Plot summary: Somehow, someway, The Joker has returned to terrorise Gotham, and to solve the mystery Terry needs to learn some truths kept secret by Bruce for 40 years.
After completing the original run of Batman The Animated Series, Matt Waters looks to the future each Saturday and Sunday with recaps of every episode of Batman Beyond, building an overall ranking along the way. Plus best performances, the ever-popular Villain Watch and more!
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Movie Title: ‘Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker
Original Release Date: December 12th, 2000
Directed: Curt Geda (11)
Written: Paul Dini (7), Glen Murakami (1) & Bruce Timm (1) (story)
The film started production immediately following the cancellation of a Boyd Kirkland-helmed sequel to Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero. Bruce Timm and the producers wanted to use it as a way to finally bridge the gap between the two time periods.
It was produced in parallel with the second and third seasons of the show, which is why Paul Dini and Curt Geda vanished during that stretch, and people like James Tucker and the Korean animators themselves began to direct episodes.
Perhaps the film’s biggest claim to fame is the ‘uncut’ version, which raised the rating from a PG to a PG-13 through the inclusion of slightly more violence and stronger language. So when you’re a teen this thing is edgy, man.
The reason the tamer version was released at all was an ongoing backlash against violence in children’s media, which forced them to miss their originally targeted release of Halloween.
If the orbital weapons platform seems familiar, that’s because it’s a direct homage to Akira, and was even animated by the same person at Tokyo Animation Shinsa, seeking to outdo his own work.
An elderly Selina Kyle was originally set to be the main villain, creating a series of clones of Bruce, one of whom she’d treat as a son and set on Terry… but also have romantic feelings for. The creep factor got the whole idea nixed, but elements of it turned into Joker’s plan here, while the rest will be important for tomorrow…
Batman thwarts a robbery of machine parts by a group of Jokerz, but they get away with one of the computer chips. Terry later wonders to Bruce why they’d change their tactics. Bruce is more concerned with his impending return to the head of Wayne Enterprises, irritating previous next-in-line, Jordan Pryce.
The Jokerz report back to their boss… the revived Joker himself, who calls their recovery worthless, fatally shooting one of them for questioning his methods. He has Ghoul track down the next component, unbothered by the high security.
Said high security is at Wayne Enterprises, so they crash the stunned Bruce’s ceremony. Terry fights them, but they successfully get away with the tech after forcing him to save innocent bystanders.
Bruce is disinterested in speculating how Joker survived, insisting he died years ago. He demands Terry return the Batsuit as he has fulfilled his mission and Joker is too dangerous, and after a heated exchange, Terry complies.
Enjoying more free time, Terry goes dancing with Dana, but the Jokerz show up to fight him. Despite being unarmed, he manages to save Dana and the others and kick all their asses.
Hurrying back to the Batcave, he is horrified to find The Clown Prince himself strolled in to trash the place and gas Bruce, having somehow learned his secret. Thankfully, Terry is able to give him an antidote in time.
Barbara finally tells Terry what happened years ago: Tim Drake was captured by Joker and Harley and subjected to repeated gassing and psychological torture in the remains of Arkham Asylum, acting out a twisted nuclear family fantasy.
Batman and Batgirl tried to rescue ‘Joker Junior’, but in the midst of the chaos, Tim shot and killed Joker. They buried his body under Arkham and Tim required extensive therapy, while Bruce withdrew, refusing to take on another partner.
Terry pays Tim a visit, but gets a prickly, disinterested reception so next goes after Jordan Pryce, learning he partnered with The Jokerz in an effort to become CEO. A giant orbital laser destroys Pryce’s yacht, but Terry manages to fly him to safety just in time, turning him over to the police.
Piecing everything together, Terry suggests Tim is behind everything, as a communications expert like Drake could combine all of the stolen equipment to gain control of a military satellite. Bruce reluctantly agrees.
Confronting Tim for the second time, Terry walks into a trap, but manages to escape. Joker unleashes the orbital laser again, chasing the Batmobile across Gotham. Suddenly, Joker begins to look unwell and shuts off the laser.
Fighting his way through the Jokerz, Terry finds a groggy Tim, still plagued by his past. He casually reveals he knows Batman’s real name, attacking Terry and revealing that he IS the newly returned Joker thanks to a microchip embedded in his neck.
Joker plans to unleash the laser on Wayne Manor, but Terry recovers. During their struggle, the target gets changed to their location, giving them precious little time to brawl. Terry gains the upper hand by behaving completely unlike Bruce: fighting dirty and annoying him with banter.
Furious, Joker begins to choke him, but Terry uses his own electric joy buzzer to fry the microchip. He gets Tim to safety just before the building is blown to hell.
Terry visits Tim in hospital, and the former Robin praises him as an excellent choice to succeed Bruce. The old man himself arrives, telling Terry that he makes Batman worthy, not the other way around as he had asserted earlier.
