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The Best Joker Origin Movie? Mask Of The Phantasm, Of Course.

The Joker in Mask of the Phantasm

I guess there’s a movie out about the Clown Prince of Crime this weekend? You might have heard about the director saying some very dumb things about comedy, and other issues, but honestly it’s completely understandable if you forgot about that movie, since the best exploration of the Joker’s past was put into cinemas over twenty five years ago.

I’m talking of course about Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, the film spawned by the best version of the Dark Knight ever, Batman: The Animated Series. Released in 1993, the film was everything discerning audiences loved about the animated series, and more. It was beautifully animated and a little more violent and adult than the afternoon cartoon: there’s a lot of gunfire, blood, and violence and it’s also heavily implied that Bruce Wayne has – gasp – sex with an old flame.

Mask of the Phantasm is about Batman’s past – his struggle to keep his vow to defend the city, the things he’s given up and lost to his mission. It’s a great movie, because unlike most Batman films, it’s actually about Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) as a person and his struggles and trials. It contrasts Bruce with his lost love, Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delaney), who gives herself over entirely to vengeance.

The Batmobile under the Bat signal in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

But the master stroke of the film is that the real villain isn’t the titular Phantasm, it’s Mark Hamill’s deranged and dangerous Joker, and the subtle ways the movie gets into the Joker’s backstory. Batman: The Animated Series, was very loosely based on the Batman and Batman Returns films by Tim Burton, at least in terms of a few of the character backstories – specifically, for the Joker. He was once a low level mobster by the name of Jack Napier who was thrown in a vat of acid, same as Jack Nicholson’s version in Batman.

Mask of the Phantasm doesn’t get into the acid, or Batman’s role in that, instead it’s one of the few version of the Joker where we see what he was like before he was acid-washed, and, like Burton’s Batman, it makes the case that Joker was always a terrible human. Getting into the Joker’s story in contrast to Bruce and Andrea’s is brilliant, because it shows the spectrum of morality – from Bruce’s code of ethics, to Andrea (she’s the Phantasm, by the way, if you don’t remember) an her willingness to to kill, all the way to the horror of the Joker.

The Joker is a great character because he’s a dark mirror and a perfect foil to a man who lives by moral code. But when he’s removed from his context and treated as a victim rather than a villain, he loses his punch. The animated Joker was a mob hitman and murderer who enjoyed crime before he went white and green. He’s chaos in contrast to the order Batman represents, complete amorality in the face of justice. And that’s terrifying.

I can’t stress enough how well Mask of the Phantasm does the Joker. He doesn’t show up until nearly halfway through the movie and yet he manages to nearly steal it away from under Bruce’s nose. He’s completely unpredictable, going from funny to scary to silly to homicidal in seconds without missing a beat. Mark Hamill is perfect, from his screaming laughter to his terrifying growls, and the slightly more adult tone of the movie allows the Joker to be even creepier and scarier. (He also implies he’s going to have sex with a killer robot, so that’s fun!).

Joker is the greatest comic book villain because he is and always will be nothing but a villain. He’s not redeemable. He’s not predictable. He’s pure id and chaos. Heath Ledger’s version in The Dark Knight tapped this well in a grittier way: his Joker was a man that just wanted to see the world burn, but Hamill’s version is even scarier, because he’s having so much gleeful fun doing it and can still turn on a dime to murder and terrify. He’s a madman set lose who has always been on the dark side.

That’s why Mask of the Phantasm‘s Joker backstory works so well. It doesn’t explain or justify the Joker. He just is and always was a villain. The face and the laugh are just window dressing, an expression of an evil that was always there. And it’s amusing, manic, gleeful evil – not pedestrian, downtrodden man pain and suffering. And that’s the purpose of comic book and cartoon villainy. The characters are archetypes of the things we fear, like complete moral apathy.

The Joker here isn’t scary because of what he believes, he’s terrifying because he believes in nothing. A man with no morals (much like the one in the white house, had to say it) is far more frightening than a man with a tragic backstory we can in some way sympathize with. Even so, I can’t decide which is scarier: the Joker as a victim of the cruelty of society or a Joker who is cruelty. But one thing is for sure, both are perfect villains because they represent something that might never, truly, be defeated.

(images: Warner Brothers)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.