One of the major hallmarks of American popular media, particularly film and television, is nostalgic stories and content that hearkens back to an idealized American past that never existed. President Donald Trump keyed into this impulse with his “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan and liberal Hollywood does the same with Forest Gump, It, and a raft of other pictures that recall the halcyon days of another era.
In 1993, Warner Brothers released what was a true first for them, a relatively low-budget animated adaptation of their Batman property, with a picture subtitled Mask of the Phantasm. The film came and went from Christmastime theaters with very little attention and is now a bit of a niche oddity among a certain group of fans who were kids in the early 1990s. But even within the wider community of Batman fans, it is described as one of the best movies featuring the Caped Crusader, a picture that does better than several of the later, higher-budgeted live action films. The minutiae of plot and storyline are easily ascertained by visiting the Wikipedia page for the picture and so I won’t go deeply into it. A basic one-line summary is “Batman is framed for murdering Gotham City mobsters by a new villain, the Phantasm, who has a deep connections to a younger Bruce Wayne’s choice to put on the familiar tights and cowl, a period of life that also includes a cameo by the Joker and a love interest named Andrea Beaumont.”
The film is interesting for a number of reasons, beginning with the aesthetics. With a blood-red nighttime sky juxtaposed against Art Deco architecture circa 1929-35, Gotham City seems like a town Dante would have written a tourist’s guide for.
The character designs, indebted to the classic 1930s Superman short cartoons produced by Fleischer Studios, are sleek and and clean, using bold lines and heavy profiles in jawlines and shoulders to draw reference to American film noir.
The storyline, informed by Citizen Kane, is a fascinating character study that offers profound insights into a very frightening dimension of the American psyche. Through the very intentional combination of well-developed and complex elements of mise-en-scène with characterization, we have a Batman movie that can offer an important commentary on our contemporary politics, including why our current president seems quite often to be emulating the Joker.
Context is everything with this and so we need to back up and recall a coincidental philosophical argument that was simultaneous with the picture’s release. In 1989 Francis Fukuyama, deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff and former analyst at the RAND Corporation, published his article “The End of History?,” which he later re-published in book form as The End of History and the Last Man. “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government,” he wrote. In essence, liberal democracy was defined by the de-regulation of financial markets to allow free flow of capital across international borders, dismantling of the postwar social safety net that defined the welfare state, and strengthening of various property laws, including intellectual property laws, within the confines of a representative democracy.
Leaving aside Fukuyama’s motivations, this ideological point of departure is worthwhile for consideration of Mask of the Phantasm. His writings demonstrate a certain neoliberal utopianism, a confirmation of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous proclamation “there is no alternative” but with a positive spin, permeated the aether in the 1990s during this picture’s production.
Now consider this brief sequence:
The film’s use of a “World of Tomorrow”-themed amusement park ride throughout the film materializes this utopian impulse. In a flashback sequence, a young Bruce Wayne goes on a date to the Gotham World’s Fair and rides on a tram through an altogether familiar projection of “the future” (or what Madison Avenue thought the future looked like in 1956). Consumerism, hetero-patriarchal cis-normativity, and white supremacy (this Gotham seems to be based more on apartheid-era Pretoria than any New York City I have ever visited) have formed within this amusement park ride a perfect world. In the present day, after Bruce Wayne has given up his youthful innocence and become Batman, it is a run-down, decrepit, abandoned mess. This spreads outward and is what defines the general ambience of all Gotham City, a decaying rot that cannot be rooted out.
Mask of the Phantasm is a dystopia where liberal democracy has not so much gone off the rails as been revealed to be an easily-imploded sham. In a particularly insightful moment, the young Bruce Wayne prays at the grave of his parents, begging to be released from his oath to become a vigilante, pleading that he will “give more money to the police.” While one reading would tease out the fascistic undertones of such a proposition (and they certainly are present, make no mistake), on another level, this prayer demonstrates how Wayne desires to continue the utopian delusion, to turn away from the revelation of his utopia’s bankruptcy. The consistent and unwavering message of the film is that Bruce Wayne’s fortune cannot buy him peace of mind, love, or anything else to set him at ease. Instead, he closes the film in permanent resignation to a self-imposed solitude.
Batman and the Phantasm are a dialectical pair, unified with the synthesis of the Joker. Both demonstrate different aspects of a disturbed psychological profile that is the logical outcome of this utopian ideology. Their mutual break with acceptable society is so profound it strikes terror in normal men. Consider this sequence when Bruce first dons the Batman costume, particularly the reaction of his socially-respectable butler Alfred, whose utility in the sequence cannot be understated.
The Joker provides not only a warped mirror of his two opponents (where they are stoic he is loud, where they wear black he is garish, where they seek justice against crime he wreaks havoc), his character is the logical emotional and psychological conclusion of liberal democracy’s failure. Consider this moment at the close of the picture when he bursts into manic laughter in response to the immolation of this utopian project.
This sociopathic element underwrites the impulse we see today on public display with the direction of state violence and armed white male vigilante violence against BIPOC folks that Donald Trump has put into his cross-hairs. From Charlottesville to El Paso to ICE raids, this implosion of liberal democracy breeds fascistic tendencies in the public.
The point I have argued multiple times since 2016, that austerity policies (a hallmark of liberal democratic governance) breed chauvinism and reaction, with particularly deadly results when such policies target those who are beneficiaries white privilege, cannot be under-estimated here.
Not bad for a movie produced for $6 million that clocks in at a whopping 76 minutes, right?