The Animated Batman Report Card

It’s become common knowledge among comic book fans that most, if not all, of the animated movies made by Warner Bros. behind the scenes are much better in terms of storytelling, acting, and pure entertainment than any of the original live action Batman movies ever hoped to be. It’s just accepted as fact and looked upon as a damn shame. Because with such bloated budgets and big name actors, Tim Burton barely covered any of the pure excellence that Bruce Timm did with his voice cast.

So, in preparation for the much anticipated sequel to “Batman Begins” aptly called “The Dark Knight,” a sequel that is expected to top Nolan’s first film and thrill us with the new twisted joker, as well as the upcoming DVD release of “The Gotham Knight” another animated Batman film featuring Batman in his early years fighting new versions of his rogue gallery, I thought it’d be a great excuse to go over the list of animated Batman films that have been on Video (and DVD) and in theaters. Granted it was a very, very short theatrical run, but still, it counts. So, on we go.

Batman Mask of the Phantasm (1996)
(A-)

Back in 1996, Warner aspired to provide fans (and viewers of the hit series) with a theatrical animated Batman movie, and sadly, the effort was punished. Batman arrived into theaters with almost no audience, barely made a dent in the box office, and disappeared only to grab a VHS release. Which is a damn shame. Because as it stands, “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” is a milestone of the character’s animation in the Bruce Timm universe permanently paving the animator and storyteller as the ideal wizard to bring the world of Gotham to life. “Mask of the Phantasm” is a wonderful neo-noir thriller that chronicles Bruce Wayne in his early years as Batman that inevitably leads to the destruction of a relationship with a mobster’s daughter Andrea Beaumont.

Years later, a mysterious cloaked vigilante emerges in Gotham murdering mob bosses, and Batman is taking the fall for it. Batman becomes the number one criminal in Gotham thanks to the mistaken identity and similarity of the ritual killings and MO. Soon enough he catches up with the cloaked murderer and he tangles with the Phantasm, a brilliant warrior who is neither an enemy, nor an ally. The big reveal in the end is obvious, but thankfully complex with the one and only Joker taking an inadvertent part in the tragic romance that leads to a stand off in an old amusement park. “Mask of the Phantasm” may move too slowly for kids, but for older audiences it’s a briskly paced drama thriller with great storytelling. Sadly, the low budget and rushed production hold back this potential masterpiece, and love it or not, you’ll be quick to notice the flaws that keep it down. But, the voice work is top notch with everyone at their all time highs. From Conroy to Hamill, to Dana Delaney, Stacy Keach, and Efren Zimbalist Jr., this introduction is rather great. I wish it were more universally praised. After “Mask of the Phantasm,” the Joker was officially dead, but re-emerged much to the surprise of viewers in a hilarious episode of the series where he and Ms. Harley Quinn continue to wreak havoc.
Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (1998)
(A-)
The difference between Bruce Timm and Tim Burton is that Timm took Batman seriously. Bruce Timm is an avid lover of all things Batman related, and proved it in his fantastic animated series that then went into many years on television and the turn to feature length format. His series took Batman as a superior being of a sorts who believed in justice and stopping evil at its roots to prevent murder from ruining another boy’s life. Allegedly this was destined to be released before “Batman & Robin” but to “prevent confusion,” Warner released this much later. I still think they just wanted to prevent audiences from knowing how awful their live action movie was, and how excellent “SubZero” was. In this sequel, Batman is on with business as usual, but we focus more on the relationship between Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon. This serves to be the most compelling element and sub-plot of the movie, as their chemistry and romance is sweet, charming, and rather beautiful, while Timm puts his noir set pieces to good use here aiming for a late forties, mid-fifties motif. Mr. Freeze emerges yet again with a plan to revive his wife, and he’s wreaking havoc all over Gotham to find the right doctor to stage a liver transplant.

Surprise Surprise: Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl) happens to be the perfect match for Freeze’s wife after looking online for a donor. She’s then kidnapped willfully in an effort to prevent Freeze from murdering innocent bystanders, in spite of Dick’s defiance. And then Batman and Robin go on the hunt to find her and Stop Freeze. This is also a successful bout of cat and mouse as Dick’s frantic search for his girlfriend makes for gripping scenes as he chases Freeze on a motorcycle evading his forces, and must struggle to maintain his emotional entanglements with Barbara lest he slip up. Batman plays second fiddle in this sequel leaving most of the motivation and drama to Dick as he rushes to save her, and Barbara who tries to stall the forced surgery and escape Freeze’s armed guards, and pet polar bears. Ending on a typical bittersweet sad note, we’re allowed one last look at Dr. Fries as he staggers off into the snow with his pets after a near fatal battle with Batman. And Timm shows why Schumacher’s film had nothing against Timm’s directorial prowess.

