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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker

Here we go again on Fishing in the Discount Bin, blogging about one of the many movies I own.  Well, I guess I couldn't help myself, and decided to do on more Batman movie.  Here's Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker.  This is in my notes at July 3, 2016.

On my Batman movie blitz, I said I wasn't going to do any of the straight-to-DVD animated ones, but when I saw that TeleToon has brought back Batman Beyond in reruns, I decided to break out my old copy of Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker

For those who don't remember, Batman Beyond is a cartoon that premiered in the spring of 1999, and stunned Batman fans by actually being good.  Co-creator Paul Dini has made it clear from the beginning:  the cartoon was created to sell toys.  Warner Brothers wanted a new Batman cartoon so they could sell some new Batman merchandise.  And preferably, it should star a kid, because kids love kids.  It was just a couple years ago that I heard co-creator Bruce Timm tell his side of the story.  According to Timm, he, Dini, and the rest of the Batman: The Animated Series brain trust (Alan Burnett and Glen Murakami) were called into the offices of the higher-ups at Warner Brothers on Friday afternoon, and told of this desire for a new Batman cartoon.  Needless to say, they all thought it was pretty stupid, and began mocking the idea as soon as the meeting was done.  But one of them finally said, "But if we had to make this show, maybe we could do it like this."  They wound up spending the weekend bouncing ideas off each other, and by Monday, they had their pitch for Batman Beyond

From those origins, Batman Beyond could have easily been one of the most cynical Batman cash grabs ever, but it became its own worthy chapter in the Batman mythology. 

Batman Beyond takes place 50 years in the future.  Bruce Wayne -- now in his 80s -- has long since retired from being Batman, and has become a recluse in Wayne Manor.  This left his company open to a hostile takeover by evil industrialist Derek Powers.  One fateful night, a teen by the name of Terry McGuiness shows up on the doorstep of Wayne Manor, seeking refuge from a gang.  While snooping, McGuiness discovers Wayne's old secret double life.  When McGuiness's father is murdered by Powers as part of a cover-up within Wayne Enterprises, McGuiness turns to Wayne for help.  Wayne refuses, so McGuiness swipes the Bat-suit to take matters into his own hands.  Inspired by McGuiness's desire for justice, Wayne gets out of his funk, and starts training McGuiness to take the mantel of Batman. 

The show was a ratings hit and a critical darling, so Warner Brothers decided to pump out a straight-to-DVD animated movie.  When the series premiered the two biggest question fans had were a)  What happened to Robin and b)  What happened to the Joker?  Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker decided to answer those questions. 

But, there was some trouble.  When the movie was finished and early copies sent out to film critics, the critics said they were deeply disturbed by the film, and found it excessively violent.  Since this came out in 2000 -- an election year in the States -- and violence in the media had become an election issue, Warner Brothers edited the film to tone down the violence.  The edited version came out, and since advance copies of the unedited version had been sent out to critics, bootlegs of the unedited version soon became popular at convention merchandise tables.  In 2001, with the election done and any potential controversy having quieted down, the original unedited version was finally released.  To try an neutralize any controversy, Warner Brothers submitted it for a rating, and the creators were quite stunned when it was slapped with a PG-13. 

My DVD player was new and exciting technology back then, and I'm pretty sure that Return of the Joker was the first DVD I bought online.  I did have a bootleg of the uncut version, which was a gift from a friend.  I finally bought the uncut DVD about 5 years ago or so, when I saw it in a discount bin for $5.  I am watching the uncut version.

Our young Batman is currently puzzled by his latest case:  the Jokerz (a street gang that modeled themselves after the Joker) are stealing high-end industrial electronics...something out of their usual MO.  But, this is a happy time, as Bruce Wayne has finally regained control of Wayne Enterprises.  While at the festivities, the party is crashed by the Jokerz and their new leader...the Joker himself, still youthful and spry.  The question becomes how the Joker is still alive, as Bruce Wayne is 100% certain the Joker is dead.  In order to get to the bottom of this, McGuiness is going to have start looking into the history of the Batman family, and find out exactly what went down on the night of Batman and the Joker's final battle. 

Of course, we finally see what happened in a flashback, and there's no doubt in my mind that's what led to the PG-13 rating.  We see that the Joker captured the Tim Drake Robin, and after weeks of torture and brainwashing, re-made Robin into "Joker Jr."  Joker's final gag was to get this brainwashed Robin to kill Batman. But, Robin comes to his senses just long enough to kill the Joker instead.  And I will admit, seeing essentially a child get tortured on screen is pretty intense.  I remember being on the edge of my seat the first time I watched it. 

So, the Joker winds up being Tim Drake himself.  During those weeks of torture, the Joker was able to implant a copy of his consciousness on a microchip, and implant it in Drake's brain.  This makes the Joker the Mr. Hyde to Tim Drake's Dr. Jekyl.  I will admit, it was a pretty clever way to do it that didn't involve time travel or cryostasis. 

The creators tried to give us a red herring with a character named Jordan Pryce, a guy with a character design very similar to the Joker's and also voiced by Mark Hamill.  He's one of Wayne's rivals on the board of Wayne Enterprises.  As they point out on the running commentary, they weren't able to further develop him as a red herring because of runtime, but it works just enough. 

And speaking of Mark Hamill, again, not enough good things can be said about his portrayal of the Joker.  On the DVD bonus features, the say that, for this version of the Joker, they had Hamill dial back the mania a bit, to make the Joker more sinister.  They say Hamill had some trouble with it at first, but he soon owns it and makes it work.  This is one creepy Joker. 

I still enjoy Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker.  Like the rest of Batman Beyond, its a worthy chapter in the Batman mythology, and even provides some good speculation as to the final fate of various Batman players.  It's a good jumping-on point for the cartoon, too, so feel free to check it out.

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