In 1993, Warner Bros. released Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, one of the finest takes on the Dark Knight in cinema. The story follows a young Bruce Wayne as he begins his life of crime-fighting as Batman. He is torn between the promise he made to his parents to avenge their deaths, and the life of happiness he envisions with his girlfriend, Andrea Beaumont. While the premise of Mask of the Phantasm may sound like a familiar superhero narrative, its frank depiction of grief built a lifelong kinship between myself and Batman.
I would rewatch my Batman: Mask of the Phantasm VHS like clockwork in the late 1990s and early 2000s. During this time, it was rare for children’s media to depict what it’s like to have dead family members. Sure, it was common for protagonists to be orphans, but the actual, ritualized reality of mourning was hardly ever shown. I distinctly remember visiting my grandfather’s grave a couple times a year with my family when I was growing up. And I had no other frame of reference for this experience except Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
Bruce Wayne visits his parents’ graves over the course of the film at different points in his life. Once, while visiting them during his college years, he meets a young woman, Andrea Beaumont, who is visiting her mother’s grave. The two bond and Andrea eventually becomes Bruce’s first love. On one occasion, he tearfully admits to his parents’ graves that he “didn’t count on being happy” after they died.
Like Bruce Wayne, I grew up in the shadow of loss. My grandfather, who my mother was very close to, died before I was born. Growing up, my mother was very open about how this loss affected her as a parent, knowing that her father never got to meet her youngest child. With the loss of my Gung Gung (the Cantonese word for maternal grandfather) still fresh, we visited his grave a few times a year when I was a child. I would watch my mother speak in a conversational tone free from the tenseness that colored her exchanges with my grandmother. I never heard her speak that way to anyone else, as life required her to be armored and guarded. It evidenced to me, in my early childhood, how my mother was also once a child.
In Mask of the Phantasm, Bruce and Andrea speak to their parents’ gravestones in the same tone as my mother. Watching these scenes from the film was like watching my mother at the cemetery. I was a silent observer, listening, trying to make sense of the sadness that I felt. It was an intensely private experience, one that I never talked about with anyone my age. This is perhaps why Batman became so personal to me early on. He was a part of this emotional world of grief that I didn’t yet have the language to describe nor understand.
I’ve only realized how melancholy Mask of the Phantasm is as an adult. This shows how, despite its thematic focus on grief, it formed such a central part of my identity in my childhood. Even though I understood that it was sad that I never got to meet my Gung Gung, I had such a limited scope as to why. For Batman in Mask of the Phantasm, his grief was never born out of the actual, violent loss of his parents, or even evidence of the event itself. This is a rarity, given how frequently the Waynes’ murders have been depicted in film and television over the years. Instead, it grew from the absence of his parents in his life once he became an adult.
This spoke to the type of longing and grief I experienced as a child. The film doesn’t show Thomas and Martha’s murders. Instead, the story put Batman in this state of general grief where the inciting event took place outside the film’s scope. This closely paralleled my own life because my grandfather’s death happened before my birth. The loss of Bruce’s parents happened before the “birth” of Mask of the Phantasm’s plot and runtime. I may not have even known when I first saw the film that Bruce’s parents were murdered. It’s this ambiguity around their deaths that made it so easy for me to relate to Bruce. In this way, Mask of the Phantasm comforted me. Batman made me feel safe in the conflicting emotions I felt.
As an adult, Mask of the Phantasm still speaks to me. It represents the pressures of wanting to honor the dead, while still retaining agency over your own future. It’s a story about the transformative power of grief, for both Batman and for Andrea, who is later revealed to be Phantasm, Gotham’s lethal masked vigilante.
And yet, Mask of the Phantasm didn’t present a negative outlook for me moving forwards. While grief could be a part of me, it could never be all of me. The film itself echoes this because it isn’t entirely a tragedy. It’s also a thrilling noir and a coming-of-age story. Grief is a facet of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, but not the entire picture. In this way, I’ll always be grateful that I had Batman to teach me this vital lesson.