Since his debut in 1939, the midnight man who capes and crusades has never been out-of-style. Sure, the gee-whiz ’60s and the bruised, cynical ’70s brought out the mightiness of new kids on the block Marvel Entertainment, but DC prevailed and only came back more haunted in the dark days of the gaudy 1980s. With Batman brought back to his roots in garish German Expressionism in the late 1980s, the character became all the more fittingly haunted for a fittingly haunted turn-of-the-’90s America undone by the failures of Reaganomics and the harsh realities of urban living. The character was also, alas, all the more apt for chauvinist, fascistic abuse by the likes of Frank Miller, who eventually took to dumbing-down the figure to the levels of America’s latent (and often very much more than latent) fixation with harsh individualist justice and uncritical depictions of masculine men keeping the evils of society at bay. A philosophy that was, boiled down, the card-carrying crux of 1980s fiction at its worst.
Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, who created arguably the greatest success of this return to Batman-omania around the turn of the 1990s, Batman: The Animated Series, posited a difference path. This was a series that never once forgot the central tragedy of the Batman character but always retained a youthful sense of playful expressionism where Gothic chiaroscuro lighting sat proudly next to warped, angular Fleischer-styled characterization that recalled the startling minimalism of the 1950s. Dark but childlike and whimsical, the series knew how to tell knowing recollections of past styles apart from rampant nostalgia, and the effect was a toon that was mature but buoyant, thoughtful but never didactic nor grisly for the sake of grisliness. It was, in other words, an animated show that was proud to be a comic book, and a showpiece for how comics could do depth without having to turn to the violence-first pseudo-maturity vigilantism of the increasingly popular Graphic Novel trend of the time period.
It was also a series that was also rampagingly successful on the small screen, enough so that a movie was all-but in-the-womb from the get-go. And what a movie it turned out to be! Released in the midst of the pop-culture baiting, Bat-credit-card wielding Bat-mania of the 1990s, Mask of the Phantasm was the Bat-product that spent the most Bat-time actually dealing with Batman as an entity, respecting him as a character and exploring the trauma of his existence as a bifurcated person tearing himself apart. It expended more energy on Batman the mass of jangled nerves than any other cinematic interpretation of the character, a feat that, frankly, it retains to this day.
Partially, it achieves this feat as a result of utilizing its villain, the ghostly, expressionist Phantasm who is murdering Gotham’s criminals and fingering Batman for the crimes, as the negative mirror-image of Batman himself. It is the great truth of most screen Batman products – all the way back to the gloriously campy pop-art ’60s television show, more a satire of ’60s consumerism than anything else – that the villains tend to run away with the piece. Batman, or Bruce Wayne as he saunters by day, is usually just the straight-man, but Mask of the Phantasm avoids the pratfall by linking the fate and existential tragedy of the villain to Wayne himself in surprisingly dextrous, unforeseen ways. By virtue of this duality, the film is allowed to have its cake and eat it too, lingering over a critique of Wayne while also subsuming itself to the villain-first trend of cinema at the time (and, anyway, who can blame a Batman story for going to bat – I couldn’t resist – with the glorious rogue’s gallery of cartoon villains in the canon?).
Not that Mask is all story, but it packs a surprisingly conflicted, nuanced punch for what is nominally a speedy, breathless seventy five minute run-time, exploring Bruce Wayne’s inner psychosis and introducing and exploring a fully realized new character, an old girlfriend of Wayne’s, Andrea Beaumont. For an animated film released in 1993, something of a renaissance in traditionally animated cinematic features already well under way, it is a surprisingly, and at times disarmingly, traditional Shakespearean tragedy that just happens to center a man who likes to dress as a bat. Add in the secret weapon of any animated Batman, Kevin Conroy as the exasperated voice of Wayne, and a little Joker voiced by Mark Hamill in a role that is somewhat unfitting but largely solid as an introduction of cartoon chaos in the film, and you’ve got a work of genuine narrative heft.
Not that it needs narrative heft on its side, for most of the heavy lifting is done via Timm and Radomski who wield their directorial chairs with a sublime visual minimalism where each and every master-shot tells a story all its own. Even with character taken out of the equation though, the animation, like that of the show, attains a luminous purity, the shots of Gotham City telling a tale of expressionist discontent and warped Art Deco decay, the garish, ostentatious markers of capitalist wealth becoming the melancholy whispers of a city crumbling under its own weight. The film takes anything in the Nolan trilogy to task for primal purity of visual storytelling and mood-setting, and it almost rivals the lustrous mise-en-scene of the Burton duo of films on the character. Even the technically stilted nature of the animation relative to the TV show allots the film a perplexing, even beguiling atmosphere of stagnancy even within motion that just captures a city in melancholy standstill so well, even if the effect is accidental.
Even still, there’s a real sense of purpose and consequence for every image; the film feels all the more lethal for how much it holds back and restrains while so many other Batman films showboat and over-sell their dramatic stakes. Especially after later films that bent over backwards to pummel narrative into the audience with the sledgehammer of blockbuster filmmaking, Mask of the Phantasm holds strong as a film of simple, poignant emotions boldly and brashly showcased in pinpoint strokes that tell more in specific animated frames – tell more with a shadow on a grave, for instance, in the film’s most elegant and singular distillation of the Batman character – than so many speeches in later films could achieve.
Leading to a film that, all these years later, has done more to plummet to the depths of the Batman character, and even to capture the bruised, brittle nature of Gotham, than any other film on the subjects. The other films that tackle the Batman character all became fixtures for a certain filmmaker’s identity, be it Burton’s gloomy horror-show or Schumacher’s demented sitcom or Nolan’s icy, occasionally confused mythic realism. But Phantasm retains the heart of people who are above all invested in exploring what makes Batman tick, rather than in pursuing their own idiosyncratic side-treks in films that are nominally vehicles for the Bat. Timm and Radomski explore the suffering of a man whose only outlet for coping with his internal Angst is to push it out into the world and onto others, and the results are the theater of comics at their most anguished.