For the last couples of weeks I’ve been binge-watching Batman Beyond. I enjoyed it a lot but one of the problems that I have with it is that this future Batman didn’t have a memorable arch nemesis. At first William Powers/Blight was set up to be that guy since he is the person responsible for the death of Terry McGinnis’s father, which is what led him to become Batman, but that conflict was resolved during the first season and he never came back. There were a lot of other recurring villains, like Inque, The Royal Flush Gang, and Mad Ben, but they just didn’t measure up to other iconic villains like Poison Ivy, Penguin, or Two-face. So, in lieu of creating a great villain for Batman Beyond’s feature-length, straight-to-video outing, they went back to the old well and brought back the baddest villain of them all to give young McGinnis his biggest challenge yet: the Joker.
Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker opens with members of the Jokerz gang stealing a delicate piece of technology, which isn’t usually their M.O. Batman (Will Friedle) foils their plan, but he is suspicious about why the Jokerz would be up to this. Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) writes it off as an anomaly. But little does he know that they were actually stealing it for the actual Joker (Mark Hamill). He realizes this too late as during a party celebrating Bruce’s return to running Wayne Enterprises Joker attacks. He is there to create a distraction while his minions steals the part he needs for his master plan. This leads Bruce to have something of a crisis and forces Terry to give up being Batman. Not long after the Joker attacks Bruce in the Batcave and tries to kill Terry during a night when he is not in costume. How did the Joker know about Batman’s secret identity? What happened all those years ago that made Bruce not even want to talk about his arch nemesis? Terry has to find all this out before Gotham is destroyed.
Return of the Joker was made during a time when the show was supposed to go on an extended hiatus because the animators had to start working on Justice League. It had been renewed for a fourth season, which is why it was not given a proper ending. But upon hearing about the forced hiatus, Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and company decided to make this film so as to keep the fans happy while they returned to it, so they didn’t make the film an ending to the series*. Unfortunately that wouldn’t come to pass due to a variety of reasons.
Perhaps they subconsciously knew that this would be their last chance to work on a proper Batman Beyond story because this film is Batman Beyond at its best. We still have the great action that we have come to expect from this property, but we also have a genuinely great mystery worthy of the feature-length treatment. It’s a mystery that further allows us to explore old Batman’s code of ethics and how bad things have to get before he breaks it. It also gives McGinnis some much needed character growth as he learns why he still wears the costume even after he avenged his father. But best of all, it reminds us why the Joker is the greatest villain in modern story telling. He still a menacing and funny individual who uses his shtick as a way to hide the complex ways in which his evil mind works and who has absolutely no qualms about who he hurts or how much damage he causes.
It most certainly doesn’t hurt that we have Conroy and Hamill playing their iconic roles again. In here they are at the top of their game, with the latter giving a more menacing performance than it was asked. As it was shown with the recent adaptation of The Killing Joke, it’s not always a given that they will give be good in these roles, so perhaps that made me appreciate their work on this even more.
I also got to give props to the animation. Sure, it’s pretty standard for its time, but its feels completely refreshing when compared to what we see today. I’m not saying that today’s film and television is bad, in fact with all the technology it’s the best it has ever been, but seeing these gorgeous designs ij motion and in service of such a story is the absolute best.
With that said, I have a pretty big problem with it: the resolution of how the joker can be alive. Given all that went on before, and the inner turmoil that the Joker’s return caused to Wayne and Barbara Gordon, I expected something major. During the lead up to the reveal I was amazed by the possibility of an animated Batman movie taking on serious mental issues. But then they revealed what it was and I just said “oh.” It just felt like an afterthought.
Even so, the climax was still exciting and provided us with some major character moments.
Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker is the best animated Batman film. Hell, it may even be the best Batman film. Even though being familiar with the TV show is required (at least the first season), this is a must see.
*Batman Beyond did eventually get a bit of closure in the form of the “Epilogue” episode of Justice League Unlimited, which was the season two finale. This episode explores the reason why Terry and Bruce are so similar and why they work so well together. It’s a nice ending, but a season-long final arc would have been better