From the deputized FBI agent of the 1940’s movie serials to the gritty, realistic vigilante of Christopher Nolan’s films, Hollywood has portrayed Batman in a variety of ways, but none of the live-action films have explored the dichotomy between Bruce Wayne and Batman quite as expertly as Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. This film explores the darkness that surrounds Bruce Wayne’s life, and it examines the motivations behind his decision to become Batman. It’s dark, gritty, and introspective, which is why this film isn’t just the Citizen Kane of animated films but also the best Batman film to date.
Many people compare Batman: Mask of the Phantasm to Citizen Kane, and after viewing both films, one can see the comparisons. Stylistically, both films are told mostly through flashback. Citizen Kane is notorious for its use of shadows to create an atmosphere of foreboding and dread, and Mask of the Phantasm invokes that same noir feel. Thematically, both films explore the emotional struggles of powerful, tormented men. The key difference is that while Citizen Kane examines the life of Charles Foster Kane to show his destruction, Mask of the Phantasm explores the early life of Bruce Wayne so the audience can better understand why he became a hero.
Before Mask of the Phantasm came to theaters, the animated series had already established a vague notion of Bruce Wayne’s journey towards becoming Batman. There are a few episodes where Bruce Wayne relives the fateful night that his parents are murdered, but the most notable episodes are “The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne” and “The Forgotten.” In both of these episodes, the death of Bruce’s parents is made all the more haunting by the fact that there is no dialogue. In a flash, Thomas and Martha Wayne are murdered and their son is left relatively alone in the world. Bruce gets no Hallmark message from his father and because of this, the rage that possesses Bruce is made all the more real because he isn’t able to have a final moment with his parents before they are taken away.
Likewise, references to Bruce’s Batman training are few, but in the episode “Night of the Ninja” we learn that Bruce received martial arts training in Japan. Also, in “Zatanna,” we learn that Bruce worked as an assistant to the stage magician, Zatara. With Zatara, Bruce learned stage magic and how to escape from a straight-jacket. Both of these episodes establish that Bruce used his wealth and influence to travel the world and learn all of the necessary skills to become an effective crime fighter. The animated series took the basic concept of Batman and built off of that without damaging the main concept of the character. So far, none of the Batman films have ever been able to accomplish this feat; except for Mask of the Phantasm.
For the uninitiated, Mask of the Phantasm’s plot revolves around a grim reaper-like masked vigilante who is murdering mobsters. That’s not what it’s about though. Surprisingly, the emphasis is on character development rather than action – a rarity in comic book films, much less animated films. Most of the story is told through flashback as Batman thinks back to his relationship with Andrea Beaumont – the girl that got away. Andrea Beaumont isn’t like most of Batman’s love interests, however. What sets Andrea apart from all of the other women in Batman’s life comes down to her believability. Unlike other love interests, the relationship between Andrea and Bruce isn’t forced or trite.
In Burton’s Batman, Vicki Vale is a photographer that falls for Bruce Wayne. She tells him, “Ever since I first saw you, I knew that I loved you,” which isn’t necessarily a bad line until you realize that they had met three days before that. Selina Kyle is usually a perfect match for Bruce Wayne, but Michelle Pfeiffer seemed like she would kill Bruce Wayne rather than kiss him. Even Rachel Dawes from the Christopher Nolan films seems like a ham-fisted attempt at making Bruce feel something in his otherwise miserable life.
However, the way Mask of the Phantasm portrays the love interest of the film, Andrea Beaumont, is perfect. When Andrea meets Bruce in the cemetery where her mother and his parents are buried, the two make a connection because Andrea has made peace with her mother’s death. Bruce overhears her talking to her mother’s grave and mistakenly thinks she is speaking to him. Andrea laughs as she speaks to her mother’s grave and this intrigues Bruce. She shows him that he doesn’t have to be obsessed with the murder of his parents and that it’s okay to move on. Over time, the two become closer and closer and Bruce is so in love with Andrea that he is willing to renounce his dedication to his mission of fighting crime. Andrea Beaumont is a different kind of female character because she isn’t a femme fatale or a damsel in distress; she is a believable character who can relate to Bruce on an emotional level because she understands his pain.
Batman is at his most introspective in this film as he relives all the pain that comes with losing the one perfect relationship he ever had. While there is much debate on whether Batman is a just mask or if Bruce Wayne is all an act, Kevin Conroy’s performance of Bruce Wayne/Batman leaves the audience with no doubts about which personality is genuine. Conroy’s Batman voice is pure gravel and fear, while his Bruce is aloof and carefree. In the Batcave, a maskless Bruce Wayne is speaking to Alfred and the voice Bruce speaks in is that gravel-tone that he uses when he is Batman. What’s so fascinating about the film is that the audience gets to see the process of the Batman persona taking over Bruce Wayne.
