Blu- Ray Review: Batman: Mask of The Phantasm. The best Batman film?

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Last week, the best Batman film ever made finally came to Blu Ray. But wait, isn’t The Dark Knight already on Blu Ray?! It absolutely is, but I’m not talking about The Dark Knight. The best Batman film ever made is Batman: Mask of The Phantasm. Right now you’re thinking: “Paul! Are you fucking nuts? The Dark Knight is HANDS DOWN the best superhero movie EVER made! Are you on fucking crack, bro?” First of all, No, I’m not on crack, I’m on cocaine and a little morphine but it doesn’t affect my judgment whatsoever. Secondly, of course I love The Dark Knight! The movie is a fucking masterpiece. Not only the apex of superhero films so far, it’s the movie all other superhero movies are judged against. It’s one of the best films ever made… period.

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What makes Mask of the Phantasm so special to me and what differentiates it from the Nolan films and the Burton films (I love both), is that the story focuses on Batman and his journey more than any other character. Burton’s first two Batman movies get overwhelmed with villains that overshadow Batman and in the second film Batman Returns he has a significantly less screen time then in Batman 1989. Meanwhile, Nolan and his films were a huge step in the right direction, but this still wasn’t the Batman that I knew and loved. The Joker looms so large over everything in The Dark Knight and the most important character arc in that film is Harvey Dent’s. So again, we have an excellent Batman movie that doesn’t necessarily have Batman as the focus of the story.

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As many times as we’ve seen Batman on the big screen, we’ve never really a gotten theatrical film that delves deep into Batman and his psychology, what drives him, and the pain from his past that haunts him in the present. Even though we’ve had some excellent portrayals of Batman on film, we haven’t had a movie that gets inside the characters head like this film does. Mask of The Phantasm is such a exceptional Batman film because FINALLY it’s a story about… Batman.

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After the massive success of Bruce Timm’s classic Batman: The Animated series, Warner Bros. wanted Timm and company to produce a feature length Batman animated movie. It was an extension of The Animated Series, taking place in the same universe as the show (kind of like how they started making the early Star Trek movies. They weren’t a reboot of the show, but a continuation, another chapter in the adventures of these characters). Even though the film was not a financial success, largely due to poor marketing, it was critically acclaimed at the time and has since been viewed as a masterpiece of the superhero genre with an enormous cult following. Like the TV show it came from, Mask of The Phantasm was dark, adult, smart, and with beautiful noir style animation and music. The movie was able to captivate an adult audience with the same emotional complexity and moving storytelling that the animated series did so well. As a cherry on top, we get to watch Mark Hamill give one of the all-time great super villain performances as The Joker in this film.

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In the film, Batman must overcome a physical challenge in the form of The Phantasm and an emotional one in the form of Andrea Beaumont, an old flame who could have been the love of Bruce’s life. When a masked vigilante starts murdering mob bosses in Gotham City, Batman becomes public enemy number one when both the police and the criminal underworld think The Dark Knight is the killer. Of course, the mysterious Phantasm is the real killer. To complicate matters for Bruce, Andrea Beaumont returns to Gotham after years of living abroad. This stirs up painful memories for Bruce and a large part of the film flashes back to the days just before Bruce was about to become The Batman.

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Mask of The Phantasm was as close to a Batman origin story as the show ever came. In the flashbacks, Bruce is roughly in his early 20’s and has just returned to Gotham. He’s been around the world, learned all the skills and training he needs, but he’s still not sure how to carry out his mission of protecting Gotham City. This is when Bruce meets a beautiful young woman named Andrea Beaumont. He meets her in a cemetery of all places (very fitting for Batman), Bruce is there visiting his parent’s graves, looking for some kind of guidance on how he should move forward with his insane mission. Bruce sees the beautiful Andrea at her mothers grave and overhears her talking out loud to her mother who’s long since passed on. This immediately connects the two, because they both have tragedy in their past that has defined their lives. They strike up a conversation and they have immediate chemistry. Bruce asks her out and they begin dating.

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As their relationship deepens, Bruce continues to experiment with his mission. There’s a key scene in the film where Bruce attempts to stop a robbery that involves group of thug’s loading stolen goods onto a truck. There’s a pretty cool action scene and Bruce is ultimately able to subdue the criminals. However, Bruce comes to an important revelation: as skilled as Bruce is, he’s still just a man in a ski mask with a couple of gadgets. In fact, when he first confronts the criminals they laugh at them, they don’t know what to make of this nut. That’s when it dawns on him: they need to be afraid of him. In that moment, the Batman persona is born.

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But all this masked vigilante stuff may become a moot point. Bruce didn’t count on finding love or happiness. Ultimately a life with Andrea means more to Bruce than fulfilling the vow he made to his parents that he would rid the city of the evil that took their lives. There’s great scene in the film where Bruce agonizes over this decision, which I’ve posted below:

This settles it, Bruce proposes to Andrea. She says yes and they couldn’t be happier. But all Batman stories are stories of tragedy to one degree or another and Andrea’s father is keeping a dark secret (I won’t spoil it here but it comes in to play in a big way later in the film and it may not be what you think).

