Batman has been lighting up the silver screen for seven decades (!!!) now if you look all the way back to the serialized episodes that played as appetizers before feature presentations in the 1940s. That means there’s several generations of kids who’ve grown up with their own personal version of Batman, a specific actor or adaptation that marks their introduction to the Dark Knight. Just think, there will be thousands of youngsters who are first introduced to the Batster through Dawn of Justice this weekend, meaning their own personal Bruce Wayne will be none other than former Bennifer member Ben Affleck. Personally, my first Batman was likely Michael Keaton (who also probably remains my favorite), but the one I remember much, much more vividly watching as a kid is the disembodied voice of Kevin Conroy.
Kevin Conroy voiced Batman/Bruce Wayne for the excellent, long-running television show Batman: The Animated Series. I spent so much time with Conroy’s voice emanating from Batman’s mouth that it’s impossible not to think of him as the Official Batman. It’s also arguable that since Conroy has logged so many hours as the Caped Crusader through all 85 glorious episodes & two feature length movies within that series, he’s more than earned the title. As an animated work, Batman had a really easy path to mastering the comic book balance between campy humor & brooding severity that so many adaptations have failed to capture by committing too fully to one end over the other. The show’s noir, Art Deco visual design (which was achieved by drawing on black paper) is not only gorgeous; it’s true to the property’s Detective Comics roots. Similarly, Conroy’s voice work plays the show’s hero with the perfect mix of suave, dark, and humorous tones that make him such an interesting anti-hero. I like to think that the reason Batman: The Animated Series is remembered so fondly is because it really was that good.
Batman: The Animated Series spawned a couple feature film editions in its time, but the most significant of the pair by far came at the height of the series’ popularity. The show was such a hit that it earned a legitimate theatrical release in 1993’s The Mask of the Phantasm. In the film, Batman finds himself being framed for a series of murders with interconnected victims in the organized crime community. The mysterious perpetrator in these murders is a fellow masked crusader known only as The Phantasm. While being hunted by the police for The Phantasm’s crimes, described here as “vigilantism at its worst”, Wayne flashes back to an early romance that swelled & fizzled during his early days as a gimmickless vigilante grieving over the loss of his parents.This trip down memory lane proves to be more than therapeutic. It also helps the befuddled Batman solve the mystery of who’s been murdering criminals instead of simply, nobly apprehending them.
It at first seems as though The Phantasm’s identity is spoiled by the very-recognizable voice of character actor (and, in Class of 1999, salacious banana eater) Stacy Keach, but that only leads to one reveal of many. The Mask of the Phantasm feels like a standard multiple episode story arc from Batman: The Animated Series, just one uninhibited by commercial breaks & repetitive credits sequences. The series was finely crafted enough to genuinely earn this theatrical treatment, though. Even if the movie doesn’t constitute the best story arc the series had to offer, it’s still a fine, typifying glimpse into what made the show so great in general. To that point, the series’ key antagonist, the Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill in his second most significant role), drops in mostly just to remind you of how awesome he is in this specific adaptation. There’s a particular fight scene between The Joker & Batman in a small-scale Gotham miniature that makes them look Godzilla-sized by comparison that I contend ranks among the best-choreographed fight scenes in any Batman film. The Mask of the Phantasm may not be the pinnacle of what The Animated Series had to offer, but it’s a great, concise mystery & an easily digestible glimpse into what made the show special, not to mention what made Kevin Conroy’s work one of Bruce Wayne’s best manifestations.