Now, Batman Beyond has always been a little bit controversial. Well, not Julian Assange or Bradley Manning controversial, but in the world of fanboys and fangirls, it’s a surprisingly heated topic. And why shouldn’t it be? The creators themselves have openly come out and said that the show was primarily created to pull in a fresh new audience to buy more toys. But even if its origins are rooted in capitalism and shallow marketing politics, Batman Beyond wasn’t without its moments.
One of those unforgettable moments was the creation of Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. Even on a purely visual level, the style of the straight-to-DVD movie is absolutely intoxicating. The design of the film alone is sleek and fresh, making for an entertaining distraction for even the casual viewer. But it’s not just about the look of the piece. Batman Beyond has always had a pretty consistent feel to its palette, and that doesn’t change much here, save for a cleaner appearance. Granted, this doesn’t make it any more or less visually impressive, but the illustration isn’t the focal point of Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker.
The heart of the movie can be found in the past. Normally, Batman’s go-to childhood trauma is the death of his parents. Yes, I understand it’s very traumatic, but the fact of the matter is, after years and years of trying to come to terms with his parent’s death, Batman could use some new motivation. But Return of the Joker isn’t just about an attempt to come to terms with the emotional wounds of a past event. It’s about the inescapability of the past, which makes for surprisingly haunting stuff in a movie that’s aimed at a cash-happy youth demographic.
One of the more impressive elements of the film is its dark roots. Fans of Batman as a comic book will be impressed with the long overdue use of a darker storyline for Robin (fans know what I’m talkin’ about) in a unique way. It’s not the same story that most people know, and fans of canon may take issue with this, but the movie makes it its own for the sake of the Batman Beyond series. Truth be told, even as a grown man, there are moments of the film that are strikingly effective and alarmingly unsettling. One scene in particular comes to mind, a scene which happens to be the root of Batman’s disbelief at Joker’s return, but words truly can’t do it justice. The style of the scene, which even borders on cliche and exhausted, is made incredibly powerful just by its use of a chilling laugh at the perfect moment.
Although there are a number of things that make Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker rise above his television counterpart. I’m not gonna claim to be objective, since I’m a fan of both, but what sells me on Return of the Joker is its cast. For starters, say what you will about Jack Nicholson or even the late Heath Ledger, but for me, the Joker will always be Mark Hamill. To see Hamill return to the Batman (because God love ’em, but you know he doesn’t have a whole lot else goin’ on) is an absolute dream come true. He and his cronies, featuring Henry Rollins, are a ragtag group, but they have fun with the dark material. Melissa Joan Hart is somewhat questionable casting, but she’s able to hold it together for what little lines she has, so even that’s passable. The fanboy in me was ecstatic at the reunion of Hamill and Kevin Conroy, but the film gives us fanboys plenty of material to gush over.
Still, what’s most refreshing about Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker is its range. It doesn’t rely on just one thing to sell it. The animation is as impressive as ever, with a little extra polish for the DVD release. The central storyline is engaging, while remaining relatively dark and twisted for more adult viewers. But the undeniable icing on the cake is the cast that was assembled to make this movie possible. All of these elements make Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker a memorable addition to the canon of Batman Beyond and a film that deserved better than the release that it got.