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Non-Review Review: Batman Beyond – Return of the Joker

The Joker holds a special place among Batman’s iconic selection of villains. Appearing as early as Batman #1 all those years ago, the clown prince of crime has managed to hold on to his position as the prime Batman bad guy for pretty much all of Batman’s publication history. It was the Joker who put Barbara Gordon in a wheelchair in The Killing Joke, and it was the Joker who killed Jason Todd in A Death in the Family. As such, it’s no real surprise that the character should eventually make his way to the futuristic setting of Batman Beyond, to give Bruce one last challenge.

Guess who’s back…

I like Mark Hamill’s Joker. The guy simply gives a fantastic vocal performance as the villain, making sure that each and every line is dripping with menace. While I still think Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan’s take on the character is the best iteration of the fiend in any medium, Hamill’s Joker is always an absolute joy to watch. He gives the character a tremendous screen presence that plays remarkably well of Kevin Conroy’s more dour Dark Knight.

However, I’ll be the first to concede that Batman: The Animated Series never quite used the character as well as he deserved to be used. Hamill played the character as an immensely threatening psychopath lurking just beneath a familiar grin, very much the continuation of Jack Nicholson’s take on the character as a psychotic gangster transformed into a macabre clown. The problem was that the show never really allowed such a portrayal. It certainly takes the edge off the character if the script has to explain that everybody affected with Joker toxin got better, or clarify that there were relatively few casualties in the Joker’s reign of terror.

Well, at least Bruce is smiling…

As a result, the character felt strangely neutered by Broadcast Standards and Practice, with the worst damage he’d do easily reversed by the quick and inevitable application of Batman’s patented anti-venom. Don’t get me wrong, there were a number of great episodes featuring the Joker, but there were also any number of fairly banal ones where the character felt like the bad guy in a Saturday morning cartoon serial, rather than something more threatening. Terry describes the Joker as a “garden-variety whacko who threatens people with whoopie cushions and squirty flowers”, and The Animated Series doesn’t really make the villain sinister enough to transcend that.

Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker stands as perhaps the most sinister portrayal of character in the animated canon. In his introductory scene, he kills a teenager with a gun. And that’s not even touching on how he finally manages to get through to Batman. There’s a genuine threat to the Joker here, and it has nothing to do with the fact he hijacks an Akira-inspired satellite that can destroy an entire city. There’s a sense, instead, that the character can be as truly disturbing and unsettling as Hamill’s portrayal hints it, thanks to the direct-to-video nature of the film.

Looks like we got a closet Scarecrow fanboy here…

I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by writer Paul Dini’s take on the Joker. The writer has a very strong grip on the vast majority of Batman’s villains, but his take on the Joker seems be strangely bi-polar. He can portray the character as a threatening for of nature (as in his superb Slayride), but he also seems to treat the character as a constant, hinting at his background and origins in a way that remove some of the mystery (as in Mask of the Phantasm or Streets of Gotham).

Here, Dini doesn’t try to explain the character’s origins, but he does a wonderful job exploring the character’s pathology. Unlike other iterations of the character who see Batman as a worthy adversary and a necessary part of the act, the Joker is quite liable to tire of the Caped Crusader, rather than simply keeping him around. “Adios, Brucie,” he declares at one point, “I suppose I should salute you as a worthy adversary and all that, but the truth is I really did hate your guts.”

The family that slays together…

In fact, Dini hints that his abduction and torture of Tim Drake was just an attempt to end the conflict between the pair of them. Unlike Ledger’s nihilistic Joker, Hamill’s Joker has a keen sense of self-preservation, so he isn’t interested in a moral victory where Batman kills him. That said, he seems to know that Batman won’t kill him. “If you had the guts for that kind of fun, you’d have done it years ago,” the Joker comments after Bruce knocks him around a bit. On the other hand, the Joker has no such hesitation, producing a razor blade and swiping almost blindly at Bruce.

However, Dini also plays up an interesting aspect of the character. The Joker as a failed comedian was part of Alan Moore’s background for the character in The Killing Joke, and it played into an episode of The Animated Series. However, Return of the Joker plays into that idea, and it’s an astute reading of the Joker’s method and personality. What kind of clown needs a toxin to get people to laugh and smile? What type of showman chooses to present himself as the adversary of somebody who lurks in the shadows and stays silent?

The Joker goes full-throttle…

It’s as if the Joker is afraid – afraid that nobody would laugh at his jokes if he didn’t poison them, and afraid that he couldn’t steal the show from an adversary who actually wants the limelight. It’s a rather wonderful take on the character, and there’s something almost pathetic about the Joker’s attempts to deny Terry’s assessment of his character. “Don’t you dare laugh at me!” the Joker yells, a simultaneously hilarious and pathetic statement from a clown.

