The Film: Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker(2000)
The Principles: Curt Geda (Director) Paul Dini and Bruce Timm(Writers) Will Friedle, Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Angie Harmon, Dean Stockwell, Teri Garr, Laruen Tom

The Premise: Warner Brothers embraced the increasing popularity of its animated line and let the creative team further define the gap between modern day Batman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond. The final product was controversially violent but never strayed from the original characters. Even though the main story focuses on the young knight, it works just as well to add depth to an aging Bruce Wayne and explore some additional weight his decisions have made him carry.

Is It Good: As Cheech Marin once said “Does Howdy Doody have wooden balls?”. This and Mask of Phantasm easily top my personal list of favorite animated feature representations of Batman. I personally enjoy this one more, but I believe that has to do with so much of the focus being on the Joker, and just how far he goes to get under the skin of the Bat. His twisted mind displays just how mean his “jokes” really were. More often than most comic fans would have ever wanted, the Joker has been made a fool when brought to the screen, but this is the guy who crippled Barbara Gordon, shot Sarah Essen in front of her husband Jim Gordon and beat Jason Todd to death with a crowbar followed by ensuring his death with a nuclear bomb on top of his corpse.

If you have no clue about Batman Beyond, let me give the 2 minute overview. It’s the future, Bruce Wayne is past retirement age, Alfred is dead, Commissioner Gordon is Barbara Gordon and Batman is a punk who stumbled into Wayne Manor to escape a gang beating, and left with a futuristic Batman suit and flying car. The villains are a colorful rogue gallery often made up of modified villains from the original timeline. All the originals are too old to still be around.

The big mystery here is that the villain in this film is the Joker. Not a ripoff, but the real thing. The story progresses with the normal high octane, metal scored violence Batman Beyond was known for, but eventually comes to the point that Wayne and his young companion resort to the mashup detective work that often make most fans regard the Dini/Timm Batman as the most true to the original form.

I always enjoyed the aging Wayne from this series. To me, this was always much more the vision I had for the character than the one Miller Displayed in The Dark Knight Returns mini. Old, grumpy and living like an eccentric hermit. He moves around with purpose, but appears somewhat frail with his walking cane and dark and depressed eyes. His companion is the great dane, Ace (who amazingly first appeared in 1955, but was originally a German Sheppard, then evolved into the large dane) who gets as much screentime in this movie as he does in the entirety of the beyond seasons. This Wayne seems more connected to the business side of Wayne Enterprises than many other incarnations of the character, and as with many of the shows in the beyond series, his business affairs run hand and hand with the criminal element.

The story mostly takes place in the future using the athletic high school attending batman as the focus, but there is a 20 minute flashback that goes just far enough to touch on every element that made the Dini/Timm series so popular. With a single trap, the real batman is able to find the clue, figure out where the Joker is hidden and guess as to why. There is no doubt that this movie takes that step that everyone has always said was inevitable between the Joker and Batman, but nobody else ever had the balls to do.

The flashback allows us to see another defining characteristic of the billionaire vigilante. The effects are reminiscent of the effect Death in the Family had on Batman after the death of Jason Todd. He attempted to shut down all those in his “family” and told them to hang it up. They were no longer welcome to join him. Starlin’s story in the comics added a weight to Wayne that stuck for some time. Dini/Timm use that same type of guilt to build a more defined old Wayne. The veterans (Barbara Gordon the former Batgirl and never paraplegic in the Dini/Timm universe, and Tim Drake the former 3rd Robin) tell the newbie Terry that is the just the way he is, but he was much worse after the events with the Joker. They inform Terry that if he is going to play the game, he has to listen to Wayne.

The other thing that forces a lot of the focus of the story on Wayne, is his reaction to whether or not this could really be the Joker after all these years. The Joker is and will always be considered (by most) to be the greatest adversary Batman has and will ever face. The thought that the real maniac may have returned to his previous ways scares the hell out of Wayne, and we see it. He freaks out, and he panics. He says harsh things to Terry to make him throw in the towel, and he closes down communication in hopes that hiding the facts will make them disappear. The facial expression he displays on analyzing the voice says it all. This is his worst nightmare come to life.

The rest of the characters are portrayed in normal Dini/Timm fashion, with only enough depth to add to the story, but with such finesse to make them all interesting and worthy of screentime. Terry McGinnis throws some high school jokes out similar in structure to Spiderman quips, which makes for a Bat/Spider hybrid that works extremely well. The teenager spent his time in the series making juvenile mistakes, but the movie uses the foundation from the show to expand upon, but never to the point where new viewers get disconnected. Beyond is accompanied by his girlfriend, mother and brother. His girlfriend has a sizable part, but the family is just there to make McGinnis more human. Commissioner Gordon may be different, but she plays the same role her father did for so many years. She is never really warm with Terry, but she is the nearest thing to a partner that he would have until season 3 of the show.

Is It Worth A Look: I consider myself a pretty big bat fan from the comics first and I can’t think of a better representation of all things that make Bruce Wayne tick, even if he isn’t the main focus of the story. This film embraces the elements that made the original character a sensation, and adds a new chapter towards the end of the long life our hero has lived.

Ever since the 70s, DC began molding Bruce Wayne into a loner. He’s an almost sociopathic depressed individual with the means to satisfy his unhealthy craving for redemption through obsessive selfless devotion to fighting injustice. The shell has been broken almost exclusively by those he shares a similar tragedy with, though we do witness a weakness for sharing with those of the opposite sex (ie: Barbara Gordon, Selina Kyle, Helena Bertinelli, Talia Ghul, Lady Shiva). Terry McGinnis lost his father and once again he thought he could help and their relationship was formed, but as with the other relationships Bruce has had, when the danger strikes close to home he closes himself off. As with the finale of Nolan’s The Dark Knight, he puts the burden on his shoulders once again connecting the various mediums with strongly based character decisions.

McGinnis is an entertaining Batman, but they never tried to make him a young Bruce Wayne. He is lively, charismatic, headstrong and what separates him the most from Wayne is that he is caring. The interaction between he and his mother, his very humorous Spritle (Speed Racer) clone brother and his girlfriend Dana make him a character that is more along the lines of Nightwing than Batman. He shows a tough exterior in his ability to stand up to Wayne when needed, face the commissioner and put his life on the line all like his mentor, but his gentleness makes him something completely different. Even though surrounded by much more violence than in the modern era representations this makes him more vulnerable and gentle than Wayne ever has been, and makes their interaction such a rewarding experience.

Jeph Loeb would later write the Hush series, one that mimicked a lot of the themes in this movie. I always felt that without the trials and tribulations that Tim Drake faces here, there would have never been a similar connection for Loeb to work with.

With so much attention being focused on the Nolan series this week, it would be well worth your while to see another strong adaptation of Bruce Wayne. Both of the takes are quite similar, but the presentation is very different.
Random Anecdotes:

The film was butchered upon its first release to receive the first PG-13 rating for any of the Batman animated products.

The unrated version was finally released with the heinous acts of violence included.

Cinematic Soulmates: Batman Beyond: The Movie, Batman: Mask of Phantasm, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight