How ‘Batman: Mask of the Phantasm’ Snuck a Grown-Up Noir Into a Kids Movie

     July 17, 2020

batman mask of the phantasm

[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.]

They took everything, Bruce. My dad, my life, you. I’m not saying it’s right, or even sane, but it’s all I’ve got left. So either help me or get out of the way.

By now, all readers of a certain age have reckoned with the fact that Batman: The Animated Series, the classic ’90s kids cartoon about that classic Caped Crusader, was not, in fact, for kids. From its mature themes to its dark character beats to its literally dark animation styleB:TAS remains a strong benchmark in Batman screen stories because of its unwillingness to pander to an audience other cartoons may have viewed as “less than.” But Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, the 1993 feature film adapted from the same world from the same creative team, takes this idea of “an adult Batman for kids” even further — all to its invigorating benefit. Mask of the Phantasm is less a “Batman movie that happens to have grown up, noir-leaning themes” and more an “explicitly grown up noir that happens to have Batman-leaning themes.”

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Image via Warner Bros.

The narrative and thematic spine of this film involves moves of betrayal, systemic corruption at every level of power, passionate romance, intense vows, the promise of a brighter future that never seems to come, and only occasionally “a guy in a batsuit punching dudes.” Like many of the classic Warner Bros. ’40s and ’50s noirs that writing dream team Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, and Michael Reaves seem to be purposefully evoking, Mask of the Phantasm‘s explorations are all too human. Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) is, perhaps more than any other Batman movie to date, the central focus of the film, eschewing some of the popular philosophies on the character that “Bruce Wayne is the secret identity, not Batman” for an explicit demarcation and grapple between the two selves.

The death of Wayne’s parents, represented here by melodramatically framed portraits and ornate, art deco gravestones (stylishly directed in masterfully shadow-filled vistas by Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm), laid bare the truth of the unending misery of life around him, and provided the foundation for the unending fight within him. He reacts to the world of pain by stepping forward as a soldier — the perfect choice for a protagonist in a genre founded on our nation’s many post World War II anxieties, when all we knew was “what worked on the battlefield, even if it scarred us along the way.” Wayne might be a more active, even optimistic protagonist than many of the private eye antiheroes in classic noir films, but they share an unrelenting, dogged determination to find some form of truth and justice in the wake of choppy oceans ready to drown. They are not satisfied, because this world cannot make us satisfied. But they are always fighting. Because what else can you do?

This question, which Wayne was so satisfied to leave eternally unanswered, gets a potentially surprising answer in Mask of the Phantasm. As Wayne tells his parents’ gravestone, there’s one thing he didn’t expect in this hardened ecosystem of existence: “I didn’t count on being happy.” This shot at happiness, at leaving this self-imposed life of bare darkness and retribution behind, comes in the form of, like so many classic noirs, a woman. Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany) has one of my favorite arcs in any Batman film. Like Wayne, Beaumont has lost her parents. Her mother’s death occurs before the film begins; like Wayne, she is moved to talk to her gravestone often. As for her father (Stacy Keach), a powerful Gotham businessman? We watch his two deaths happen in slow motion throughout the film. The first? His character, as we (and Andrea) see him kowtow to vicious criminal bosses, even invoking the name of her late mother in the process. The second? His actual death, rendered in a horrific off-screen sequence that punches you in the stomach by reminding you how casual such moments of violence and pain occur in such a noir-lensed world.

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Image via Warner Bros.

Beaumont’s response to these traumas, so similar to Wayne’s, manifest in somewhat different ways — but ways that still involve “wearing a mask and punching people.” Using and twisting the voice of her father, Beaumont masks up as the titular Phantasm, a terrifying, explicit “Angel of Death” figure with a cloak and “industrial skull” piece of headwear. The Phantasm is walking the well-defined path of corruption and trauma, visiting every single figure responsible for her father’s (the world’s?) descent into the underworld, intent on inflicting the most final form of revenge. To put it into noir terms, Beaumont/Phantasm turns from our soul-saving ingenue to our soul-corrupting femme fatale. And Wayne/Batman is… torn.

As his butler and most trusted confidant Alfred (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) tells Wayne near the end of the picture, “Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce. I always feared you would become that which you fought against. You walk the edge of that abyss every night. But you haven’t fallen in, and I thank Heaven for that.” Walking directly on the edge of an abyss takes work, and in a world so seemingly uninhibited by a common sense moral compass, it might be easier to just fall in. It might feel better. But noir antiheroes aren’t wired to “feel better,” as tempting as that sounds. The world is so jammed with pain in every corner, that all one can do is play an existential game of whack-a-mole. Keep fighting, keep reacting, keep moving. Don’t rest too long, or the truth will sink into your brain and leave you, like Beaumont in her final moments, despondently alone.

The complexity of these inner character grapplings are also reflected in the nuts-and-bolts plot of the film. There’s no simple, easily understandable villain Batman is up against. The city of Gotham is rotten from the core out, and the plot makes sure to follow suit. Our opening scene involves laundering money; from there on, we move to easily swayed city councilmen (Hart Bochner), the reactionary inaccuracies of the police, crime bosses buying everyone they can, yesterday’s bodies reported in today’s newspapers. This is all Noir 101 Shit, the complicated reckonings of a society technically in a “boom period” shadowed and taken advantage of by the traumas of the past. Heck, even when the damn Joker (Mark Hamill) shows up — about halfway through the brisk running time — he’s less interested in his typical chaos and more interested in wheeling and dealing within the complicated systems set up by the more “normal” Gotham crime goons.

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Image via Warner Bros.

The Joker is also “interested” in, um, a bonkers robotic housewife he’s currently “shacking up” with. And this is where Mask of the Phantasm gets the most textually explicit in its noir explorations. In one flashback sequence showing Wayne and Beaumont’s burgeoning romance, they go on an Epcot/Tomorrowland-esque ride in Gotham’s version of the World’s Fair. Their cart flies through tracks as they look at (and make out during) animatronic characters smilingly interacting with retro futuristic, Jetsons-styled appliances and conveniences — all scored to a syrupy, Americana-choir fueled tune from the masterful Shirley Walker (the maestro uses a ton of choir in this film’s score, and it gives me goosebumps every time). The future of America looks bright… except. One car, which reminds us an awful lot of the Batmobile, inspires Wayne. Distracts him from this present moment and love. And his traumas, our nation’s recent traumas, swirl him back down again…

The next time we see this Tomorrowland, it looks like a bombed out, decrepit, festering war zone. What was once bright and shiny is now dusty and rusty. We cannot dream of a positive future until we accept our destructive past. And if our present stays on a destructive path — as we see with the Joker, who’s cynically and directly corrupting this once prosperous ideal of an American future — any sense of reckoning can never come. Wayne, mask on or off, knows this on some level, even as the bright light of a future is constantly moving at a similar speed as his feet. Beaumont, Phantasm or not, cannot accept it, resigning her fate to one of a holding pattern of trauma. And Mask of the Phantasm presents this quandary in all of its complicated, melodramatic, stylized, mature, entirely grown-up, and entirely noir-soaked glory.

But, y’know, for kids!

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is now streaming on Netflix. For more on my ramblings on “1990s Batman properties,” here’s what I think about Batman Forever.

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Image via Warner Bros.

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