Batman was in a great place in the 1990's as far as animation goes. Mask of the Phantasm began as an idea from Alan Burnett, producer on Batman: The Animated Series. Burnett wanted to tell a Year One inspired story that explored how Bruce Wayne became Batman but also wanted a movie that told a new story. Paul Dini, Martin Pasko, and Michael Reaves were recruited to help write the film. Much of the main voice cast of the animated show returned to do voices: Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamill as The Joker, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Alfred Pennyworth, Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon, and Robert Costanzo as Harvey Bullock were joined by veteran actors Dana Delany, Hart Bochner, Stacy Keach Jr., Abe Vigoda, Dick Miller and John P. Ryan to fill out the cast. The movie was directed by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski.
The story follows Batman as he reunites with his former love, the mysterious socialite, Andrea Beaumont, then faces a new vigilante, The Phantasm, who is murdering Gotham's mob bosses. The plot took partial inspiration from Mike W. Barr's Batman: Year Two and The Phantasm was based on the comics villain, The Reaper. The movie also took elements from the Batman: Year One storyline by Frank Miller.
After Phantasm was greenlit, WB had slated it for a direct-to-video release. When the film was completed though, the executives were impressed enough with the animation and overall story that they decided it was worthy of a theatrical release. They then decided to convert its aspect ratio for theater screens. Dropping on December 25, 1993, it opened to a very small reception but got positive reviews from the few critics who did see it. The film earned praise for its stylized animation, voice performances, story, and music. Because of the film being dumped into theaters on such short notice, Mask of the Phantasm was a box office bomb. In fact, because it was such a sleeper, Siskel and Ebert dismissed it as, to quote Gene Siskel, "a kid's movie." They failed to review it but later came back and gave the film a glowing review (as seen below):
After being released on VHS, this film finally found the success it deserved and has gained a legendary status among fans. And this is where I first saw it. I used to rent this once a month from the video store. In my estimation, it's one of the best Batman movies ever made. Sometimes, I even think that it beats the best live action films with its story and execution. Mask of the Phantasm is well remembered and continues to be loved by Batman fans, new and old.
In 1997, around the time of the 4th Batman film, Batman and Robin, WB filmed a tie-in movie called Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero. After the lack of critical success that the live action film brought, Subzero was halted and released in 1998 as a Special Television Event. My brother and I had seen it advertised for weeks and saw it when it debuted, recording it on a VHS tape. The film was critically well received and, for obvious reasons, is regarded as far better than the live action film from around the same time. As a young kid, this was the movie that cemented my love for Barbara Gordon and Batgirl.
The film used much of the same cast from the animated series to tell a story where Mr. Freeze recruits an old colleague, Dr. Gregory Belson, to perform a blood transfusion to heal and revive his beloved wife, Nora. The plot comes in when the only compatible donor happens to be Barbara Gordon. Freeze kidnaps Barbara and takes her to an abandoned oil rig in the middle of the ocean. Barbara uses her wits to survive and Batman and Robin fly out in the Batwing to rescue her.
The film was critically well received, though I personally have seen it criticized online by a few fans who think the movie is too short and the story too simple. It certainly always entertained me and I think it works as a perfect extension of the show it's based on. Its runtime is just over an hour but I think it tells a better story and is more faithful to what Batman (and Mr. Freeze) represents than what Schumacher gave us in 1997.
On October 4, 1997, 3 episodes from the second season of Superman: The Animated Series, debuted back-to-back as a special TV-movie event. These episodes depicted the first meeting between Batman and Superman in the DC Animated Universe (DCAU). As far as episodes go, they were some of the best of the Superman show and told an engaging story.
Joker meets Lex Luthor in Metropolis with an offer to kill Superman using a kryptonite dragon statue. Batman and Superman must team up to bring down the scheme of their arch villains. Sure, the plot is simple Saturday morning fare but the writing elevates it to something special.
In 2002, WB dumped these episodes onto DVD as The Batman/Superman Movie: World's Finest! Is it bad that I enjoy this more as a pairing of my 2 favorite DC heroes than the live action DC Extended Universe films? I'm apparently not the only one... several other fans have told me that they feel this is more entertaining than Zack Snyder's work and that this is a truer representation of Batman and Superman, even if it is a simple cartoon. To each their own, I guess. I still think these 3 episodes are great and have loved them since I was a kid.
*If you haven't watched these in a while, I recommend you see them again because I just saw them for the first time in a few years and they are really fun and quite engrossing. Bruce Timm and co. really knew how to make good superhero entertainment.