My god it is fitting that I kick off my tenure on The Fictosphere writing about my beloved Batman.
News broke recently that Batman writer Tom King will bring The Phantasm, the Batman villain from 1993’s theatrical motion picture Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, into main DC comics canon for the first time in 2020 in the pages of Batman/Catwoman, which is the last part of King’s long Batman run. Ever since Harley Quinn long ago made the jump from the Timmverse/DCAU to the main comics, others in the universe have gradually migrated over through the years like Roxy Rocket, Condiment King, Kyodai Ken, etc.
I wanted to use this news very opportunistically to get a bit long winded and talk about why I love the movie Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. And then after that, I will probably circle on back to blindly speculating on what Batman writer Tom King might do with The Phantasm.
If you’re a big time Batman comic book reader or writer, you’ll probably find yourself someday having a discussion about Batman’s no-killing rule. And Chris Nolan and Zack Snyder’s Batman films brought larger audiences into such fan discussions. Does Batman kill? Should he? Why doesn’t he? Wait, which Batman are we talking about again? It’s a complicated discussion that can be come at from various different angles. Philosophy intellectuals can get in on the game too of overthinking a childrens’ comic book superhero. And they did with Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul, a book that, as someone who excelled in the few philosophy courses I took in college, I found substantive and interesting.
But why do people have the discussion? It may be that fans are still collectively trying to figure out such darker fascinating heroes/vigilantes like Batman, like The Shadow, The Punisher, Spawn, etc. They’re not like Superman, or are they? And I think the subject of killing is this convenient and compelling microcosmic gateway to probing these characters in some depth and to help differentiate them. The subject of killing or not is, at its core, all about justice or the lack thereof. Which characters work for justice and which do not? If a character’s goals and actions are aimed more towards our core consensus notions on justice (notions such as: don’t kill unless you must), then it’s pretty fair to put that character in the same sort of hero category as Superman.
So justice versus vengeance, justice versus unjust murder, that’s the tension, the philosophical moral spectrum that Batman struggles with and is judged from. Justice versus vengeance (for a lack of a more striking word) gets right to the very beating heart of Batman and his place in hero/vigilante spectrum, and the larger good versus evil spectrum.
It seems to me that the writers and creators of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm understood the importance of showing people why Batman is a hero and how Batman differs a bit from some of his pulp magazine/radio predecessors (and his own earliest incarnation) and also from the slew of dark vigilante types that cropped up in 1970s and 1980s.
Mask of the Phantasm is an ambitious film and a poignant morality tale. It dually aims to get to the heart of Batman’s war on crime and the heart of, well, Batman’s heart (i.e. Batman’s often under explored love life). Gotham’s gangsters start dying at the hands of the mysterious Phantasm and Batman investigates only to eventually learn that Bruce Wayne’s long lost first love Andrea Beaumont is The Phantasm, seeking to avenge the murder of her father. We see flashbacks to a time just before Bruce became Batman, when Bruce fell in love with a fellow Gotham socialite, Andrea Beaumont, who only had a father after losing her mother prematurely.
Bruce’s love for Andrea is almost enough to avert Bruce from his graveyard vow to fight crime. In the pouring rain he desperately pleads with his parents’ grave: “I don’t want to let you down, honest, but… but it just doesn’t hurt so bad anymore. . . . Please! I need it to be different now. I know I made a promise, but I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t count on being happy.” But Andrea removes the internal conflict for young Bruce by abruptly breaking it off with him and returning his ring and disappearing from his life. We later learn that Andrea’s father Carl Beaumont, who was basically a mob financial planner, was why Andrea suddenly dropped out of Bruce’s life at the very moment she might have changed it for the better forever. Carl and Andrea had moved around to avoid reprisal on some embezzling debt Carl owed the mob, but eventually the mob found and murdered Carl which in turn led Andrea to become The Phantasm, hellbent on getting vengeance against the mob.
When Bruce learns Andrea is The Phantasm, the femme fatale, it is in trying to stop her mob murder spree that he comes to realize that what love they had long ago could never return as the old Andrea never truly returned to Gotham. She had blackened her soul with a life of murder and vengeance and Bruce won’t become the very evil he vowed to his parents to fight against.
The movie is a remarkably poignant and tragic tale of how destiny or fate can come at a price. This grim fatalism is a hallmark of noir cinema. But the film brilliantly of course cuts both ways and is also very much about not allowing life’s tragedies to bring you to the dark side, to evil. Bruce may have lost his parents and lost Andrea, but he doesn’t lose himself, he refuses to. That’s what makes him Batman, that is what makes him a superhero. He turns tragedy into triumph, even if it’s not the particular triumph of love he almost had with Andrea, because Bill Finger and Bob Kane had a different fate than true love in store for Bruce Wayne when they created Batman in 1939.