It’s also worth commenting that the redesign of the character here works quite well. I love his Animated Series design, but the creative team went back to the drawing board for several iconic characters during The New Batman Adventures, as a way of making them easier to illustrate. The Joker was one of the worst affected, often looking like the fourth Warner sibling from Animaniacs. So this revised appearance actually works quite well. I believe that subsequent Timm shows would use this design.

An old Batman and his dog…

Return of the Joker also serves as something of a coda to Batman Beyond. It seems like Bruce Wayne might finally be getting on with his life, that he might be coming out of his shell. When we first met this older version of Bruce Wayne, he’d retired from the world. He lived alone with his dog in his mansion. He’d alienated all his friends. He’d lost control of his family’s company, and was so out of touch that he didn’t know it was being used to make nerve gas.

Here, it seems like the presence of Terry has brought Bruce back from the edge. Rather than living alone in his old mansion, Bruce seems willing to engage again. An early news report tells us, “Today Bruce Wayne shocked the financial world with his plan to resume financial leadership of Wayne Enterprises.” Bruce seems motivated, as he assures Terry, “I’ve worked long and hard to regain control of my family’s company. And I won’t hand it over again.”

They’ll never figure out who did it…

In many ways, Bruce’s health is linked with that of Batman. When he was forced to retire Batman, it seems Bruce gave up on the world – a theme consistent with various other portrayals of the character, including Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. So resurrecting Batman restore his confidence and energy. The movie even hints that Bruce plans to bring back the “playboy Bruce” personality he uses in public, promising to spend time with each member of the company, and to know them. He almost seems to smile during the press conference, in marked contrast to his usual dour demeanour.

(It’s interesting that the movie suggests that Tim Drake actually tried to patch things up with Bruce over the years, but it was Bruce who refused to engage. You’d imagine that the opposite scenario would be more likely, but it fits quite well with Bruce’s very stoic personality. There’s no doubt that he blamed himself for what happened, and the isolation was a self-imposed attempt at punishment for the incident.)

Why so serious?

There is, once again, quite a few hints that Bruce is far from well-adjusted. After Terry comes back from a stressful mission he advises, “I think a good night’s rest might be beneficial.” Of course, Bruce himself would never listen to advise like that. Towards the end of the film, inspired to reconnect with Tim, Bruce even offers Terry some heart-felt advice, “Terry, I’ve been thinking about something you once told me, and you were wrong. It’s not Batman that makes you worthwhile, it’s the other way around.” One senses that Bruce’s self-worth is so tied up in Batman that somebody should have told him that years ago.

As an aside, I think Return of the Joker illustrates part of the reason why teenage sidekicks – especially Robin – aren’t necessarily the best idea for a character like Batman. I understand that the character serves to brighten Batman up a bit, and to demonstrate that it is possible to overcome tragedy without becoming the brooding mess that is Batman, it strains the suspension of disbelief in the world of Batman. Of course, the character inhabits a world with flying human-looking aliens, freeze rays that can thawed and mind-control chips, but suspension of disbelief is a strange thing.

About to make a massive boy blunder…

The moment that Batman recruits a child soldier for his war on crime, his psychology ceases to make sense. Bruce knows about loss at a young age. He knows what it is to give up your childhood in service of an ideal. He knows the risk. There’s no way Bruce should even consider allowing anybody under the age of sixteen to do what he does. If he does, there are two possible reasons, and both of which “break” the suspension of disbelief. Either none of his villains are a threat to a kid, in which case they aren’t a threat to him – so why should we care? – or Bruce simply doesn’t care about the safety of the kids around him – which makes him an outright villain.

As an adult, Tim Drake seems justifiably bitter about everything, observing that the world as he imagined it did not match up to the world that actually existed. “Fun and games,” he mumbles. “Boy wonder playing hero. Fighting off bad guys and no one ever gets…” Of course, a world where no one ever gets killed would be the only world where a teenage hero would be acceptable as a sidekick, but Batman doesn’t live in that world. The events of Return of the Joker force Bruce to confront that, forcing him to admit, “I had no right to force this life on you or anyone else.”

A pretty sick Joker…

It’s interesting how Dini writes Harley’s involvement in the kidnapping and torture. Unlike the Joker, Dini’s creation has always remained redeemable. In fact, the final few minutes of the film hint as much. So kidnapping and torturing a teenage kid represent the kind of thing it’s very hard to pull a character back from. Justifying her actions to Batgirl, Dini is careful to portray Harley as a victim in all this, a character going along because she believes she can mitigate against the violence and suffering.

