HBOMax Deep-Dives – Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

Thanks to WonderWoman 84, HBOMax has seen a dramatic rise in subscriptions. But once a viewer has seen DC’s latest offering, what else can they find on the app? Fortunately, HBOMax has a much greater selection of films and television programs than subscribers may realize. In this series of articles, Combat Republic will take a deep dive into the HBOMax film library and review some of the site’s more obscure selections.

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Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

After the lackluster follow-up to Batman Returns, Tim Burton’s sequel to his 1989 smash, Warner Brothers searched for another route to take their most valuable character. Based on the success of the first season of Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS), Warner commissioned Timm and show-runner Alan Burnett to create a silver screen adaptation of their hit show. BTAS became such a critical and commercial hit that Fox TV, having seen the success of their animated juggernaut, The Simpsons, moved the show to prime time spot in 1992. It’s strange that in animation, a medium that is only limited by the artists’ vision and talent, we are given the most grounded and accurate depiction of the Dark Knight. 

In Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, we are introduced to the most humanistic depiction of Batman (Kevin Conroy). Due to pressure from an ambitious city councilman, Commissioner Gordon is sidelined. Batman’s relationship with the Gotham City Police is shuttered. The Caped Crusader is on the run from the cops when a new vigilante shows up in Gotham. This one has no issue stepping over Batman’s no-kill rule. The Phantasm calls itself “an angel of death” as it hunts down the city’s aging crime bosses. Seeking to clear his name, Batman goes hunting for the mystery killer.

As Bruce Wayne, we see the drain of his playboy lifestyle facade. Bruce remembers a time before he donned the cape and cowl. In his early twenties, Bruce meets Andrea Beaumont. (the incredible Dana Delaney, who made such a great impression on the crew she was cast by Timm and Andrea Romano three years later as Lois Lane for their Superman show) Like Bruce, Andrea is a whip-smart, American blue-blood. Unlike the other girls in Gotham, she doesn’t initially fawn over the billionaire, making her even more desirable. The two fall in love, while at the same time, Bruce tries to start his war on crime. In his first view outings, he’s lucky to survive. But the closer he grows to Andrea, the more he questions whether or not jumping into this war is even worth it. Timm’s Batman is never played as crazy or disturbed as some of his live-action counterparts. However, the scene where Bruce pleads his case to his parent’s ominous tombstone is heart-breaking. We finally encounter a Batman who doesn’t want to fight. He sees his chance to be happy, but his damaged psyche won’t let him off the hook. Bruce proposes to Andrea, who accepts but shortly after leaves town with her father. With his only chance at happiness gone, Bruce accepts his fate and finally embraces the bats under his stately home.

In the present, Batman learns that all of the dead mobsters are connected to Andrea Beaumont’s father, who just so happens to show back up in Gotham. When the last of the mobsters understands he might suffer the same fate, he reaches out to the one man who can help him, The Joker. In his previous life, Joker was a fellow mobster, a nod to the character’s Jack Napier version. Of course, Joker assumes Batman is the killer, just murders the old man himself to spring a trap on his favorite superhero. However, when Joker discovers The Phantasm isn’t the Dark Knight, he’s pulled into the center of the mystery.

Bruce and Andrea reconnect after she deciphers his identity as Batman. During an encounter with The Phantasm, who disappears into a green smoke cloud, Batman is trapped by the Gotham Police. They corner him in a construction site. Batman is forced to use every whit and trick in his arsenal to save himself. The battered and unmasked Bruce is rescued by Andrea, and they rekindle their relationship. However, when Joker figures out The Phantasm is Andrea under the hood, seeking vengeance on the mobsters who killed her father, Batman needs to do the unthinkable and save his greatest villain. 

While Batman prevents Andrea from killing Joker, he doesn’t let the Clown Prince off the hook. Instead, the two battle inside of a rundown World of Tomorrow exhibit featuring a model version of Gotham city. Batman and Joker battle like King Kong and Godzilla bouncing off the miniature buildings. It’s part Dick Sprang/Part Neal Adams. Joker is stopped when he and Andrea evaporate into another green smoke cloud. As the film ends, we are left with a Batman who has never been more alone in his one-man-war-on-crime.

Burnett teams with Paul Dini, comic veteran Martin Pasko, and Michael Reaves to create one of the most intriguing Bat stories in any medium. They cleverly borrow elements of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One to show the experienced young Bruce. Taking Mike O’Barr & Todd McFarlane’s character, The Reaper from Batman Year Two, they create a unique anti-hero in The Phantasm, whose mission parallels Bruce’s own. The story is smart and heart-breaking. The animation, continuing Timm’s work on the show, is a noir world with modern conveniences. The characters are intelligent and understated, except for The Joker (Mark Hamill), who is at his maniacal best.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm has relevancy that even good superhero films from bygone eras struggle to retain. Not only has the movie aged well, it is still perhaps the best on-screen depiction of not just the character of Batman, but it might just be the best Batman movie ever made.

****

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