It's a shame that Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker did not have the opportunity to grace the silver screen. Though the film was originally conceived as a direct-to-video effort, Bruce Timm reported in San Diego during the summer of '99 that Warner was flirting with the idea of a theatrical release. 'Twas not to be, though, and as the Halloween 2000 release date of the video and DVD drew closer, the entertainment industry was under the watchful eye of the government, fending off accusations that it was delivering adult content to children. A nearly two month delay for the dark, violent Return of the Joker was announced shortly thereafter, and fans were aghast at the timing. Rumors began to circulate that Warner was unhappy with the content of the movie in this hostile political climate and sought to water it down considerably. Writer Paul Dini confirmed in an interview with Ain't It Cool News that edits were in the wings, and though he was positive about the changes spearheaded by partner Bruce Timm, it did apparently lead to a rift in the seemingly insurmountable team.
To get an idea of how drastically certain portions were changed, World's Finest has a assembled a detailed list of edits, though bear in mind that there are substantial spoilers. Sales of the edited disc were lackluster, due in large part to a lack of any real promotional effort by Warner Bros. Though the quality of the butchered product was still exceedingly high, it seemed as if the untainted version would never see the light of day. Slowly, positive news began to trickle from Tinseltown. Paul Dini, at the Wizard World Convention last summer, stated that he was certain that an unedited release would be forthcoming. This was confirmed by Warner two months later in a chat on the Home Theater Forum. Now, just over three years after Paul Dini first put pen to paper for his initial draft of the Return of the Joker screenplay, Warner has finally given the movie the release it deserved from the very beginning.
Batman Beyond, for those unfamiliar, takes place some fifty years after the previous animated series. Bruce Wayne had long since shelved the cape and cowl, and Gotham City went two full decades without a protector. Derek Powers, who picked up the reins at Waynecorp, was using Wayne's company to traffic weapons, including some of the thoroughly nasty biological variety. The father of troubled teen Terry McGinnis stumbled upon this secret and paid for this knowledge with his life. Terry, after a chance encounter, deduced Wayne's secret identity and lifted a Batman suit, setting out to punish those responsible for his father's murder. Despite some early friction between Bruce and Terry, the mantle was passed, and Terry took over as Gotham's champion.
The Clown Prince of Crime has been painted in the animated series as more of an entertaining nuisance than a psychotic murderer, a far cry from how the character has appeared in comics for the past couple of decades. Return of the Joker shows the title character for what he truly is: a genuinely deranged, insane soul. Bruce has made a conscious effort to avoid telling Terry about his greatest foe, though such facts cannot remain buried forever. A gang of thugs inspired by the Joker has been ripping off bleeding-edge tech, which isn't exactly their style. While Terry tries to determine who it is they're fencing for, Bruce regains control of his corporation after a prolonged battle, much to the chagrin of the worm who was next in line. At a celebration to commemorate his return, the gang strikes again. This time, they are led by an individual who looks and sounds exactly like the Joker, unmarred by the ravages of time. Terry is assured that the genuine article is dead, though Bruce and Commissioner Gordon are both reluctant to provide a detailed explanation. Whatever may have happened decades ago was obviously traumatizing for the elder Wayne, who is concerned enough to request that Terry step down as Batman. Though the Joker is six feet under the festering remains of Arkham Asylum, whoever's stepping into the role is well-aware of the secret identity of both Batmans, seizing the opportunity to rid himself of the Caped Crusaders once and for all. Long-buried secrets are unearthed, and not everyone will walk away from the final battle unscathed.
When I first reviewed the edited version of Return of the Joker, I said that I felt it surpassed Mask of the Phantasm as the strongest Batman release to date. That was nearly a year and a half ago, and in that time, I've seen the movie in some form a good five or six times. My enthusiasm has since dwindled to a more reasonable level, but I'm still hopelessly in love with Return of the Joker. Mask of the Phantasm was a well-crafted tale that provided considerable insight into Bruce Wayne and the processes of his mind, and Return of the Joker follows much along those same lines. It bridges the gap between the various Batman animated series and Batman Beyond, answering some lingering questions about what happened to Wayne in the meantime. For those whose experiences with American animation are limited to Saturday morning cartoons and the annual Disney summer release, Return of the Joker will come as a very pleasant surprise.
