Action-packed and, at times, downright shocking, the direct-to-video feature Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker takes big risks for an animated feature, and one pitched at a loyal audience of Batman fans. Though one (necessary) story element requires a substantial suspension of disbelief, writer Paul Dini comes up aces on this thrilling wager. Parents of young children should heed the PG-13 rating, which reflects the mortal intensity of this most chilling of animated Batman tales.
The Batman Beyond TV series—which ran from 1991-2001—postulated a latter-day series of Batman adventures taking place over forty years after the events of Batman: The Animated Series, making Batman Beyond a sort of kid-friendly take on Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. An elderly Bruce Wayne (as before, Kevin Conroy) mentors the new Batman, juvenile-delinquent-turned-superhero Terry McGinnis (Will Friedle). Wayne only occasionally leaves his seat at the Bat-computer, but follows the action thanks to a satellite feed from McGinnis's high-tech Batsuit, a Wayne design. The Batmen share the company of Ace, a Great Dane known to comic fans as Bat-Hound.
Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker opens with a vertiginous action sequence pitting Batman against the Jokerz gang (voiced by Henry Rollins, Don Harvey, Frank Welker, Melissa Joan Hart, and Michael "Lex Luthor" Rosenbaum, doing his best Christopher Walken). Soon, it's apparent that the Jokerz are following the orders of a crime lord claiming to be the original Batman's number-one nemesis, the Joker. Wayne insists that he witnessed the Joker's death, and the lean, mean Joker wreaking havoc on McGinnis's Gotham hardly seems old enough to be the true Joker. The puzzling mystery requires Wayne to dredge up the Joker's death and the Batman's most painful failure.
The central flashback sequence—involving the original Batman, Batgirl (Tara Strong), the Joker (Mark Hamill), and the Tim Drake incarnation of Robin (Mathew Valencia)—gives the film an emotional hardcore while illuminating a crucial gap in the Batman mythology: the turning point between Batman's career and his painful retirement. In this way, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker repeats and refines the structure and impact of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. The sequence is also the most contested section of a film that underwent significant edits. The preferable PG-13 "uncut version" of the film runs three minutes longer than the initial PG release, which was shorn of multiple instances of violence and strong language.
Return of the Joker provides a memorable showcase for Hamill's celebrated take on the Joker, and allows both McGinnis and Wayne to see action and face emotional challenges. Dini positions Friedle's refreshingly rakish Batman as an accessible contrast to Conroy's humorless Dark Knight without compromising the serious underpinnings of the young Batman's vocation. Fans are further rewarded by considered references to the greater Batman mythology: original Robin Dick Grayson (a.k.a. Nightwing) gets a mention, and Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Angie Harmon of Law and Order, stepping in for Stockard Channing), Batman-animated darling Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin), and the grown Drake (former child star Dean Stockwell, cleverly cast) all appear in the film's present to bookend their flashback roles.
The animation, which straddles the dark Batman: The Animated Series style and a more modern and colorful anime look, mostly delivers in rich detail and propulsive action-suspense (scored by Kristopher Carter with a similar tension of traditional scoring and electric-guitar rock). Though Joker turns out to be somewhat of a red herring (as logic dictates), and one that strains even science-fiction credibility, the conceit packs an emotional punch all the same, and fuels this energetic and unsettling Batman adventure.