MASK OF THE PHANTASM: Batman Laid Bare
The LEGO Batman Movie is coming out this week (buy your tickets here), and in celebration, we’re going to spend the week looking at the lighter side of the Dark Knight.
They say heroes are defined by their villains. Whether or not that’s entirely true, Batman is a character whose various nemeses echo his existence. The Joker’s theatrical insanity, Two-Face’s duality and moral code, Ra’s Al-Ghul’s desire for justice through systemic upheaval, even The Riddler’s application of intellect as performance. Fans of The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight will tell you they’re all versions of Batman pushed a little too far, and the same is true of the eponymous villain in the 1993 animated film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, a spin-off of Paul Dini’s landmark television series, only with one major difference.
Batman is not the protagonist of this story.
That title belongs to The Phantasm herself, Bruce Wayne’s former fiancé Andrea Beaumont, around whom the entire plot pivots. The force she inadvertently reckons with from start to finish is, in fact, The Joker, and Batman is merely an incidental part of their inevitable collision. And yet, Phantasm is perhaps the single best adaptation of the character outside the comic medium. By pulling back its camera and telling a story entirely outside his control, the film pulls back the curtain on Bruce Wayne by allowing him to be reflected in a “villain” on a similar mission. He’s still the movie’s key focus – his flashbacks are particularly pointed examinations of his psyche – but he’s a passive part of the story for once, merely reacting to some else’s tale of vengeance and caped crusade, as if removed from his own narrative in order to examine all that constitutes Batman.
The story’s constant adjacency to death makes the effect of the Wayne Murders all the more potent. Not by showing the murders themselves (Lord knows we don’t need more of that), but by having Bruce reflect on the meaning of the tragedy and the vow he made in its wake. On one hand, Andrea’s Reaper-inspired alter ego refers to herself as an “angel of death” (her very face evokes the imagery of a human skull), taking revenge on the mobsters who murdered her father, even killing one with a headstone. On the other, Andrea is Bruce’s angel of life, coming to him in a graveyard when he’s lost and in search of purpose, presenting an alternative to becoming Batman: happiness.
Bruce's survivor guilt prevents him from truly living, and his vow to defeat criminality clashes with his desire to be happy. When we first meet Bruce Wayne, the billionaire playboy throwing a party at his mansion, he’s jokingly accused of only entering relationships that are doomed to fail. As it turns out, the truth is not all that different. He promptly retires to his study, and to the towering portrait of his mother and father, triggering a series of flashbacks that reveal a key reason for his refusal to be happy, i.e. the one time he tried.
Things were good between Bruce and Andrea. As morbid as it sounds, dead parents were the very basis for their connection, one that only they understood, although Bruce still had his mission in his crosshairs. Looking out for her during a fight with some bikers leaves him distracted and vulnerable, leading to the realization that he can’t have it both ways. He can’t go about risking his neck when there’s someone waiting for him, so he has to give up figuring out how to be a crimefighter if he wants to be happy. It’s as close as he gets to making a rational decision. He even apologizes to his parents for this, crying at their grave and promising he’ll find another way. “I didn’t count on being happy,” he tells them, as he lays out his plan to leave vigilantism behind and help the city monetarily. For a moment, it feels like Batman has been healed, but the truth is much more complicated.
A swarm of bats fly out from an underground cave the moment Bruce proposes to Andrea, like the unresolved demons that resurface when she leaves him and runs away to Europe. Granted, this is for her well being (her father is still a mob target), but it robs Bruce of the choice he thought he had. Once again, this narrative’s passive Batman reaches his inevitable destination. Regardless of where the chips fall, it’s too late to stop the domino effect set into motion that fateful night in Crime Alley.
Years later, when Andrea returns to exact her own form of vengeance after her father is murdered, Bruce confronts her in the outfit he assembled to strike fear in the hearts of criminals. She is undeterred. In fact, she recognizes all that Bruce has become, and responds to his accusations with an insult that cuts deep, but one that acts as perhaps the most astute distillation of Batman:
“Do you still follow your dad’s orders?”
“The way I see it, the only one in this room controlled by his parents is you.”
Andrea was once his road to happiness, a woman with whom he visited The Gotham World’s Fair to catch a glimpse of a bright future, but even here his mind was still on his mission, catching a glimpse of what would become the Batmobile instead. This future ends up corrupted as both Batman and Phantasm return to the Fair years later, discovering it to be Joker-esque carnival built in its ruins. A corruption of what could’ve been, reflected by The Joker’s own strange domestic situation, constituting a robot dog and a soulless, knife-wielding wife (not unlike Andrea’s blade), once meant to represent an idyllic America, now covered entirely in rust.
Phantasm and Joker’s showdown is not Batman’s fight, but it is a reflection of what his future might become should he let vengeance consume him. She holds a limp Joker by the neck, evoking the final pages of The Killing Joke in which Batman does the same, only the lights approaching them are not police cars, but the World’s Fair exploding. The future caving in.
Amidst this chaos, the climax to a story where Batman had all his decisions robbed from him, he asks Andrea a simple question:
“What will vengeance solve?”
This, in essence, is Batman finally being able to vocalize his mission. Batman makes a concerted effort not to kill, but Andrea has already crossed that threshold, unable to delineate between justice and revenge. The Fair crumbles to bits, taking with it both the idyllic future Batman once saw there, as well as the new corrupt version of it that has been allowed to rot in the presence of madness. While Batman himself takes no active steps to come to this understanding of himself, he is molded through vulnerability. His dark reflections push him to the limit and force him to make the only decision that matters.
He decides who Batman is going to be.