World’s Finest: The Batman/Superman Movie (1998)
(B-)
What Bruce Timm wants us to believe is that Batman can match Superman pound for pound as an comic book character, which means we’re supposed to believe he can flip Superman with ease, considering Supes can battle against a giant robot in the climax without being bruised. Right. Sure. I buy that, honest. Most arguments for this scene is that he just caught him by surprise, but then many criminals have punched Superman by surprise and shattered their fists in the process. Suddenly Batman is able to do so without breaking his spine? Timm admitted constantly to powering Superman down in the “Justice League” series, and in this movie, but the problem is, while the concerns for Superman being too powerful are valid, there’s no accounting for making him an outright punk, either.

If a punch from Metallo can’t render Superman weak, why does a flip from Batman? Because it’s Batman? Nah. Timm loves Batman so much that he attempts many times to debate his superiority in strength, speed, and mental power against that of Superman, (and in the “Justice League” series) the Flash, and Martian Manhunter. In “World’s Finest,” when he goes up against Superman and comes out on top nine times out of ten. Originally presented as a movie, “World’s Finest” dribbles in both courts this time as Superman goes against the Joker while Batman has to battle against Lex Luthor. Both universes merge to the point where characters run in and out of the storylines with ease. The Joker acquires a jade Dragon statue that turns out to be Kryptonite, Harley Quinn and Mercy do battle in a hysterical meeting of Joker and Lex Luthor, and both groups learn ahead of time that the best way to defeat their foes, is by teaming up. The animation is top notch, and Superman thankfully gets his due, but Timm wants us to know that this is Batman’s movies. He presents only the illusion of equality with Superman’s entrance, and sadly that knocks this down a notch. With every pairing, both heroes should be given equal respect to their abilities. Sure, Batman is great, but with Superman you also have to appreciate.

Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000)
(A-)
Back in the heyday of Bruce Timm’s venture into the animated format with Batman, Warner had grown tired of presenting a more mature version of the character and requested Timm and co. give kids a younger more vibrant version of the character. With a futuristic twist, of course. So, Timm and Co. went to work on “Batman Beyond.” We got a new costume, a new hero (young Terry McGinnis), new villains, and a new Gotham City. And it worked with flying colors, believe it or not. While this new series was geared to younger audiences, “Batman Beyond” presented new challenges with the same conflicts, and a dark tone. Thanks of course to the help of Bruce Wayne, who appeared as an isolated old man to mentor young McGinnis. In “Return of the Joker,” Timm and Warner pull off another great feat by showing the Batman universe unfold in to the far off world and, per Timm’s style… it isn’t pretty. Barbara is no longer Batgirl, but the new Commissioner who knows Bruce’s habits, and is determined to prevent vigilance with bitter merciless action.

Dick Grayson is only paid lip service here as Nightwing but is described as being angry at Bruce and barely in his life at all. And former second Robin Tim Drake is now a seemingly happy family man who wants nothing to do with the past. But then suddenly the Joker re-emerges back in fighting form, younger and more vicious than ever and is on a mission to kill Bruce and destroy Gotham once and for all. And he’s up to his old tricks with his laughing gas, parlor games, epic theatrics, and even seizes control of the Joker Gang with utter ease. Simply, he’s the only villain to ever inspire a reaction you’ll see from elderly Bruce in this film. What results is an action packed last hurrah for a series finishing off much too early. Mark Hamill returns as the definitive voice for the Joker, and we learn a horrific secret in the Batman universe that involves Tim Drake being kidnapped. With it Timm makes the subtle allusions of torture and even rape at some points, while exploring the results of trauma, adults overall influence on children and how it molds their adulthood. The finale is magnificent as Terry enlists the help of Ace the Wonder Dog to take on the Joker’s gang, while young Batman goes up against Wayne’s most horrifying villain of all time and has one last exciting stand off in a toy factory. I highly suggest folks check this out for a look at how Timm just continues materializing Batman to greatness in the face of studio boundaries.

Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (2003)
(C-)
Following along with the comic books enlisting a brand new Batgirl whose identity was a complete secret, “Mystery of the Batwoman” cashed in on that arc by creating their own truncated storyline that’s a considerable departure from the usual “Batman” animated movies. The tone is lighter, the storyline is faster, many of the supporting characters are MIA, and the big reveal to who is the Batwoman is under whelming at best. “Mystery of the Batwoman” is a stumbling block all around with Timm and co. just failing on all levels to entertain as much as they usually tend to. Set before the events of “Return of the Joker” apparently, “Mystery of the Batwoman” involves yet another vigilante with the title of “Bat” interrupting Batman’s quest to stop the Penguin and Bane once and for all when they attempt to trade illegal weapons with the fictional country of Kasnia.

In the process, Timm never takes any time out to process the implications of Batwoman’s methods of crime fighting, nor do any of the usual complex questions and dilemmas take hold to allow us to consider what these actions are doing to the people around them. Instead it’s mainly just Batman investigating the Batwoman trying to stop her while a slew of supporting characters are introduced to set up red herrings and lead us to the big surprise ending where we see the obvious suspect… with a twist! No, it’s not Barbara. Either way, this is a forgettable movie all around with the sharp storytelling and dialogue null and void in a sea of mediocrity, and it’s best forgotten, sad to say. Which is painful to admit, considering this has (so far) been the final animated “Batman” film involving Bruce Timm and Paul Dini. But you have to admit, it’s still better than “Batman Forever.”

The Batman vs. Dracula (2005)
(B+)
What Warner does here is take the classic comic book story of Batman vs. Dracula, and mixes it with their brand new series that changed the tone, direction, voice work, and overall story Bruce Timm established, with the prequel route. This younger Batman comes from the utterly mediocre series “The Batman” chronicling the first years in the career of The Dark Knight. Ignoring folks like Batgirl and Robin, thankfully, this movie was surprising. As someone who really disliked the Saturday morning cartoon, “The Batman vs. Dracula” is a fun and well made little movie that’s pretty predictable, but very entertaining since it’s basically a stand alone feature that goes for a home run. It even sports the likes of Peter Stormare who voices the Dark Prince with pure zeal. Bruce Wayne is in a tumultuous relationship with reporter Vicky Vale, who returns from movie hell to play off of the new animated counterpart. Here, they begin as rivals who progress into a potential couple. But when Dracula arrives in Gotham to establish himself, Batman is faced with a new breed of villain when his victims turn up as powerful vampires who prove to be too much for Bats to handle.

Things get worse when Dracula falls for Vicky and insinuates himself between them and plans to kidnap her and transfer her life force into his undead bride. Here, Batman battles against the hordes of the undead including the Joker who suffers from a slight case of vampirism and even battles him in a blood bank. Going through caves of the beasts (and Drac’s new pet: The Penguin), Bruce battles against the vampire lord and is hopelessly outmatched, and this new movie proves to have something for everyone. It even undermines its more youthful tone for a darker more violent story that paints these vampires as rather horrific. And the writers don’t dodge the obvious either. Blood is called blood. Dracula bites their necks and drains their bodies. And even though he isn’t staked, the creative way he meets his end is in the normal fashion a futuristic Van Helsing would stop a bloodsucker. Even the Joker will give the younger viewers a shiver or two with his lust for blood and disgusting lapping of it when Batman drops some on the floor. Featuring some stunning sequences including Batman and Dracula bouncing along the roofs of Gotham in a moon light soaked night, Dracula slowing time down observing the Dark Knight as he swipes at him face to face, and Dracula’s quick extermination of a SWAT team in a dark building with implied mutilation, ‘The Batman vs. Dracula” is a fun spin off, and it’s worth watching if only to hear Stormare ace another villain role. But skip the series. It’s watered down malarkey.

Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)
(A+)
Okay, so I cheated a bit. This isn’t exactly an animated movie about Batman. This is really a movie based on “The New Frontier” graphic novel with the Justice League again re-invented. There’s a new style, new voice work, and it’s also set in the thirties. “The New Frontier” is a marvelous period piece with the League now in doubt of their usefulness in a world that’s becoming increasingly cynical and violent. Superman questions his own worth as a crusader, Wonder Woman dabbles in violence when she leads a murderous rampage at an internment camp, and The Batman no longer wants anything to do with the group, opting instead to investigate the mysterious new being posing a danger to the individuals in the group. This new Batman looks fantastic with a classic portrayal in the vein of Bob Kane. Voicing him is Jeremy Sisto who proves to be a great replacement for Kevin Conroy, adding a mystique and understated menace to the caped crusader. Though Conroy has always and will always be the defining voice for the Dark Knight, Sisto performs well and Batman leaves the film with his usual enigmatic style. It’s a much appreciated twist of the character.