Generally considered a bit of a cult classic, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm hit theaters on Christmas Day in 1993, having been given a scant promotional budget, and promptly exited cinemas without managing to make much of a splash. Although movies from major film studios generally don’t truly “lose money” and MotP eventually cleaned up in video and ultimately turned a profit, it is still considered a box-office failure, as so many movies are, because it did not clear its budget during its initial release. One of the only existing examples of a comic book-based animated film being released in theaters, the story is a mixture of elements from the stories Batman: Year One and Year Two, both of which gave a closer look at how exactly the protagonist went from Bruce Wayne to Batman.
It also introduced us to what at first appears to be two different characters who merge into one: The murderous vigilante Phantasm and Bruce’s lost love Andrea Beaumont. Revealed to be one and the same late in the film, Beaumont’s apparent femme fatale-style helplessness is played up until the last minute, when we discover that she isn’t just a garden-variety crook — she’s a vigilante who is physically on par with Batman and who metes out her own vendetta, uncaring for who or what gets caught in the crossfire. More sympathetic than your standard vamp yet also a more skilled fighter and master manipulator, Andrea is an interesting character who we unfortunately never see much more of after this film. Exceptions like a comic book sequel that was released as an annual edition in 1996 and the reappearances of the comic book character that inspired her aside, Andrea Beaumont is another character who deserved a little more than she got from the world.
Mask of the Phantasm begins in a high-rise with a group of villains having their meeting broken up by a very angry Batman. One of the criminals attempts to flee and is murdered by another masked vigilante, physically similar to Batman but much more terrifying. This is the Phantasm, a deep-voiced killer who stalks the criminal element of Gotham and metes a bloodier punishment for their crimes while allowing Batman to take the fall for it in the public eye.
An unhappy, aimless Bruce Wayne reflects on his lost love, Andrea Beaumont, who he had long ago proposed to in his early days as a vigilante. They met at her mother’s grave, where he happens upon her seemingly mumbling to herself, realizing only after he’s interrupted her that she is speaking to her mother’s tombstone. Bruce and Andrea flirt a bit before she hops in her car and drives away from the graveyard. She comes to call on him a few days later, and they become an item. After a time, Bruce visits his parents' grave to tell them that he’s happy, and he can’t become the hero he promised them he would become. He proposes to Andrea, and she says yes. Shortly thereafter, she is forced to leave Gotham due to her father’s debt, for which he is later murdered. She returns Bruce’s ring and vanishes, appearing in the present day alongside Bruce’s problems with the Phantasm. Upon Andrea’s departure, he embraced what he perceived as the impossibility of his own happiness and became the Batman.
Bruce realizes that the Joker was one of the criminals who caused Beaumont to become the Phantasm in order to take revenge, and he goes to Beaumont’s father’s old amusement park, The World of the Future, which has fallen into disrepair and become the home of the Joker. They all have a brawl, leading to Beaumont getting the drop on the Joker as he screams with laughter. Batman pleads with her to let go, but she can’t. She would prefer to go down in flames with the Joker than live in a world where he exists. Later, she is shown to survive, but she confesses to a stranger that she is dead inside. With their love gone and their respective futures in question, the film draws to a somber close.
The script for MotP is great, and it gives the audience a lot to chew on as far as the psychology of Bruce Wayne and how he views Batman as a creature somehow greater than himself. While this gives him purpose, it is also the greatest obstacle to his happiness. This is fleshed out further on the always-fascinating podcast The Arkham Sessions in their episode dedicated to the film, but the long and the short of it is that Bruce has divided what he wants and what Batman needs into two irreconcilable worlds. While Andrea initially challenges that, she ultimately confirms it.
For her own part, Andrea is a really fascinating character, and she stands out from what one would refer to as a garden-variety vamp. Her skill as a fighter puts her in the same realm physically as Bruce, and her conscious choice to present as male when committing her crimes adds a certain element of awareness of how these men view women and a lack of tolerance for playing by their rules. Rather than prove herself to be a threat, she relies on their gender bias to get the drop on them.
