Perhaps it’s fitting that it took me a few weeks after my “Bat-Month” ended to get around to watching Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. After all, the title is also known as Batman of the Future; a certain amount of time-displacement in the review is kind of appropriate. Released direct-to-video in 2000, and directed by Curt Geda, it’s the fourth film spun off of the various DC Comics animated series; in this case, it came at the tail end of the Batman Beyond series, which focuses on Gotham City a few decades in the future.
Gotham in the future is a bit of a different town than in the main animated Batman continuity, and it’s worth going over a few of the fine points here for people who haven’t seen the series (though the movie does a decent job of standing on its own). Bruce Wayne (still voiced by Kevin Conroy) is too old to continue wearing the cape and cowl; the long nights and constant fighting have caught up with him over the years, and his heart is weak. But he still has a drive to see justice done in Gotham, and that drive is met by a young man named Terry McGinnis (Will Friedle). Terry’s father was killed early in the series, giving him much the same reason to fight crime, though he also feels a need to atone for his juvenile delinquent past. The new Batsuit is a marvel of technology, with flight capability, strength enhancers, and limited-duration cloaking. There’s still a Commissioner Gordon watching over Gotham and reluctantly accepting the help of Batman, but now it’s Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl. And Gotham still has its assortment of thieves, assassins, and utter nutcases. Gene-splicing is used by some individuals to gain inhuman powers, and the city is plagued by roving teen gangs, most particularly the “Jokerz”, hoodlums who dress garishly and paint their faces in homage to the long dead Clown Prince of Crime.
But then Gotham is turned upside down by the reappearance of the real Joker, who takes over one of the gangs of Jokerz, and starts systematically attacking the members of the Bat-family and working towards a plan to leave the city in utter chaos.
The gold medal winners in the “Tempting Fate” competition.
Bruce Wayne refuses to believe it; he saw the Joker die decades ago. And why would the Joker lay dormant for so long? But all the evidence points to him being the real thing: He looks right, his voice is an identical match, and he knows things only the real Joker should know. It’s up to Terry to figure out the mystery behind the Joker’s sudden reappearance, to find out how he has returned, and why, and what he is up to now. The investigation leads to him having to ask Barbara Gordon, Bruce Wayne, and Tim Drake, the second Robin (voiced as an old man by Dean Stockwell), why they’re so certain this can’t be the real Joker, and finding out about the fateful night many years ago when the Joker’s reign of terror over Gotham finally ended.
The movie plays out as a mystery in a lot of ways, and is arguably the most cerebral of the Batman animated series movies. It does have its action sequences, though, and they’re all very well done, especially the flashback scene and the final battle. It should be reasonably easy to follow for somebody who hasn’t watched the Batman Beyond TV series, but obviously will be most fun for those who have.
The animation is quite good, in the same style as the series but perhaps just a bit higher quality. And the character designs for the new characters are generally really good. Tim Drake hadn’t been depicted in Batman Beyond before (and Dick Grayson, while still alive and implied to still be active, doesn’t show up on screen at all); his design as a man in his 50s is believable as a character who quit the high-energy business of superheroics as a pre-teen and settled down for a more comfortable life. What’s more, he looks like somebody that Tim in the Batman animated series could have grown up into; considering the character had never been shown as an adult before, making a believable jump from pre-teen to senior citizen is no small feat. The designs of the Jokerz are great; they’re very imaginative, and immediately recognizable as something kids would come up with in imitation of the Joker. Ghoul (Michael Rosenbaum) in particular has a design that would easily fit for a solo villain, and the Dee Dees (Melissa Joan Hart) fill the same creepy-clown-girl niche that Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin) filled in the Batman series and the flashback scene. I do have to express a bit of disappointment in the design of the Joker himself, though.
He might have survived, but his fashion sense did not.
The flashback Joker is a bit of a revamp from the original Batman animated series design, and it comes out fairly well. But the revived Joker just doesn’t look as good. His slicked-back hair and purple bodysuit look evil, sure, but they don’t look stylish, and the Joker without style just seems a little lacking. However, this is made up for by having Mark Hamill reprise his role as the voice of the Joker, and so the Joker still sounds as smarmy and stylish as he ever has. The rest of the voice acting is top-notch as well, as should be expected with most of the characters being voiced by their regular actors from the series. Dean Stockwell does well for Tim Drake’s small role, Melissa Joan Hart makes the Dee Dees sound just a bit creepy, and Michael Rosenbaum, Don Harvey, and Henry Rollins give the rest of the of the speaking Jokerz some variety in their voices and deliveries. The one complaint I have is Angie Harmon replacing Stockard Channing as the voice of Commissioner Barbara Gordon; Harmon doesn’t do a bad job, but she doesn’t have the steely strength in her voice that Channing did, and the character suffers a bit for it (at least, if you’re familiar with the series voice; new viewers may not have this problem.)
The film has a plot hole here and there, but nothing that would seriously disrupt the enjoyment of the film. On the whole, while it may not be essential viewing for every Bat-fan, I think most would enjoy it.