Before watching the movie:
I have vague memories of watching Batman: The Animated Series as a kid. It was a thing that was on, sometimes I would watch it when it was available, but I don’t remember really making a habit of it. Even so, it defined Batman for me as a kid. I was aware of the live-action movies of course. I definitely remember at least one McDonald’s Happy Meal tie in that I got a Hot Wheels-size version of the best Batmobile out of, but I’m not sure the timelines actually sync up, since it would have been the 1991 promotion and I may have been a little young to be as aware of it as I remember.
Regardless, as for many my age, this is the definitive version of Batman to me. I’ve probably watched more episodes as an adult seeking them out, but the series brought as much plot and emotional complexity to half-hour episodes as was possible. It introduced characters and interpretations so compelling they were imported to the comics and other versions, it was the keystone to a shared-continuity animated franchise, and had two direct continuation series.
I’ve gotten around to Batman and Mister Freeze: Sub-Zero before, but I never made it to the first movie spinoff, the one that actually got released in theaters before. And it has taken me entirely too long to get here.
After watching the movie:
Batman busts a meeting of Gotham’s biggest crime lords, and in the ensuing chaos, Chuckie Sol gets accosted by a hooded, masked figure claiming to be his agent of death, who tricks him into crashing his car through a parking garage wall, leaving him dead. When bystanders look up at the commotion, they see Batman at the hole in the wall trying to understand what just happened, and news spreads fast that Batman might have graduated to murdering mob bosses. Councilman Arthur Reeves, in the mafia’s pocket, vows to finally have Batman arrested. Ten years earlier, in Bruce Wayne’s earliest days of crime fighting, before he figured out how to intimidate the criminals, he met Andrea Beaumont in the cemetery talking to her mother’s grave close to where Bruce was talking to his own parents, and they quickly bonded. Bruce became torn between the vow he made to his parents to avenge them against all crime in Gotham when he realized that plan never included having someone waiting for him at home, and their relationship ultimately ended in heartbreak. Now, Andrea is returning to Gotham, and Batman realizes that the gangsters getting killed all share a link with Andrea’s businessman father, but his investigation is hampered by Gotham law enforcement hunting him down for the same murders, while the next don on the Phantasm’s list has gone to a former mook and friend from the old days for help, now in business for himself as the Clown Prince of Crime.
When a movie gets made from a tv show, especially one still on the air, one of the important questions to answer is what can this do that an episode can’t. Aside from the corny early 90s CGI fly-through of Gotham skyscrapers right at the beginning that doesn’t contribute much except to show “look what we can do with a movie budget!” the answer is that I think this story plays with lore too integral to the Batman mythos to trust to a 30-minute story. It doesn’t just rehash Batman’s origin story, it goes inside the often-elided time when Bruce was still trying to figure out how to be a vigilante and tells us the love of his life we never knew about was there. It dangles the Joker’s life before he was the Joker in front of us. It shows us that Gotham once hosted a World’s Fair. And it does it all with incredible care, so that it feels like they’re sharing secrets instead of polluting an established story.
They also take a lot of time to explore the tragedy of being Bruce Wayne. For the first time here, he really has to wrestle with the conflict between what he feels he owes to his parents and a chance to let himself just be happy, and the weight of that dilemma is keenly felt. Of course, in a more realistic world, Bruce would be better served by getting therapy and realizing that maybe he took a flying leap from his parents getting accidentally shot in a mugging gone wrong to a duty to them to clean up all the crime in the city with only wits, fists, and gadgets, but this is not the world he lives in, and regardless of what he wants, becoming Batman is the destiny he cannot escape. And in this story, he rages against that.
Involving the Joker feels almost obligatory. The Phantasm may have unacceptable methods, but the motives are too sympathetic to be satisfyingly defeated alone, so one of the regular villains has to come in the last act to raise the stakes and be properly thwarted in the end. There’s really only one good reason it had to be the Joker, and one could argue that some of the other rogues could be made to make sense too (isn’t the Penguin a crime boss?), but he’s mostly just the one brought into the game late because he’s Batman’s most iconic antagonist, and this is this version of Batman’s first movie. It can feel about as lazy as making Moriarty the surprise mastermind behind every Sherlock Holmes mystery. A version of this story could probably be wrapped up with a dire fight against a well-prepared mob boss and his goons instead of against one of the Usual Suspects while on the run from the law. But Mark Hamill’s Joker is too charismatically sinister to be too upset about.
While this was shown in theaters, that was a relatively late decision, and it could’ve stood to have more production time to make it ready for cinemas instead of just a surprisingly good direct to video feature. I felt I was watching really good storytelling, but I didn’t quite feel like I was watching a real movie. Whatever it is or isn’t, even by the standards of Batman: TAS, this is masterful.