The Caped Crusader is back: On March 4, Robert Pattinson will become the seventh actor to don the cowl in a live-action film with The Batman. To prepare, join The Ringer this week as we navigate the grime of Gotham and explore the history of one of the most recognizable superheroes in the comic-book landscape.
The Batman, which arrives in theaters this week, promises to provide a window into the mind of Gotham City’s Caped Crusader that fans haven’t seen in a live-action performance. In the many months leading up to the movie’s release, its cast and creative team have discussed all the inspirations for the franchise reboot—from ’70s noir detective stories to the real-life Zodiac killer. The newest Dark Knight himself, Robert Pattinson, has been among the most forthcoming cast members in name-checking influences on the film, and the Batman movie that he singled out when describing his take on the beloved character probably isn’t one that most fans would expect.
There have been a dozen live-action films featuring Batman since Michael Keaton took on the role in 1989’s Batman, yet Pattinson claims that this latest rendering of Bruce Wayne is unique—with one intriguing, animated exception. “I sincerely believe that the tone of The Batman has nothing to do [with the previous movies]. It feels new,” Pattinson told Premiere France. “In the comics, Batman is someone more … unstable. If you read between the lines, it’s actually very sad. Whereas in the cinema, it is always his heroic side that is put forward. The Batman does the opposite: We capture the inner bubbling of the character. In my opinion, the only other to achieve this is the animated film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. When I saw it, it clicked: Being Batman is a kind of curse, it’s a burden.”
For the uninitiated, Mask of the Phantasm is a classic animated Batman movie from the early ’90s whose plot was partly inspired by the 1987 comic-book miniseries Batman: Year Two. The film was made by the creative team responsible for the iconic Batman: The Animated Series, including directors Eric Radomski and Bruce W. Timm, and it became the first animated film centered on the Dark Knight to be released in theaters when it premiered in 1993. Despite praise from critics, it flopped at the box office, though it saw greater financial success once it was released on home video the following year.
Mask of the Phantasm finds Batman investigating a mysterious masked vigilante who is killing Gotham City’s mob bosses, while alter ego Bruce Wayne also reconciles with a former lover, Andrea Beaumont. The film offers an origin story for Batman through a series of flashbacks, as well as a character study that explores what makes Gotham’s famous billionaire bachelor dress up as a bat every night to prey on the city’s underworld. Ironically, the big-budget blockbusters from Tim Burton and (especially) Joel Schumacher that were released around the same time are more cartoonish in tone than Batman’s animated feature debut, as Mask of the Phantasm takes a more serious look at the pain that Wayne carries with him after the murders of his parents during his childhood. And based on Pattinson’s quotes and early footage of The Batman revealed in trailers, the ’93 film could point to the new direction and dark tone that director Matt Reeves and Co. are taking.
Mask of the Phantasm boasts some wonderful animation that holds up over a quarter-century later, along with strong voice work from much of the same cast as the animated series, such as Kevin Conroy (as Batman) and Mark Hamill (as the Joker). But one of its greatest achievements is how effectively it characterizes the inner psyche of Bruce Wayne, positioning him as a tragic hero whose grief drives his crusade against crime in Gotham, rather than one who has risen above all obstacles to become a superhero in spite of his traumatic past. While many live-action Batman films tend to shift much of their focus to the villains, sometimes to the point that they overshadow the titular hero, Mask of the Phantasm establishes Batman as the true subject. And as Reeves told Entertainment Weekly, The Batman will follow suit, with the audience receiving “a very Hitchcockian kind of point of view where you are wedded to [Bruce’s] experience.”
About midway through Mask of the Phantasm’s 76-minute running time, a flashback shows Bruce struggling to decide between leading a normal life with Andrea and keeping the vow he made to his parents to avenge their deaths and clean up Gotham’s corruption. He returns to their gravesite in search of clarity and begs them to allow him to move on from his one-man war on crime just as it’s getting started. “It doesn’t mean I don’t care anymore,” Bruce says desperately, staring down at the Wayne tombstone in the midst of a dramatic storm. “I don’t wanna let you down, honest, but it just doesn’t hurt so bad anymore. You can understand that, can’t you? Look, I can give money to the city, they can hire more cops. Let someone else take the risk. But it’s different now. 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. Please, tell me that it’s OK.”
As Pattinson described, being Batman can be more of a curse and a burden for Bruce Wayne than anything else. Not long after that scene in Mask of the Phantasm, the orphaned billionaire chooses Andrea over fighting crime, and it’s only when she and her father suddenly leave Gotham that a heartbroken Bruce decides to don the cowl and take up the mantle as Batman. This version of a sad, lovelorn Batman has rarely been seen on the big screen, and so Pattinson and the rest of the team behind The Batman have adopted that little-used approach to offer a fresh take on a character who has had so many on-screen portrayals over the past 30 years. “He doesn’t have a playboy persona at all, so he’s kind of a weirdo as Bruce and a weirdo as Batman, and I kept thinking there’s a more nihilistic slant to it,” Pattinson told GQ in a recent profile. “’Cause, normally, in all the other movies, Bruce goes away, trains, and returns to Gotham believing in himself, thinking, ‘I’m gonna change things here.’ But in this, it’s sort of implied that he’s had a bit of a breakdown. But this thing he’s doing, it’s not even working. Like, it’s two years into it, and the crime has gotten worse since Bruce started being Batman. The people of Gotham think that he’s just another symptom of how shit everything is.”
Outside of the more self-aware comedic takes on Batman, like 2017’s The Lego Batman Movie, Bruce has been more likely to be seen pulling up to parties via helicopter, surrounded by beautiful women, than he has to be presented as a sad “weirdo.” He’s often able to alternate between his dual personas as a crimefighter and a man about town, turning his dark side on and off as easily as if he were flipping a switch. But Mask of the Phantasm dedicated time to showing Batman perched along the edge of a skyscraper on a rainy night with binoculars in hand, watching as his former flame eats dinner with a new man:
I mean, just look at my guy creeping in the distance here. It’s a brief, quiet scene used to set up another series of flashbacks that shows Bruce and Andrea’s fleeting romance, but it’s a simple and effective way of painting the picture of Batman’s loneliness, as well as what he must sacrifice in order to lead this life as Gotham’s Dark Knight. Part of what separates Batman from all the other popular superheroes born from tragedy is how much his pain and loss shape his identity, in addition to infusing his life with new purpose; while Spider-Man or Iron Man will try to land a few witty quips as they’re kicking your ass, Batman is out to terrorize his enemies and strike the same sense of helpless fear into their hearts that he felt while watching his parents die. Plenty of comics have explored this thread over the years, such as Darwyn Cooke’s Batman: Ego and Other Tails (which Reeves has cited as an influence for his film), but we really haven’t seen too much of this approach to the character in any of the live-action movies. Based on a three-minute clip released by Warner Bros. entitled “Funeral Scene,” in which Pattinson’s Wayne stays silent for the entire scene and still manages to express so much with his wide-eyed glances and ghostly demeanor, The Batman is on the right track to change that.
Between the live-action performances of Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale, Batfleck, and even Adam West before them, it’s hard to imagine that there could be more layers to Bruce Wayne than we’ve seen on the big screen before. But if The Batman’s creators took some cues from Mask of the Phantasm, Pattinson will embody an even darker and more introspective version of Gotham’s Dark Knight than his predecessors did.