Killing the Joker
Posted: June 14, 2001; Revised June 4, 2002

The Joker's original deathSo by now everyone knows about the Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker fiasco: Last minute edits ordered by the studio altered the key flashback sequence by changing the manner of the Joker's death (while also toning down some of the fight scenes). And everyone (by which I mean, of course, fanboys like you and me who hang out at message boards and websites) got quite cross when they heard about the cuts. Hell hath no fury like a fanboy messed with, and the ire was barely assuaged even after Warners released an "unedited cut" restoring the altered footage.

More surprisingly, once the initial fuss died down a number of voices were raised defending the changes—or, to be more accurate, arguing that the changes had not weakened the original film, and maybe had even improved it.

It is an interesting proposition these viewers advance; it is a respectable proposition. But it is a false one. (But see Alex Weitzman's ingenious defense of the edited version.) And like most interesting, respectable, and false propositions, getting at the fallacy is both difficult and rewarding. In the case of Return of the Joker, whose complex story centers upon that flashback and on Robin's attack on the Joker, it is especially important to be clear about the meaning of the censored sequences, for misapprehensions here will color one's understanding of the rest of the film.

o recap what most of us probably already know: In the flashback's original form the Joker, after subduing Batman, hands the brainwashed Robin a spear gun — a two-stage weapon that first shoots out a "Bang" flag before firing the spear itself (flag attached). But Robin, whose maniacal laughs segue seamlessly into hysterical sobs, aims it at the Joker and kills him point blank. Joker's final words: "That's not funny. . . ." But in the edited version, Robin simply throws the gun away and pushes the Joker into a mass of electrical wire. The Joker then slips in a puddle of water and accidentally throws a switch. Cut to an exterior shot as Batgirl hears the electrical sizzle. Other changes are made and the nature of the spear gun is modified, but these are the essential details.

Now, those who defend the changes advance one or both of the following claims: First, the Joker's death need not be graphically shown to be effective. The death of the Flying Graysons in "Robin's Reckoning," for instance, is artfully oblique: a fraying rope, a gasping audience, an empty trapeze. Second, they observe, as part of his "makeover" Robin suffers the agonies of controlled electrocution, and so his simply shooting his torturer doesn't begin to repay the Joker in his own cruel coin; electrocution does. Furthermore, because Batman and his team do not kill, Robin's original act is out of character. So the revised sequence, in which the Joker dies in an electrical accident, fittingly resolves Robin's torture while sparing him the ignominy of violating his moral code.

The torture beginsIn fact, the issues of how the Joker dies and how that death is presented cannot be independent of each other, for with a key scene like this the style of its representation cannot be divorced from its substance. That is, the Joker's death in the flashback is a climactic moment in the lives of all its participants, and so must be carefully presented; because so much hinges on that sequence, its presentation must carry maximum effect. (Whether maximum effect means underplaying or overplaying is a separate question.) And because the scene is such a key moment, its meaning and purpose cannot be understood without understanding its place in the film's overall architecture. Thus, the central issue becomes: What role does the Joker's death, and the flashback it climaxes, play in the context of the overall film?

On the surface, that flashback is quite isolated from the rest of the material; the overall film really seems to be about Terry McGinnis and the (well, the title says it all, doesn't it?) return of the Joker after many years' absence. The flashback is apparently its own self-contained story, dropped in to explain what happened a long time ago—as well as to dollop out some juicy gossip to the fans—and the Joker's death just rounds off a story which ended a long time ago. And if this is how the film works, then the edits' defenders have a strong case. An independent story, after all, requires its own legitimate and cathartic climax. But the death-by-speargun finale is not cathartic because it does not properly balance against what was done to Robin.

Yet once the entire plot unfolds, Return of the Joker clearly becomes the story of Robin's trauma. While under his "tutelage," we learn, the Joker planted a mind-controlling microchip on Drake, and has been slowly taking form again in the body of one of Batman's key allies; the film itself begins when this long-range aspect of the Joker's plot reaches fruition. Thus, events in the life of the old Bruce Wayne and his new protégé are not a related but independent sequel to the flashback, but a decisive proof that the story in the flashback is still developing, and has yet to reach its true climax.

In other words, Return of the Joker is not about the reappearance of the Joker, but about the ruin of Tim Drake, his estrangement from Bruce Wayne, and his ultimate redemption. This story stretches over an arc of forty (or so) years, and is only resolved at the end of the film. And so those who look for a climax at Arkham fail to appreciate the deep integration of the flashback into the surrounding material.

