Thursday, April 19, 2012

"Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker" (Curt Geda, 2000)




Directed by Curt Geda
Story by Paul Dini, Bruce W. Timm and Glen Murakami
Screenplay by Paul Dini
Based on the DC Comics Characters Created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Bruce W. Timm, Paul Dini and Alan Burnett

Executive Produced by Benjamin Melniker, Michael E. Uslan and Jean MacCurdy
Produced by Bruce W. Timm, Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Glen Murakami, Shaun McLaughlin and Teruhisa Yahaji
Art Direction by Makoto Shiraishi
Character Design by Glen Murakami and Bruce W. Timm
Editing by Joe Gall
Original Motion Picture Score Composed by Kristopher Carter

Will Friedle ... Terrence 'Terry' McGinnis/Batman (voice)
Kevin Conroy ... Bruce Wayne/Batman (voice)
Mark Hamill ... Jack Napier/The Joker/Jordan Price (voice)
Angie Harmon ... Commissioner Barbara Gordon (voice)
Dean Stockwell ... Mr. Timothy 'Tim' Drake (voice)
Teri Garr ... Mrs. Mary McGinnis (voice)
Arleen Sorkin ... Dr. Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn/'Nana' Harley (voice)
Tara Strong ... Barbara Gordon/Batgirl (voice)
Mathew Valencia ... Timothy 'Tim' Drake/Robin (voice)
Melissa Joan Hart ... Delia & Deidre Dennis/Dee Dee (voice)
Don Harvey ... Charles Buntz/Chucko (voice)
Michael Rosenbaum ... Stewart Carter Winthrop III/Ghoul (voice)
Frank Welker ... Woof the Hyena-Man/Ace the Bathound (voice)
Henry Rollins ... Benjamin 'Ben' Knox/Bonk (voice)
Rachael Leigh Cook ... Chelsea (voice)
Ryan O'Donohue ... Matthew 'Matt' McGinnis (voice)
Lauren Tom ... Dana Tan (voice)
Vernee Watson-Johnson ... Ms. Joyce Carr (voice)
Andrea Romano ... Joker Jr. Vocal FX (voice)

The sleeker, more dangerous and seemingly immortal Clown Prince of Crime is back to terrorize Futuristic Gotham City, the new generation's Batman and the aging Bruce Wayne.


With the creation of “Batman Beyond” came several questions the fans needed to know.

And two of the biggest were answered with gusto with 2000’s “Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker.”

It's approximately 50 years into the future. Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) has retired from active crime-fighting, preferring instead to monitor his protégé in the field: Terry McGinnis (Will Friedle). McGinnis who lost his own father under tragic circumstances, and now he has taken up the mantle in a thirst for revenge. McGinnis patrols the streets of Gotham in a futuristic up Batsuit as with each victory, he's growing more and more into his role as the city's protector.

As the film opens, Terry comes across a new group of Jokerz (a notorious Gotham street gang) who are involved in a high tech robbery from WayneCorp which puzzles him; t doesn't fit the typical M.O. of the gang. His investigation leads to cover ups and secrets and things only becoming more confusing with the reappearance in Gotham of Batman's greatest arch nemesis - The Joker (Mark Hamill), thought to be long dead for years.

But is he who he really claims to be?

Bruce relieves Terry of his vigilante duties without any explanation.

Hurt and confused, McGinnis turns to Barbara Gordon, the once-former Batgirl turned commissioner of the police to learn about what happened the tragic night that Batman had his final confrontation with the Joker so many years ago.

When Warner Brothers first announced the "Batman Beyond" television series and its parameters, I (like so many Batman fans) met it with hesitation and skepticism. For all of us, Bruce Wayne will solely be the man beneath the cowl.

But by going in with an open mind, I was pleasantly surprised and ended up loving the show. It doesn't alter the mythos established in "Batman: The Animated Series" and for such effort to keep the legacy they’d created intact, the show runners are to be commended.

The conscientious choice in "Beyond" to sacrifice enriched character development (at least the level found in "Batman: The Animated Series") for action when introducing a new rogues gallery ensured that "Beyond" would never reach the classic status of its predecessor. Even though I loved how well future Gotham was portrayed and was pleasantly surprised how well Japanimation complemented the look and feel of the series, the best Batman stories have always been the ones which probed the psychological conflict between Batman and his adversaries. This is where the adventures of Terry McGinnis might hit a different beat for fans; they’re far more embroiled in the momentum of physical confrontation than the psychological angst.

But "Return of the Joker" finally more than makes up for it by pitting Terry against one such foe; easily the most formidable of his mentor’s days as the original dark knight.

Unlike "Mystery of the Batwoman" and "Sub Zero," which both ultimately play more like lengthened episodes of minor side adventures, there's a deep connection to the mythology of the animated Batman timeline in "Return of the Joker" right down to the title itself.

The decision to bring the Clown Prince of Crime into this future seemed like a long-time coming, I think.

I suppose of we had to get technical about it, it CAN be seen as somewhat of a contrivance set up just to bring the Joker back. After all he’s not an immortal like Freeze or Ra’s Al Ghul, which both made sense as far as the logic established by their origins.

