Review of Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker -- The Original, Uncut Version
by Jason B. Bell

Based on the Batman Beyond animated TV series, and tying heavily into its predecessor, Batman: The Animated Series, this latest animated Batman film, has had a great deal of controversy surrounding it. It ran into trouble when studio executives decided certain parts were too violent (according to some accounts I've read, the complaints were that it was too violent for TV, which is odd considering it wasn't made for TV in the first place). The filmmakers were forced to go back and completely redo several scenes and tone down the violence in others, and the result was released direct to video. Fans were unsurprisingly outraged at the censoring of the movie, especially after bootlegs of the original version began circulating, and people were particularly unhappy with one of the biggest changes. What is basically the key scene of the movie (and one of the biggest moments in the lives of the characters) was completely redone, turning a tragic moment into an accident, and greatly diminishing the emotional impact of a large part of the movie. Warner Bros. finally relented and has released the uncut version on DVD for all of us to see.

Return of the Joker doesn't waste any time reintroducing the Batman Beyond characters and situations, kicking off with an action sequence, then jumping right into the story. Folks who've never seen the Batman Beyond TV show shouldn't be lost though, as the characters and their roles in the future of Gotham City are quite plainly established through their words and actions, which is a good thing. There's no unnecessary exposition to slow down the movie and no going over ground that's been covered before in the show. It is better if you've at least seen the Batman Beyond pilot telefilm (also available on home video) first, if only because one particular scene is much more dramatic if you've seen the scene in the pilot it intentionally mirrors.

As for the plot itself, I won't give away any more than the basic setup, as this movie's all about the uncovering of buried secrets and mysteries, and the creators clearly love to keep the audience guessing (as they mention quite often in the disc's excellent and informative commentary track). As in the series, it's about fifty years in the future. Bruce Wayne is an old man, too frail to fight crime as Batman, but finding a way to continue his life's obsession as the mentor/boss of Terry McGinnis, a young former street punk trying to redeem himself as Gotham's new Batman. Everything's business as usual until the familiar face of the Joker shows up in town again, looking surprisingly youthful and planning something big. McGinnis has to not only figure out how the Joker has returned and what he's planning, but why his re-emergence is so incredibly disturbing to both Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Barbara Gordon. Throughout the TV series, we've been teased with hints of some terrible event in the original Batman's past. We're finally treated here to that long-awaited flashback, and it's definitely been worth the wait.

The movie looks great, animated with the same stylized look and color schemes of the Batman Beyond series. The animation is definitely better than TV-quality, and not bad for feature film animation, with a number of excellent standout sequences. The music is an interesting mix of the Batman Beyond show's techno beats and electric guitars on top of the orchestral scores of Batman: The Animated Series, and it works to great effect. Despite the packaging's claim that the movie is "formatted to fit your TV screen," the movie is actually presented in non-anamorphic widescreen.

The voice casts of both animated Batman shows return (with the exception of Stockard Channing, replaced here by Angie Harmon as the older Barbara Gordon). Mark Hamill gives yet another great performance reprising his role as the Joker, bringing a more psychotic and brutal edge to the character this time, somewhat more reminiscent of the Joker from the comics. Dean Stockwell, Melissa Joan Hart, and Henry Rollins are among the guest actors featured here.

Above all this movie is intense. And dark. One of the biggest draws of the Batman stories has always been the (usually twisted) psychological aspects of the heroes and villains and their conflicts. True to that style, this movie is as much a psychological thriller as it is an action movie, and there's definitely some disturbing material here. I can see why some people at Warner Bros. may have been reluctant to let it see the light of day. It's a thrilling ride, and provides a nice sense of resolution (though not necessarily finality) to the original Batman characters, as well as a sense of Terry McGinnis finally being fully accepted into the fold by his crimefighting predecessors, as the successor to the name Batman.

I loved this movie. I wasn't a huge fan of Batman Beyond at first, but it's grown quite a bit on me over the years, and with this movie, this new storyline has finally cemented itself in my mind as not just a spinoff of the animated Batman show and its concepts, but as a natural extension and progression of it. Compared to the other Batman movies out there (both animated and live-action), this is at the top of the list, easily as good as Mask of the Phantasm--possibly even better. If you enjoy Batman in any of its forms, you should watch this movie. This unedited version has been released only on DVD, and the cover artwork is the same as the edited version with the addition of a black border containing the words "The Original Uncut Version" and a PG-13 rating, so keep that in mind when looking for a copy.

Copyright 1 May 2002 We Like Media.
You may email Jason B. Bell.