batman beyond return of the joker
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Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker is still the most essential Joker story

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Sep 22, 2020, 5:39 PM EDT (Updated)

Who is Batman without the Joker? Just about every iteration of the Caped Crusader also has a version of his most formidable foe, and for good reason. However, in the '90s DC animated series Batman Beyond — which followed the exploits of a teenaged Batman named Terry McGinnis in the future, under the tutelage of an older, haunted Bruce Wayne — the Joker is long dead. Batman Beyond attempted to answer that age-old question by instead establishing Terry as his own Batman, with new iterations of other original Batman villains, as well as brand new ones. But of course, they couldn’t resist bringing Joker into the lore one more time, and wound up delivering one of the most terrifying and genuinely scary iterations of this mad character.

Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, the animated film that premiered 20 years ago in 2000 and ties into the Batman Beyond series, brings the Clown Prince of Crime to the future, and in doing so cements his legacy as the Dark Knight’s ultimate foe.

Return of the Joker forces Bruce and Barbara Gordon to face their past as the Joker seemingly returns to Gotham, this time with one his most sinister plans yet. Looking as young as he did in Bruce’s youth and with a voice (courtesy of a returning Mark Hamill) that’s exactly the same, his return completely stumps both Mr. Wayne and Commissioner Gordon. What happens when the ghosts of our past refuse to stay hidden any longer? What repercussions do secrets have to those closest to us? As Terry presses Bruce for answers as to what really happened with the original Joker, Bruce pushes him away, leading to a chilling scene where the Joker ambushes and tortures Bruce, with Joker leaving with the upper hand.

With Bruce barely hanging on after the attack, Terry turns to Commissioner Gordon for answers, and with nowhere else to turn, she reveals what truly happened all those years ago. In a haunting and incredible 15-minute flashback sequence, Terry and the viewer are taken back to the glory days of The New Batman Adventures, back when the original Batman, Batgirl, and Robin were still fighting crime. It’s a heartbreaking sequence that begins with whimsy and nostalgia — the legendary Bat-team, fighting against the clock to save a kidnapped Robin — but it ends with a devastating twist in which you see our beloved team win the battle but lose the war. The Joker reveals his most sinister move yet: He's brainwashed Tim Drake's Robin, now called "Young Joker," and his first mission? Kill Batman.

But, in the final hour, Tim Drake breaks through the mind control, shooting Joker instead of Batman. It’s a gut-punch of a reveal, allowing you to celebrate the Joker’s demise for only a second before settling into the sobering reality that Tim has been tortured and all but lost to the Joker and Harley. In real time, we see Bruce and Barbara reckon with the consequences of being a hero when you have something or someone to lose.

Finally, with the flashbacks out of the way and armed with the context and understanding to take on this true evil, it’s all up to Terry to save the day in the film’s incredibly satisfying climax. Without the usual help of Bruce Wayne, this serves as the ultimate test for Terry as he faces off with a true demon of the past. By the end of the film, he finally proves himself as a true, bona fide Batman separate from Bruce Wayne, an important part of the legacy in his own right.

The Joker is a master of chaos, and without chaos to fight against, is Batman the hero he believes himself to be or, as Joker calls him, “a little boy in a playsuit crying for mommy and daddy”? With or without Joker, Batman’s purpose remains the same: justice and restoring balance, no matter the cost. Terry doesn’t know Joker, giving him some perspective that Bruce, Tim, and even Barbara don't have. In the final hour, Terry flips the question the movie has been wrestling with the entire time and asks, “Who is the Joker without Batman?” Without the straight man to play against, Joker’s entire shtick falls flat, hence why he found a way to the future just to torture him in the first place. That’s what gives Batman the edge every time: It’s Joker who needs him, not the other way around.

For years this title wasn’t easy to stream, but thanks to HBO Max, you can now watch it in amazing quality. The film is a family story of loss, the guilt we carry with us in life, and, ultimately, forgiveness — something we can all use right now in a year where we’re clinging to connection more than ever. Not to mention it’s genuinely scary, just in time for the spooky season! So celebrate its anniversary and Halloween by revisiting Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. It’ll leave you thinking (and just a little bit scared) long after the credits roll.

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