But what can you do? It’s the Joker.

If any of Batman’s foes were going to be insane enough and tenacious enough to find a way to see to it that their terrorizing of Gotham was going to continue, it would easily have to be him. The Penguin certainly wouldn’t have had the guts to kidnap Tim Drake and download his own DNA into his brain.

That’s just twisted and genius; that’s the Joker for you.

The depiction of the Joker in the original “Batman: The Animated Series” and “The New Batman Adventures” always seemed to play up the kooky clown with a subtle hint of malice just to make the threat palpable. But throughout the older shows, there was always the subtle impression that behind the façade of a maniac with a clown motif resided a man of intellect.

On the one hand, you had “Joker’s Favor” where he blackmailed a common citizen and stalked him for years just to have him open a door for an oversized cake. But on the other, you’ve got a scene in “Old Wounds” where he competently operates a Radar disruptor to down incoming aircraft. He’ll slap someone around with a rubber chicken one day then synthesize a complex two part compound of Joker Toxin to kill Mr. Francis in “The Laughing Fish.”

While never brought to light as much beforehand, “Return of the Joker” gives us a chilling insight into just how brilliant the Joker can be...and, as a result, just how dangerous.


I love Bruce’s character arc in the movie; his total shutdown at the sight of Joker and his eventual respect for Terry by the end. Throughout the early episodes of the series, I felt a sense of Bruce never being truly comfortable with the idea of standing by on the sidelines, acting like nothing but a coach for Terry.

And aside from allowing a child to witness the murders of their own parents, this is most certainly the ultimate nightmare scenario for him.

Not just that the deadliest enemy he’d ever known is back...but that unlike their history prior, he personally can’t do anything to stop him this time.

This creates a wonderful new dynamic for the relationship between these two men and it’s only deepened and layered when you bring Terry into the middle of the iconic conflict.

It's a compelling drama heavily endowed with a fever pitch of psychological conflict and the themes of legacy withstanding the test of time both negatively and positively.


“Return of the Joker” also delights and excites with some incredible action pieces that went to great lengths in upping the ante and exploding into a scope that the television series couldn’t quite grasp in the way that a feature length project could.


The opening is just a great way to get things off to a rip-roaring start as Batman confronts the Jokerz during an ambitious tech heist that moves from the innards of a high-rise industrial Gotham Shipping warehouse down the tunnel of an airlock and out into the open skies above Gotham.


While the series had its fair share of Jokerz characters, I found the designs of the Joker’s personal team to be very inspired; especially Ghoul with his kitschy Halloween motif and especially Woof, who’s creation pulls inspiration from “Batman Beyond” by being a half man/half hyena hybrid compliments of the ‘Splicing’ fad brought about by Dr. Cuvier in the series.


Of course I can’t forget about the lovable yet deadly Dee Dee twins, originally conceived in essence by Bruce Timm for the original Animated Series as a pair of twin criminals. Voiced by “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” herself, Melissa Joan Hart, the characters are a great exercise with their constant double-talk and ability to gang up on Batman like a crazy homage to Bambi and Thumper from the James Bond picture "Diamonds Are Forever."

The scale of this battle is astonishing given that we’ve only just begun by this point; it reminds me of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in how we’re coming into the story with a confrontation worthy of being a finale battle, meaning that it can only get bigger and bolder from here on out.

I also have to add that the work done by the overseas animation studios exceeds expectation.


As with “Mask of the Phantasm” for the original series, “Return of the Joker,” visually speaking, is the BEST that McGinnis’ Batman and Gotham City have ever looked. While the first series of episodes were classically animated, “Batman Beyond” is synonymous with being the first in the DCAU line to shift from Cel animation to more computer based animation.

Given the science fiction aesthetic, the decision definitely works in the film’s favor and I love that while “Batman: The Animated Series” is present literally as an older adventure created via classic ink and paint, “Batman Beyond” eventually came around to utilizing more cutting edge methods of artistic creation.

As with the Batman persona itself, the mantle of animation is passed on to the new generation of technique.

This opening confrontation quickly sets the tone and carries the story at a near breakneck pace, establishing the atmosphere of “Batman Beyond”


Another favorite is Batman’s narrow escape from the Wayne Enterprises Yacht with Jordan Pryce in tow.

The shot of that satellite cannon’s blast hitting the water; I mean nothing quite like that scale had been managed before and it’s one of the great catalysts of ambition that led the producers of the movie to continue on to larger endeavors with the Justice League.

Of course there’s also the finale with the Batmobile being chased by the Satellite laser. This sequence leading up to the finale instantly comes to mind in regards to remembering the movie. It’s a breathtaking ode of violence and the icing on the cake comes courtesy of the Joker’s iconic laugh; not only has he returned, but mayhem has come back with vengeful whimsy and the Clown Prince is loving every single minute of it!

“Ooo! I better sit down before I bust a gut, HEH!”

