On patrol in Gotham City Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) discovers there is a new vigilante in town. Phantasm (Stacey Keach) has a hood, a mask, a mechanical voice and scythe for a hand. He kills powerful mobsters only to vanish in puff of smoke. Despite this murderous modus operandi, outraged attorney Arthur Reeves (Hart Bochner) is convinced the killer is Batman and sends the police after the caped crusader. Meanwhile Batman's alter-ego Bruce Wayne is drawn away from the mystery by the return of Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delaney), the one woman he truly loved and for whom he considers relinquishing his war on crime.
For many Bat-fans the definitive screen incarnation of the caped crusader remains Batman: The Animated Series that ran in various different formats from 1992 to 2000. Distinguished by the sublime art deco meets steampunk artistry of animator Bruce W. Timm and the ingenious film noir screenwriting of co-producer Paul Dini the show set out to do for Batman what Max Fleischer achieved with his seminal Superman cartoons more than fifty years before and outdid them in terms of gut-wrenching drama. So successful was the animated show that Warner Brothers abandoned their initial direct-to-video strategy to release the feature-length Batman: Mask of the Phantasm in cinemas. Sadly neglected during its theatrical run by the audience that then inexplicably flocked to Joel Schumacher's vapid Batman Forever (1995), Mask of the Phantasm eventually turned a profit on video paving the way for further DTV animated offerings like Batman: Sub-Zero (1998) and Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (2002) that were hugely entertaining if comparatively lightweight.
Although the Phantasm character was part-inspired by the chief villain of the flawed, controversial DC comics storyline Batman: Year Two penned by Mike Barr, screenwriters Paul Dini, Alan Burnett, Martin Pasko and Michael Reaves concoct their own superior storyline. The plot springs from the troubling question an anxious Bruce Wayne often asks himself: whether Batman is as unhinged as the villains he pursues. Dini and co. concoct a doomed romance evoking vintage film noir like Out of the Past (1947) as the return of an old flame leads Bruce to choose between true love and the city he swore to defend. Flashbacks reveal Andrea first entered his life at an age when he was on the cusp of committing to his role as Batman, thus enabling Timm, Dini and co-director Eric Radomski to throw in a glimpse of Batman: Year One with young Bruce as a ski-masked vigilante-in-training, still seeking the perfect gimmick. As we criss-cross from past to present day the allure of a normal life proves hard to resist. In the most emotionally devastating scene found in any Batman movie, Bruce Wayne stands before his parents' graves and begs for forgiveness ("I am sorry. I never expected to be happy").
Timm and Dini understand the key to the tragedy of Batman is that the thing he has devoted his life to protect is in some ways also the real villain of the mythos. Namely, Gotham City: a dark metropolis spreading pipelines of pain that turn emotionally vulnerable people into costumed freaks that attack each other. The saddest thing of all is how Bruce and Andrea never had a chance. What binds them together is also predestined to drive them apart. There is real dramatic weight to the interaction between characters here unlike almost any other American cartoon. Batman: The Animated Series was of course famous for the high calibre of its voice cast many of whom returned here. Kevin Conroy simply IS Batman. He unearths depths of humanity from beneath the cowl and is well paired with an excellent Dana Delaney. Styled much like quintessential Forties femme fatale Lauren Bacall, Andrea would stand as the most complex love interest in any Batman movie, which is pretty remarkable for a cartoon, until Anne Hathaway slunk onto screen as Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Then there is the film's ace in the hole: Mark Hamill as the Joker, arguably as definitive as Conroy's Batman. The Clown Prince of Crime enters events late in the game but immediately steers things into even more dangerous territory.
Dini and his co-writers have a gift for hard-boiled but poetic dialogue that complements the oddly timeless retro-Forties visuals conjured by Radomski and Timm. Shirley Walker's soaring choral led score enhances the grandeur of the towering art deco fever dream that is Gotham City and while the closing theme sounds a little dated it remains of interest for being performed by Tia Carrere of Wayne's World (1992) and Lilo & Stitch (2002) fame. Nevertheless the film's chief pleasures are visual. They include the potent metaphor of the world of the future exhibit Bruce and Andrea visit in the past but which in the present has become a derelict nightmare inhabited by you know who. In a neat conceit the finale has Batman and the Joker battle it out in the miniature city like monsters in a Japanese kaiju eiga, cleverly visualizing the key themes.
It's good, but a little too close to the mediocre Batman: Year Two plotline for comfort, not helped by crowbarring in the usually welcome Joker into the final act (plus Batman knocks his tooth out - does this mean the Joker wears a false one from now on?!). There are episodes of the source cartoon TV series I like a lot better.