One of the most underrated Batman films, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000) is an animated Batman film that follows Batman Beyond, an animated TV series that was popular in the 1990s that takes place in the year 2019 and shows Bruce Wayne (played by Kevin Conroy) passing on the Batman mantle to high school student Terry McGinnis (played by Will Friedle), who fights crime as the protector of Neo Gotham City.
Batman Beyond as a series was generally more mature than the animated Batman series that came before, tackling issues on substance abuse, child neglect, the effects of bullying, and even violent attacks on schools. This shows that Batman Beyond was not your typical run-of-the-mill kid’s cartoon and was geared more towards teens and young adults. The show lasted three full seasons, with a total of 55 episodes. Upon its release, it was highly praised for its mature themes and unique storytelling. It won several awards, including 5 Annie Awards in 1999 and was nominated for 4 Daytime Emmy Awards, winning 2 in animation and music in 2001.
The film opens up with the Jokerz gang stealing some high tech machinery. However, they are soon apprehended by Batman (Terry McGinnis), who fights them off. Batman returns to the back cave, where an elderly Bruce Wayne greet him and reveals that he is returning to Wayne Enterprises as its CEO. Meanwhile, back at an abandoned candy factory, the Jokerz gang meet up with their new leader, who calls himself the Joker (played by Mark Hamill). The next night, Bruce and Terry attend an elegant dinner hosted by Wayne Enterprises welcoming Bruce’s return. However, the event is soon interrupted by the Joker and his gang who steal the machinery they were looking for and shake up Bruce Wayne. While Terry doesn’t think much of the Joker at first, Wayne warns him to stay away and even orders Terry to give up the Batsuit. Terry bitterly does so, and angrily leaves Bruce. The next night, the Joker shows up at Wayne Manor and critically injures Bruce. With little leads, Terry must put an end to the new menace.
I first saw this film when I was either 6 or 7 at a second-hand furniture store. The store had a small corner for parents to leave their kids that had a TV and several children’s books. Usually, the store played a variety of Disney movies. However, one rainy afternoon, I remember my parents were at the store longer than I would have liked, so I went to go to the corner. When I arrived, I saw that they were playing a Batman movie, where he wore a badass, all black suit with a red bat logo, fighting criminals in a warehouse.
I remember just getting to the part where he was fighting the Dee-Dee Twins before getting dragged away by my parents. At the time, I didn’t know the title of the movie, but I would always remember that iconic Batsuit design. It would be in my mind for years to come, and it wasn’t until I was 16 when I discovered this movie when I was passing by the animated film section at Target. I bought it immediately and watched the whole thing at home.
I loved the film upon my first viewing and have seen it many times since then. The story may seem similar to a lot of other Batman movies. However, the biggest difference that sets this film apart from others is how dark it is. The scene where Batman and Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) go to Arkham Asylum to confront Joker and Harley Quinn over kidnapping Robin was haunting and made me wonder if I was watching a horror film that just so happened to have batman in it! Speaking of the kidnapping of Robin, we see Joker torturing Tim Drake’s Robin into insanity and transforming him physically and mentally into a Joker Jr. The reveal of an insane Tim Drake is terrifying: how his face is hid in the shadows, his menacing smile, and finally, the full reveal which catches viewers off guard.
Regarding the portrayal of the Joker, we’ve seen him being portrayed as a wild force of nature, a clown, a gangster, and recently, a tragic figure. However, this is the first time we actually see a very horrifying depiction of the Joker, and it’s in an animated film. Every shot and angle for Joker’s scenes were used to make him more frightening.
Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the Joker was how much of an impact he had on the Bat family. His actions led to Tim becoming insane and even after he was treated back to sanity, he still suffered PTSD. Additionally, Bruce and Barbara both refuse to talk about the Joker, even decades after the events of Arkham. Terry even comments on the reason why Bruce never talked about the Joker: that the Joker made Batman do something so horrible that he couldn’t live with himself.
Overall, 2000’s Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker hits the right notes as a Batman movie and successfully passes on the torch to a younger crime fighter. Despite the popularity of the show in the 90s, the show has faded into a distant memory, due to a lack of recent portrayal and not being rerun on any cartoon networks. This is sad, since Batman Beyond was a show that was ahead of its time. With Matt Reeves’ new The Batman (2022) movie coming out the coming year on March 22nd, perhaps we might see some elements taken from the iconic 90s TV show.