Mask of the Phantasm feels like the ultimate Batman story, the one story that sums up 80 years of the character and what he stands for. Even Batman’s arch nemesis, The Joker, plays a central role in the film. I’m a Batman fanatic, I have read Batman issues and runs from all the eras. I have read all the great stories told about this character. And I would love nothing more than to be able to definitively say Batman’s greatest story is in the pages of some Batman comic or graphic novel, because I want people to read Batman comics and love them as much as I do. But, and I won’t settle this matter here, it might be that Mask of the Phantasm is his greatest story.
The many different little creators of Batman: The Animated Series, many of them Batman comic book writers/editors, read the same great Batman comics that I did (or even wrote some of them!). And they knew exactly what eras and what genres were the foundation of and inspiration for Batman and his comics. So it’s not so surprising that the TV series and Mask of the Phantasm are as great as they are.
It warms my cold heart that many Batman fans and film critics hold the film in high regard despite the film’s dismal box office performance. Famed Batman producer Michael Uslan said it best: “Mask of the Phantasm is possibly the best Batman movie ever made; it certainly has the best story… That movie will always stand up against time and it’s a testament to the quality of the show that Bruce (Timm) launched in 1992.”
And now, Tom King is bringing The Phantasm back. We’ve seen The Phantasm make appearance since the movie in various side media, but never in main “present” DC comics canon. In a way, I’m glad it’s taken this long because I don’t think I want The Phantasm to be any old regular commodified Batman villain. Batman has got enough of those (and I love them, don’t get me wrong). But Andrea was something different, something special, she was almost the one. If she is to retain some of her power, her magic in eyes of Batman fans, she can’t just be in and out of Blackgate or Arkham like all the rest for decades.
As much as I love Two-Face, that Harvey Dent and Bruce used to be close friends. . . how can years of arrest and escape and murder not dilute some of Harvey’s power to still be seen by Bruce (and readers) as an old personal friend? I think Talia and maybe other recurring rogues have had similar struggles sometimes if they’re meant to be people Bruce is emotionally invested in. Writer Grant Morrison, for example, seemed to conclude that Batman and Talia’s closeness didn’t make quite as much such sense anymore. He rather radically reframed Talia more villainously according to all her accumulated crimes and complicities and Bruce’s numerous rejections of her; Morrison hardened her and hardened Bruce against her. DC has tried to take Talia back to her pre-Morrison status quo, but who knows if it will really truly work in the eyes of readers, writers and editors.
All this brings me to The Catwoman. She’s certainly been a recurring foe, but she’s also been different enough from the rest in that she has spent decades now flirting with being Bruce’s possibly true love, the one of his life as Batman. Selina Kyle has succeeded as a character where Talia, Vicki Vale, Julie Madison, Silver St. Cloud and other Batman love interests have perhaps failed. Selina has been the most prominent and most marketed one. She of course owes much of that to her long foundational existence as a Batman comic book character and her presence in the 1966 Batman show and other big mainstream Batman media (Batmedia?). And Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s very successful 2004 Batman: Hush saga/run did a lot perhaps to confirm Catwoman’s prominent role in Batman’s 21st century pop culture life.
In 2018 Tom King garnered a lot publicity by almost marrying off Batman and Catwoman. I loved that he didn’t do it (because, well, Batman shouldn’t marry), but many were angered that the marriage didn’t happen. Tom, in his stories and from his interviews, seems intent on making some significant statement on comic Batman and love. And so it makes a lot of sense that Tom King would dredge up The Phantasm Andrea Beaumont from . . out of the past (noir pun intended). Maybe Andrea is the best curveball to throw at Batman and Catwoman’s relationship if you intend to offer a new statement about Batman finding true lasting love.
Can Bruce marry or settle down and still carry on as Batman? Can he have his cake and eat it too? Does Selina share Bruce’s values enough? Does Bruce share Selina’s values enough? We shall have to wait and see. It would be cool I think if Tom King uses Andrea like the proverbial ghost of Christmas past, this mirror shown back at Bruce of the path not taken. Of course, Andrea was the one who left Bruce’s life, and so I am a bit puzzled and curious as to how Tom King will frame Andrea without changing her story. I will be rather upset if he significantly changes Andrea’s backstory much; I won’t be the only one angry. But maybe Tom will succeed in staying true to Andrea and maximizing her role and purpose in this last chapter of his Batman run.