An elderly Harley Quinn bails her granddaughters, Dee Dee & Dee Dee, out of prison, scolding them for their antics. The film ends with Terry heading out on patrol.
I assume if I were to choose anyone other than Mark Hamill I’d be arrested in the dead of the night. Not that I’d want to, as he’s as on the top of his game. I don’t know if it is his finest outing, but the list of better options would be short. Not only does he play the hits with his trademark laugh and twisted quips, he taps into one of his lesser used bag of Joker tricks: genuine anger. Not irritation with Harley or dismay at being foiled by the heroes, actual fury at Terry for making fun of him. It rounds the performance out really nicely, and gives you a decent summary of his storied career as the Clown Prince of Crime. Bonus points to Hamill for also voicing Jordan Pryce to sell the idea that he may have been The Joker, exactly like Stacy Keach in Mask of the Phantasm. It sounds just enough like him to make it work, but is different enough to not be too on the nose. Likewise, before Joker comes out of the shadows, he makes himself sound ever so slightly different to maintain the illusion for a few seconds.
Kevin Conroy and Will Friedle’s roles aren’t quite as impressive by comparison, but they do get some good exchanges as they argue about whether Terry should continue to be Batman which are paid off in the emotional final conversation. Some of Terry’s banter falls a little flat, though.
Mathew Valencia returns for a couple of lines as the young Tim Drake, but voice director Andrea Romano performed the legitimately haunting laughter that is one of the film’s trademarks. In this house we Stan Andrea Romano.
Ghoul was created specifically to let Michael Rosenbaum do his Christopher Walken impression that cracked the team up during sessions during his previous appearances as Terminal and various minor characters in the show. It’s fine.
Just like in the show, Lauren Tom barely gets to do anything, but I did enjoy her trolling Terry for being sleepy. Oh, and props to Arleen Sorkin for pulling off the old lady voice in the face of an older actress being considered instead.
There was obviously no bigger card to play for a Batman Beyond movie than to do as the title says and bring back The Joker after doing their best to steer clear of the classic BTAS villains, favouring original creations. Granted, there were a few exceptions like Mr. Freeze, Ra’s al Ghul and Bane, but they all made sense given their gimmicks. Joker instead lived on via the gang who hero-worship him, so in many ways remained omnipresent throughout the show. Beefing them up with some new blood was a good call, and this particular group are more memorable than J-Man, Scab and even Terminal due to the film’s popularity.
However, I actually did not like how they went about the return of the Murder Clown, as I think the microchip was a bit of a cop-out, presumably wanting to completely absolve Tim Drake of any wrongdoing. I would have much preferred they went with him developing multiple personality syndrome after all of Joker’s experimentation. For me, Joker using hyper-sophisticated technology just feels off, but that kind of thing won’t bother everyone, and it will be tied back into canon tomorrow.
Regardless of how they got there, it’s undeniable that the overarching story of Terry facing the ultimate test in his predecessor’s nemesis is a compelling one. Bruce is so spooked he asks him to step down from being Batman, but in the end it’s Terry that’s able to not only solve the mystery – dispelling the notion that he’s just the muscle and Bruce still does all the detective work – but also best The Clown Prince in one last battle. His plan is a clever one, and it perfectly underlines the major difference in personalities between the two Batmen. I’ve said several times that the show is basically Spider-Man being coached by Batman, and having the movie culminate in Terry quipping Joker half to death to contrast with Bruce’s stoic silence illustrated that idea perfectly. Joker may be the main attraction, but this is as much Terry’s final exam as anything else, proving as Tim says that he is truly a worthy successor, and ending the movie on a note that suggests he went on to even greater heights.
Devoting a portion of the runtime to an extended flashback to the classic BTAS era was smart, as no matter how popular Beyond became, audiences never stopped craving the original. The montage of Bruce and Babs tirelessly looking for Robin was excellently done, and the standoff in Arkham is arguably the most memorable stretch of the film. Joker Junior is perhaps the creepiest thing in the entire franchise, and every time I look at him I get chills. Circling the camera around Batman to show his horror really drives the whole sequence home, with the pathetic fallacy of a thunderstorm and Joker laughing in the projection booth acting as cherries on the top. They needed to do something extreme to justify Joker’s death, the breakup of the Bat Family, and all of them refusing to talk about it decades later, and I think they succeeded.
I will say that I missed Max, but it was likely her or Dana and the McGinnis family, who appreciated his 24 hour retirement more, so I guess it was the right choice. I still might have liked ten more minutes to show him at last excelling in school, and they could have snuck in more of the supporting cast like Max, Howard, Blade and Nelson. But that’s a minor quibble.
The extra time and money that comes with a movie was evident from the off, with the impressive camera pan as Terry beat up every member of the gang. The film is filled with little animation flourishes that the series could never replicate, in particular the orbital laser madness.
