Now that I’ve gotten through the 90s Batman live action film series it’s time to start approaching the animated film. Batman The Animated Series originally came to TV a short while after Tim Burton’s first film. It was heavily influenced by said film and even used the Danny Elfman theme tune for its title sequence. After the series had run it’s course series creator Bruce Timm created a new Batman adventure set around 40 years after the events of The Animated Series. This story followed a elderly Bruce Wayne begrudgingly recruiting a local and quite persistent troublemaker called terry McGinnis to take up the… well just the cowl, there’s no cape, of Batman. This series was called Batman Beyond and like a lot of the elements created by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini for The Animated Series elements of Beyond, such as McGinnis himself, have begun to be adopted into the comic book canon. I’ll cover just how important that original series was in later reviews. For now I’m covering what could possibly be the darkest of all the animated Batman films. Batman Beyond: Return Of The Joker.
This story takes place at some point shortly after the end of the third season of Batman Beyond. Bruce Wayne (Voiced by THE voice of Batman Kevin Conroy) has recently reacquired control of Wayne Enterprises which had previously been mutated into something it should not have been by a merger with a rival company. As the film starts the new Batman (voiced by Will Friedle) stops a Joker obsessed gang that regularly appeared in some form during the series from stealing some very heavy duty high tech equipment. Very unlike a street gang. A while later a figure claiming to be the original Joker appears at another Jokers gang heist. This rocks Bruce to his core and so he makes Terry give up the mantle of The Batman which leads Terry to question just what happened between Batman and this Renwick customeeeerrrrr… Sorry, I mean The Joker.
I’ll avoid spoilers because this film really is one to experience fresh but I’ll just say that what happened in the past could only have been shown to us via a stand alone home release of the series. They would not have been able to tell this story in the regular TV show. Hell the original DVD and VHS (Yes BHS!) release of this was heavily edited in the wake of the 1999 Columbine killings as parents got all concerned about violence in cartoons. There’s a reason character on Dragon Ball Z never said the words “kill” or “death” for a number of years. Naturally I’m reviewing the later released Uncut Version. It’s the only real way to watch this because it has that little bit more impact. The Animated Series did always manage to maintain a level of the darkness in Batman’s adventures, even dealing with drug abuse in one great episode, but it never went as twisted as this particular entry did.
Return of the Joker manages in it’s pacey 77 minute runtime to include more character development, more drama and more cohesion than either of the Joel Schumacher live action films did combined. It’s not a perfect story, there’s a little bit of a far fetched plot point towards the end of the film to explain The Joker’s return. But as it moves along the story successfully sets up plot strands, builds on them and follows them through to satisfying conclusion. You can understand how much that means to me after watching Batman & Robin. Seriously, Fuck that film. I’m still annoyed that I even watched it again. I’ll tell you what though, Return Of The Joker certainly managed to wash some of the bad taste out of my mouth and I know for sure some of the upcoming reviews I have planned will fully get that shit sundae of the film cleared from my mind.
Animation here is snappy and crisp even managing to pull off some quite complex sequences on what must have been a fairly limiting budget. You do see the odd moment where clearly their ideals couldn’t be matched by the resources they had available, such as a few nightclub scenes set in the least crowded nightclub In Gotham, but generally everything is very well done. I especially like a flashback sequence which is authentically animated in the same style as The Adventures Of Batman & Robin were prior to Batman Beyond’s début. It also maintains DC Animated Universe style of painting backgrounds on a black matte to give a constant dark and semi oppressive style.
Voice acting is as excellent as anything Andrea Romano has cast. You can’t underestimate just how important she has been for the voices we hear in our heads when we read DC Comics. Thanks to her when I read Batman I hear Kevin Conroy as The Dark Knight and Mark Hamill as The Joker. I know it’s not just me that thinks like this too. Both the Batman Arkham games have had those two reprising their roles, a animatic deleted scene for Tim Burton’s Batman has Conroy and Hamill lending their vocal talents too. Hell years back there was a short lived Batman Universe live action series called Birds Of Prey. In one episode we see a flashback to a scene involving The Joker and whilst he didn’t play him on screen Mark Hamill provided his voice. Hamill also voices the character of Jordan Price who would have been next in line to take over Wayne Enterprises had Wayne not returned. This is a smart little move as Jordan clearly resembles the Joker and has it in for Batman. Other cast members include Henry Rollins (yup, of Black Flag fame), Michael Rosenbaum doing a Christopher Walken impression here and not one but two helpings of Sabrina The Teenage Witch herself Melissa Joan Hart as twins Deidre and Delia Dennis, known as Dee-Dee collectively.
Overall I can’t really praise this film enough. It really is a fun Batman adventure that probably solidified the terry McGinnis incarnation of Batman as a keeper. It manages to have a strong story filled with genuine drama whilst never losing sight of being fun entertainment first and foremost. It gets very very dark at times but it’s the sort of dark subject matter that really makes the story work as well as it does pushing it beyond being just a kids movie and into the position of being something adults should enjoy too. The only issue I’ve ever had was with the nature of the films third act reveal. I believe even the films makers felt it was maybe a little too far fetched as in the final episode of Justice League, which was essentially the final episode of Batman Beyond, they make a passing reference to just how Joker pulled off what he does in this film. Don’t let my issues with that one point put you off though. This is a damn fine film that deserves to be held in the same regard as the best of Batman’s adventures.