“Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm”: 25 Years Of An Underrated Legacy

Hello, my friends.  We’ve reached the end of 2018, but there’s still time for me to bring up one last piece of comic book media before we close out the year.  For this one however, this won’t be a review.  Why exactly?  Well, despite being initially missed when it first came out, this has gone on to become recognized within the character’s fanbase and even among the comic book populace.  As such, I’m ready to give some “casual” thoughts on a little film called…

Batman-MOTP-Our Title!

Because it has become more beloved by the populace over the years, how was it so obscure in the first place?  Well, let me take you back to 1992 when a certain show called “Batman: The Animated Series” debuted on September 6.  After Tim Burton made the Dark Knight relevant within his darker roots with his two films, the series’ first season made major strides with the kids.  In just its first year, it introduced the world to Harley Quinn, reinvented Mr. Freeze with a more iconic & tragic background, paid tribute to Adam West’s career through the Gray Ghost and even have a famous episode where villains got together to play cards and share stories on how they “almost go ‘im”.  With the success of the show’s initial 40 episodes, series co-writer Alan Burnett was tasked with writing a script for a full-length movie that would see it get released as a straight-to-home video project.  He ultimately decided to tell a tale that was not only far removed from Batman’s main rogues gallery, but also have it be a love story for Bruce since it hasn’t been tackled on their series.  Fairly early on in the production, the decision was ultimately made to turn this venture into a theatrical release.  Despite the traditionally odd choice since animated films usually took at least two years to complete before getting released, the movie managed to come together and get finished within the span of eight months.

Ultimately, it was released in theaters on Christmas Day 1993.  However, Warner Bros. didn’t give the movie as much of a promotional push as it should have since it only grossed just over $1.1 million in its opening weekend before closing out its run with a final total of just under $5.8 million.  The film became a disappointment since it cost $6 million to make and is most likely why Warner Bros. didn’t release any more animated superhero movies in theaters for several years until 2016.  Only through its eventual release on home video did the studio manage to recoup its budget.  Within the next intervening years, people who’re fond of Batman have stumbled across this hidden gem and discovered how sophisticated and well-told this animated flick was.  Among those were famed film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert who dedicated part of a 1995 episode of their show to reviewing it.  It was an interesting critique of theirs to revisit, even though Siskel wasn’t particularly fond of Mark Hamill’s Joker.  In that same review, Ebert also sensed that animated films were getting to the point when they weren’t going to be just exclusive to little children which is some interesting food-for-thought in hindsight.  With more people continuing to come across this movie over the years, what is it that makes this such a unique film?  Well, all I can do is give my genuine thoughts on the matter.  So, here’s what makes this particular entry in Batman’s lore so fascinating.

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First up, we have our caped crusader himself, Bruce Wayne a.k.a. Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy).  As he investigates the murders of crime bosses Chuckie Sol and Buzz Bronski (voiced by Dick Miller & John P. Ryan, respectively), he gets framed for the acts due to witnesses constantly seeing a cloaked figure at the time of the incidents.  During this venture, a familiar figure from a lovelorn past returns to Gotham City with some personal business to take care of.  As this goes on, we get key flashbacks into how she’s interwoven within the personal development of his crime-fighting persona.  During the early days of his battles against the city’s unlawful thugs, he meets a young lady named Andrea Beaumont (voiced by Dana Delany) during a graveyard visit (Bruce for his parents and Andrea for her mother Victoria).  Slowly but surely, they start to form a relationship with each other.  Despite the blossoming romance, an uneasiness is growing within as Bruce is disregarding the personal vow he made to his parents upon their deaths since he originally wanted to prevent the scum and villainy that claimed his folks from ever prospering again.  Even with the ever-growing signs becoming more present, he ultimately decides to marry her.  Sometime later however, his last chance for complete happiness gets destroyed when he receives a Dear John letter from her as well as the engagement ring.  As such, he fully commits himself to his original promise and takes up the iconic mantle of Batman.  Because the flashbacks provide crucial context towards the present-day investigation, it presents Bruce as a personally conflicted individual during his younger years.  He wants to do the right thing and live up to his personal commitment, but the opportunity of falling in love got mixed in and temporarily altered his vision.  Had the relationship not gotten interrupted by outside forces, he would have possibly given himself up to Andrea in both body and soul.  While that would have calmed his inner darkness, Gotham would have been nowhere near as protected from the corruption and villainous influence that it is now.  Even when Andrea comes back into his life while he’s in the middle of his investigation, he’s far too committed into his vow to completely rekindle that old flame, especially when he makes a key discovery in the case.  I’ll delve into other notable elements as we progress, but Kevin Conroy is in prime form here, especially since this is fairly early on in Batman: The Animated Series’ run.  He gives a honed balance in his delivery to fit the mood of his scenes and gives the Dark Knight the necessary emotions to help drive the story forward.

