Released: 23 April 2002
Originally Released: 31 October 2000
Director: Curt Geda
Distributor: Warner Home Video
Stars: Will Friedle, Mark Hamill, Kevin Conroy, Angie Harmon, and Dean Stockwell
When the Joker (Hamill) suddenly returns from his apparent death and begins terrorising Neo-Gotham, Terry McGinnis/Batman (Friedle) is forced to go against the advice of his mentor, Bruce Wayne (Conroy), and begin an investigation into the darkest chapter of the former Batman’s career.
Although a Batman animated series had been in the works during 1990, the release, and relative success, of Batman (Burton, 1989) and Batman Returns (ibid, 1992) caused a wave of “Batmania” and renewed interest in the character. Consequently, quite by chance, the idea of a new animated series influenced by both films and the 1940s Superman cartoons by Fleisher Studios, was thought up Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and Eric Radomski, who spearheaded one of the most beloved and influential animated shows ever. Batman: The Animated Series aired eighty-five episodes between September 1992 and 1995 before being succeeded by twenty-four episodes of The New Batman Adventures (also known as The Adventures of Batman & Robin here in the United Kingdom) between 1997 and 1999.
Once the show wrapped up, Warner Bros. brought many of the show’s creators back to continue the story in the then-futuristic world of 2019 with Batman Beyond (known as Batman of the Future in the U.K.) Batman Beyond introduced a younger Batman under the tutelage of an aged and long-retired Bruce Wayne and taking on all-new villains in a cyberpunk-style future. Though not quite as well-received and lauded as its predecessors or sister series, Batman Beyond was popular enough to warrant a direct-to-video feature film over other potential Batman concepts. Because the film’s production occurred in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, numerous cuts and edits were made to the film upon its release, with an “uncut” version being released once the controversy had died down. Regardless, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker released to critical acclaim, winning (or being nominated for) a number of awards, and is frequently regarded as one of the finest pieces of Batman media to ever be produced.
My exposure to Batman Beyond is, admittedly, very limited; I watched Batman: The Animated Series on and off back in the day, never seeming to be able to get into a proper routine with it, but saw very little of its futuristic follow-up. When I did catch the odd episode, I can’t say that it really bowled me over; it was too different, too far removed from what I expected from Batman, with virtually none of the recognisable cast or characters. Hell, even Gotham City looked and felt different, and the show had very bleak and depressing connotations for fans of Batman: The Animated Series in its portrayal of Bruce as a grouchy, lonely, recluse. Still, the idea of an older, infirm Bruce mentoring a young successor had a lot of appeal to me and is definitely something I would have liked to see the comics do (particularly during the character’s “death” between 2008 and 2010).
Despite that, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker is well deserving of all the praise it gets; while I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s better than, or even on par with, the excellent Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (Radomski and Timm, 1993), very few of Batman’s animated features are able to reach that pinnacle and I’d say Return of the Joker does a decent job of coming pretty damn close. While I’m lacking a lot of context for many of the film’s newer rogues, it’s not much of an issue since the “Jokerz” are generally just minions and cannon fodder to do the Joker’s bidding and to oppose Batman, though I did appreciate how their designs harkened back to Batman foes of old (with Stewart Carter Winthrop III/Ghoul (Michael Rosenbaum) resembling Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow and Delia and Deidre Dennis/Dee Dee (Melissa Joan Hart) aping Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn).
The feature opens with an exciting action sequence featuring lots of laser blasts, explosions, mid-air chases, and action as Batman tries, and fails, to stop the Jokerz from stealing some high-tech computer parts. Despite all the advantages of Terry’s advanced Batsuit (including rocket boots, invisibility, and augmentations to his speed and strength), and the fact that he’s been Batman for a while now, Terry is still in training in many ways; he’s more experienced and capable but he’s still fallible and capable of messing up or being hurt. At times, though, I find him to be very reliant on the suit and the strength and other benefits it provides; it often feels like he was playing into the cliché of the role rather than being his own man at times but he manages to stand out by being a far more agile and witty Batman and approaching situations slightly differently than Bruce would/advises.
