which I’m referring. It’s powerful, sure, and important as context for the everything else, but Phantasm is packed with that kind of stuff. Visually, this Gotham City is the “Dark Deco” highrise modern Victorian world of Batman: The Animated Series, and Bruce Timm’s Gotham is often more memorable than Burton’s detailed gothic metropolis or Nolan’s modernized Chicago Gotham. More importantly, Batman’s place within his city is driven home even in indoor scenes, like the Godzilla v. Mothra one:

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

We have Timm and sequence director Kevin Altieri to thank for this kind of staging, which is actually less homage to Godzilla and more homage to the Dick Sprang Golden Age Batman, who often found himself doing battle amid an array of gigantic props (like an enormous bowling alley with Robin tied to one of the pins). Phantasm flips the bill by shrinking the whole of Gotham City as the Joker prances around the dilapidated World of Tomorrow (the past and the future! get it?), and in doing so perfectly captures the “battle for Gotham’s soul” sentiment in a single image.

But, okay. The best Batman moment in Mask of the Phantasm isn’t that either. Even though this isn’t an origin story, Phantasm sort of works like one. The flashbacks color Bruce’s motivations, the present-day storyline is linked inextricably to the players in those flashbacks — and the moment that links the two, bridging the gap between past and present, is given the fanfare it rightfully deserves. In Batman Begins, great a movie as that may be, the “I’m Batman” moment is kind of wedged between a fight scene and another fight scene. In Phantasm we get what no other Batfilm, animated or live-action, is able to give us.

The scene is below, so if you’re sick of me just scroll down like a jerk. You can start at the 1:20 mark for the moment in question, but there’s some good context that precedes that moment in this particular cut. Hoping to leave the weight of tragedy behind in order to follow his love with Andrea, the reverse happens: Andrea disappears, leaving only one option for the tormented Bruce. Earlier, too, Bruce snaps at Alfred, “You think you know everything about me!” Alfred impetuously responds, “I bloody well ought to.” It’s played as a joke and works as a humorous little moment (oh, Alfred!) but it’s not ultimately a joke. Alfred ought to know everything about his lifelong ward, but there’s one thing he’ll never know:

The purpose of the symbol of the Bat is ostensibly to strike fear into the hearts of criminals, as stated a kamillion times in Bat-lore from Year One to Batman Begins. Mask of the Phantasm posits something else all along: Batman strikes fear into anyone. Alfred, the guy who arguably knows the man behind the mask better than he knows himself, is taken aback with terror at the sight of the Dark Knight. If this is a being forged to hold back the terrible floodwaters of the past so they don’t repeat themselves in the future (“more than just a man”), then he should be terrifying to everyone. This scene bridges the gap between past and future, and in doing so captures both sides of the character simultaneously, the heartbroken Bruce Wayne and the other guy.

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