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BATMAN BEYOND RETURN OF THE JOKER , 2000
In this action-packed adventure, the sleeker, more dangerous and seemingly immortal Clown Prince of Crime is back to terrorize Gotham, Batman and the aging Bruce Wayne.
Release Date: 12 December 2000
The animated show “Batman Beyond” was a follow-up to the groundbreaking “Batman: The Animated Series.” Running from 1999-2001, “Batman Beyond” chronicled the adventures of a futuristic Gotham with a futuristic new Batman. Taking place during the “Batman Beyond” continuity, “Return of the Joker” seems too good to be a direct-to-video feature…and too dark to be kids’ stuff.
Decades have passed since Bruce Wayne first took to the Gotham rooftops as Batman, and although times have changed, the town is still crawling with criminals. Old age has forced Bruce to retire from actively pursuing these troublemakers, but a new hero has inherited the cape and cowl: Terry McGinnis, high school student and former juvenile delinquent. Donning the souped-up Batsuit, Terry patrols the skies of Gotham, bringing down common thugs and theatrical supervillains alike.
While he may be the new Batman, Terry isn’t exactly a Dark Knight. He does take some pleasure in his job, and he prefers quips to the original Batman’s stony silence. But in “Return of the Joker,” we find Terry asking himself a troubling question: is the Batman persona all that separates him from the punk he once was? In the midst of these doubts, Terry has to deal with a gang of thieves who’ve been stealing various bits of technology from labs all over Gotham.
It seems like business as usual, but this gang of miscreants has a powerful ringleader: none other than the Joker. The original Batman’s arch-nemesis is back, and he's ready to finish off Gotham City once and for all. At first, Terry underestimates his freakish new enemy, until he learns the truth about the night the Joker died. Without knowing how he managed to cheat death, Terry must find a way to stop the resurrected Clown Prince of Crime before it’s too late. This struggle will push Terry to the limit and show him what it truly means to be Batman.
“Batman Beyond” was an excellent, underappreciated series, and its quality shines through in “Return of the Joker.” You don’t have to be caught up on the show to appreciate this movie. Actually, “Batman: The Animated Series” would be provide better background on the events that take place in this film.
If you’re familiar with the original “Batman” episodes, it’s clear that Batman feels contempt for his foes, but he also pities them. He shows them mercy in battle, and although he’s mindful of their tricks, he’s willing to help them re-enter society as law-abiding citizens. The Joker is the only member of the rogues’ gallery whom Batman seems to genuinely hate. He’ll rescue the villain from falling off a building or from burning to death, but that’s where his compassion ends. He knows the Joker is a monster who will never change, and who lives only for wanton destruction.
The Joker is the most terrifying villain Gotham has ever known, but in the years since his death, he has faded from the public’s memory. The older citizens remember him as a bogeyman from their childhood, whereas the younger generations fail to appreciate just how menacing he was. Terry expresses contempt for the whole clown shtick, before a haunted, middle-aged Batgirl sets him straight. While Terry has fought an army of villains himself, for sheer cruelty and madness, none of them stack up to the Joker. Terry’s disadvantage is that he doesn’t appreciate just how evil this legendary supervillain really is, but the Joker also looks down on this new Batman, dubbing him “Bat-fake.” As their battle intensifies, they both learn the consequences of underestimating such a formidable opponent.
“Return of the Joker” was conceived by Bruce Timm, Glen Murakami and Paul Dini, who also wrote the script. Timm and Dini, veterans of “Batman: The Animated Series” and “Batman Beyond,” have an ability to mix fun and drama in a way that distinguishes their interpretation of the Batman legend. They can write scenes that make you laugh out loud, and others that leave you sitting in stunned silence.
The animation is slick and stylish, with a distinctly “anime” look to it. Although more streamlined, the Gotham of the future is as gothic and majestic as always. The score matches the cyber-punk theme perfectly, with its driving beats and wailing electric guitars.
The voice acting is superb, featuring cast members from both “Batman Beyond” and the original “Batman” series. Will Friedle plays Terry with a perfect balance of mischief and angst. He’s believable as a hero, but his more light-hearted approach to being Batman is what makes him unique.
As for Bruce Wayne/Batman, there can be only one: Kevin Conroy. Since 1992, he has voiced Batman in various animated series, features and video games, meaning Conroy has played Batman longer than any other actor in history. He’s simply magnificent in the role, and there are moments when his performance is downright frightening. Check out the flashback sequence in “Return of the Joker.” Blinded with rage but still maintaining a steely calm, Batman grips the Joker by the throat and growls, “I’ll break you in two…” Coming from another Batman, this may have sounded like an empty threat. When Kevin Conroy says this line, you start to think that maybe, just maybe, Batman might have finally snapped.
Tara Strong returns as the young Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, while Angie Harmon plays the middle-aged version of the character. Melissa Joan Hart is memorable as both halves of the mischievous twosome “Dee Dee,” and Dean Stockwell is poignant as the grown-up Tim Drake, whose stint as Robin ended in tragedy. Harley Quinn fans (and there are a lot of ‘em) will be pleased to hear Arleen Sorkin’s familiar screech, and although she doesn’t stick around for long, this film takes her character in an interesting direction.
But what of Mistah J himself? Mark Hamill returns as the Joker, and reminds us why his vocal work in “Batman: The Animated Series” was so celebrated. No other performer captures so many facets of the character: his lunacy, vanity, whimsy, sadism, and strange magnetism. Hamill also sports the best Joker laugh around, hands down. It’s actually more like a collection; as Hamill has explained, he wanted to keep things interesting by giving the character a variety of different laughs. They’re all the stuff of nightmares, but there’s one in particular that stands out. If you’re familiar with “Batman: The Animated Series,” you know the one, and it gets plenty of use in “Return of the Joker.” At one point, an unseen Joker interrupts a speech at a posh social function. The speaker’s voice is overwhelmed with feedback, and through the crackle of the static, we suddenly hear that familiar wild, high-pitched shriek of glee. You can imagine older citizens of Gotham freezing in their tracks, paralyzed by a sound that’s haunted their dreams since they were children. It’s a laugh that goes straight through you, embodying all the madness of a character who would giggle at seeing you draw your final breath. I mean no disrespect to Heath Ledger or to his daring, certainly Oscar-worthy performance in “The Dark Knight.” It’s just that to me, Mark Hamill is the definitive Joker.
What might surprise some viewers is the intensity of this movie. It might be aimed at kids, but neither “Batman: The Animated Series” nor “Batman Beyond” were in the habit of talking down to their young audiences. There are actually two cuts of “Return of the Joker,” as the original version was considered too disturbing. This is understandable: this film is unflinching in its portrayal of the Joker’s capacity for senseless, unbridled cruelty. The fact that he inflicts his hideous tortures on a child makes it all the more horrible, and his own comeuppance is brutal. The filmmakers should be applauded for taking the story in such a mature direction. So, if you’re planning to rent or buy “Return of the Joker,” I recommend you get the uncut version. When the darkness is toned down, the story loses much of its impact.
Although some might look down on “Return of the Joker” as an animated movie, it’s as complex and engaging as any live-action Batman movie (much more so, in some cases). It’s a story of insanity, redemption and absolute evil, all told in an action-packed style befitting a superhero franchise. Whether you’re a seasoned fan of or a newcomer to the animated “Batman” universe, “Return of the Joker” is a complex, thrilling film that’s definitely worth a look.
BATMAN BEYOND RETURN OF THE JOKER