Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Though this spin-off from the excellent animated Batman TV series was too dark to catch audiences who flocked to The Lion King, it certainly stands as the best cartoon feature of 1993. Better-plotted than Tim Burton's live action movies, this shares their semi-tragic characterisation of the schizoid superhero and a love of the art deco gothic of Gotham City. A brooding Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) is haunted by an old flame (Dana Delaney) who returns to his life just as the Phantasm, an even scarier vigilante, starts a murderous crusade against Gotham's gangsters. In Casablanca style, the film flashes back to the early days of the Batman's career as he almost calls of his war against crime when the temptation of normal life is nearly too great to resist. In a moment more emotionally powerful than anything in Burton's films, Bruce talks to his parents' grave trying to back out of his vow to fight crime, pleading "I'm sorry, but it just doesn't hurt so much any more... I never expected to be happy". Going for a bleakness almost unheard of in superhero animation, the film closes with Batman and the Phantasm marooned in their isolation, lives ruined by the need to avenge dead parents. Though it focuses on the character elements, Mask of the Phantasm does not skimp on action and black humour, with a bravura finale where Batman battles the Joker (a wildly ranting Mark Hamill) in the ruins of an outmoded City of the Future exhibit. Directed by Eric Radomski and Bruce W. Timm.

First published in this form here.

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