Superhero Sundays: Batman Beyond – Return of the Joker (2000)
Mark Hamill's Joker9
Matthew Turner | On 11, Feb 2018
Director: Curt Geda
Cast: Kevin Conroy, Will Friedle, Mark Hamill, Henry Rollins, Melissa Joan Hart
On Sunday mornings, we like to watch cartoons. So we’re working our way through animated superhero cartoons. We call it Superhero Sundays.
Batman Beyond: Return of The Joker (2000) was the third animated feature to be set in the DC animated universe (or DCAU), following 1998’s Batman & Mr Freeze: SubZero. Based on the Batman Beyond animated series, it was produced during the second and third seasons and received its first airing during Season 3. For those unfamiliar with the Batman Beyond cartoons, they’re set in Neo-Gotham City in 2039 and feature a teenaged Batman (Terry McGinnis, aka. Future Batman, voiced by Will Friedle), fighting crime under the tutelage of a now-rather-ancient Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy), who looks a lot like Boris Karloff, for some reason.
As the title indicates, the plot sees Batman’s arch-enemy, The Joker (Mark Hamill, reprising his iconic role from Batman: The Animated Series) mysteriously reappearing in Neo-Gotham after having disappeared nearly 40 years ago. To make matters worse, it appears that he has somehow discovered that Bruce Wayne is (or rather, was) Batman, and he mounts a vicious attack on the Batcave (one of several genuinely scary sequences).
Despite the new Joker’s voice pattern matching the original, Bruce insists to Terry that it can’t be the same man, as he saw him die after their final battle, many years ago. And, after hearing the shocking story of that fateful night from former Batgirl – now Commissioner – Barbara Gordon (Angie Harmon), Terry sets out to uncover the mystery of The Joker, before he destroys Gotham City.
The best Batman stories all have a great mystery element (he is supposed to be the World’s Greatest Detective, after all), and Return of The Joker is no exception to that rule. Indeed, it’s safe to say you’ll never guess the solution to the mystery, no matter how many Batman comics you’ve read. Without giving too much away, not only is the resolution brilliantly inventive but it’s also properly disturbing and allows for moments of genuine horror.
On that note, Bat-properties are often criticised for their supposed darkness, but Return of The Joker goes to some truly dark places, fully committing to the horror of its central story. The result is not just one of the best animated Batman movies, but one of the best Batman movies full stop.
What’s interesting about Return of The Joker is that although the majority of the film centres on Future Batman, there’s a lengthy flashback sequence to the days of Batman, Robin (Tim Drake, voiced by Mathew Valencia) and Batgirl (Tara Strong) – basically the line-up of The New Batman Adventures series – so that it almost feels like you’re getting two Batman movies for the price of one.
The animation is typically gorgeous, courtesy of DC animation supremos Bruce Timm and Paul Dini (both of whom co-wrote the story with Glen Murakami). In addition, director Curt Geda includes a number of striking visual touches, such as the red-and-black interior of the Bat-plane, or a fight at a nightclub that makes fun use of the coloured lights.
Credit, as always, is due to voice casting director Andrea Romano, particularly for casting Angie Harmon and Dean Stockwell as the older versions of Barbara Gordon and Tim Drake – both actors bring a sense of world-weariness to their characters, especially when contrasted with Strong and Valencia’s work in the flashbacks. Similarly, Friedle is fine as Future Batman and Conroy is, as has already been established, the voice of Batman. But the voice performance honours are roundly stolen by Mark Hamill, who’s simultaneously creepy, terrifying and darkly funny as The Joker, and delivers the best Joker laugh in the business to boot. He also, needless to say, gets all the best lines – one particular highlight has him delivering his assessment of Future Batman, remarking “Ears are too long, and I miss the cape, but otherwise not too shabby”. Which seems about right.
The film is packed full of great scenes, including some exciting fight sequences. There are also a handful of nice nods for comics and animation fans, such as references to both Captain America and Akira, as well as an amusing reveal involving the fate of Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin). On the subject of trivia, two particular items stand out – first, that Michael Rosenbaum (aka Smallville’s Lex Luthor) was cast as The Flash in Justice League after his voice performance as Ghoul in Return of The Joker; and second, that the character of Maxine “Max” Gibson is conspicuous by her absence in the movie, as she’s a regular character in the TV series – fellow regulars Dana (Lauren Tom), Chelsea (Rachel Leigh Cooke) and Mary (Teri Garr) all make small appearances.
If there’s a problem with Return of The Joker, it’s only that Kristopher Carter’s music rather lets it down, replacing anything resembling a memorable Batman theme with annoying heavy metal guitar riffs. It might also be too scary for small children, especially during the flashbacks.
Those minor quibbles aside, this is up there with the best of the DC animated movies, combining suspense, action, humour and horror in highly entertaining fashion. Even if you’ve never seen an episode of Batman Beyond, this is highly recommended.