Control Nathan and Clint: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Welcome, friends, to the latest entry in Control Nathan and Clint. It’s the column where we give YOU, the Happy Place/Cast patron an opportunity to choose between which of two movies Clint and I must watch and then talk about. Usually the choice is between two impossibly dodgy-looking films but the year is ending and I am tired and we’ve got a great guest for the upcoming podcast who I don’t want to make suffer. So I figured that since the Scalding Hot Take is the rapturously received Spider-Man animated opus Into the Spider-verse the choice would be between two similarly acclaimed, over-achieving animated super-hero movies, 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and Teen Titans Go! to the Movies.
Y’all chose Mask of the Phantasm, which I have not seen despite its cult status and a healthy, reasonable fondness for Batman as a character and an American institution. That’s probably because I was seventeen years old when it came out so you know what that meant: orgies, love-ins. Protesting the Vietnam War. “Slacking off.” Demonic sacrifices. Reaganomics. The New Math. New Jack Swing the club drug and the musical genre. Football heroics by day, sexual gymnastics by night and strenuous crafting every mid-morning.
In other words, I wasn’t about watching no cartoon based on no lunatic in tights fighting crime dressed as a bat. Batman's persona is based on Bruce Wayne over-hearing at least a dozen criminals say, "I sure am glad there are no bats around! Being cowardly and superstitious, I am terrified of those ghoulish creatures of the night! And if one took the form of a man? Forget about it! I would soil myself in fear, and then easily be subdued by such a figure.”
That, friends, just plain strikes me as silly.
Truth be told in 1993, I wasn’t reading comic books like some kind of Poindexter. No, I was bullying comic book geeks in my capacity as what was known back then as a “jock.” I was such a bully I would even force the comic-book loving “nerds” at my school to publicly announce that Maus was overrated and that its acclaim was more attributable to its subject matter than its inherent creative worth. I know, I was a monster but that’s how it was back then: no cool person read comic books, let alone watched cartoons based on them on the movie screen. In a world with so many Merchant-Ivory productions, why would they?!?
At the time of Mask of the Phantasm’s release, there was a sense, not entirely unearned, that big-screen animation was inherently more sophisticated and impressive than its small-screen equivalent, that it was in a whole different class. Television animation was still ghettoized and thought of as less than. So it’s not surprising that Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was once slated for a direct-to-video release, the kind that makes studios a pretty penny because they plug into the public’s enduring obsession with enduring, iconic characters like Batman without requiring the marketing and distribution costs endemic in theatrical releases.
The studio must have been pleased with how the film was proceeding, because at a certain point Mask of the Phantasm’s status was bumped up and it was slotted for a Christmas day 1993 theatrical release. Despite good reviews, the PG film adaptation of Batman: The Animated Series was a flop, grossing less than six million dollars at the box office.
As beloved as the film is, I can see how it might have failed to find a sizable audience at the time of its release. It was sleek, sophisticated animation for adults but it wasn’t Fritz the Cat or Heavy Metal by any stretch of the imagination. Heck, it wasn’t even PG-13 and despite its adult themes and tone, it was a spin-off of a show that aired on a network called Fox Kids. It was a Batman movie but it also wasn’t, you know, a Batman movie in the same sense that two other terrific outliers, the 1966 Batman starring Adam West and 2017’s The Lego Batman Movie weren’t traditional Batman movies.
They are all motion pictures about The Batman, of course, but they’re not part of the live-action Batman film series directed by Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher and Zack Snyder. So they occupy a bit of an odd place in the series’ legacy, even as Mask of the Phantasm builds upon the gloomy gothic intensity of Burton’s movies and of course the acclaimed TV show it’s spun off from.
Mask of the Phantasm wastes no time establishing itself as a roaringly cinematic film and not just a bit of brand extension by an overly ambitious cartoon. Shirley Walker’s score is thundering and operatic, roaring with emotion and soaring melodrama while an opening credit sequences uses early computer animation to immerse us in a sleek, Art Deco Gotham full of sharp angles, shadows and broad shouldered gangsters and politicians in expensive suits.
Mask of the Phantasm has endured as a beloved cult phenomenon for a quarter century in no small part due to its intentional timelessness. Very little about the movie betrays that it is a product of Bill Clinton’s first year in office. Instead the movie feels like an Ayn Rand wonderland of empty streets, big buildings and virile, larger-than-life forces clashing dramatically and violently in blood-soaked boulevards.
Mask of the Phantasm had me from the get-go. The opening credit font alone let me know I was in the hands of people who understood and respected Batman and his mythology enough to try to get everything right, to create something substantive that older kids and adults could both not only enjoy but savor and revisit the way they might a favorite comic book series.
