“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce. I’ve always feared that you would become that which you fought against. You walk the edge of that abyss every night, but you haven’t fallen in and I thank heaven for that.”
IN JASON’S DEFENSE — There were times when Batman: The Animated Series almost made me pee my pants. The writers never had compunctions about making the Dark Knight… well… dark. And that’s what makes it the greatest super-hero cartoon of all time.
As a young teen, most fiction didn’t faze me. But Batman: TAS was downright grim. The Joker, as voiced by Mark Hamill, was coldly psychotic, making him rival only Jack Nicholson as the scariest incarnation of the character (which might change once I see the late Heath Ledger’s performance in the forthcoming The Dark Knight Returns). And Bruce Wayne was a shell of a man, almost a split-personality case unable to connect with other people.
In 1993, Mask of the Phantasm was supposed to wrap up the Warner Brothers cartoon’s storyline. Originally intended to go straight to VHS, it was instead released theatrically. Batman survived, though, his popularity carrying him to the Batman and Robin cartoon and then on to The New Batman-Superman Adventures and eventually to Justice League Unlimited.
This movie does what all good superhero cartoons and comics should do: It uses an external villain as an incidental plot device to explore the hero’s soul. This is no jolly Adam West Batman, prancing around in his Bat-boat with Bat-shark repellent. This is a confused, guilty Bruce Wayne, hiding under his cowl, hunted by the police, and self-defeated in the shadow of his parents’ gravestone.
Mask of the Phantasm adds a new angle to the Bat’s backstory. In addition to the death of his parents, the movie says that Bruce’s transformation into a caped crusader is as much a result of his rejection by Andrea Beaumont, his fiancee, who disappeared after her father was caught up with the mafia. In a flashback, Bruce retreats within himself and dons his mask for the first time, a sight that terrifies Alfred.
Years later, Andrea returns to town and immediately recognizes Batman as Bruce. At the same time, a ghostly figure starts hunting down and executing local gangland patriarchs. Police think the killer, who wears a cape and mask, is Batman, and they nearly manage to capture Bruce. Later, we learn that the Phantasm — who is never directly referred to be name except in the title — also wants to kill the Joker, who was a one-time mafioso.
MotP keeps the 1920s pulp feel of Batman: TAS, with Bruce as The Detective and with grainy, noir backdrops in high relief. There are noir cityscapes,harsh angles, and a low-tech aesthetic. The climax is a three-way showdown between Batman, the Phantasm, and the Joker, set in the later’s inky, dystopic World Fair hideout.
This is what Batman is all about: Heartbreak, unrelenting resolve, pain, a conflicted Bruce Wayne begging his parents’ ghosts to let him be happy, and his demon-haunted understanding that he can’t be.