Batman, the Caped Crusader, the Dark Knight of Gotham City, true identity of the callow playboy and son of privilege Bruce Wayne, has been around since May, 1939, when he appeared in a brief story in Detective Comics #27, and in that time he has had many iterations in the pages of DC Comics magazines and elsewhere; in television and movies, we have had campy Batmans and nihilistic Batmans; dark, moody Batmans and cheeky, dumb Batmans; childish Batmans and self-serious grown-up Batmans. But the best Batman we've ever had, bar none, was an animated Batman. And while I do not at present have the time or space to do full justice to this last and greatest Batman, I would still like to share with you, just briefly, his story.

After the 1989 Tim Burton-directed Batman feature become one of the biggest Zeitgeist hits of its generation, it was a no-brainer for Warner Bros. to continue developing the character, popular and beloved now far beyond even the broadest scope of the comic-reading audience. What is perhaps startling, is that one of these directions came when some of the staff of Warner's afternoon cartoon series Tiny Toon Adventures (a weaker attempt at the same basic idea - "Looney Tunes for the 1990s" - that would later result in the magnificent Animaniacs) hit upon the idea of, in effect, "Why not an animated Batman?" And so it is that TTA animator Bruce W. Timm and background painter Eric Radomski took to developing a show unlike anything that had ever been seen in American animation, backed up by TTA producer Tom Ruegger; what they produced, though influences by the Burton film (and using its iconic "Batman Theme" to sterling effect in the opening title sequence), is equally indebted to the 1940 Fleischer Superman cartoons, to various bits and pieces from Batman's history throughout the first 50 years of his existence, and to a fever dream idea of what civic architecture of the 1930s could look like if the designers weren't actually constrained by physics. The result was Batman: The Animated Series, formally known simply as Batman, which ran for 85 episodes across two production seasons, and begat a decade-and-a-half long intertwining collection of animated series based on DC superhero comics largely overseen by Timm and fellow producer Paul Dini, collectively called the DC Animated Universe, or DCAU to we who love it so; its combination of graphic ingenuity, terrifyingly perfect voice-casting, and a commitment to episodic storytelling far more like the actual stuff of comic books than a feature film could ever conceivably manage make it readily the most faithful adaptation of Batman, Superman, and their cohorts that we're ever likely to see; meanwhile, the creators' belief that nuanced, sophisticated storytelling for adults and more thoughtful children could comfortable reside inside an afternoon cartoon show (I cannot begin to stress how radical this idea was in 1992, when the more adult strains of anime were still just a rumor and there were effectively zero American animated productions that weren't aimed at the broadest possible family audience) means that the DCAU stories are usually more psychologically insightful and dramatically engaging than any live-action superhero feature has yet achieved.

I wish we could talk about the DCAU for ever and always; but with fourteen years and eight distinct series to account for, this is simply not the place for it. Instead, we shall home in on a single early example of the form, the first feature produced starring the animated Batman, back when he was still the only inhabitant of the DCAU. This was Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, initially planned to be the first direct-to-video film in the franchise, but ultimately given an expanded budget and a small theatrical release in December, 1993. It was produced after the initial run of 65 episodes that represent the animated Batman in its purest, darkest, most un-Robin'd form, and though it is a mere 76-minute slip of a thing, it is among the boldest and most ambitious stories ever attempted in its franchise, and it is as acute, and compelling, and (this part is important if you're a fanboy) satisfyingly Batmanny as any of the Batman features, if not moreso. By which I of course mean, it is moreso.

Mask of the Phantasm starts off pretty well, by doing something that not nearly enough superhero movies bother to do: it assumes we know why we're watching it. Not in the sense that it expects the viewer to have a working knowledge of the show, as the 1966, TV-derived Batman did; the only knowledge this film requires is that you know, in broad terms, who the following people are:

-Bruce Wayne/Batman
-Alfred Pennyworth
-The Joker

And let's be honest, anyone who goes into a movie with Batman in the title and starts asking questions like, "Who is that white-faced man with green hair? He's like a clown, but evil. I don't get it!" deserves exactly what they get.

Beyond that, the film is massively self-contained: the two most important characters in the movie after Batman himself are one-off inventions, and it presents a narrative conflict that begins and ends entirely within the span of the film's 76 minutes. It solves the problem of every origin story movie before or since in the only way it needs to be solved: by putting a famous superhero into a plot, and watching him get out of it. Revolutionary stuff; much more daring than e.g. two different origin stories for Spider-Man in the span of ten years.

