...or as I like to call it, Batman in Love. Made a year after Batman: The Animated Series premiered, Mask of the Phantasm is set in the same world as TAS, and, through flashback, gives us a peek at events that took place before the series began.
Crime bosses in Gotham are being picked off and people suspect that Batman is the culprit. Only the deceased know the killer is a masked apparition who comes and goes in a swirl of mist. The Phantasm is targeting these men for crimes committed in the past, telling each one their time has come. Taking the initiative, the last crime boss turns to the Joker for help, reminding him that Joker, too, is a target of the Phantasm. Both Batman and the Phantasm arrive at Joker's lair, but with different agendas, and a final battle is fought between past and present lives.
While all this is going on, while Batman is trying very hard to solves these murders, he's continually distracted by his memories. First the mention of committed relationships, and then the timely arrival of an old flame resurrects in Bruce Wayne feelings of love and loss. A good part of the movie is dedicated to Bruce's early days both as a man and as Batman, as he struggles to build a life with the woman he loves and to create a satisfyingly fearsome alter-ego.
One of the film's best moments is Bruce's final transformation from hooded vigilante into caped crusader. In Mask of the Phantasm, Bruce's motivations transmute from grief to heartbreak. Indeed, his initial motivation was the loss of his parents, but after being first accepted and then rejected by his girlfriend, Bruce turns even further inward and becomes Batman.
This transition, though, is prefaced by an even more powerful moment in which Bruce contemplates giving up vigilantism. The man has a complete breakdown, emotionally tormented by having achieved happiness. Bruce Wayne is a complex individual, and Mask of the Phantasm effectively portrays his layered personality through its vengeance plot. By shedding light on Batman's past, the movie allows us to become intimately familiar with the man behind the bat, but it's discomforting to learn the superhero is all too human.
Because Mask of the Phantasm belongs to the TAS aesthetic, it retains the same dark qualities that made the series famous. Emotionally dark and morally ambiguous, Mask of the Phantasm has less to do with the law than it does with justice. The film pits love against revenge, and the past against the present in one of the best animated Batman movies to date.