Home > Reviews > Review: “Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker” The Original Uncut Version

Review: “Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker” The Original Uncut Version

Directed by: Curt Geda
Produced by: Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Glen Murakami, Bruce Timm, Benjamin Melniker, Michael Uslan
Written by: Paul Dini (screenplay); Paul Dini, Glen Murakami, Bruce Timm (story)
Starring: Will Friedle, Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Angie Harmon, Dean Stockwell, Teri Garr, Arleen Sorkin, Tara Strong, Mathew Valencia, Melissa Joan Hart, Michael Rosenbaum, Frank Welker
Music By: Kristopher Carter
Year: 2000

 

Batman: The Animated Series was and remains one of, if not the greatest animated adaptations of a comic book character ever put to screen. Premiering around the same time that Tim Burton’s Batman Returns released in 1992, the series could have easily been an easy cash in on the latest Batman craze, an episodic commercial for a heavily hyped and star-studded sequel to the 1989 film that shoved aside the campy Caped Crusader persona Batman held in the mainstream public’s eye and replaced it with the reinvigorated Dark Knight that had been making a comeback in the comics.

What luck, then, that Batman: The Animated Series wasn’t just a great marketing opportunity but also one of the most incredible animated television series ever, and it would go on to spawn even more great shows to come including Superman: The Animated Series, Static Shock, and the two amazing Justice League series, all of which featured the brilliant Kevin Conroy as the voice of Batman and a production team featuring Bruce Timm and Paul Dini. But perhaps one of the most original and daring series to come out of the original, however, was the futuristic take on Batman known as Batman Beyond.

Set approximately 40 years after the originating series, Batman Beyond showed how the city of Gotham continued to be torn apart by common thugs and supervillains alike. With a now-elderly Bruce Wayne hanging up the cape and cowl, however, the infamous city has been forced over the decades to develop into a Blade Runner/Akira-esque metropolis of technology without its flagship hero to save it from a world where its kids have learned to idolize and join the likes of long gone but never forgotten evildoers like the Joker. But after a troubled teenager named Terry McGinnis has a chance encounter with the aging billionaire, he soon discovers the old man’s long hidden secrets and, of course, finds the power within him to turn over a new leaf and fight crime as the new Batman.

It may not sound like much, but if you’re familiar with the series, you’ll know it got a lot out of the premise by essentially having the new Batman function just like one of the Robins. Terry may have the costume and name, but he’s still Bruce’s sidekick, thanks in large part to Bruce’s stubbornness and his desire to have complete access to the new suit’s video feed. Bruce was still all the brains, and Terry was the more than capable and agile muscle that Bruce could no longer be, and through this, a strong bond and sense of loyalty and trust between the two partners formed. Together, this new Dynamic Duo was able to take on threats both new and familiar and revive a sense of hope and justice after decades of terror. Of course, even with the best partnerships, there are always going to be a few skeletons in the closet.

With Return of the Joker, you pretty much get what you expect from a title like that, and then some. Like the series that spawned it and the original series that led to that series’ creation, this direct-to-video feature film could have easily been a cheap cash-in. While it was easy to see the logic in having an elderly Bruce Wayne train a new protege to take over the helm of Batman, how after supposedly 40 years would the filmmakers be able to justify bringing back this old school foe and have him still be as spry and terrifying in going up against a technologically advanced Batman as he always was in The Animated Series when going up against the first? The answer, quite honestly, is a bit of a letdown and requires a bit of comic book logic to fully appreciate, but, setting that aside, the power of Return of the Joker truly lies in how it illuminates some of the more intriguing aspects of the original Batman character, the obsession that he and the Joker have for one another, and what the consequences of these events mean for Terry and Bruce in this new era.

As the story goes, a gang of clown-faced teens known as the Jokerz (Melissa Joan Hart, Michael Rosenbaum, Don Harvey, Frank Welker, and Henry Rollins) begin upscaling their crimes when they begin to steal some high grade weapons and computer tech all across Gotham. Batman, of course, is on the case, but being a teenager in high school, Terry (Will Friedle) begins to fret about his waning personal life in the shadow of being both Bruce Wayne’s assistant and his self-imposed duties to the city he once himself terrorized. When it is finally revealed that the brains behind these latest crime sprees is none other than the Joker himself, looking not any older than he was when Bruce was still in action, Bruce (Kevin Conroy) does the unthinkable and demands that Terry turn in the suit.