The scene, whipping the high flying Batmobile through the air as it streaks across elevated highways and shoots past on looking citizens while the laser gives chase with resulting anarchy rings nostalgic echoes of Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 anime classic “Akira;” specifically the Colonel’s decision to attempt to overpower Tetsuo with a similar looking laser shot by the orbiting satellite called SOL.

Obviously the tragic heart of the film is in Barbara Gordon's retelling flashback of the final fight between Batman and the Joker.

  This is the scene that most fans regard as a favorite moment in the movie.


Just the notion of throwing it back to the days of Bruce in the cape and cowl alongside Robin and Batgirl brings a stirring feeling of nostalgia for the series overall and I just love it.


The flashback is unnerving partly because the events unfold in a cartoon and because of what the film doesn't show us. Just as with “Jaws,” screenwriter Paul Dini holds his cards very close to his chest making the revelation all the more disturbing. Also, for those who thought the animated joker straddled the line between funny and cruel, prepared to be blown away by how sadistic he truly is. Testified in the filmmaker’s commentary, the production team was given some leeway by Broadcasting Standards and Practices. However, following the tragedy at Columbine during the year of production in 1999, the decision WAS made to create an edited version of the movie in order to downplay the violence.


While the uncut film has Tim Drake shoot and kill the Joker, the edited interpretation sees Drake push Joker into a vat of water before he trips himself up and flips a switch that electrocutes him.

Regardless of either version, this flashback is just heartbreaking.

It’s clearly the worst thing this particular Joker has ever done to this particular Batman; an animated interpretation of such comic book tragedies as the death of Jason Todd or the paralysis of Barbara Gordon (both of which the Joker was responsible for!).


“You’ve lost, Batman. Robin is mine. The last sound you’ll hear will be OUR laughter.”

On a side note, while I completely appreciate getting the chance to see what happened to Tim Drake during the transition from "The New Batman Adventures" to "Batman Beyond," to this day I'd still love to know what happened to Dick Grayson (the original Robin who grew up to become Nightwing). Because watching "Return of the Joker," you'll realize that Grayson as a character is worth more than a simple 'Look him up, has HE got stories' line.


All of this leads up to a satisfying conclusion in a film that tries not to use tired clichés to reveal the mystery of the Joker. No, it's not a Joker-clone or a long lost son or a synthetic android.

It’s just a great, clever way to thrust our classic Joker into the spotlight of the future, creating a depiction of the character that’s been around long enough to have a stronger sense of when to strike, when to plan and when to laugh.

The stakes are high in the final confrontation between the Joker and the new Batman, when Bruce is almost killed and Gotham faces devastation at the whim of a madman.

A classic motif for a Batman story made new.

Screenwriter Paul Dini is a master storyteller and he knows these characters inside out. He weaves a brilliant final act that not only convincingly ties all the loose ends, but ends up giving you (or at least me) new respect for McGinnis' Batman. His take down of the Joker is memorable not for its action, but because of the psychological leverage Terry tries to use. The last 2 thirds of the movie alone make it a must watch for Batfans and thriller fans alike.


Finally, the voice acting is sheer bliss.

Kevin Conroy is Batman; he's been doing it since 1992 and he's timbre is the perfect pitch (pardon the pun) for the Dark Knight and you can definitely heal the emotional weight that comes in here. It's more than old age to be sure and Conroy explores that effectively.

Mark Hamill reprises Joker from the animated series, and puts up a valid case for dubbing all past and future Joker portrayals. Hamill has bounds of energy and fun with this character and you can hear it on screen. In this specific instance, Hamill seems to play the Joker in a more subdued fashion.

He’s still a lunatic, but it’s cold and far more calculating. He realizes he doesn’t need all the theatricality he once coveted to aid in his goals and this in turn molds a Joker that’s sleek; deadly, menacing, all of the above.

Will Friedle is stupendous as Terry McGinnis. He doesn't play him like a moper or a whiner and eventually by the end of the movie, we realize just how far Terry’s come in his own resolve and catharsis as a crime fighter overlooking the city he’s been bred by Wayne to defend.

My only gripe is that they didn't use Stockard Channing for Barbara Gordon. I love her grizzled rendition of the character in the series but due to scheduling conflicts, Angie Harmon stepped in. She was terrific with what she had to work with. Dean Stockwell’s involvement in a ‘Batman’ project is just icing on the cake and he brings a tender edge to the role of an elder Tim Drake that makes it a believable portrayal of the character far past his boy wonder days.

And who doesn’t love Michael Rosenbaum (TV’s Lex Luthor on “Smallville” and the voice of the Flash for “Justice League: The Animated Series”) doing his classic Christopher Walken impression as Ghoul? Alongside that black witches hat and the jack-o-lantern candy pale, it’s impossible to consider that voice coming from anyone else.

Overall, with its drive and length and ambition, I have to say that I was blown away by "Return of the Joker" when I first saw it and I’ve come to love it more with each subsequent viewing.

It has a forceful power and an emotional resonance that I don’t think will lose its potency for years to come, depicting the story of a protégé finally living up to his mentor’s mantle by taking on an icon of evil they both know too well.

Don't miss this one.

"Hello, Gotham. JOKER’S BACK IN TOWN!"


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