Something happened to you, didn't it? (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm)

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It’s December 17, 1993, exactly three months since the first season of Batman: The Animated Series ended. The top song is Janet Jackson with “Again”; Ace of Base, Mariah Carey, Meat Loaf, and Salt-N-Pepa also chart. The top movie is The Pelican Brief, with Mrs. Doubtfire, Wayne’s World 2, Beethoven’s 2nd, and Sister Act 2 rounding out the top five. Not making it onto the charts is the only theatrically released DCAU movie, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, though it does make it up to 11th place next weekend and will cling stubbornly onto the bottom half of the top twenty for most of January.
The movie opens much as episodes of the series do, with a dark skyline set against ominously red skies, harbingers of apocalypse, accompanied by an absolutely stunning score–this film represents some of BTAS composer Shirley Walker’s best work. But this is no tale of apocalypse deferred; rather, it is a story about decay, the loss of a bright past promise.
The film weaves together a present crisis–mobsters are being murdered by a shadowy figure eyewitnesses mistook for Batman–with flashbacks to a period in Batman’s life we haven’t seen before, at the very beginning of his crimefighting career. We are past his training with Zatara and Yoru, but before he put on his mask, the last moment of choice before he gave himself over to the Bat.
Batman is, as we have discussed several times, a trauma survivor. His identity is fractured by the horror of seeing his parents murdered in front of him, the guilt he feels for being unable to stop their killer, for being alive when they are dead. Bruce Wayne and the Bat are both masks worn by the frightened child underneath, but what we see in this film is a moment when both are still half-formed, still visibly full of raw pain and determination. Andrea Beaumont is able to see this pain in Bruce, and is fascinated by it, most likely because she has lost a parent as well.
In the course of the love affair that follows, we see Bruce in a ski mask trying to fight crime and nearly getting killed because criminals don’t fear him. The Bat has driven him to become the protector he never had, but at this stage it is still half-formed, nameless and vague, and hence it is the Bruce-mask that must fight, with limited success both times we see him do it. He is vengeance, but he is not yet the night.
We also see Bruce and Andrea attend the Gotham World’s Fair, a glittering promise of a shining future full of wonders, a deliberate contrast to the modern day, when the Joker is living in the dark, squalid, creepy ruins of that same World’s Fair. It’s a bit on-the-nose, but the point is made: the future ain’t what it used to be. Bruce Wayne makes several references to “the plan” in flashback, first as his intent to fight crime, and later his new plan to spend his life with Andrea. There was a plan for the world, too. If, as seems likely, the flashbacks are about ten years prior to the present-day segments–long enough that Alfred has gone gray, but the people who were young in the flashbacks are still relatively young in the present–then that places them in the early 1980s, when the future of the world was known: fiery apocalyptic conflagration, the final triumph of good (read: the capitalist West) over evil (read: the Soviet Union), and then somehow this would lead into an era of prosperity and peace that looked exactly like Leave It to Beaver.
But instead of conflagration there was decay. The Soviet Union collapsed. A few years later, so did the U.S. economy. Suddenly a future of rocket ships and friendly robot servants and self-cleaning houses seemed absurd; in their place the expectation was for the decay to continue forever, a steady rotting away of the order of things, a descent into chaos and despair.
So it is that the Joker lives in the ruins of the future, a bitter joke lingering in the wreckage. But he’s not the primary antagonist here: that’s the Phantasm, the assassin killing mobsters. The name carries associations with both ghosts and illusions, death and deception. Of course on one level it’s a straightforward description of what she does, using a strange fog to appear and disappear, confuse her victims, and then kill them.
But, oddly, the Phantasm is never named as such in the film. And the title, note, is “Mask of the Phantasm.” Curious given that, over the course of the flashbacks, Wayne discovers the Bat Cave on a date with Andrea, then when she leaves him (because her father is being hunted by the mobsters who, in the present day, she returns to kill) he quite dramatically dons the Batman costume for the first time, the implication being that the discovery of the cave inspired him, and the loss of Andrea motivated him, to adopt the Bat as his totem. The Mask, and potentially the Phantasm as well, the illusion that haunts, is readable as being the Bat as much as it is Andrea. Or, perhaps more accurately, Andrea can be read as an instance of the true Phantasm, that which truly haunts Bruce Wayne.
This, after all, is the nature of trauma. It can be created by a singular event or a lengthy ordeal, but once the trauma exists, it takes on a cyclical nature. The victim re-experiences their trauma again and again throughout their lives, pulled back into it by the very coping mechanisms that let them survive it, as those coping mechanisms are triggered by stimuli associated with the original trauma. Bruce Wayne revisits his trauma every time his origin story is told, reliving the pain and fear and grief and rage of his parents’ death, the helplessness and guilt, the creation of the Bat and its unleashing upon Crime. The pain of that loss, the risk of experiencing it again, led him to shut himself off for years as he trained–and then when he is on the cusp of turning his pain outward onto the world, Andrea appears. He lets himself love again, after begging for his parents’ permission to be happy in a scene that should have won Kevin Conroy every award there is. He lets her in, and the consequence is that once again someone he loves is torn out of his life without warning or explanation. The cycle turns, the trauma repeats, and he becomes the Bat. And then she comes back, only to be again “killed,” again torn away from him by his nemesis, Crime. The cycle turns, the trauma repeats, and the Bat stands brooding on a rooftop, until the Bat-Signal calls him into action.
And it’s not just him. A singular event can be a trauma, but a trauma can be stretched over a long period of time, too. There is such a thing as mass trauma; a natural disaster, a war, these can inflict trauma on large numbers of people. Perhaps trauma can even occur at a cultural scale, in a sense.
What, then, of a decades-long threat of imminent, violent, fiery destruction? Could we not expect a culture which endured that to come out traumatized on the other side? Would we not expect the culture that survived that to stop seeing the shining future of the World’s Fair, to have its vision of the future become the blighted urban decay of cyberpunk instead? The 90s have a reputation for “grimdark,” for entertainment that is obsessed with being loud, angry, violent, grim, dour, despairing, from comics to music to film.
But maybe that’s just the cultural equivalent of putting on a mask to punch crime in the face.

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