Overall it’s pretty difficult to argue against this being the peak of the Beyond concept, benefitting from the return of not just the franchise’s top villain, but also Paul Dini and Curt Geda as creative forces. The latter saddens me in particular, because I can’t help but think if both had been around for more of the series, it may have been better and lasted longer. They got to do five minutes of Bruce-era Batman, and still introduce strong new creations in Ghoul’s Jokerz, and with the spectacle of a giant anime laser that only a movie could bring. Stellar.
- Return of the Joker (NEW ENTRY)
- Out of the Past
- Final Cut
- Disappearing Inque
- King’s Ransom
- A Touch of Curaré
- Rebirth Part I
- The Call Part I
- Hidden Agenda
- Lost Soul
- Earth Mover
- Black Out
- Dead Man’s Hand
- The Call Part II
- Where’s Terry?
- Sneak Peek
- Rebirth Part II
- Once Burned
- Curse of the Kobra Part I
- Big Time
- Sentries of the Last Cosmos
- April Moon
- The Eggbaby
- Terry’s Friend Dates a Robot
- Mind Games
- Hooked Up
- The Winning Edge
- Ace in the Hole
- The Last Resort
- Speak No Evil
- Curse of the Kobra Part II
The Joker (Mark Hamill) (first appearance)
Mistah J’s new look was intended to resemble Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs, while in flashbacks he gets a bit of an amalgamation of his original BTAS design and the vastly inferior one from TNBA.
Giving him access to all of Tim’s knowledge made for a fun twist, as it not only let him finally confront the man behind the mask, it made him more of a physical threat than he ever was back in the day through the former Robin’s combat expertise. This is also probably the scariest he’s ever been in the DCAU. If you’re a purist who can never accept the idea of Terry being in Bruce’s league you still have the out that he’s in his fifties and borrowing a body.
What more can be said? He’s The Joker. He’s back, and not in Pog form. He laughs, he schemes, he murders, and casts an unrivalled shadow across the city. The Jokerz’ fear of him, combined with Bruce’s disbelief at his return make it clear this is a true menace, and who else could serve as the show’s final villain?
If not for Inque absolutely ruling, he’d leap straight to the top. (Obviously if I included his BTAS/TNBA appearances things would be different.)
Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin) (first appearance)
The script originally called for Harley’s death from the fall in the flashback, but as she was Paul Dini’s prized creation, he added in her scene at the end to ensure her survival. Those with long memories may recall Poison Ivy injected her with a concoction that gave her immunity to toxins and also boosted her overall durability.
Her role is relatively small, but she’s still a delight in her interactions with Robin/Joker Junior, and her fight with Batgirl is a pretty good one. The final reveal that she’s Dee Dee & Dee Dee’s grandmother provides some much needed levity and is a cute continuity wrinkle.
I can’t rank her too highly, because as with other returning villains, I look at them in a vacuum, and while she’s fun, you can’t place higher than the upper echelon on raw charisma.
The Jokerz (Michael Rosenbaum, Melissa Joan Hart, Don Patrick Harvey, Henry Rollins, Frank Welker) (ninth appearance)
In a film that could be interpreted as giving up on the mission statement of creating a whole new Rogues Gallery on par with the original, it was really nice to see this new collection of Jokerz. Ghoul, the Dee Dee’s, Chucko, Bonk and Woof are all strong designs, and Woof in particular deals more damage to Terry than the group did throughout the entire show. In fairness, he is a Spliced hyena-man.
Dee Dee and Dee Dee getting the jump on Terry by pretending to cower in fear was fun, likewise him using his invisibility to trick them into taking each other out later.
This version of the group would get to return in an episode of Justice League Unlimited (even the resurrected Bonk), as well as several of the Batman Beyond comics, and for good reason. In a world where the show got more seasons, they’d almost certainly have had a recurring presence. One last push up the rankings.
- The Joker (NEW ENTRY)
- Mr. Freeze
- The Jokerz
- Derek Powers/Blight
- The Royal Flush Gang
- Talia/Ra’s al Ghul
- Ian Peek
- Mad Stan
- Harley Quinn (NEW ENTRY)
- Willie Watt
- Dr. Cuvier (and pals!)
- Robert Vance
- The Terrific Trio
- Deanna Clay
- Bullwhip’s Gang
- Agent Bennet
- Simon Harper (and the Sentries!)
- The Mayhem Family
- The Brain Trust
- Paxton Powers
- Charlie ‘Big Time’ Bigelow
- Dr. Stephanie Lake
- Howard Hodges & General Norman
- Jackson Chappell
- James Van Dyle
- Mr. Fixx
- The T’s
- Ronny Boxer
- Dr. Wheeler
Eager for more long-form coverage of Batman? Why not check out my podcast with Mike Thomas, The Tape Crusaders, which reviewed every Batman movie including Return of the Joker and most recently The Batman!
Speaking of the new Batman movie, we have been very busy on the site, presenting: 9 Questions After Watching The Batman, Ranking the Theatrical Batman Actors and Ranking the Theatrical Batman Movies.
My other recap column, Marvel Mondays, is on hiatus until Moon Knight begins.