Even after 20 years, this still ranks among the best Batman flicks
Halloween and its scary movies may have come and gone, but that doesn’t mean we have to forsake any fear factor in our films. Just look at Batman. Fear is central to his character, but he’s among the most popular superheroes out there, spawning more films and TV shows than any other. One of the best, however, soon celebrates its 20th anniversary. Let’s look at Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker.
As you can tell by the title, though, this isn’t just any Batman movie. It’s actually an extension of a TV series. As such, it’s one that may be overlooked by general audiences, casual fans, and especially younger viewers. After all, it is 20 years old. At the risk of making us ‘90s kids feel older, here’s the basic gist of Batman Beyond.
A sequel to the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series, the show takes place in the far future. A cyberpunk-inspired Gotham City has once again fallen to crime and turmoil, and Bruce Wayne is too old to fight crooks as Batman anymore. After his father is murdered, however, troubled teen Terry McGinnis steals the Batsuit to avenge his death. Wayne sees in him the same drive he once had, so he reluctantly takes the kid under his wing and trains him to be the next Batman.
This movie sees the reemergence of the Joker, long thought to be dead. Despite that, the Clown Prince of Crime seems as spry and maniacal as ever, mobilizing a new gang and bringing old demons to the surface for not only Bruce, but also his allies.
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So, why does this movie work so well? Well, for one thing, it boasts an intriguing mystery that unfolds at a steady pace and keeps you guessing.
Most episodes of this show, along with its predecessor, craft engaging adventures and whodunit capers to set up the villains, as well as fuel the detective aspect of Batman’s character. However, the film’s script fittingly gives this threat a heightened significance that elevates the plot above the standard episodic adventure.
To complement that, the animation is a step up from the TV series, and the direction feels noticeably more cinematic in conveying the operatic atmosphere. That’s saying something since both of these factors are usually admirable enough in the show.
That reliability also applies to the stellar voice cast. Whether they’re returning actors from the series or new guys brought in for the film, all of them are rock-solid, led beautifully by Will Friedle, Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Dean Stockwell, and Angie Harmon. Of course, what did you expect with Andrea Romano as the voice director?
Speaking of sound, the music does something simple but no less inspired. Because this is a multigenerational tale, the score blends the operatic orchestral stylings of Batman: The Animated Series with the electric rock tunes of Batman Beyond.
You’d think throwing these two sounds together would be distracting, but it works. The clash is intentional, and it effectively accentuates the differing approaches and personalities of the leads. It reminds me of how Lethal Weapon differentiates Murtaugh and Riggs with the saxophone and electric guitar, respectively.
More so than the aesthetic aspects, though, the movie’s true success comes from its characters. Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and Glen Murakami once again prove themselves informed, passionate, and comfortable custodians of the Batman mythos. They casually yet firmly establish all the key players here, developing them in intriguing ways over the course of the story. As a result, the characters are all strong enough that you don’t even need to watch the shows for their personal drama to resonate.
That being said, the movie rewards any familiarity you do have, as the arcs have much more meaning if you know their roots in the series. The most poignant element is how it deepens the relationship between Terry and Bruce, creating a newfound mutual respect that’s all the more fulfilling if you know where they began.
It couldn’t be more appropriate that the villain is the Joker. He’s the Dark Knight’s most infamous foe, one who’s pushed him like no other enemy. As such, defeating him is a perfect rite of passage for Terry, testing both him and Bruce. The former must prove his skills as a crimefighter and grapple with whether he’s simply a pale imitation of the Batman before him.
Meanwhile, Bruce must learn to let go of past mistakes, trust in his student’s abilities, and embrace the differences between them, both in terms of approach and motivation. He has to rethink why he allowed a young ally back into his life. Why did he select this punk kid to carry on his legacy?
More importantly, it forces Terry to reevaluate why he put on the mask and what he brings to the table. Finding the answers to those questions lets him truly come into his own, emerging as a Batman who’s entirely unique to him while remaining faithful to his mentor.
The meeting of the minds that ensues forges an affecting understanding between the two heroes. As a result, it provides a satisfying sense of closure for both the old and new stories.
That is why Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker remains one of the most compelling tales of the Dark Knight. It’s a well-animated, well-directed, well-scored, and well-written caper that keeps you on your toes from start to finish. Above all, though, it’s a fascinating character study of two Batmen for the price of one.
Are you a fan of this film? Which Batman show is your favorite? Do you think they should revive this one?
Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker is currently available to stream on Tubi. You can also buy it from most retail outlets.