Return of the Joker

 Direct-to-Video release (2000/2002)
 Running time: 74 minutes
 Rating: * * * * (producer's cut)
 Rating * * * (studio cut)

Crew Cast  
Story by Paul Dini, Glen Murakami &
Bruce Timm
Screenplay by Paul Dini
Directed by Curt Geda
Music by Kristopher Carter
Animation by TMS and Koko
Will Friedle as Terry McGinnis/Batman
Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne
Mark Hamill as the Joker/Jordan Pryce
Angie Harmon as Commissioner Gordon
Dean Stockwell as Adult Tim Drake
Rachel Leigh Cook as Chelsea
Teri Garr as Mary McGinnis
Melissa Joan Hart as DeeDee
Don Harvey as Chucko
Ryan O' Donahue as Matt McGinnis
Henry Rollins as Bonk
Andrea Romano as Laughing Boy
Michael Rosenbaum as Ghoul
Mary Scheer as Ms. Tim Drake
Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn
Tara Strong as Batgirl
Bruce Timm as Guard
Lauren Tom as Dana Tan
Mathew Valencia as Robin/Tim Drake
Vernee Watson-Jonson as Ms. Carr
Frank Welker as Woof

Where to start when talking about a great film like Return of the Joker?

With the smooth, beautifully animated action sequences—fireballs that puff and bloom like monstrous flowers, waves of ocean spray that practically wet the screen, fight scenes where the combatants dance and weave like pugilists possessed by the spirit of Fred Astaire?

Maybe with the taut story that brings old allies and ancient adversaries back from the grave in always surprising ways; that piles demented revelation upon insane plot twist; that pushes characters into corners that we'd thought—that we'd prayed—they'd never see, and does so without once snapping the thread of plausibility that has for decades given these characters a life and hold on our imaginations?

Or perhaps with the fabulous acting by all the principals: Will Friedle, who gives Terry McGinnis the gravity to stand up to Bruce Wayne and the brass to out-sass the Joker. Kevin Conroy, who finds in an incremental shade of delivery the difference between the Batman in his prime and a guttering, guilt-ridden old man. Not least Mark Hamill, whose Joker is still plausible as the Clown Prince of Crime, but who here is also something far darker and malicious, a Lecter in greasepaint. And Dean Stockwell, a voice of weary, undischarged agony.

These are not virtues peculiar to Return of the Joker—the visuals and vocal performances are present too in other episodes of Batman Beyond. But even at its best, the various Batman shows have been retarded by a certain inwardness of direction: grand stories like "Out of the Past" or "Over the Edge" have resonated chiefly because of what we know about Batman and his circumstances and are liable to puzzle those viewers not conversant with that universe. Return of the Joker has something of the same handicap, though with its greater running time it can fill in many details that the casual viewer might miss but which the experienced viewer could take for granted. Yet it also possesses an arc that allows it to escape definition as "just" a Batman story.

Family and unexpiated guilt—the stuff of classical tragedy—are the grand themes dealt with in this story. From the Joker's exercise in cradle-snatching to Terry's discovery of a "Ha-Ha" defaced Bat-cave (recalling the scene when his own father was killed), the film strikes notes that remind us that Bruce Wayne, orphan, has dedicated himself not only to fighting crime but to rebuilding a family with himself as the father figure. That is what makes the Joker's crime against Robin such a subtle and devastating thrust. In making a family of his own, Bruce has unwittingly given a villain like the Joker a potential hostage and has endangered a person (Tim Drake) who otherwise would never have been victimized in this brutal way. And in remaking Tim in his own gruesome image, the Joker not only mocks Batman's pretensions to mold the youngster, but plants a corrosive thought: Is Bruce any better for turning Tim into "Robin," or has he warped Drake just as thoroughly as the Joker has?

That's the seed of guilt which takes almost immediate root, even if the poisonous fruit isn't plucked until decades later. It's a guilt which is only glancingly alluded to in the course of the film, but on which pivots the entire story, for it is what prevents Bruce from forestalling a tragedy that takes forty years to unfold. The brainwashed Robin, you see, breaks through the conditioning at the flashback's climax and kills the Joker. But that doesn't end the Joker's plot, for he has placed on Drake a microchip which carries his own fiendish personality and DNA, and over the years he gradually takes form again in Drake's body. Of course, it is true that in killing the Joker Tim has morally compromised himself—he has taken on some of the Joker's character—and that the gnawing (even if unacknowledged) guilt of the past has probably made Tim an easier conquest for the Joker's waxing spirit. But it is simply incredible to believe that Bruce would have missed the chip if he had kept Tim in his care. Instead, wracked by guilt and unable to face consequences which he blames on himself, he fobbed Tim off on Leslie Thompkins—a character unsullied by the same compromises.

It's the same spirit that leads Bruce to coldly "fire" Terry as Batman when the Joker returns—he cannot bear to think that he might send another young man to his ruin. Fortunately, Terry (who is trying to expiate the sins of his own past) refuses to take the hint. That marks the turning point—Bruce, Barbara and Tim have been too traumatized by the past to respond effectively to the Joker's new challenge, so the "new guy" has to step in. He is aided immeasurably by the Joker's refusal to take him seriously; having finally bested the old man, he cannot believe that this sidekick, this "punk," could be a genuine challenge. But Terry is no mere tag-along, but the person groomed to be the new Batman. And when Bruce finally gives him whole-hearted support, he repays Wayne's faith by proving that he can stand up to and beat the monster that had beaten even the old man.

Put bluntly, Bruce is redeemed by Terry, by the fact that he has finally done what he could not do with Dick Grayson or Barbara Gordon or—most tragically—Tim Drake. He has let Terry mature and achieve an independent existence as Batman, has let him be a "new" Batman, and has supported and encouraged him. Where previously he has dominated and suppressed his compatriots to the point where they rebelled or were ruined, he has let Terry grow in his own fashion and according to his own needs—guiding and correcting and supplementing, to be sure, and sometimes doing it with a heavy hand—but with the ultimate aim of letting Terry be his own kind of Batman. And that is how Terry is able to beat the Joker: expecting a Batman clone, the Joker-possessed Drake is utterly routed by something new. And it is in this metaphor for fatherhood—the sustaining creation of something different from one's self, rather than its recapitulation—that the story is able to stand as something above and beyond the mere telling of a new "Batman" adventure. Fathers create sons; they don't re-create themselves.

Not that it doesn't work on the level of "Batman adventure," too. Batman is a backwards-looking character, one whose entire being is colored by the fact that he is an orphan who has built his entire existence around that fact. Not the least of ROTJ's achievement is the way it turns this conservative creature around and recasts him as a figure with conscious duties owed, and ultimately fulfilled, to his progeny and not just his parents. That this is only a bonus is further evidence of the film's depth and power.

The above discussion applies mostly (though not solely) to the original, uncut version of Return of the Joker released in 2002. A studio cut released in 2000 changed the vital flashback in ways that greatly diminished its impact and the film's overall dramatic architecture. For a discussion of those changes, see the essay Killing the Joker at this site and Alex Weitzman's Supplementary Essay #2 at Rotten Tomatoes. For a full and frank discussion of the film—and an experience almost (though not quite) as entertaining as ROTJ itself—buy or rent the DVD and listen to Timm, Dini, Murakami and Geda on the commentary track.

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