Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/17/05 20:46:40

"Another animated triumph from the Batman team."
5 stars (Awesome)

It’s long been said that the suits over at Warner Bros. should stop screwing around and give the job of making their superhero flicks to the fellas behind their Batman and Superman cartoon series. The people saying this are, of course, right. While the live action folks have been whipping out such gems as “Batman & Robin” (the “Showgirls” of comic book movies, if you will), the gang in the animation department has not only been producing some of the best animated TV series ever made, but also some of the best animated films ever made.

New to their impressive lineup of greats is “Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker,” a direct-to-video release based on the popular series. The “Beyond” series, for the uninitiated, takes place in a future where Bruce Wayne has retired from caped crusading. Enter Terry McGinnis, a spunky young lad who falls into Wayne’s employ. Sooner or later, of course, Batman’s gotta come back, and Terry’s the guy for the job. It’s a terrific show, well worth checking out on DVD.

As with previous WB cartoon efforts, a movie was put into action. As the title says, an old enemy is back in Gotham, and he’s just as wicked as ever. He’s also starting to put the squeeze on the heroes from “back in his day.” What follows is a brilliant mystery as everyone scrambles to figure out if the big J is really who he claims to be, and just what cruel caper he’s trying to pull off this time.

What makes these movies so great is that they’re not just cheap cartoons, but instead clever, well-written stories that just happen to be animated. There’s more than just the cartoonish action; behind it all is a touching - and at times, shocking - tale of sins of the past. The Batman legend has always been rooted in the past, and in “Joker,” he’s not the only one with a deep, haunting secret. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to give anything away.)

It’s the revelation of this secret that makes for one of the most astounding scenes in the Bat-franchise, a scene that is bursting with horror, pain, and pathos. But it’s not the only reason to see this one; the whole story is brimming with suspense, action, and humor - in short, everything a great movie can be. Maybe I was overreacting just a bit, but at one point I actually jumped up on my chair.

If you’ve never seen any of the animated Batman flicks, then you’ve missed out on two things: great animation and great voice acting. The animation in “Joker” is up to par, and while it breaks no new ground, it’s still a great sight. The vocal talent, however, is some of the best yet for the series. In addition to “Beyond” regulars Kevin Conroy as Bruce (a role he’s had since the first show aired, and I can’t imagine any other) and Will Friedle (of “Boy Meets World”) as Terry, we get Dean Stockwell and Angie Harmon as the elder Robin and Batgirl. Both give terrific readings, with their slightly grizzled voices showing tired souls within. And who’s the Joker, you ask? None other than Mark Hamill, reprising the role he made his own on the original series. Luke Skywalker be damned, Hamill is the Joker.

Like the other animated entries, there’s not much else to say lest the plot be ruined. Isn’t that the sign of a good story, one that keeps us so riveted in its motions that we don’t want to spoil a thing for anyone else? See for yourself. Yes, some of the twists and turns are a little, well, cartoonish, but this is, after all, an animated feature based on a comic book and aimed at a young crowd. But if you’re willing to buy any of today’s action flicks, you might as well go all out and go for this one as well.

The film was released on DVD in the midst of some fanboy controversy; Warner Brothers decided that it was too dark for its intended audience and, as such, trimmed it a smidge. A greasy-guys-in-basements uproar ensued, and now the original uncut version is also available. Parents, be warned: there’s not much of a difference between the two cuts, and even in the tamer version, some of the scenes may be too intense for younger viewers. The Joker is the scariest he’s ever been, and one bit in an abandoned insane asylum even gave me the creeps. You still might want to give it a preview just to make sure it’s OK for your own kiddies.

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