Andrea Beaumont-Tragic Lover!Phantasm-The O.G. Angel Of Death!

Next up, we have our tragic lover and heartbroken villain in Andrea Beaumont.  After she first meets Bruce while visiting her mother’s grave, her relationship with him starts to stir as she meets up with him over at Wayne Manor following his first night of crime-fighting.  As he practices his jujitsu, she gets the drop on him and flips him onto the ground before revealing that she’s taken some self-defense classes.  This is a subtle clue for when we finally see who the Phantasm really is since the cloaked fiend is shown doing several agile feats and she must have built upon her physical training over the years in preparation for her revenge quest.

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As their romance continues to flourish during a visit to the World of the Future fairgrounds (which comes into play later on), she ultimately introduces Bruce to her father Carl (voiced by Stacy Keach) who has an up-and-coming intern named Arthur Reeves (voiced by Hart Bochner a.k.a. Harry Ellis from Die Hard).  As they have their conversation about the importance of family, Carl’s superior-of-sorts named Salvatore Valestra (voiced by Abe Vigoda) unexpectedly drops by.  After they take their leave, Bruce mentions that the man who’s meeting her father has “made his skin crawl”.  Later on in the present after Andrea helps Bruce-as-Batman escape from the police’s pursuit, she tells him about the night before she unexpectedly ran out on their engagement.  Valestra and his men (Sol, Bronski and a particular third member who’ll be discussed later) arrived at the Beaumont household to demand the money that he owed them due to his recent embezzlement.  After being given a 24-hour deadline to pay up “or else”, Carl tells her that he won’t be able to pay them back since the money he needs is heavily entwined within investments and would take him weeks just to come up with the high-priced demand.  He admits that he regrets ever getting involved with Salvatore in the first place and vows to be out of those sinister clutches once and for all.  As such, they were forced to go on the run and flee towards Europe before ultimately settling down off of the Mediterranean coast.  Even after he eventually found a way to pay Sal back (he embezzled money from Valestra and parlayed it into a fortune), it was never going to be enough since that grim price had “interest compounded in blood”.  This leads Bruce and the audience to believe that Carl is the Phantasm, which makes sense given what’s been presented and the fact that Stacy Keach also voices the shadowy figure.  It’s not until she’s about to confront her final target that her identity is revealed and the final piece of the puzzle has been put into place.

Arthur Reeves-My Own Bat-Hunt!Joker-Put On A Smile, Sal!

The final revelation comes to light when Arthur is confronted by the Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill) who’s been hired by Sal to stop the Phantasm (who’s under the worrisome belief that it’s actually Batman), especially due to their past involvement with each other.  He hints at Reeves’ past venture with Beaumont & his unholy connection with Valestra and believes that he’s using the Phantasm as a means to eliminate any of his past connections to the aging crime boss, including the Joker himself. As such, he injects Arthur with his signature venom and causes the councilman to wind up in the hospital as he laughs uncontrollably.  After the hospital staff manage to sedate and calm him down, Batman confronts him about the recent meeting with the Clown Prince of Crime and demands to know about their connections.  Reeves explains that he kept in touch with Carl after helping him and Andrea flee the country.  Then the decisive moment came when Arthur was in the middle of his first election campaign.  He didn’t have the money he needed to finance it and Carl was unable to help out, so he sold his former boss out to Valestra.  With this newfound information, Batman takes his leave while Reeves supposedly laughs himself to death.  After the Dark Knight takes care of a death trap that was meant for her at her apartment, Andrea arrives at the abandoned World of the Future fairgrounds where one last flashback ties it all together.  During her Mediterranean stay, Sal found out about Carl’s location and sent his hitman to go after him.  She arrives just as the man-who-would-become-Joker steps out of the abode before going inside and horrifyingly discovers her father having just been killed.  After all of that, the Clown Prince of Crime is the last person on her vengeance hit list.  With that long-winded description about her character out of the way, it’s time to get to her analysis.

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During a previous encounter with Batman, they mentioned how each of them are “controlled” by their own parents.  While Bruce’s childhood tragedy led him towards promising his folks to fight against the breed of crime that took their lives and thus constantly get pushed near his personal edge combating it, Andrea losing her father happens well into her young adulthood.  Up to that point, she’s been able to lean onto her dad for support, even when he made the woefully-misguided decision to partner himself with Valestra in order to stabilize his daughter’s life.  It was during her last moments of pure stability that she was able to lead as normal of a life as she could and even fall in love for another man.  Because Sal and company have now ruined her life, she plans on literally paying them their blood-filled compound interest with gruesome vengeance.  At this point, not even Batman can fully sway her away from her motivation since she’s personally descended past her point-of-no-return.  Like Conroy, Dana Delany is also stellar throughout as she’s accompanied with a script that lets her deliver a good range between playful charm, tearful sorrow and remorseless anger.  With the talent she displayed here, it’s no wonder why she went on to voice Lois Lane in “Superman: The Animated Series”.

