Twenty five years later, and there’s still a big reason why Batman: Mask of the Phantasm not only stands tall as the best Batman animated movie, but as one of the greatest Batman movies period.
Before Christopher Nolan treated us to a fantastic film all about Bruce Wayne’s early tragic life, subsequent inner turmoil, and ultimate decision to become a gadget-laden vigilante dressed like a bat, Mask of the Phantasm, a springboard from Batman: The Animated Series that received a theatrical release, made its mark as the Bruce Wayne-centric story we both needed and deserved.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary this Christmas, Mask of the Phantasm isn’t just a stellar standout because of its dynamic action, genius work from Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, and Shirley Walker’s soaring score, but because it was the first big screen Batman story to focus on Bruce and his conflicted feelings about self-sacrifice.
The Road Before Phantasm
When Tim Burton’s Batman landed in ’89, it was an instant phenomenon: a larger-than-life comic book adaptation that presented us with a mix tape version of the dark, gothic Caped Crusader from the ’80s. And though it wasn’t outright criticized for this at the time, it was a Joker origin movie with Batman as a supporting character. We were just all so pleased with Jack Nicholson’s performance, which had him stealing every scene he was in, and relieved that Michael Keaton provided us with a solid hero, we put aside larger critiques about the movie not being very Bat-centric.
Things got even more crowded in the sequel, Batman Returns, which is still a lot of fun in its own right (and a Christmas movie, dammit!), when Batman became even less of the focus. Instead of following up with Bruce in the very least, Return gave us three big villains (and a Catwoman origin arc). The franchise would try to refocus the spotlight on Bruce in 1995’s Batman Forever, but let’s not forget the story they chose to tell was “Bruce Wayne has forgotten why he’s Batman.” Yes, every night while sleeping, Bruce is plagued with a vision he can’t place. Revealed at the end to be the time he saw a giant bat and decided to dress like a giant bat. Meaning, he’d been protecting the city every night wondering, “Man, I wonder why I’m dressed like this.”
The First Time Batman Began
Phantasm took us into the sorrowful heart of Bruce Wayne during his first earnest attempts to be a masked crimefighter. Mourning over his parents’ graves, he meets a woman, Andrea Beaumont (voiced by Dana Delany), who fundamentally changes his life.
A romance rises from their grim meet-cute and Bruce, on the precipice of making a life-altering choice to become a vigilante, experiences happiness for the first time. He begins to wonder if he’ll be betraying his promise to his late mom and dad if he decides to give up his obsession with punishing criminals and opt for a normal life with a woman who loves him. It’s messy and marvelous and it makes you overlook the fact that he dons the Batsuit for the first time because of a bad breakup.
The story represented a rare moment of Bruce saying “yes” to himself and opening his heart to possibilities beyond the Bat. He came close to straying from his martyrdom and marrying a smart, fearless peer who could feed and nurture his soul in ways he’d never experienced. Even within most movies, Nolan’s included, this type of life was best represented as a “fondest wish” from Alfred, as someone close to Bruce who’s always wanted better for the boy. Here, in Phantasm, it was elevated above snide side remarks, with Bruce actually doing some hard self-examination on his own.
The Joke’s on Bats
Tucked inside all of this Phantasm fun was a cool little twist about Joker’s origin as well. Just as Batman had been a peripheral pawn in Tim Burton’s tales, the man Joker was before he became Joker fed into Bruce’s drama with Andrea, and her late father’s business dealings with the city’s top criminals. So Phantasm still recognizes the wrap-around mythos that both Joker and Batman somehow drastically affected each others’ lives before they became costumed adversaries, but Bruce got to be the star this time around.
Phantasm writers Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Pasko and Michael Reaves knew fans were hungry for some Bruce backstory — obviously, something more than the fated deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne. There were decades of story to tell in-between, from the gunshots in Crime Alley to Bruce’s final decision to stalk the streets at night and strike fear into the hearts of criminals. That’s what Phantasm was as a Batman movie: The first movie to realize Bruce’s story was vastly more interesting than anyone else’s.