“Sure, he roughed the kid up a little,” she admits, “but I’ll make it right.” It’s a complement to Dini as a writer that Harley remains strangely innocent in the midst of all this. She also works well as a bit of light comic relief in the midst of an otherwise quite dark and harrowing sequence, as she orders her brainwashed adopted son, “Sweetie, get mommy’s bazooka!” Harley remains perhaps Dini’s single greatest contribution to the Batman mythos, but she’s very tough to write as part of darker sequences, so it’s reassuring to know that at least Dini can incorporate her without making her feel too out-of-place.

Purple haze…

If Return of a Joker has a weakness, it’s that it feels like Terry isn’t necessarily well-defined. He plays a vital role in the climax, offering a different type of Batman standing against the same-old Joker, but his character arc over the course of the film feels rather sketchy at best. That’s understandable, given how the film is anchored in events set before he was born, but it feels like Terry isn’t as important as Bruce Wayne or even Tim Drake.

Still, it’s nice that the script takes the time to emphasise the difference between Bruce and Terry. Early on, Bruce states that Terry effectively accomplished what he set out to accomplish as Batman. “You’ve made your father’s killers pay for his murder, then put your own needs aside to help the city when it most needed a hero. You’ve honoured the reputation of Batman many times over and for that I thank you.”

To infinity and beyond…

I’m not sure about this version, but in many iterations of Batman, Bruce never finds his parents’ killer, perhaps another way the universe conspires to deny him any peace. Terry, on the other hand, found his father’s murderers almost immediately, and they paid for their crimes. Even the Joker seems to pick up on the fact that Terry is decidedly well-adjusted, musing, “I always think it adds a little resonance to a hero’s mission to have some defining element of tragedy in his background, don’t you?”

Return of the Joker marks a fitting final confrontation between Batman and the Joker, and also serves as an effective coda to the whole Batman Beyond series, seeing Bruce returning to public life and seeing Terry face the ultimate trial-by-fire for any replacement Batman.

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6 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on drndark.

  2. Great review but I disagree with your with you opinion on the Joker from the animated show. Episodes like ‘Jokers Favour’ ‘Mad Love’ and ‘The laughing fish ‘ are some of the characters best stories across any media. What was great about these episodes is how the writers were able to portray the Joker as a genuine threat to the citizens of Gotham without having to pile on the body count and I‘ve never felt that killing people is a necessary part of the characters appeal. While characters such as MrFreeze, Clayface and the Riddler targeted company bosses and fulfilled personal agendas with little fallout to ordinary people the Joker engaged in seemingly random and unpredictable crimes that threatened civilians. While he was never allowed to succeed in his overall scheme what made him the best villain of the show was the way in which he was shown to ruin peoples lives. In ’Jokers Favour’ he causes a man to uproot his entire life and causes him years of fear by the simple act of asking for a favour. In the ’laughing fish’ he public announces his intention to attack two innocent paper pushers and while Batman may be there with a handy dose of anti-venom he’s helpless to prevent the attacks themselves. And you mention Harley Quinn who perhaps represents the Jokers greatest victory on the show. Joker manages to corrupt a seemingly normal person and despite Batman’s and other characters constant attempts to rehabilitate her the Jokers shown to be able to constantly tempt her back. I wouldn’t even call her appearance at the end here a sign of redemption since her relations join a gang called the jokers!

    • Thanks John.

      I can see where you’re coming from. I don’t believe the Joker has to be a lethal character, to be fair. I am quite fond of Romero’s Joker as the cool comedian to Batman’s eternally square straight man. However, I do think that The Animated Series made a conscious effort to do a “darker” Joker. The corruption of Harley and his torture of Tim Drake seem perfectly in character with his general portrayal, but it felt like these were the exception rather than the rule.

      Don’t get me wrong. Episodes like The Joker’s Favour and The Man Who Killed Batman work quite well, but I think the Joker had more “filler” episodes like Christmas With the Joker, The Last Laugh or Be A Clown than any other villain, and I think that was because he was set up as this great menace who… barely succeeds in ever taking a single life. The Laughing Fish was a fun episode, but the sheer lunacy of the Joker trying to patent fish and the lengths he was willing to go to in order to secure that impossible patent were undercut by the fact that all Batman had to do was inject the poor clerk after the Joker got to him. There’s little tension if Batman doesn’t have to beat the Joker, and can arrive a little while after his foe has already been and caused the damage.

      But that’s just my opinion.

      I can also see your point with Harley, but I like to think her frustration with the twins was genuine – she was genuinely upset to see them idolising the Joker, having recovered from her own issues with the villain.

  3. There’s also a meta-awareness to the character, as if he knows that his real fans exist outside of the television. This is how he can sing a version of “Jingle Bells” about the Joker getting away even as he gets away, provide his own title card for the episode, and directly address the audience about going to commercial. He’s performing for Batman, but he’s also performing for us.

    • That’s an aspect of the character that can trace its roots back to the comics. Especially Steve Engelhart’s version.

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