There have been a lot of animated Batman films. Recently, DC has taken to releasing films directly adapted from specific arcs of the comics. Year One just got the cartoon treatment and The Dark Knight Returns is coming soon. By that logic, it’s only a matter of time before we get to see Batman kidnap a minor and force him to eat rats. We could spend weeks looking at the animated films alone, so for this particular outing, we’re going to look at four of the best films from all across Batman’s animated history. Unfortunately, the Scooby-Doo crossovers didn’t make the cut… This time.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Mask of the Phantasm was released in theaters on Christmas day in 1993… and I was the only person who went to see it. The movie was a bomb, despite overwhelming positive reviews. The praise is all well-deserved. Utilizing the same look and style (and cast) of the animated series, Mask of the Phantasm serves as an origin story for this version of the Batman, a love story for Bruce Wayne and a murder mystery all in one thanks to a skillful use of flashbacks.
While the Joker does play a pivotal role (in both the present and flashback potions), the principle villain is a new character created solely for the movie. The Phantasm leaves a trail of mobsters’ bodies in its wake and only Batman can stop it (naturally). The Phantasm is a seriously creepy-looking villain. The door was left open for a return, but sadly, this was not meant to be.
Despite the lackluster performance in theaters, the movie has had great success on VHS and DVD. It’s fantastic. It’s exactly what you’d want from a feature-length episode of Batman: the Animated Series. If for some reason you’ve missed out on this one, remedy that as soon as possible. You’ll need something to take the edge off post Dark Knight Rises.
Batman & Mr. Freeze: Sub Zero (1998)
This movie serves as proof that it’s possible to make a movie that features Batman, Robin, Batgirl and Mr. Freeze and not have it suck. Eat it, Schumacher. To be fair, Sub Zero had the excellent animated series to draw from… Even though Batman and Robin used essentially the same origin for Mr. Freeze as the cartoon… That movie was destined to be horrible. This movie, however, is pretty fantastic.
Since his last encounter with Batman, Mr. Freeze has moved his cryogenically frozen wife Nora to the arctic and is living in total peace until some a-holes in a submarine crack her containment chamber. Then, it’s off to Gotham to find an organ donor for Nora. Once he realizes there are no donors that will match, he picks poor Barbara Gordon to be a living donor. Oh, and Barbara Gordon is Batgirl, so that’s a real b*tch of a coincidence for ole Victor.
Is it as good as Mask of the Phantasm? No, but the cartoons managed to tell the best Freeze stories ever, and this is absolutely one of them. The idea of a tragic Freeze instead of a man with a weird ice fetish is much more interesting. It has all the same cast and production values as the series, meaning it, too, is amazing.
Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000)
Batman Beyond can best be described as “What if Spider-Man was Batman in the future?” The spinoff show had more than a passing similarity to everyone’s favorite wall crawler. But who cares? It was a good show. An aged Bruce Wayne training a new Batman? Yes, please. Return of the Joker was released straight to DVD in the middle of the show’s run and it’s fairly infamous thanks to the edits made before its release. This movie goes dark. Way dark.
When the Joker shows up looking exactly the same as he did back in the day, it’s up to Batman and Used-to-be-Batman to figure out how that’s possible since Bruce watched him die. We see via flashback the Joker’s last gag, wherein he kidnaps and tortures Tim Drake, turning him into a creepy mini Joker. Tim resists the programming and kills Joker. The only part about the movie that doesn’t quite work is the reveal of how the Joker is still alive, only because it gives the joker a little too much credit where genetics are concerned (They later fixed that in an episode of Justice League Unlimited.)
But what about those edits? For starters, any and all violence was toned down. Punches were given those white flashes when the fists connect (because that matters) and all the death was implied instead of (for example), having Joker shoot a guy in the chest with a little “BANG!” flag out of his gun and his corpse becoming a prop for the rest of the scene. More than that, the flashback got a lot of work before seeing release. The Joker’s torture tools, his apron that read “Kill the Cook” and his own dart to the chest were all changed. An entire new death was animated and new dialogue was recorded.
Fortunately, the original version was made available on DVD shortly after the original VHS release and it’s that one that stuck around because really… Who wants to see a watered down version of the Joker being killed by the homicidal monster he created? Give us the real stuff or stay home. Return of the Joker is really good, and it actually fits within the DCAU. This thing is canon! It’s a movie that could have easily slipped under the radar and is worth seeing for fans of Terry McGinnis and the Joker alike.
Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
It’s hard to not completely mark out over Under the Red Hood. It’s really good. Written by comics scribe Judd Winnick, the movie captures the essence of the Red Hood/Batman dynamic fresh off his return to Gotham. The animation is gorgeous (it’s not too anime-y). The voice cast is superb (I would never have picked John DiMaggio as Joker, but it works). The plot is engaging. It’s nearly perfect.
The one negative thing that sticks out about Under the Red Hood is the two scenes in which characters are viciously beaten with crowbars. There’s a lot of death in this movie. For all the hoopla surrounding Return of the Joker, they didn’t pull any punches here with regards to killing henchmen. But in the opening scene where Joker beats Jason Todd and the later scene where he returns the favor, the damage isn’t consistent with the action. We see the blows come down in the shadows cast on the walls and we hear them connect… over and over again. It’s brutal. But when the camera cuts back to Jason, he has a bloody lip. Joker’s collar and hair are ruffled. Neither of them looks like they just got the crap beat out of them with a crowbar.
Of course, giving an accurate depiction of those kinds of wounds would be overly gruesome, so the decision makes sense. It’s just a weird disconnect in that they’re clearly trying to convey the brutality in the scene while playing it safe with what they actually show. Bottom line, there are more intense wounds in a Batman comic… on a monthly basis. Seeing Joker all swollen and beaten up would have been a bit more consistent. Regardless, Under the Red Hood belongs on the shelf of any Batman fan. It’s one of those animated features that really makes you wonder how the live-action Green Lantern movie was so vanilla when it’s obvious there’s somebody at Warner Bros. who knows what they’re doing with regards to these characters.
Thus concludes our retrospective on the Dark Knight’s non comic history. Be sure to check out our spoiler-free review for The Dark Knight Rises and peep our Spider-Man on Film series for more like this. It’s good for you.