Try as I might, I cannot heap enough praise upon Return of the Joker. The animation is theatrical quality, sharper and more fluid than any of the previous animated tales or the best of the television series. The roster of voice actors put in excellent performances, particularly Mark Hamill as the Joker and the always-reliable Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne and the original Batman. Return of the Joker also doesn't pull any punches...literally. Though it's not really any more violent than what can be found on the printed page, this is undoubtedly the most extreme representation of the Caped Crusader to date, live-action or animated. It's kept in character, though. Bruce Wayne has said time and again in the animated series that Batman does not kill, but in the film's central flashback, he lobs a knife at the Joker with fatal force. It may have missed, but it's difficult to fully describe the sensation of seeing Batman pushed that far. The intensity of the flashback to the torture inflicted by the Joker rivals most any live-action film I can recall offhand. Though many naysayers refuse to accept Terry McGinnis as Batman, I would imagine quite a number of them would be silenced after a single viewing of the unedited version of Return of the Joker.
I have a few minor quibbles with the story, particularly the explanation for the Joker's return. This is a movie that, after all, features a half-man/half-hyena, but disbelief can only be suspended so far. I'll refrain from speaking any further on that to avoid spoilers. There's an extraordinary amount of destruction in this movie, yet its effects aren't really shown outside of a series of very wide shots. The body count would have to be staggering, and the bill would at a minimum run in the hundreds of millions of dollars. At one point, a laser beam is literally slicing Gotham City in half, but Terry is more concerned about staring down the Joker than minimizing the death toll. It is considered noble for Terry to let the Joker escape at the Waynecorp function in order to save two falling civilians, yet he doesn't seem concerned in the slightest that hundreds, if not thousands, of innocents are being obliterated in the film's climax.
This DVD-only release of the unedited Return of the Joker includes the supplemental material from the previous release, as well as its original commentary track and intended aspect ratio. Devoted fans of the Batman Beyond series ought to find a purchase to be a no-brainer, and even those who didn't much care for the concept of the series may very well feel differently about Return of the Joker.
Video: Disregard the text on the packaging. Return of the Joker, as even a cursory glance at the animatics on this disc would indicate, was storyboarded at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Though the full 4x3 frame was filled out at the behest of Warner execs, this film was intended to be seen at the aspect ratio in which it was storyboarded. The edited release was full-frame, though Warner has thankfully decided to present the uncut version at its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Confusingly, the end credits are 1.33:1, though the opening credits are properly letterboxed.
The disappointing news is that this disc is not enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Why such a decision was made is a genuine curiosity. Return of the Joker was almost certainly completed in the digital realm, and I cannot fathom that it would require a significant amount of time and money to produce an anamorphic widescreen image from whatever high-resolution video format may have been available. Owners of widescreen televisions and progressive scan DVD players will be miffed by the improper flagging reported by Robert George of Obi's Reviews fame. Robert suggests the 'auto 3' setting for those with a Panasonic RP91. I use a 16x9-capable set for my reviews, though I don't have the progressive scan capability necessary to verify. Hopefully that information will prove useful to some readers out there in cyberspace, though.
Merely being letterboxed should not be a deterrent to those interested in Return of the Joker, especially considering how unlikely a third DVD release would be. The presentation is truly stunning by any standard. Given its origins, I would assume that this transfer bypassed any intermediate film stage and stems directly from a digital source. The image is so extraordinarily sharp that I could probably shave by simply rubbing my chin across the screen. Corny comparisons aside, the definition of the video is excellent, appearing significantly crisper and clearer than any other animated Batman release. Detail is considerably above average as well, eking out as much as is possible with the limited resolution of a letterboxed, non-anamorphic presentation. Black levels and shadow detail are rock-solid, and I cannot gush enough about the bold, vibrant colors that nearly leap off the television.