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Finally, let’s get to the Joker himself.  With so few familiar faces from the animated series present here (Batman, Alfred Pennyworth, Commissioner James Gordon and Detective Harvey Bullock), our Clown Prince of Crime doesn’t pop up until the 38-minute mark.  Despite that, he’s made an important piece to the overall story.  Because he used to work for Salvatore prior to becoming the Joker, his former boss (in fear of his own life) visits him at the abandoned World of the Future fairgrounds in order to hire him into getting rid of Batman following the recent murders of Sol and Bronski, since the Phantasm has unintentionally framed him for her actions and thus has Gotham seeing the Caped Crusader under a bad light.  Joker ultimately decides to help out, except that he kills Valestra with his own venom and then uses him as a decoy equipped with a security camera.  The Phantasm arrives to give the insane clown a glimpse at the real mob murderer before she escapes in time just as his booby trap explodes.  From there, Batman pursues her while she’s the Phantasm before it gets interrupted by the arrival of the Gotham Police.  She manages to flee while the Dark Knight is forced to run for his life.  During the commotion, she’s able to slip back into her civilian form and help Bruce escape.  Later on after Bruce realizes that his greatest enemy used to work for Valestra, Joker confronts Arthur under his own assumptions and dooms the councilman with his venom.  Afterwards, he pops up again in the climax as Andrea attempts to complete her personal vengeance quest by axing him off.  Despite not necessarily being the main antagonist throughout, he’s used in a respective way so that he’s not shoe-horned into the story.  He works as a villainous wild card throughout the majority of the film as he slowly realizes the Phantasm’s true identity before using the abandoned fairgrounds to his advantage in order to fend her and Batman off.  Even after Andrea finally catches up to the Joker and has him in her grasps, he had already activated his final ultimatum by rigging the whole fairgrounds to explode.  As the surroundings go up in flaming and destructive glory, he gives a laugh truly deserving of being among his all-time greatest cackles.  Somehow, he eludes her deadly grasp since he appears back in the animated series.  In my research, I’ve found out that the film has a comic book follow-up in Batman & Robin Adventures Annual #1 with a tale called “Shadow of the Phantasm”.  I’m sure that explains how he evaded his near-death experience, but either way, it doesn’t change the fact that he still held his own and complimented the overall story with his signature unpredictable nature as Mark Hamill slowly molds his vocal legacy into what we would hear out of him in the shoes of this legendary villain.

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Needlessly to say, it was a treat to have an opportunity to see this film on the big screen courtesy of Fathom Events.  Despite it’s initial flop at the box office during its original run, various home video releases had helped in reassuring Warner Bros. that this project was ultimately worth it.  From Shirley Walker’s haunting score to the signature art decco style that also defined the animated series from its early days all the way up to “The Adventures of Batman & Robin”, it creates a serious tone that never becomes too mature for kids yet isn’t too childish for adults.  Seeing and hearing all of this in my local movie theater was an absolute joy, especially with the pre-showing trivia provided by Fathom Events.  For example, Andrea’s villainous persona is never called the Phantasm at any point in the movie.  Also, in a small detail that I never knew until the showing was that normally, Batman wears a special helmet when riding his Bat-Cycle in the TV series.  While he does use the vehicle to save Andrea from getting killed by a massive wind engine being operated by the Joker, he doesn’t have his helmet on.  Either way, they’re all little things that adds to the overall enjoyment.

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In the end, this is a movie that has more than stood the test of time.  It satisfies Batman fans, comic book fans, superhero movie fans and those who enjoy good cinema in general with its thrilling action, solid pacing, tight story-telling and its wonderful use in themes of lost love & family ties to tell an effective narrative in only 1 hour & 16 minutes of screen-time.  Directors Bruce Timm & Eric Radomski, alongside writers Paul Dini, Alan Burnett, Martin Pasko and Michael Reeves (in addition to the voice cast) were all in top form as they presented a film that should have gotten more attention back when it initially came out and has absolutely deserved its spot among the Dark Knight’s greatest cinematic outings.  If you haven’t seen this movie by now, then hunt down a copy on either VHS, Laserdisc, DVD or Blu-Ray (or even watch via Digital Streaming) and check it out for yourself.  It’s a rousing good time that even your Angel of Death can enjoy alongside you.

Batman (created by by Bob Kane and Bill Finger) is owned by DC Comics.

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