Batman: Mask of the Phantasm & The World of Tomorrow
If you ever want to see a glimpse of eager nostalgia and ardent love from a comic book fan, ask them about Batman: The Animated Series. One of the best animated series ever produced for American television, the show ran from September 1992 to September 1995 under the supervision of writer Paul Dini and showrunner Bruce Timm. Over the course of three years the show garnered critical acclaim for its mature and nuanced portrayal of Batman, as well as his iconic gallery of rogues. With a distinct art-style inspired both by the Tim Burton Batman films and classic noir pictures, as well as distinct and acclaimed vocal performances by Mark Hamill, Kevin Conroy, and Arleen Sorkin, the Animated Series was a huge fan-favorite and hit for Warner Bros., who aired the series on Fox Kids. Naturally, studio executives would come calling for a full-length feature, and in 1993 they produced Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
Initially drawn-up as a direct-to-video feature, Warner Bros. decided to give Phantasm a theatrical release, rushing directors Timm and Eric Radomski with an eight-month production schedule. Released on Christmas Day 1993, the film ended up bombing in theaters due to an unsuccessful marketing campaign. Yet, despite its ultimate theatrical failure the film has grown more and more popular over the years. Now it’s seen as the ultimate burst of creativity from the series’ twin showrunners, an hour and a half thematic and formal exploration of the Batman character’s mythos and psychological state. Released in a largely dormant decade for superhero cinema, where the majority of the comic book movies of the time aimed just to entertain, Mask of the Phantasm aimed to stun.
One of the film's smartest creative decisions is the choice to strip away the vast majority of Batman’s rogues gallery, instead focusing on a mobster-led crime story. The lack of flamboyant, colorful villains allows for a structured, nuanced portrayal of several sections of Bruce Wayne’s life - his early days as a vigilante, a romance which almost steered him down a different path, and his eventual adoption of the cowl. Opening with Batman interrupting and subduing a meeting full of gangsters, he fails to capture mobster Chuckie Sol, who flees the scene. Escaping to a parking garage, the gangster is Interrupted by a cloud of smoke and a haunting, ethereal voice - the Phantasm, a hooded, masked figure with a clawed hand, emerges, slaying him. Due to their similar appearance and mannerisms, Batman is blamed for Sol’s murder by the Gotham City police, and declared a public menace. Simultaneously, Bruce Wayne is dealing with the return of lost love Andrea Beaumont, having not seen her in over ten years.
From this point, the film adopts a Wellesian structure, presenting the romance of Bruce and Andrea through flashbacks alongside Batman’s investigation into the Phantasm’s murders of several gangsters. The location the couple first meet, a graveyard, foreshadows the doomed nature of their relationship. Bruce is visiting the grave of his murdered parents, discussing his plans of becoming a vigilante, when he hears a woman speaking to the gravestone of her deceased mother. Intrigued, he introduces himself to her, learning that she’s Andrea Beaumont, daughter of Gotham City businessman Carl Beaumont. The pair quickly bond as Andrea impresses Bruce, treating him like a real person and teasing him for looking like “he wants to jump off a cliff” despite his wealth and success. It seems like they could really work together well, as for the first time Bruce has a chance at real happiness. But as soon as that thought emerges, his guilt begins dragging him back down again.
Mask of the Phantasm, like the best Batman stories, concerns itself with the psychological state of the character. Much of its complexity comes from the bridging of the formal, artistic depiction of Gotham with the strong characters who live there. Within the film, Gotham City is presented as a sort of amalgamation of different time periods and art styles. Formal influences include Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with abundant art-deco architecture and jagged, expressionistic lines, as well as classic gangster movies and Hollywood noir pictures. The sky at night is blood-red, and the time period is indeterminate.
Mirroring the beginnings of Bruce’s relationship with Andrea with his first forays into crime fighting allows for an especially dramatic plot structure. As Bruce and Andrea become closer, the directors express the inner psychological state of the characters through formally expressive means.
Batman’s investigation into the Phantasm murders uncovers a vast conspiracy among gangsters involving Andrea’s father, Carl Beaumont. A half-hour into the film, the Joker is introduced, but he spends the majority of his screen time attempting to figure out who the Phantasm is. Instead of being the hunter, Joker becomes the hunted. Where in any other film he’d likely be positioned as the main orchestrator of the plot, Mask of the Phantasm makes him just another piece of the puzzle.
That’s because this picture, more than anything else, is a depiction of a doomed, tragic romance. The film’s most stunning sequences don’t feature crime or colorfully-dressed villains but instead involve Bruce’s romantic happiness being torn away from him, the couple’s connection broken. His weeping at his parent’s grave during a rainstorm, pleading with them to let him throw away his vow- “I didn’t count on being happy!”. The couple’s engagement interrupted by a swarm of bats. And, in what is perhaps the film’s most singularly expressive moment, Bruce, having been left by Andrea, donning the cowl of the Bat for the very first time. The scene is the crux of the entire film, as the loss of Andrea represents his final shot at happiness being torn away from him. It’s his abandonment of the pursuit of personal happiness and the acceptance of his fate as a vigilante.
As the film reaches its conclusion, it’s revealed that Andrea is in fact the Phantasm, taking revenge on the gangsters who killed her father. She feels robbed of her happiness as well, but unlike Bruce, has given into the temptation of vengeance. The film’s climax takes place at the abandoned site of the Gotham World’s Fair, the location of one of Andrea and Bruce’s previous dates. Here, the Phantasm attempts to take the Joker’s life, ending her cycle of revenge, but is stopped by Batman’s intervention.
In the climax, the Joker blows up the so-called “World of Tomorrow”, Bruce and Andrea watching as the literal history of their relationship is destroyed in front of their eyes. Joker cackles; the bitter irony here being that it’s not a “World of Tomorrow” at all, but instead a monument to past, lost happiness. There’s a certain duality to Bruce and Andrea, but perhaps more importantly there’s the commonality that neither of them, no matter how hard they try, can escape the pain of the past and take a step towards a brighter future. Both of them are alone, unable to escape the cruel grip of fate. The “World of Tomorrow” lost to them forever.