Aside from eschewing 16x9 enhancement, I'm wholly unable to find anything negative to say about this presentation of Return of the Joker.
Audio: Return of the Joker sounds almost as good as it looks. All of the channels in its Dolby Digital 5.1 mix remain active throughout, effectively sucking me into the action and keeping the blood pumping for 77 minutes straight. There are some noticeable uses of split surrounds and panning, and these sorts of directional effects make the brilliantly choreographed action sequences all the more exciting. Practically everything sounds excellent -- the updated Batman Beyond theme, various musical contributions from Kristopher Carter, and, of course, the massive destruction the Joker wreaks upon Gotham City. These laser bursts from the heavens are the highlight of the mix, particularly the thundering bass accompanying each and every shot. The subwoofer doesn't get much of a workout until the second half of Return of the Joker, though the various effects in the earlier moments don't sound weak or lacking in any way, despite not being so heavily supported by low-frequency effects.
The numerous language tracks provided on Subzero are absent, though there are subtitles in English and French.
Supplements: The extras haven't changed much from the edited disc release in December 2000. The only notable difference, and it is quite substantial, is an alternate commentary track. This discussion with Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Curt Geda, and Glen Murakami was recorded shortly after the film was completed. Timm doesn't dominate the chat in quite the same way he did on the previous release, giving the other three participants a chance to get a few words in edgewise. This commentary covers more ground, cheerfully mentioning that perhaps the content was a little too extreme (preceding any talk of edits, naturally) as well as some of what had already been shot down by the suits at Warner Bros. It's also a bit more on the technical side, delving in detail into the structure of the audio, the different animation houses that worked on the film, each and every storyboard artist (and there are quite a few), and more about the voice actors. Of the two commentaries, I prefer this one, which doesn't feel quite as restrained. There are enough differences between them, though, that completists will likely want to own both. I, at least, don't have any plans to dump the previous release on eBay quite yet.
The other supplements will be familiar to owners of the previous release. First up are three minutes of widescreen storyboards that play against a techno beat and the sporadic dialogue from those scenes. A featurette entitled 'Beyond "Batman Beyond"' is not the documentary that its title on the menu screen would indicate. Its primary purpose would seem to be brining viewers unfamiliar with the Beyond universe up to speed, also touching on voice acting and music. The aptly-named "Video Character Bios" section takes a look at Bruce Wayne, Terry McGinnis, The Joker, The Dee-Dee Twins, and Woof.
Apologies about continually harping about the labeling of the supplemental material, but the worst title by a fair margin is "Confidential Bat Footage - For Your Eyes Only". Truly shameful. These are five minutes of animatics for scenes that weren't fully animated due to pacing concerns. Most of them don't seem necessary, though I would've enjoyed Bruce's return to Arkham integrated into the final cut. Correct answers in the "Bat Trivia" game are rewarded with a goofy guitar effect, and there are seven rather easy questions overall. Static-X frontman Wayne Static gets gussied up Batman Beyond-style for a music video of "Crash", a collaboration between the electronic-tinged rock band and the Mephisto Odyssey.
Finally, there are promos for Return of the Joker, Subzero, The Batman/Superman Movie, various Scooby-Doo DVD releases, and the live action Scooby Doo flick that is poised to cause untold destruction across America this summer.
Conclusion: In the fall of 2000, when the edited version of Return of the Joker limped onto DVD, I was confident that Timm, Dini, and Geda's original vision would only be seen on multi-generation bootleg videos and low-quality MPEG files. Despite the butchering, I still enjoyed the cut DVD enough to highly recommend it. This unadulterated release was unexpected but welcomed, and it is, of course, even more highly recommended. I would suggest that the uninitiated start with Batman Beyond: The Movie for some backstory before dipping their toes into Return of the Joker, but there are few DVDs of any style or genre that I'd recommend with such enthusiasm as this.