Despite Bruce commending his work and commitment to the role, Terry is insulted when his mentor requests that he return the Batsuit in the wake of the Joker’s return. Terry initially refuses to acquiesce, seeing the role as a chance to make up for his past sins and troubled youth and confirming his commitment to helping others as Batman, and pushes both Bruce and Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Angie Harmon) for the truth about the Joker. This becomes a recurring element in the film, with Terry disliking the comparisons to Bruce’s old partners and striving to prove his worth as Batman rather than a pale imitation or a failed apprentice. This comes to a head in his inevitable confrontation with the Joker, in which Terry fights dirty with a crotch shot and constantly taunts the Joker, laughing at him, criticising his methods, and mocking him to drive the Joker into an angered frenzy.
Bruce, of course, is now a grouchy, crotchety, tough mentor figure who has an interesting relationship with Terry, one that he clearly prefers to keep professional and mutual but you can tell that he values Terry as a replacement/apprentice. Though he’s clearly carrying a lot of ghosts and pain from his past, Bruce is as committed to both Batman and reclaiming his business and has absorbed a lot of wisdom from the long-dead Alfred Pennyworth, showing concern for Terry’s health and well-being and advising against going out on the town after a rough night as Batman, but lacks Alfred’s tact or bedside manner. Bruce’s stoic resolve is shaken upon the Joker’s return; he is visibly horrified by the Clown Prince of Crime’s reappearance and lapses first into moody silence and then into overprotectiveness after verifying the Joker’s identity. Bruce is disgusted at Terry’s sentiment, believing he is as misguided as his other teen partners who never knew what they were getting into, and a rift briefly forms between them because of Bruce’s refusal to explain his troubled past with the Joker. They make amends, however, when Terry saves Bruce from a dose of the Joker’s laughing gas, which is a horrifying sight since Bruce is accosted in his most private abode and the Joker explicitly reveals that he knows Bruce was Batman. Disturbed by being attacked in his civilian identity, Terry races to Wayne Manor and discovers the ‘cave in disarray and Bruce a cackling, grinning corpse-like figure. Succumbing to the Joker’s deadly toxin, Bruce just about manages to direct Terry to the anti-venom, and he is saved from certain death.
The Joker is, perhaps obviously, the star of the show here; as always, Mark Hamill delivers a sinister, maniacal performance that perfectly encapsulates Batman’s most persistent of foes. The Joker immediately establishes himself as a menacing and cold-hearted villain by callously shooting Benjamin Knox/Bonk (Henry Rollins) through the heart with the old “fake gun” trick and brazenly attacks the gala welcoming Bruce back to Wayne Enterprises. Though the Joker is critical, but admiring, of the new Batman, he dismisses him at every turn (referring to him as “Bat-Fake”) in favour of Bruce and wastes little time in setting in motion his plot to take control of an orbiting satellite and use its laser-firing capabilities to deliver massive damage to Gotham and commemorate his return.
Due to the unexpected and impossible nature of the Joker’s return, much of the film revolves around Terry trying to uncover the details of his last appearance and how and why the Joker has resurfaced, apparently from the grave. With Bruce and Barbara being tight-lipped on the matter, Terry pays a visit to the aged Tim Drake (Stockwell), formally Robin, believing him to be involved somehow. Though now happy, healthy, married, and long retied from the role, Drake is still able to detect Batman even with his fancy cloaking technology, but denies any involvement in the matter, expressing only regret and bitterness at the entire debacle and his gratitude at having left the life behind. When Terry’s next suspect, Jordan Pryce (Hamill), also turns out to be little more than a middle man, he briefly despairs at his inability to duplicate Bruce’s deductive skills and reasoning only to finally solve the mystery by observing the deliberate nature of the Joker’s attack on the Batcave and the common thread that links all the materials he’s stolen, proving again that Terry might not be quite on the same level as his predecessor but is still capable of solving mysteries in his own, unique way.