Even more interesting and unique for a love interest of a superhero, Andrea takes absolutely zero guff from Bruce or Batman. She has no tolerance for his moralizing, and she refuses to allow him to play hero for her. As much as she has a great affection for him, her acceptance of her own villainy mirrors the embrace of his identity as Batman. Her mistakes are tragically, obviously avoidable, but she insists on making them alone. At first, Batman believes he is endangering her with his choices, only to later discover that she would have no such concern for her endangerment of him. The love Andrea feels for him is no less real for her willingness to sacrifice it on the altar of her own vengeance.
It would be impossible to address the overall quality of this film without mentioning the cast, which is excellent even from a show that turned out consistent memorable performances from its actors. A cameo by beloved character actor Dick Miller of Gremlins and Bucket of Blood alongside a somewhat more prominent role from The Godfather Trilogy’s Abe Vigoda set the tone for greatness right off The Bat (pun intended). Kevin Conroy returned from TAS to play the role of Batman. Well known for portraying Bruce Wayne for a significant portion of the DC animated world, his voice is one that many people associate definitively with the character.
Fans of TAS will recognize the work done on the score by Shirley Walker, a composer who would later cite her work on this film as some of the best of her career. Following the basic structure of the theme of the animated series and building from there, the expanded version of the soundtrack makes for pretty fantastic listening. There’s a seemingly out-of-place R&B song that closes it out called “I Never Told You” as sung by Tia Carrere. In the end, Carrere’s status as a rising star who had just starred in the first Wayne’s World movie makes it another interesting bit of trivia.
Mark Hamill returns with his over-the-top, iconic take on the Joker. The specific embrace of the manic humor and bad jokes of Hamill’s Joker has become regarded as one of the finest versions of the villain. His shrill, uncontrollable laughter is more prominent than with any other take, but it is just that which makes him so successfully uncomfortable to watch. Although he throws out constant puns, such as “What’s an old-timer like you want with a two-timer like me?”, there is never a moment where he isn’t utterly terrifying. His movements are too aggressive, his features are too stark, and his tone has an underlying fury that peeks out often enough that the audience never forgets it's there. Hamill has received a great deal of praise for his Joker, and all the hype is true; he is one of the best actors ever to take on the role, and Mask shows him at the top of his game.
One newcomer for the franchise was Dana Delany as the voice of Andrea Beaumont. Again, Delany is great in the role, and her willfully cool exterior barely covering a thorny vulnerability comes across perfectly. Her performance impressed the show producers so much that later when Superman received his own excellent and underrated animated series, she was cast as Lois Lane. Although her tone is immediately recognizable as Lane for a lot of fans of the DC animated universe, her performance here is well worth catching. Beaumont and Lane are two very different characters, but they do have one thing in common: They’re tough as nails, and Delany does a great job on both.
The aesthetic of TAS is impeccably executed, with its very specific version of Gotham, comprised of hard angles, sprawling cityscape, and monochromatic art deco design. The high quality of the animation is perhaps the most prominent thing that sets the show so far apart from other cartoons of its day. The moody look of the animation makes for excellent viewing. Although some older copies of the film are a bit muddy, it has since been remastered, and the world is better for it.
Regardless of when you see it or how you watch it, Mask of the Phantasm is still completely worth your time. The elements that come across as dated blend so well with the intentionally retro vibe of the animated series. The end result is a slick neo-noir with the added complexity of a Batman origin story and the classic tale of a doomed love affair. Perhaps most importantly, Bruce Wayne is at his most sympathetic as he scrambles to understand the mysterious Beaumont. Positioning her in the increasingly complex Batman mythos as the woman who broke him so that he might be reborn was an interesting and unexpected choice. Not only did she meet that challenge, she subverted the overplayed trope of the femme fatale by being smart, compassionate, and kind — but never allowing herself to be dissuaded from her chosen path, not by Batman and not by anyone.