The corollary is also clear: If the story that begins during that flashback is not resolved with the Joker's death at Arkham, then the climax to that flashback should not resolve the story of Tim's torture and humiliation. Indeed, the resolution of the flashback should unequivocally lack the air of proper finale.

Boris Karloff wouldn't do it better.And so the original cut uses emotional and narrative dissonance to hint at the continuing connection between past and present events. Its critics are correct when they complain that the death-by-speargun climax fails to resolve the tensions; they only miss that this failure is the essential point. We are made uneasy by the fact that the Joker's death is too quick, too clean, and too unexpected. Because this is simply not the right way to end the story of Robin's degradation, the implication should be that that degradation has not run its course, and we are thereby prepared to expect to see further developments. In the edited version, on the other hand, the electrocution does round off the sequence, by doing unto the Joker as he had done unto Robin, and so ends the Robin story prematurely.

As for Robin's complicity in the Joker's death. This also makes sense in the context of the overall film. Robin's killing the Joker is plainly a betrayal of all he has stood for, and so demonstrates the depths to which he has been degraded and (more importantly) the degree to which he has already become the Joker's double—in killing the Joker he has taken on the latter's spirit; the Joker has died, but he lives on (in more than one sense) in Tim Drake. But in the edited version Drake is not similarly complicit, and so does not assume the same symbolic aspect.

ow, given what I've argued, does the explicit presentation of the Joker's death in the flashback serve a legitimate aesthetic or thematic purpose? Or would an off-screen death, as in "Robin's Reckoning," serve just as well?

I observed above that in key climactic moments the presentation of the action is vital to its effect. In "Robin's Reckoning" that effect argues precisely for an underplaying of the scene. For young Dick Grayson, his parent's death is sudden and unexpected: one moment they are alive, the next they are not. The presentation on screen captures the same sense of the sudden and unexpected: one moment they are on a trapeze, the next they are not. This brutally simple switch from presence to absence beautifully encapsulates his emotional experience of their death, and so expresses something more than the fact that a killing has occurred.

The emotional undercurrent of the Return of the Joker flashback scene argues for something altogether more intense. At its climax we have not simply a killing, but a confrontation between a victim and his victimizer following a crime of a particularly intrusive nature. The Joker hasn't merely hurt the boy, he has violated him in a way that staggers the understanding. So not just their physical proximity at the climax, but their physical contiguity is important. Put brutally, Robin must touch and violate the Joker in some way, just as the Joker touched and violated him. And unless we see that touching, unless we see Robin act upon the Joker in a lethal fashion, we do not get the necessary discharge of tension.

Electrocution, so appropriate in the abstract, would work only if Tim held the live wires against the Joker's own flesh — and somehow I believe the censors would find this even more intolerable. Given that Robin must strike a lethal blow, a shooting is probably the least objectionable method. True, in the edited version Robin pushes the Joker, so there is physical contact, but this is merely a shove and its lethal consequence an unintended byproduct— the Joker's self-electrocution interrupts Robin's attack rather than fulfilling it. Again, the original version is superior, for in striking the lethal blow directly Robin also encompasses his own moral ruin.

TAnother scene that got editedhe film's true climax occurs when Terry McGinnis uses the Joker's own lethal joybuzzer to destroy the microchip on Drake's neck; the electrical element wanted in the flashback climax appears where it belongs, in the scene where the Joker's spirit is finally exorcised from Tim's mind and body. It is also fitting that the Joker be eradicated by another one of Batman's protégés, and one explicitly endorsed and supported by Batman. For Drake was vulnerable to the Joker's final plot precisely because Bruce had turned his back on Tim after the trauma at Arkham. (It is scarcely credible that the Joker's microchip would have gone undetected if Tim had fallen back under Bruce's wing.) By giving Terry the support and encouragement he had denied Tim, Bruce signals that he has also recovered from that night and drawn an essential lesson from it; he has shown that the spirit of Batman can be passed on just as can the spirit of the Joker, and so the new protégé can save the old. This is the moment when both Drake and Wayne are redeemed, and the Joker truly laid to rest.

The edits that I've discussed here are not the only changes made to the film, and they are not the only ones that weaken it. (The opening fight sequence in the edited version, for instance, is much less impressive). But they have the very real and deleterious effect of unbalancing the film thematically and structurally. That alone is sufficient reason to be grateful for an official release of the original version.

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