Because the bloated incoherent March blockbuster “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” was the worst Batman movie in history, and because DC Films has saddled us with Zack Snyder’s increasingly braindead direction through at least 2019, and because for the first time since 1993 an animated Batman movie—“Batman: The Killing Joke”—was just released theatrically (albeit in select theaters, on the same day as its digital home-video release), it may be time for casual nerds to reexamine the respective cinematic legacies of the cartoon and live-action versions of the Caped Crusader, and to figure out whether those of us who have carelessly given preference to the big-budget line of latex extravaganzas running from Burton through Nolan, while ignoring the modest steady work performed by Warner Bros. Animation, may have chosen the wrong route.
Who is the true Batman, once and for all?
Like all major American superheroes, Batman has survived more artistic interpretations and media incarnations than he has supervillains, but he alone has can claim two consistent, separate, parallel movie careers—one as a human, the other as a cartoon—beginning in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, with each franchise periodically reinventing itself but never halting production for long. The history of the live-action Batman between 1989 and today is well-known, but what theatergoers may not realize is that, in roughly the same period, 16 animated Batman movies, each about 75 minutes long, have been produced (not to mention the superhero’s countless appearances in animated Justice League films).
The existence of an alternate straight-to-video universe, based alternately on Batman TV properties and graphic-novel arcs, may not seem any more notable than the Dark Knight’s third career as an action figure, but there is a genuine adult fan base for these productions, which, based on their IMDb ratings, appear to have achieved a consistency that the wildly fluctuating live-action film series has never been able to sustain.
Until this week, I had never seen one of these animated features, but to prepare for “Batman: The Killing Joke,” I watched the three highest-ranked cartoon movies based on general Internet acclaim, starting with “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm,” the 1993 feature that, as a spinoff of “Batman: The Animated Series,” turned out so unexpectedly stylish that it was actually assigned a (somewhat underpublicized) theatrical run, during which it earned near-unanimous critical praise, birthing the animated film franchise with stars Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as Joker, who have retained these roles through most of the sequels and reboots, creating for some viewers the definitive interpretations of their iconic characters, as well as a second career for Hamill, the bland Hayden Christensen of the 1970s—redeemed here, years later, by the flamboyant zeal of his voiceover performances.
The Batman of “Mask of the Phantasm” swoops around a beautiful art-deco skyline whose disproportionately jagged ground-level shadows form a film-noir chiaroscuro for the city’s villains and gangsters. There is, however, a visual gap between the landscape and the people inside it: the backdrops belonged on the big screen, but the character designs aren’t any better than those of Saturday morning’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and this superficial disconnect articulates the central tension of the Batman cartoons, which perhaps have never truly decided whether they’re for kids or for grownups.
In “Mask of the Phantasm,” broadly sketched stereotypical gangsters, unexplained magical elements, and action-adventure combat scenes in which real pain and fear are conspicuously absent coexist with an evident awareness of the tortured psyche of Bruce Wayne. The plot—in which a guilt-ridden Batman nearly leaves behind his morbid quest to avenge his parents for a conventionally happy life with a woman, (who, in the end, turns out to be even more morbidly, obsessively vengeful than he)—is an attempt to create a context that would normalize the essential weirdness of a solitary billionaire whose entire life is a violent response to childhood trauma: in contrast to his murder-happy love interest, Batman is going about revenge “the right way.”
From there, I skipped to “Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker” (2000), set within the snazzy, upbeat continuity of a later Kids’ WB series, in which a slimmer protégé has assumed the Bat mantle, under Wayne’s guidance, in a futuristic Gotham City stripped of its NYC-inspired architectural heritage. The new Batman is a relatively uncomplicated yuppie with an active social life and a trendy haircut—even so, darkness exists within his peppy world of dance clubs and flying cars, not only in the form of Hamill’s mad Joker but, more significantly, in the character of Robin
The writers here, like those of 2010’s “Batman: Under the Red Hood,” covertly understand that it’s impossible, within the adult half of the Batman cosmos, to interpret the story of Robin—the bare-legged adolescent male thrust into crime-fighting by the disturbed celibate loner with whom he inappropriately shares an isolated mansion—as anything but an alarming case of child abuse. Both movies transfer the blame for Robin’s early psychological injuries to the Joker, but each time the Boy Wonder returns as a fractured adult whose unhealed childhood wounds primarily threaten Batman, and the ensuing conflict between them, in which the Joker plays only a supporting role, implies a more terrifying reality of misplaced love and betrayed trust.
“Under the Red Hood” is the most fully adult-oriented of the three movies I watched, its plot too complicated and its characters too numerous for its 1.25-hour running time. Again, there is a sense of rich material confined—to such an extent, in this case, that the movie’s openly grisly elements show with unusual clarity that, even in the character’s grimmest moments, the Batman of our movies (animated or not) has never seen the lonely horror of his life fully explored.
Is “The Killing Joke” any different? I don’t know yet, but I doubt it. The ideal Batman movie would be so bleak as to be unwatchable, and what would be the point of that?