Mask of the Phantasm sets itself apart from other films in the Batman series outside of Batman Returns by embracing romance to an extent that the dynamic between Bruce Wayne/Batman and his love interest, Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany) begins to resemble that of a Manic Pixie Dream and the Sad Boy she inspires to love life. Andrea, a plucky gal who spends a LOT of time at the graveyard talking to dead parents (it’s something she and Bruce have in common) serves as the movie’s sexy, dark MPDG and Bruce functions as the mopey sad sack she inspires with her motormouthed, brash joie de vivre.
Then again, a defining feature of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is that they lack a strong internal life and motivations and not to spoil anything, but Andrea has the best possible motivation: to get back at the bloodthirsty mobsters who ruined her father’s life.
Andrea is not unlike Bruce Wayne in her vengeance-based insistence on devoting her life to trying to undo a terrible wrong that has been committed against her parents. She’s not unlike him in other ways as well, with the alter-egos and the secrets and the double life and whatnot.
I am generally not a fan of mobsters as bad guys in comic book movies. They lack a certain outrageousness. Think about it: the comic book world includes bad guys like Man-Bat, a dude who took a serum and became a hideous man-sized bat monster. How crazy is that? It’s like this guy is a bat-MAN, this other guy is a MAN-bat and I’m over here still wondering how to set the clock on my damn VCR!
Then there’s Killer Croc. Motherfucker is a crazy crocodile monster that does crimes and, if the motion picture Suicide Squad is to be believed, is really into asses. Or Swamp Thing. Or Solomon Grundy. That dude’s origin story really kicks off after he’s been dead for a very long time.
Compared to these ghouls, bad guys who are greedy, violent and deeply immersed in the world of professional crime can’t help but come across as a little colorless. That is not the case here, however. Part of that is attributable to brilliant voice casting. Want to make a mobster memorable? Get Abe Vigoda to do the voice, then make him a hunched over, geriatric praying mantis of an old man connected to an oxygen tank like it’s an umbilical cord. Or get the mighty Stacy Keach and Dick Miller to lend their voices but also their volcanic, iconic presences to key roles in the movie.
It’s not that Mask of the Phantasm lacks humor, it’s just that the humor is very dry. Alfred, for example, defends his employer against charges of madness with an indignant, “Such rot, sir, why you’re the very model of sanity” before volunteering, “By the way, I pressed your tights and put away your exploding gas balls.”
Alfred doesn’t have many lines but they all count. I would be disappointed if there is not a Batman-themed punk band named The Exploding Gas Balls.
Bruce’s totally goth romance with Andrea is similarly suffused with dark humor, like when, early in her super-courtship with Bruce, she asks a question at the heart of Batman’s gloomy double life: “With all that money and power why do you always look like you want to jump off a cliff?”
In its first half, Mask of the Phantasm boldly foregoes the comic strip’s legendary rogue’s gallery in favor of a new baddie, the titular Phantasm, a Dickensian ghoul who looks like the Ghost of Christmas Past pressed into service as a super-villain.
In today’s superhero and super villain crazed environment, where you can expect anywhere from 2 to 367 (The Avengers series) superheroes and villains in a movie there’s something bold about making a Batman movie where the main villain for the first half is a new character named The Reaper and the big bad guy everyone presumably plucked down the big money to see does not even make his appearance until the film is halfway over.
But once Mark Hamill’s Joker enters the equation he immediately takes over. Jack Nicholson played the Joker as an even more over the top version of Jack Nicholson at his biggest and most theatrical. Hamill brings danger and insanity back to the role. This is a Joker who sees the world as a dark gag only he only understands. For him, life is one long, pointless, needlessly violent act of performance art for an audience of one: himself, or possibly two, since he needs Batman to hate him to feel truly alive.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm combines elaborate flashbacks depicting how Bruce Wayne became Batman and the central role his relationship with Andrea played in that transformation with the story of Batman taking on The Phantasm, The Joker and of course his own darkness.
That’s an awful lot of business to handle in a lean 76 minutes but the filmmakers are up to it. In one of the film’s many haunting touches, the World of the Future Fair, a retro-futuristic theme park based on the World’s Fair figures very prominently early in the film as a place of great hope and optimism, a gee-whiz, All-American place to look forward to a future that cannot be anything but brilliant and bright.
Years later, the shimmering promise of tomorrow has become an abandoned, wild, decaying house of dead dreams that the Joker has decided to use as an appropriately carnivalesque hideout.
That’s the world of Mask of the Phantasm, one where the loftiest of goals and ambitions have a way of leading only to squalor, decay, ruin and death. Yet somehow the folks who watched the Fox Kids version of this gritty mythology were able to handle it better than theatrical audiences.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was most assuredly not a product of its time, visually or tonally, which helps explain why, twenty-five years later, it feels less like a synergistic cash-in than an intimate superhero epic for the ages.
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