One of the more interesting things about Batman: The Animated Series was that while it gave origin stories to a few villains like the Riddler, Batman himself — along with the Joker, Catwoman, the Penguin, and others — arrived fully formed. That works great on the show, but the movie allowed them to explore Batman’s early days in a way that feels different.
Like Batman Begins, which drew on Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One, it lifts its inspiration heavily from the page. In this case, though, elements of Year One are combined with the plot of Mike W. Barr, Alan Davis, and Todd McFarlane’s Batman: Year Two, in which the Dark Knight takes on a villain who bears more than a passing resemblance to the Phantasm. Unlike Begins, however — and unlike Batman v Superman‘s attempts at recreating Dark Knight Returns — it doesn’t just do a movie version of something that had already been done. Instead, it mixes those elements together in a new way, combining them with the stripped-down aesthetic and direction of the show for something that feels truly unique.
It’s a movie that’s full of bold choices, showing Batman’s human weaknesses, giving him a villain who ultimately gets away, and using the Joker only as a secondary threat that looms over what is ultimately a very personal story. It takes risks no other Batman movie has, and in almost every case, they pay off, at least in terms of narrative. Sadly, Mask of the Phantasm was the only Batman movie ever to flop on its initial release, but the years since have seen it undergo a critical reexamination that has placed it right where it should be: at the top tier of Batman’s cinematic adventures.