In the flashbacks, Bruce’s voice is soft as he speaks to Alfred, but not aloof. There is still a sense of pain there, but the division of personas had not been formed at that time. Bruce was still searching for answers on how to cope with his pain. He could choose to be at peace with Andrea Beaumont or to follow “the mission” and strike fear in the hearts of criminals. In Citizen Kane, the audience knows that Charles Foster Kane will die a lonely death, but the purpose of the film is to show how he got to that point and Mask of the Phantasm is the same way. Bruce Wayne’s struggle between happiness with Andrea or vengeance for the death of his parents is the real crux of the film and while the audience obviously knows the outcome, it’s how the events unfold that really strikes an emotional chord.
A particularly powerful scene takes place on a stormy night at the grave of Thomas and Martha Wayne. The storm is the physical representation of the torment in Bruce’s heart. Bruce kneels before the grave of his parents and with tears streaming down his cheeks, a frustrated Bruce Wayne begs for his parents to show him which path he should take. He desperately wants to give up his “plan” so he can be happy, but that would be forsaking the vow he made the night his parents died. He wonders what his parents would want as he laments, “It doesn’t hurt so much anymore.” The pain in Bruce’s voice is particularly interesting. He’s not saddened because he’s afraid of what his parents would think; he’s afraid because he can’t let go of his rage and his anger. This scene is such a nice addition to the Batman mythology because it shows that he has the chance to change his path and he doesn’t want to. Bruce Wayne is miserable because he chooses not to move on from the death of his parents. He uses his sorrow for more self-destruction rather than allowing himself to be at peace and then justifies it all because he is going to “fight crime.” Most film versions of Batman glamorize the life of Bruce Wayne as being fun, but this film shows how deeply disturbed Bruce is because he naturally wants to reject happiness when it comes into his life.
When Bruce was a child, he saw his parents die before his very eyes and the only way this emotionally scarred child could cope with his loss was to allow his need for vengeance to fuel his crusade against crime. For over a decade, he had been training to fight crime and once he fell in love with Andrea Beaumont, his life’s purpose was put into jeopardy. Suddenly, all of those years of training and studying to become the pinnacle of human perfection could simply be forgotten because of one woman’s love. Deep down, Bruce knew that his parents would want him to be happy, but after so many years of obsession over revenge, Bruce had a hard time letting go.
Andrea Beaumont is certainly alluring, though. Her zest for life and her ability to move past her sorrow appeals to Bruce and eventually, he gives in and asks Andrea to marry him. Sadly, it doesn’t last. After the mob attacks her family, Andrea returns the engagement ring and disappears. Heartbroken, Bruce returns to “the mission.” In the most chilling scene in the entire film, he dons his costume for the first time. Most superhero movies feature cheerful or powerful music to accompany the moment where the hero is revealed in costume for the first time. This is a time where the audience is supposed to cheer and be comforted that the hero is there to save the day. With this film, however, Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman seems like a somber or horrific moment. The inevitability of his transformation finally sets in and the audience sees that Bruce doesn’t so much become Batman because it is right, but it’s because there is no other choice. Alfred’s shocked gasp of, “My God . . .” says it all: Bruce Wayne is dead and Batman is born.
Of course, Andrea had gone through a transformation herself. The big reveal at the end of the film is that the murdering grim reaper vigilante (who is never once called “Phantasm”) is actually Andrea Beaumont. The audience is never privy to the information regarding how Andrea has become a grim-reaper-like vigilante, but she has come back to Gotham City to kill all of the mobsters that were responsible for her father’s death. Her transformation further shows that Bruce will never be able to find that happiness from his younger days and if someone as carefree as Andrea Beaumont can succumb to the allure of vengeance, then Bruce has no chance. Everything from her appearance to her motivation is reminiscent of Batman and she is established as a perfect foil for Bruce.
One of the key plot points is that the police think that Batman is committing the murders because of the similar design of the Phantasm costume. While the Phantasm costume might seem a little uninspired, it fits thematically within the movie. Death ruined Andrea’s life, so she must become death to get her revenge. Most of Batman’s villains are colorful and vibrant because crime is a game to them, but Andrea isn’t playing games and her costume reflects her grim attitude.
At the core of their concept, both Bruce and Andrea wish to avenge the deaths of their parents. Bruce has no specific goal in mind and that is what is so tragic for him. Every mission has to have an objective, but Bruce hasn’t set the parameters for victory. With no objective, how will Bruce know when his parents would be satisfied? He won’t, so he will continue fighting because that is the only thing that gives his life purpose.
