So I was watching Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and it got me thinking about violence and goodness…
“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce. I’ve always feared that you would become that which you fought against. You walk the edge of that abyss every night, but you haven’t fallen in and I thank heaven for that.” – Alfred Pennyworth
Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy gets a ton of (deserved) credit for grounding Batman. Nolan takes the idea of Batman and plugs him into primal and philosophical questions about fear (BB,) chaos (TDK,) and pain (TDKR.) They become intellectual exercises by way of action film, and they are special.
But there’s more than one way to skin a bat, and 20 years before Nolan got his hands on it, Mask of the Phantasm humanized Bruce Wayne and his alter ego in a way that still has not been topped.
In Phantasm, Bruce becomes Batman not to save Gotham, and not even to get revenge for the death of his parents. It simply flows out of the trauma of his parent’s murder, though there is nothing simple about the implications of that trauma. There’s a magnificent scene around the midway point where Bruce stands at his parents’ grave begging for permission to give up Batman and just be happy. Being Batman is not a moral crusade, but a burden to the dead. It’s a burden that you hope he can shed; the movie nearly makes you root for him to hang up the cowl.
But the movie holds up two villains that show him who he is by contrast. There’s the mysterious Phantasm who acts as an “Angel of Death” serving retribution for past sins. Uncovering the identity of the Phantasm, and their connection to Bruce’s original pain, leads to Alfred’s line at the beginning of this reflection. One of the inherent problems with Batman is that running around beating up criminals at night does not seem like the behavior of someone on the good side. Batman is always working out his own pain by causing it, but he aims it at people deemed more deserving, like a superhero version of Dexter. He is not driven by vengeance, but he “walks that edge every night.”
But before Bruce can fully learn this lesson, enter The Joker. Much like the premise of The Dark Knight, Phantasm uses The Joker’s chaotic evil to muddy the waters. There are forces of evil that baffle our sense of reason and call forth the need for a response. In a scene that uses hilarious physical comedy, atypical cartoon brutality, and heavy symbolism, Batman and the Joker tower over a model skyline and fight like mythical Godzilla-sized creatures for the “future of Gotham.” In Batman’s world, where there are villains who want nothing but to destroy what is good, Batman exists to match that struggle.
So when he glides off into the night as the movie rolls to credits, it’s quite somber. Batman remains the present, imperfect force for good in Gotham. Instead of The Dark Knight’s “hero we deserve, just not the one we need right now,” Phantasm’s Batman is the opposite. The world deserves heroes who aren’t working out their own issues through violence, even toward the violent. And yet, this is the hero that Gotham has and it’s “good enough,” or perhaps “enough good.”
This movie is heavy, and does not conclude in a way that would satisfy traditionalist notions of good and evil. The villain gets away and the hero is exposed. For that reason, it’s the truest and most realistic Batman movie I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t try to justify Batman’s existence, but presents it in all its complexity. It looks hard at Batman’s violence and his goodness, holds him up to other characters who reflect and refract off those qualities, and leaves you with a mixed feelings about the “hero” who remains.
I think as Christians who often wrestle with these same types of questions, (just war vs. pacifism, police violence and mass incarceration,) it’s a reminder to hold the complexity, to question everything, but also to not get lost in the muck. As Christians we are informed not only by how the world is, but by the world that God has called into existence through Christ. Batman’s existence has always felt like a surrender to a lost world and a decision to play by its rules. The call of the Gospel is to be transformed by belief in a world that God is bringing forth, and to play by those rules. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a Batman movie for people who wonder if Batman should exist, while showing just how a person could become that and do a lot of good for a lot of good reasons.