What follows is a fairly straightforward mystery surrounding the how and why of Joker’s reappearance, complete with red herrings and technobabble-filled hypotheses, and it’s all quite good and fun, but the true centerpiece of the film is its amazing flashback sequence to the days of Bruce as Batman, Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, and the young Tim Drake as Robin. (Dick Grayson, the first Robin, is off doing his own thing in Blüdhaven as Nightwing at this time.)

As narrated by Barbara herself (Angie Harmon), who is now following in her father’s footsteps as Gotham’s Police Commissioner, the story of their final encounter with the Joker (Mark Hamill) and his partner Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin) is chilling and moving in its execution — provided you’re watching the uncut, PG-13 version, which has the far more personal and violent depiction of the Joker’s gruesome death than the post-Columbine, violence-avoiding, PG-rated version that suggests the Joker died because of his own clumsiness, rather than what is shown before. Luckily, this uncut version isn’t hard to come by at all and is, in fact, the only version available on Blu-Ray.

Ultimately, Bruce and Terry must confront the ghosts that still haunt them. Terry’s final confrontation with the Joker serves as a final test to graduate him into the role of Gotham’s resident hero in both his own and Bruce’s eyes, and Bruce himself learns to let go of his pride and fear to let trust take root and healing to begin, ultimately allowing him to make up for lost time and rekindle some tarnished relationships.

Return of the Joker is by no means as brilliant as the original series’ film Mask of the Phantasm, but, in its own way, it comes quite close. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are still the gold standards by which all future voice actors and even live action actors are to be held against. In my and many other nerds’ eyes, they remain the Batman and Joker. Will Friedle, who was an odd choice given his role as the dopey big brother on Boy Meets World, is fairly strong himself as the young Batman, who is far more of a wise-cracking acrobat than Bruce ever was, as if Peter Parker had suddenly decided to change personae, and yet he’s still capable of carrying the more emotional parts, both angered and guilt-ridden. For the short amount of time that she’s on screen, Arleen Sorkin, the original voice of Harley Quinn, never misses a step as the Joker’s former-psychologist-turned-psychotic-assistant, too, which is probably a given since the role was created for the series and written with her in mind.

Though the growling guitars and metal-influenced score grates compared to the Gothic orchestral work of Shirley Walker on The Animated Series and its films, and the script takes a few easy outs with the technobabble and comic book roots, particularly with the “How?” behind Joker’s return and the “WTF?” behind his secret weapon, the pacing is brisk enough that you barely have time to think about it. If you shut off the real world logic part of your brain and learn to suspend disbelief, it’s easy enough to go along for the ride even when you find yourself scratching your head at its contrivances.

The animation should do the trick in distracting you, as it combines some of the sleeker, more simplified designs of the later DC Animated Universe works with the moodier atmosphere of the original Batman cartoon. They also wisely decided to go with the earlier, more sinister design of the Joker, too, who was a bit sillier-looking in the New Adventures of Batman & Robin era. Bruce Timm’s character designs may be a bit dress-up doll-like in their profiles (especially the women, who all bear the same pixie-like features and hourglass figures), but there’s no doubt that his art style is distinct and attractive, and it more often than not results in the artists being able to create some slick and polished animation without getting overly complicated to create or look at, and every character is ultimately unique from the others.

If you couldn’t tell by this point, I am a huge fan of the animated universe that started with Batman: The Animated Series, and I’m just as thrilled now as a 25-year-old with the imagination and execution behind Batman Beyond as I was when the series first came out when I was a 13-year-old kid. I wrote this review because I somewhat recently upgraded my old non-anamorphic DVD copy of this film to the open-matte formatted Blu-Ray and rediscovered my affection for it. Do yourself a favor and don’t write this film off just because it’s spun off from a cartoon TV series or because it has a somewhat silly-sounding premise or even because it skipped the theatre and went direct-to-video. Return of the Joker is a great superhero film and an excellent addition to the Batman mythos that I’m sure you’ll be surprised by. It has great animation, some very fun action sequences, and a shocking storyline that delivers plenty of punch (provided you aren’t watching the punch-reduced PG-rated version). I highly recommend it!

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5

  1. Anonymous
    November 19, 2015 at 12:59 am

    you and me are a like but am the true original batman of the city I first saw batman I swear my thumbed bats and batman Ihave made it my life work to become somewhat like batman

  1. March 30, 2012 at 1:09 am
  2. October 19, 2013 at 12:33 am
  3. January 15, 2014 at 10:17 am
  4. November 14, 2014 at 1:20 am
  5. June 28, 2017 at 4:48 pm

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