Barry Keoghan is currently the talk of the town. The 29-year-old Irish actor brought us his rendition of Batman’s iconic nemesis, the Joker, in the Robert Pattinson-led The Batman. And if his small cameo in the theatrical release weren’t enough, the internet is buzzing over his recently-released deleted scene.
And, if one thing’s clear, it’s that Keoghan has the stuff to play the role. Indeed, he follows on competently in the wake of previous Joker actors like Jack Nicholson, Joaquin Phoenix, and the incomparable Heath Ledger. But those who’ve followed the animated Batman mythos would unflinchingly add Mark Hamill to that list of iconic Clown Princes.
Indeed, the Luke Skywalker actor is beloved by Batman fanatics for that reason. For those who grew up watching the 90’s Batman cartoons, Hamill was the Joker, period. He perfectly exhibited the character’s psychotic nature and playfulness. And, like much of the BTAS cast, Hamill added layers and layers beneath his character. And he continued to do so in the 2000’s animated movie Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker.
Batman of the Future
Batman Beyond – known in some territories as Batman of the Future – aired from 1999 to 2001, spanning three seasons. The series tells the story of a…you guessed it—a Batman in the Future. The far future, in fact. Bruce Wayne is an older man whose mind remains in great shape – however, the same cannot be said for his physicality. As such, Bruce is well beyond the days of roaming around rooftops, fighting crime.
Thus, the series revolves around the exploits of his protégé, Terry McGinnis. McGinnis, a reforming juvenile delinquent, dons a futuristic Batsuit to perform the duties Bruce can no longer perform. All the while, the elder superhero supports McGinnis via radio-link and acts much like a wrinkly male Oracle of sorts for his apprentice.
Return of the Joker was released halfway through the series’ run. Terry McGinnis had met a few of Bruce Wayne’s old foes by this point. These included a revived Victor Fries and an incapacitated Bane, who is now on life-support. However, the writers clearly wanted to save the old Batman’s iconic arch-nemesis, Joker, for a special occasion. This animated flick is that occasion – and my, what an occasion it is. ROTJ combines the stories of Bruce Wayne and Terry McGinnis’ Batmen and forms it into a beautifully-animated, emotionally-charged superhero film.
ROTJ is a dark and mature tale that appeals to kids and adults alike. It isn’t long before the movie reveals to the audience that Joker is alive and well (and, apparently, unaged since his days fighting young Bruce Wayne). This alone sets up a ‘WTF’ mystery – how is the Joker still so young and going strong in the future? After all, Bruce and Barbara have aged – why hasn’t he?
The movie briefly takes us back to the past to answer this question. Back in the BTAS days, Batman and Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) confront Joker to rescue a kidnapped Robin (Tim Drake). However, much to their horror, Joker and Harley have psychologically transformed Batman’s sidekick into a perpetually-laughing Joker Jr. They’ve even brainwashed him to fight against his former mentor.
As the confrontation proceeds, it becomes apparent that this is Batman and Joker’s final face-off. The Joker himself laments that neither of them are getting any younger. What’s more, Tim, through torture, revealed to the Clown Prince of Crime that Batman is actually Bruce Wayne. During the struggle, the Joker injures Batman and then, as one last slap in the face to his rival, orders his brainwashed sidekick to shoot him. Unfortunately for Joker, Robin has regained some of his senses at this stage, and, instead, he shoots Joker, ending his life. This is arguably one of the darkest scenes in DCAU history. If not that, then certainly among its most unforgettable.
Passing the Torch
While the film’s flashback is probably its most emotionally impactive moment, the rest of the film is still gold. You see, Batman Beyond has always concerned itself as a show about ‘passing the torch.’ McGinnis is a teenager in high school, a former rebellious youth who isn’t quite as brainy as his aging mentor. In many of the show’s episodes, Bruce is in Terry’s ear, offering suggestions on how to be a better Batman. However, Return of the Joker feels like Terry’s final hurdle he must overcome in order to truly claim the mantle as his own.
In that sense, the Joker is like the final boss in a videogame before you level up to max level. In fact, at first, Bruce doubts that his young protégé has what it takes to tackle the Clown Prince of Crime. He demands that Terry give up the Batman mantle despite Terry’s insistence that he still wants to continue as Batman in order to make up for his juvenile past.
Alas, by the film’s ending, Terry does prove that he is Batman now. More importantly, he proves that he isn’t merely a tit-for-tat imitator of the original Dark Knight. Rather, he is open to employing ‘dirtier’ and pettier tactics than Bruce was willing to indulge in during his career. Well, that, and the fact he fights crime in a technologically-advanced super-suit. But since Terry is growing up in a Blade Runner-esque cyberpunk world, that kind of tech is pretty much essential for the crime-fighting gig.
What Return of the Joker leaves us with is a powerfully emotive Batman film? It would be a marvelous send-off if this were Mark Hamill’s last gig as the Joker. His acting, as well as that of his co-stars, is powerful and exemplary. Kevin Conroy nails it as an old, cynical Bruce Wayne. Meanwhile, Will Friedle’s Terry McGinnis gives his Batman the kind of youthful layers needed to make him unique and distinct from the previous hero.
Even today, 22 years after its initial release, the movie’s animation is gorgeous, and the fight scenes are intensely kinetic, exciting, and well-crafted. Often, in films, both animated and live-action, fight scenes can feel like meaningless filler. ROTJ never falls to this groanworthy low and keeps you hooked to the screen. Whether Terry is dusting off his jet-powered boots and taking on thugs in a hover-car or if young Bruce Wayne is angrily unloading his fists on the Joker, thoughtfulness and passion burst from these powerful sequences.
And when the fight scenes aren’t ruling the roost, the atmosphere is. Despite Gotham’s futuristic coat-of-paint, it still feels remarkably Gotham, its gothic, brooding character oozing from the background art and beyond. If you’ve ever wanted to see a Batman-Blade Runner crossover, this is the closest you’ll get.
Overall, Batman Beyond/Batman of the Future: Return of the Joker is a movie well worth watching – and then some. It’s the perfect combination of old and new, an emotive comic book story showing the narrative genius achievable with animation. And most of all, it shows the DCAU creatives at the peak of their game. Twenty-two years old or not, this animated masterpiece is still Batman of the Future and Beyond.
Have you watched Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker? How would you rank it among your favorite DC animated movies?