Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker" (2000)

Starring Will Friedle, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Curt Geda

"Batman Beyond" is an interesting aside in the Batman universe.  Created as a sequel to the excellent "Batman: The Animated Series" of the 90s, it takes place in a sort of neo-punk future where Gotham is now a massive megalopolis, ruled by high technology.  In this future, the Batman hasn't been seen in decades, gangs of "Jokerz" rove the streets and Bruce Wayne is a miserable old codger holed up alone in his mansion.  Along comes troubled teenager Terry McGinnis, who uncovers a criminal conspiracy within Wayne's company that kills his father, Warren McGinnis.  Terry also discovers Bruce's past as Batman, and becomes a new Batman for a new era.

"Return of the Joker" is that series only movie spin-off, but boy is it a doozy.  Second only to "Mask of the Phantasm," this is nearly the best animated Batman feature.

Just as Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) has come out of retirement to resume control of his company, an old enemy reappears: the Joker (Mark Hamill).  Bruce forbids Terry (Will Friedle) from taking on the Joker, saying he's too dangerous.  The Joker has taken over a gang of Jokerz including Bonk (Henry Rollins), Chucko (Don Harvey), Ghoul (Michael Rosenbaum), and the DeeDees (Melissa Joan Hart)  and sends them on a series of heists to get high tech equipment.

Things go from bad to worse when the Joker appears in the Bat Cave and reveals that he knows Bruce's secret.  With Bruce left near death, Terry must defy orders to take on the Joker and his gang before the madman uses a stolen satellite weapon to wipe Gotham off the map.

"Return of the Joker" presents one of the best explorations of the iconic rivalry between Batman and Joker, using the generation gap between Terry and Bruce to illustrate how these two characters are so eternally intertwined.  A ten-minute flashback sequence explaining the original demise of the Joker is possibly the best ten minutes of Batman ever committed to film.  It's complex, brutal, and utterly engrossing.

And, of course, a key element to the plot is the differences between Terry and Bruce as Batman, their particular personalities and methods.  Joker knows Bruce so well, Terry must eventually realize that the key to beating him is to do it his own way instead of taking Bruce's advice.  In this sense, it's almost like the surrogate father relationship between Bruce and Terry allows for Terry outgrowing the need for Bruce to watch over him constantly.  There are emotional consequences for everyone involved here, from Bruce on down to former Robin Tim Drake (Dean Stockwell).

The action sequences are well-directed and animated.  Produced on a higher budget than the TV show, the animation is a bit more detailed and impressive than what the show was typically able to achieve, with a better sense of movement and proportion.  The movie was also the first to earn a PG-13 rating, so the fights are a bit more brutal than the show ever did, as well.  Punches hit harder, characters get stabbed, shot, electrocuted... hell, Batgirl (Tara Strong) even gets to interrogate a couple of hookers!

The real winner here is Mark Hamill as the Joker, who gives his finest performance as the character.  Joker had always been portrayed as a killer in the series, but there was always a sort of silliness to it - his plans would include trying to kill a copyright clerk for not giving him royalties on smiling fish or kidnapping cops on Christmas and putting it all on a holiday-themed TV special.  But here, he's truly psychotic, and Hamill puts more menace into the role than he had previously, to great effect.  What he does to Robin in the flashback sequence is twisted and sick, and I'm not at all surprised that there was backlash against the movie because of it.

Some aspects of the film fall a little flat.  The Batman Beyond universe works nicely to contrast the original, but Terry's issues with his girlfriend don't seem terribly interesting compared to the emotional impact for Bruce regarding the Joker... or even Terry's.  How Terry finally locates the Joker's hideout is rather suspect as well, since it just seems to come randomly, like a sudden realization on Terry's part that has no basis in any clue or reasoning.

Still, with great action sequences, an excellent voice cast and  hefty emotional involvement for the characters "Return of the Joker" is a top-notch entry into the animated DC universe.

PS: "Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker" was released in two versions: the uncut original PG-13 and an edited "not rated" version that removes a lot of the violence.  I highly recommend the PG-13 version, as it was how the movie was originally made and meant to be seen.