Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is in interesting entry in the world of long-form cinematic Batman stories for a few different reasons. First, it manages to do what the Tim Burton movies were unable to — make Bruce Wayne/Batman the protagonist of his own story. Second, it’s primarily a detective story as opposed to an action story. Third, at least half of the story is told in flashback, a parallel-action setup ambitious for an animated movie thought of as primarily for kids. Lastly, the story it tells is rather emotional and internal — Bruce/Batman broods a lot in this movie, even by his own standards. The action sequences feel perfunctory and tacked-on. The two that come to mind — a truck chase and the explosive finale — are poorly motivated and don’t advance the plot in any meaningful way.
The cinematic Bruce Wayne seems to always be tussling with the “problem” of being Batman, something I don’t remember from the comics. It seems that Bruce can either pursue his career as a dark agent of justice, or else he can have a satisfying romantic relationship, but he cannot do both. For the first time in his cinematic history (but not the last), his girlfriend is a redhead. (The Batman Movie Girlfriend tally so far, for those keeping score, is: blonde, blonde, blonde, redhead and — gasp — brunette. The interesting thing about the brunette, Rachel Dawes, is that she is the only one of the bunch who was attracted to Bruce first and not attracted to Batman at all — the others get their heads turned by the cape, and only later find Bruce interesting as well. Which would seem to argue that Bruce can’t solve his Batman problem as easily as he thinks — it’s nice to have billions of dollars and all, but apparently one must have billions of dollars and dress like a bat in order to get anywhere with the ladies.)
In the Batman movies, Batman constantly juggles his love life and crime-fighting life. In the comics, not so much. The Riddler has a scheme involving a giant typewriter, how could Batman have time to worry about dating? Perhaps that’s why the Adam West Batman makes so much sense to so many people — Batman has Robin, they’re both obviously gay, they go fight crime together. Maybe they don’t even have sex, maybe they sublimate their sexual energy into beating up criminals. It would explain why they’re so utterly flummoxed by seductress villains like Catwoman, the Siren and Poison Ivy — they can’t punch a woman, and what’s more they have no desire to punch a woman. What are they supposed to do?
The detective half of Phantasm involves a new villain, the titular Phantasm, who is on a killing rampage, murdering old-time Gotham City gangsters. The good people of Gotham come to suspect that the Phantasm is really Batman, which causes a certain amount of trouble. The appearance of the Phantasm also sparks a memory in Bruce about a woman named Andrea, who he fell in love with while he was still making up his mind about whether he wanted to spend his life avenging his parents’ death or not. The detective half of the movie demands an answer to the question “Who is the Phantasm?” The answer to this question is, alas, painfully obvious from the beginning, which downgrades the suspense quotient to a considerable degree. The screenplay makes a feint toward a red herring or two, but ultimately it comes back to who we knew it was all along.
Because the “new villain no one’s ever heard of killing off a bunch of old men” story lacks an audience-pleasing hook, the Joker shows up halfway through. The Joker, it turns out, was once part of the old gang that is now being murdered, and is thus now smack in the middle of the story — as a potential victim instead of a villain. By the third act, though, as the Phantasm turns sympathetic, the Joker advances to lead-villain status, with all his gag-related weapons and improbably well-organized booby traps. At the climax, the Phantasm has turned so sympathetic that Batman must protect the Joker from his/her/its wrath.
Aside from plotting issues, there is a larger problem with the Phantasm character, which is that he/she/it isn’t a good fit in the Batman universe. The Phantasm is neither a nutcase like Two-Face nor a monster like Clayface — it’s some kind of weird sci-fi Dr. Doom sort of villain, with a metal skull mask and a flowing cape. The Phantasm is bulletproof, glides around in a cloud of self-produced fog and sports a whirring knife for a hand, none of which seems particularly interesting or thematically resonant in Batman-villain terms.
The flashback half of the movie involves a tender love story between the not-yet-Batman Bruce and this Andrea person. Andrea is, up to this point, the least messed-up woman Bruce has dealt with — she’s strong, capable, feminine and has lipstick that glows in the dark. Bruce comes very close to forgetting all about his parents’ deaths and living a happy, full life, but we all know how that one turns out. It’s interesting — when Superman is tempted to give up Supermanning for the love of Lois Lane, it seems like such a blind, tragic loss — ah nuts, he’s going to give up flying and melting things with his vision for a dame? — but Bruce Wayne giving up Batmanning is always seen as a liberating, light-filled possibility — Bruce is born to suffer for society’s sins and Batman is his curse. Short on action and outlandish schemes, and long on misery and regret, Mask of the Phantasm is more grown up, more adult, than either of the Burton movies, to say nothing of the extended giggle-fests to come.