Andrea’s objective is far more straight-forward: kill all of the men who ruined her life. While Andrea is the villain of the film, it isn’t because she is evil, but rather, because she is diametrically opposed to Bruce philosophically. Their situation explores the power of vengeance, and it also creates a grey area in the line between heroism and vigilantism. Batman’s reactionary stance on justice is opposed by Andrea’s willingness to stop crime by committing murder. One could argue that Andrea is the better hero because she will stop at nothing to stop crime. She is willing to cross the line that Batman won’t and that is the only reason she can be interpreted as a villain. Yes, she commits murder, but she murders mobsters. From a different perspective, Andrea could be viewed as a hero who uses extreme methods in order to ensure that evil is stopped. Then again, her intentions aren’t to stop crime, but to get revenge. Perhaps if she were merely trying to become proactive in crime-fighting, then she wouldn’t be considered as villainous.
In the film’s climax, Andrea confronts the final man who ruined her life: the Joker. The setting is the ruins of the former World’s Fair, and there could be no better place. The World’s Fair always symbolized hope for a bright future, and in a flashback, Bruce and Andrea attended this fair together. Everything seemed perfect and right back then as Bruce and Andrea toured the various attractions that promised better tomorrows. Now, the fair is old, dilapidated, and ruined. Time has forgotten the World’s Fair and left it behind to show how dark the future has become. The Joker has established his hideout in the ruins of this once great spectacle and this is symbolic of how evil has poisoned the lives of Bruce and Andrea. The future that they looked forward to is gone and destroyed forever.
Symbolically, it is beautiful that the Joker was the one who had murdered Andrea’s father. It’s just another example of how evil will strip Batman of every bit of happiness he ever wanted. The Joker is a plague in Batman’s life, and it all began with Andrea. Of course, Batman figures out that Andrea is going to kill the Joker, and despite the fact that the Joker had murdered dozens and dozens of people, Batman can’t allow Andrea to kill him. It’s all part of his complex code of ethics where death is evil no matter who is being killed. It might make more sense to kill the Joker to save future lives, but Bruce knows that to cross that line would make him no better than the criminals he hunts.
While the two of them were once star-crossed lovers, they are now vigilantes with diametrically opposed ideologies. Andrea pleads with Bruce to let her kill the Joker so her pain will fade. She says, “Look what they did to us! What we could have had! They had to pay!” Bruce responds, “But Andy, what will vengeance solve?” Finally, she responds, “If anyone knows the answer to that question, Bruce, it’s you.” Both characters are trying desperately to cope with their pain and for the first time in his career as Batman, Bruce seems to be attacking the very premise that turned him into a hero. He won’t be able to change her mind because Andrea is devoted to her quest for vengeance.
So, ultimately, what does Mask of the Phantasm accomplish? The film stands as the only animated version of Batman to hit theaters, but it also examines the persona of Batman more thoroughly than any other film to date. By juxtaposing Bruce’s motivations with Andrea’s, the film manages to delve in the complexity and the paradox that drives Batman: crime must pay for killing his parents, but to murder criminals is to commit a crime, therefore, crime will always prevail because Batman will not allow the war to escalate.
Andrea Beaumont is unlike any other woman in the Batman mythos because she offers Bruce a way out of “the mission” by offering him happiness in a life with her. Bruce chooses her over his quest for revenge, but once again, evil takes away any hope for happiness in Bruce’s life and he is forced back into vengeance. What makes Andrea so compelling though is how she is portrayed. Her master plan isn’t the destruction of Gotham City or World Domination; she just wants to find peace in her soul. She wants retribution for the hole in her heart, but most of all, she just wants Bruce Wayne back into her life. Andrea Beaumont isn’t evil; she’s tragic. If Andrea were truly evil, she would be murdering mob bosses to try and gain power and influence in Gotham City, but she kills because, much like Bruce, circumstances beyond her control changed the course of her life and she only wished to get retribution for what had been done. The real tragedy is that she didn’t decide to fight crime so much as she decided to eradicate it. If she had stayed with Bruce after her father’s death, perhaps the two of them could have fought crime together. Unfortunately, she took the path that Batman would never take.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm wasn’t a commercially successful film, but it’s certainly the greatest Batman film ever made. While it didn’t change animated films in the same way that Citizen Kane changed filmmaking forever, Mask of the Phantasm picks apart Bruce Wayne in the same way that Citizen Kane analyzes Charles Foster Kane. Both men are victims of circumstance who merely are trying to cope with their pain. Mask of the Phantasm defies the expectations of what an animated superhero film should be and it’s unfortunate that it is an overlooked gem in the Batman mythology.