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* (This is NOT what I would call a good omen for the future of their relationship)

The next day Bruce comes home greeted by a sullen Alfred who hands Bruce a note from Andrea, breaking off their engagement. This comes completely out of the blue and leaves Bruce heart broken (again Andrea’s reason for the abrupt break up come into play later in the film).

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In the flashbacks, we see a Bruce Wayne who hasn’t been completely consumed by The Batman. We see him more vulnerable and open than the character is usually portrayed. Before the wall of The Batman is put up, when he won’t let anyone in. There are many reasons Batman behaves the way he does. But this was an interesting insight into one of the reasons he is cold, distant, and keeps the people closest to him at arms length. It’s this deep exploration of the psyche of Bruce Wayne that makes this movie such a stand out. Batman is the main character. It shows him at these two vastly different points in his life and give us a fantastic insight into who he is and why.
Bruce finally makes his choice and becomes The Batman. Which we see here in this excellent scene:

 

I WAS GONNA DO A SPOILER WARNING, BUT AT THIS POINT… FUCK IT

 

So, basically the reason Andrea had to abruptly end her engagement to Bruce was that Andrea’s father made some bad investments and lost a lot of money. In desperation, he turned to some very dangerous men for a loan. When these men came looking for payments on the money that Andrea’s father owed, he couldn’t pay. They threatened his life and the life of his daughter if he didn’t come up with the money by the end of the week. Fearing for his daughters life, Andrea and her father flee to Europe where they had been in hiding for several years. Eventually, the criminals who her father owed money to, track them down and a man who may or may not, be the man who becomes The Joker, killed Andrea’s father. All the men that her father owed money to, are the mob bosses that The Phantasm has been killing. Andrea Beaumont is The Phantasm. Killing these men as revenge for taking her father’s life

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As I said before The Joker plays an important part in this film, of course played by the great Mark Hamill. This movie also flirts with a possible origin for The Joker. And like all of the great possible origins for The Joker, it’s left hazy and uncertain. There are several different possible explanations for who The Joker really is in the comics. In those comics and this movie, they don’t rob the character of his mystique by spelling out exactly who he is, they just give you a taste.

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To be completely honest, they don’t necessarily need The Joker to make this story work. They could’ve left the character out and the story still would’ve worked fine. But Mark Hamill is such a great Joker and this being their first big screen showing of this television program, they had to of course include Batman’s best and most iconic villain. Also, this film has one of my favorite Joker moments of all time.

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During the films climax at an abandoned worlds fair, there’s a final showdown between Batman, The Joker, and The Phantasm.  This is great scene because it’s a brutal, violent confrontation between mortal enemies, with Batman in the middle trying to save the soul of the woman he loves.  In a final attempt to save Andrea from the path she’s on, Batman says: “But Andrea, what will vengeance solve?” To which she replies “If anyone knows the answer to that, Bruce, its you.” Wow, Andrea. Burn.

Andrea disappears to hunt The Joker, while Batman tries to get to him first. The Joker has the whole place rigged to explode and after a brutal fight with Batman, The Joker is bloody and on his knees in front of Andrea Beaumont. Andrea has the man who killed her father at her complete mercy. At this point there’s a very good chance that all three of them could die. Just as the bombs go off and everything around them is burning, this wonderful scene culminates in, in my opinion, the greatest Joker laugh in cinema history:

It’s kind of brilliant that Bruce Wayne would fall in love with a woman like Andrea Beaumont. Even before she becomes the revenge driven Phantasm, maybe there was something that she and Bruce saw in each other that they didn’t even realize on a conscious level, how similar they both were. And how willing they both are to do things that would be considered madness in the name of those they love. And that’s the tragedy of this story, had things been different, there could’ve been a real life for Bruce Wayne, a life without Batman. A life without the pain, the fear, the rage, the loneliness. This story showed us his opportunity to let go of his vendetta. The fact that he came so close is the gut punch.

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The Blu-ray sales of Batman: Mask of The Phantasm are very important because if this film sells well on Blu-ray, Warner Bros. will finally release Batman: The Animated Series in its entirety on Blu-ray. Right now, the series is only available on DVD and digital download. So I encourage you, if you’re a true Batman fan go out and buy this Blu-ray. Because we want this wonderful, seminal, incredible, classic series to finally be on Blu-ray like it deserves. Plus, you’ll have one of the best Batman movies ever made to add to your Blu-ray collection. This is Batman at his best folks. If you’ve never seen either Batman: The Animated Series or Batman: Mask of The Phantasm, than I’m envious of you, because you’re in for one hell of a treat, enjoy.

As always, thanks for reading everyone!
-Paul

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