And not just self-contained, it's also quite possibly the most solid, concise, meaningful story of any Batman feature, as well as being one of the best stories told in the DCAU. In brief: a new vigilante dressed like the Grim Reaper with a metal mask is killing some of Gotham City's most prominent gangsters, and Batman (Kevin Conroy, as good in the role as any actor has been; of course, he had lots of practice) is taking the blame, thanks to overzealous, bat-hating city councilman Arthur Reeves (Hart Bochner). Shortly after this spree begins, a woman named Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany) returns to Gotham after years away: she just so happens to be the ex-flame of a certain Bruce Wayne and the current paramour of Arthur Reeves, and the daughter of the reclusive businessman Carl Beaumont (Stacy Keach), who had some strange connection to the dead gangsters way back in the time that Bruce and Andrea were dating.Let us not spoil the plot, but also mention that you don't need to be all that imaginative to figure out where this is going pretty much from the second it starts; doesn't matter. If anything, it makes the whole thing that much deeper, because being as we thus are ahead of Batman almost the whole time, his actions in the movie become far more tragic and sympathetic than they'd be otherwise.

What's surprising about the film - what makes it so much stronger than most Batman vehicles - is that this plot involving the Phantasm (who is not ever named) and the story of Young Bruce in Love aren't just complimentary, they're effectively the same story. Mask of the Phantasm is about Bruce Wayne above all else, and about how the new case he finds himself working on stirs up old memories; and this is what makes the film "big" enough to be a feature, that as a result of Bruce's reminiscing, we are made privy to Batman's origin story, kind of. Wait, didn't I just say the movie wasn't an origin story? Well, it isn't. It is the story of how a man who loved and lost was broken by it, and while the flashbacks give us new insight into Bruce's character, this is not an origin in any remotely traditional sense. The flashbacks themselves are more about character psychology than plot; one of the best and most harrowing sequences in the movie (and high in the running for one of my favorite moments in Conroy's performance of the character ever) is when a younger Bruce kneels at his parents' grave, horrified that he feels happiness in his relationship with Andrea and is thus abandoning his promise to their memory, that he would never stop suffering in order to bring justice to the world. Irrespective of being in a flashback or not, it's one of the best moments in expressing just how messed up Bruce's inner mind has become that has ever been portrayed in any medium. The purpose of the Phantasm plot isn't simply to create a new villain for the hero to fight, but to trigger the set of events that cause a much older and more-established Batman to revisit the way he felt at that moment, or the moment that he proposed to Andrea, or the moment that she dumped him with a note. The film is an exploration of Bruce Wayne's lonely soul, not an action movie with some character psychology incidentally spackled on it; this is the genius of the animated Batman at its peak, that it should be so much more about character than incident, so effectively. In a format, I hasten to add, that was being sold almost entirely to children, thanks to marketing pressure, though the adults who needed to see the show were largely able to find it.

I suppose it's not a perfect film: the animation isn't quite up to the absolute best work in the show itself (a hurried production schedule likely accounts for that, with the character animation of the wildly-gesticulating Arthur an obvious low point. And perhaps it's simply the case that the limited animation of the show works better in smaller chunks. Of course, the design remains the same - so-called "Dark Deco", a fusion of '30s style, film noir atmosphere, and a very '80s sense of widespread urban decay - and the series' ingenious trick of drawing backgrounds on dark paper rather than light paper, giving everything more texture and subtlety in its gradations of black, has not been tampered with. But I'll confess to being a little put off by the overall "farmed out to a Korean studio" feeling to much of the action in a way that doesn't happen all that often with the show at its height.

And there's also the rather calculating insertion of the Joker (Mark Hamill, whose take on the character is as definitive as Conroy's Batman), not in a way that feels forced - all things considered, it's amazing how easily he slides into this scenario, and the brief flashbacks to a pre-Joker Joker do a fantastic job of giving the character a history without telling us what the history actually is - but the mere fact that he's here smacks of somebody losing their nerve: all well and good to create a story totally independent of Batman's traditional rogues gallery, but eh, just in case....

But, thing is, it's still a superlative Batman story told with style and flair and so much more ambition than a cash-in movie made on the cheap ought to have; Timm and Radomski use the expanded possibilities of theatrical distribution well (genuinely unsettling death scenes, more complex action scenes), creating a movie that is exciting as it is intelligent and atmospheric; a fun and troubling superhero movie by turns, in all the best ways of its parent series and the iconic character that spawned them both. All that in an hour and a quarter of technically unexceptional animation made for $6 million and barely released. Good Lord, if it's that easy to get it right, why don't we have dozens more films just like it?