Of course, the true extent of the Joker’s villainy and viciousness isn’t exposed until Barbara reveals the tragic details of their last encounter with the Joker through a flashback to some thirty years ago when Batman, Barbara-as-Batgirl (Tara Strong), and Robin were acting as a crimefighting trio; one night, while out solo, Robin was kidnapped by Harley Quinn and held captive by the Joker for three weeks. After aggressively hounding the underworld, the duo was finally lured to the rundown, partially demolished Arkham Asylum by the Joker. There, they are horrified to find that Joker and Harley (Arleen Sorkin) have brainwashed and tortured Robin into being their surrogate son, Joker Jr/J.J. and that, despite Tim’s willpower and strength, he eventually cracked and told them everything about Batman and his operation, revealing his true identity (much to the Joker’s disappointment) and transforming Tim into a disfigured, cackling little Joker-boy
During the highly emotionally-charged fight that consequently breaks out, Harley appears to fall to her death (despite Batgirl’s attempt to save her) and Batman, overwhelmed by his anger, is baited by the Joker, who gleeful shows video footage of Tim’s torture, taunting Batman and his crusade/motivation and receiving a vicious beating as a result (Batman even threatens to “break [him] in two!” in a chilling moment). However, after being incapacitated by the Joker, Batman can only watch helplessly as Tim shockingly chooses to shoot the Joker through the heart rather than kill his mentor, breaking down into a cackling flood of tears afterwards. It’s a truly horrific and terrifying fate for poor little Tim Drake and which, clearly, has fundamentally soured Batman’s character ever since and led to him alienating all of his closest allies in his twilight years.
Though Drake recovered from this horrendous experience, it turns out that the Joker has been “possessing” Tim’s body using a special chip he implanted during Robin’s capture and torture; Tim is completely unaware of the Joker’s influence and the Joker has been able to take over more and more often to the point where he can make the change at will and is on the verge of possessing Tim forever. When Batman confronts Drake about his involvement with the Joker, the former Robin grows confused and disorientated before becoming more and more agitated and crazed, incapacitating Batman’s suit and descending into maniacal laughter, literally transforming into the Joker before our eyes in a spine-chilling moment.
With the Joker’s destructive laser damaged and now heading directly towards their location, Batman and Joker engage in a surprisingly evenly-matched fist fight; it seems possessing Drake’s body as afforded Joker the means to go toe-to-toe with the much younger and more formidable Terry but, just as the Joker is about to throttle the life out of him, Batman uses the Joker’s own electrified joy buzzer to short out and destroy the chip on Tim’s neck, defeating the Joker once and for all and returning Tim to his body, sanity, and consciousness. In the end, Batman gets Tim to safety, allowing the former Robin to finally reconcile with Bruce, Harley is revealed to be alive (though a grouchy old woman), Tim (and, more importantly, Bruce) commends Terry’s abilities as Batman, and Terry flies off into the night to continue the never-ending fight as the Batman of the future.
Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker is an action-packed adventure, to be sure, but also easily the darkest of Batman’s animated features; Batman Beyond was already quite a bitter and cynical end for Batman and his allies, with Bruce ending up a grouchy old man with none of his friends or family left, but Return of the Joker really hammers home how bleak Batman’s later years became. Using elements of the “Death in the Family” storyline (Starlin, et al, 1988), Return of the Joker really sticks it to any fans of Robin by having Tim relentlessly tortured and abused and even hinting that Dick Grayson is just as bitter and full of regret as Tim and Bruce. Thankfully, amidst all this bleakness, there is new hope in the form of Terry, a young and very capable but also very different Batman who helps to bring some of the fire and meaning back to an otherwise jaded Bruce. Return of the Joker is framed as Terry’s ultimate test, one that no one else believes he is ready for thanks to the danger and near-mythical threat of the Joker. Throughout it all, though, Terry remains resolute and confident and is able to defeat the Joker in a way that Bruce never could.
What did you think of Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker and where would you rank it against other animated Batman films? Which version of the film do you prefer? Were you a fan of Batman Beyond? Whatever your thoughts, leave a comment down below and check back in next Tuesday for Batman Day!