Villains have to be my favorites characters in a film. From Darth Vader to Michael Corleone, they are by far the most intriguing personalities a writer needs to come up with. A great hero needs a greater villain. The Joker might the greatest of all.
Batman. A character that has seen so many incarnations through the years; in comic books, animated series, films, and video games. And yet, it’s been Batman regardless of who plays him, voices him or draws him. Batman has evolved through the years more so than probably any other comic book character. Each writer brought something new to the character. And each new iteration became part of the DC, as well as remembered by the audience. Jack Nicholson brought the name Jack Napier on the table after Tim Burton’s version of the Batman. If I were to ask you which is the greatest Batman film, also featuring the greatest Joker, you’ll all be answering The Dark Knight. And you’ll be right. But you’ll be also missing on the great piece that is Mask of the Phantasm. Both Dark Knight and Phantasm succeed in facing Batman with incredible villains, and in elevating Bruce Wayne as a character on his own. As Robert McKee says in his book Story; a protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them. The Dark Knight and Mask of the Phantasm achieve exactly that, but since you all know the former, let’s talk about the latter. You have your spoiler alert. Go watch the film and then come back!
In a traditional Batman-fashion, the film features two Bat-enemies. The Phantasm is an original villain created for this film and, to my knowledge, never featured in any other Batman work. The character is first introduced as a villain, but as the story goes, he is more and more depicted as a vigilante, mistaken for the Caped Crusader by the GCPD. Phantasm goes after Gotham crime bosses to avenge her father’s death. Character motivations are very similar to those of Batman. However, Batman as a moral code: he does not kill. Motivations are also clearly explained throughout the narration, and the character comes with a twist: it’s Bruce Wayne’s lover. The two are intimately linked, yet enemies. This will force Batman to make informed decisions as the plot develops. His choices will have a huge impact on his alter-ego’s life and relationships. It’s not just another enemy, but a character that, through opposition, will change our protagonist. It is an occasion for both the writers and the audience to delve deeper into the mind of our favorite super-hero.
A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them. The Dark Knight and Mask of the Phantasm achieve exactly that.
The second antagonist of the film is, of course, the Joker. No need to introduce the clown. We also saw many incarnations of the character, even though by the time to film came to theatres, we didn’t see Heath Ledger, nor Joaquin Phoenix, under the makeup. I like to see each Bat-villain as a way for Bruce Wayne to deal with the mourning of his parents; Joker is definitely one of them, if not the most important one. Batman’s greatest fear is to lose control and become the Joker. They are both opposites. Batman likes order, the Joker divulges chaos. However, the writers didn’t just include the Joker because they had to. They found a connection to the first antagonist. They gave a back story to the Joker. Kind of like what The Killing Joke did 5 years before, but not yet to the same extend. Introducing Jack Napier, the man that is bound to become the Joker. He was the chauffeur to a crime boss and was involved with the Phantasm’s father’s death. And, of course, death is coming to him and Batman must prevent that. In the final standout, all three characters are opposed. Batman’s moral code is put to the test.
You may have noticed that I like to speak of Batman and Bruce Wayne as if they were two different characters. Or rather to sides of the same character. This is particularly explained in the film: the writers gave a backstory to Batman too. It’s been more prominent than anything we’ve seen on screen before at this time (remember, it’s 1993). Although it is arguable that Bruce Wayne died and became Batman that night in Crime Alley, the writers took another route. In the film, Bruce Wayne can choose to be happy. But he decides not to, because of turns of events in the story. He then becomes the Batman. I like that the film explores this backstory and deepening the relationship between him and the Phantasm. This gives the audience momentum and high expectations for the final showdown between the two. The film also introduces the notion that Bruce Wayne is the mask that Batman wears in public. Something that had never been done before on screen, therefore making Bruce Wayne stands out more as a character. His mission to save Gotham is much more personal this time: he would never allow someone else to go through what he lived.