Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (V)

(2003) ** 1/2 Pg
75 min. Warner Brothers. Directors: Andrea Romano, Jennifer Graves, Tim Maltby. Cast: Kevin Conroy (II), Kimberly Brooks, Kelly Ripa, Elisa Pensler-Gabrielli, Kyra Sedgwick.

At times, the straight-to-video feature Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman plays like a pale reflection of 1993's Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Both animated mysteries feature a guessing game built around a ruthless vigilante who reflects poorly on Batman.

Verbose master criminal The Penguin (David Ogden Stiers), crime boss Rupert Thorne (John Vernon), and muscle Carlton Duquesne (Kevin Michael Richardson) have conspired to run arms, including some truly nasty laser cannons, through Gotham. Before Batman (Kevin Conroy) and Robin (Eli Marienthal) can put the kibosh on a shipment, the freelance Batwoman swoops into action on a small, jetpowered aircraft. "Haven't seen her around the cave," quips Robin.

In short order, the filmmakers introduce three suspects, each with a motive: Duquesne's daughter Kathy, a frustrated artist; clumsy WayneTech research scientist Roxanne "Rocky" Ballantine; and Sonia Alcana, a police detective newly partnered with Harvey Bullock (Robert Costanzo). The better to protect her identity, Batwoman adopts another voice (that of Kyra Sedgwick).

With the presence of Tim Drake's wisecracking Robin and a flirty appearance by Barbara Gordon (Tara Strong), this feature most closely resembles the final incarnation of the '90s Batman animated series, Batman: Gotham Knights. Animated Batman overseers Alan Burnett and Paul Dini are both credited, Burnett as supervising producer and story author, and Dini as consultant. Scripter Michael Reaves was one of the writers on Mask of the Phantasm, and director Curt Geda previously helmed Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker.

Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman isn't exceptional, but it is a solid effort, with plenty of rough-and-tumble action. With love interest Bruce Wayne in tow, Kathy leads the keepers assigned by her father on a citywide chase. A later date at the Penguin's Iceberg Lounge erupts when the Penguin attacks Batwoman with an umbrella that expels heat-seeking charges (the nightclub also provides an excuse for Warner Strategic Marketing to insert an annoying Cherie song, "Betcha Neva").

For good measure, Burnett and Reaves throw in brawny baddie Bane (Hector Elizondo), who can pump himself up yet further, in a pinch, by way of button-activated steroidal infusions. Bane figures heavily in the involved finale, which incorporates nearly all of the characters, a runaway ship, and some inconvenient explosions.

Despite the work and guidance of those veterans (or, perhaps, because of it), Mystery of the Batwoman betrays a touch of creative exhaustion. Still, the film boasts some particularly elegant backgrounds, a relatively lighthearted tone, and a nice twist on its "whoizzit" mystery. Over a decade after the premiere of Batman: The Animated Series, the extended Batman animation family hasn't quite worn out its welcome.

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