Reviews: Batman Mask Of The Phantasm

It's a shame they didn't show that in the film

The biggest weakness of Mask Of The Phantasm, is that it treats it's second most important character as a plot device for Batman. The person has an interesting backstory and some very complex motivations and interactions, but they don't get an arc from their perspective. Someone is going around killing criminals, if they were the protagonist of the story it would be important to show the way this act is affecting and changing them. We could watch their descent into villainy or see their struggle to overcome their emotions and come to terms with who they are, maybe mend their ways.

This is all interesting stuff, but we see none of this. Batman solves his mystery, gives the person a trite line or too and then they're gone. Their purpose in the story is over. It's annoying that as soon as this antagonist is revealed they lose almost all the competence they had before because they're no longer required to be a threat for this story. Taken as part of an overall trend it's unfortunate as well as annoying.

The second biggest weakness is the difficulty of incorporating history and character motivation in comic books where the hero is meant to go on forever. It basically requires a reset button at the end of the outing, so we've had these hugely important personal motivations and... it doesn't really affect the hero at all in a meaningful way. There's a person in this story who needed to be an ongoing character entwined with Batman's life, but that's not how the film made it feel.

And on a personal level, I don't like it when Batman's motivations are too heavily dependent on his parents. I like the idea that he had a horrible experience and decided that he was going to dedicate his life to making sure other people didn't have to go through that. Him doing it because the guilt of his parents demands him too robs him of independence.

This does lead to the greatest part of Phantasm, it's an investigation of Bruce Wayne becoming Batman and the costs it brings his life. Is it wrong for him to be happy when the happiness comes at the cost of other people's? How do you balance your dedication to other people with your own needs. The film decides surprisingly on this issue and suggests that Batman still isn't emotionally stable and mature in his motivations here. It feels like a set-up for greater learning, or else The Dark Knight Rises retirement.

The Heart of Batman

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is probably the single best portrayal of the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman I've ever seen. While not as stunning as Nolan's Dark Knight films, I still think that Mask of the Phantasm is the one movie that really gets to the heart of what makes Batman such a compelling character. In this film, we get a complex and fascinating murder mystery, a series of Casablanca-esque flashbacks that help tell a new side of Batman's origin story, and a frightening new villian who's creepy enough to rival the Joker (who also shows up, voiced by the delightfully hammy-yet-freaky Mark Hamill). Batman himself is in top form: we get to see his expert detective skills, fighting prowess, and numerous gadgets at work all throughout the movie.

This film also really delves into the specific circumstances of Wayne's transformation into the Dark Knight, and in doing so brings to light certain very powerful elements of his character: Bruce's quest to bring justice to Gotham makes him miserable and alone, but he does so out of an obsessive need to honor his parents' memory. In the early days of his crime fighting career, when offered an opportunity to abandon his "mission" and be with the woman he loves, we're shown just how desperately Bruce wants to be free of his guilt and obsession. One scene in particular - in which Bruce kneels at his parents' grave and begs them to let him live his own life - gets me a tad choked up every time I see it. This is powerful, serious drama, as any Batman story should be.

Anyway, the animation is excellent, including some of the most gorgeous animated explosions I've ever seen. Shirley Walker's musical score is extremely powerful, especially the opening credits, which features an extended shot of a CGI-rendered Gotham City backed by a chilling choir rendition of the Batman: TAS theme. Most of the action isn't especially high-octane, but it is enjoyable, and the story is so well-paced and the mystery so compelling I found myself not caring. There are a few touches of humor here and there, just to balance out the blackness of the story and theme, but it doesn't detract from the gloomy atmosphere.

To conclude: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a fantastic film, reccomended for fans of Batman, the DCAU, and animation in general.