Kevin Conroy voices Batman in this animated feature that sees the Dark Knight investigate a masked assailant murdering members of Gotham’s underworld, while Bruce Wayne grapples with the reemergence of a old flame voiced by Dana Delany.
Filmed at the end of the animated series’ first sixty-five episode order, the film plays like an extended episode, albeit one intended to air in prime-time versus Saturday mornings. While still suitable for older kids, the film features several off-screen murders, alcohol consumption, and implied sex.
The animation retains the series’ Max Fleischer Superman inspired art-direction, evident in the opening credits crawl through the art déco Gotham City, the minimalist character designs, and abundant use of light and shadow. It also borrows from Tim Burton’s Batman (which itself borrowed from Fleischer’s Superman), aping that film’s Batcave design.
The voice-acting shines. Conroy, just a year into a multi-decade run as Batman, conveys ample menace as Batman and affable charm as Bruce Wayne. In the film’s defining moment, he pleads with his deceased parents, begging to be excused from his promise to avenge their deaths. “I didn’t count on being happy,” he says with a gravitas that transcends the animated format.
Opposite Conroy, Delany charms as old flame Andrea Beaumont. Through a series of flashbacks the film proffers a kind of Elseworlds origin where a college-age Bruce juggles his first attempts at crime fighting with a burgeoning romance with Andrea. It’s a tough role for Delany. The script can have Bruce fall for her, but Delany must transcend the page and win the audience using just her voice. The script helps by not reducing her to a generic damsel-in-distress, but Delany’s charismatic performance impresses.
Mark Hamill shows up a little past the halfway point as the Joker. Like Conroy, Hamill was just a year into his multi-decade run as the Joker. Also like Conroy, he’d found his groove, able to flip between the Joker’s silly and scary personas, often in the same bit of dialogue.
Amidst the mystery and melodrama, the film features two of Batman’s best cinematic moments. The first comes during a flashback when Bruce and Andrea are walking out of a downtown building and spot a group of motorcycle thugs shaking down a street vendor. Bruce stiffens and moves to intervene.
“Stay here! I’ve got to stop this,” he says.
Andrea grabs his arm. “Bruce, no!—don’t!” she says.
“What do you expect me to do? Just stand here?” he replies.
She lets go and says, “Just come back to me in one piece. Please.”
Bruce charges one of the thugs. With the element of surprise he knocks one to the ground and throws another into a nearby ravine. The others regroup and mount their bikes. Engines revving, they prepare to run down Bruce. “Better have your insurance paid up, sucker!” says one as he swings a chain overhead.
Cut to Bruce. He doesn’t run. He settles into a combat stance, possessed by an eerie calm. Zoom in on his eyes, which narrow. He’s not Bruce anymore. He’s Batman. No fancy animation tricks—just a shift in body language. It gave me chills.
The second comes later, when Bruce first dons the Batman garb. We see him in silhouette as he dons the cowl and turns to Alfred, whose eyes widen. Cut back to Bruce, whose now all-white eyes narrow just as they did in the earlier scene. “My God,” says Alfred, stepping back, as Bruce—having found himself as Batman—stalks past him.
But for all its strengths, the film is not without its flaws. We get a scene where Bruce’s analyzing some evidence on the computer in the Batcave. He’s dressed in civilian clothes, and, as he talks to Alfred, he smiles and smirks. It’s a subtle misstep that wouldn’t happen later in the character’s animated journey, but it reminds us that—despite having sixty-plus episodes under their belt—the animated Batman character was still developing.
Another misstep comes with the central mystery. Though he’s referred to as “the world’s greatest detective” and we see him collecting forensic evidence, the Joker proves the superior sleuth, sussing out the mystery assailant’s identity first, while Batman’s investigative efforts amount to recognizing folks in a picture.
But these prove minor blemishes on a strong effort. Fans of the animated series will love this, and Batman fans may find it one of the best cinematic adaptations. It also proves the rare stand-alone superhero picture suitable for pre-teen fans and adults alike.