Like millions of other people around the world right now, I’ve been stuck in the house for the past few weeks with way too much time on my hands. To keep my mind from turning into complete sludge, I’ve watched everything from a tv show about a racist zookeeper in Oklahoma who ran for president and another show about people getting blindly engaged after talking to each other through a wall for a week.
I clearly needed to up my viewing standards a bit.
Fortunately, iTunes was running a deal where the digital versions of classic films that came out every five years were only five dollars. After some light browsing, my eyes immediately locked onto a cinematic masterpiece that was a huge part of my upbringing 20 years ago when I was just a baby black nerd.
If you somehow skipped the headline, I’m talking about none other than Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker. [20 years really fly by, huh?]
Get yourself something nice
For five dollars—a fin, a fiver, half a sawbuck!—I was going to revisit an incredible film that I hadn’t watched in at least a decade.
As I sat down to watch the movie I was amazed at how much I’d forgotten. And not simply because it’s been a long time since my last viewing, but because the film has so much depth to it. The backstory, plot twists and top-tier fight scenes made me feel like I was watching it for the first time all over again.
By the end, I could only draw one logical conclusion, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker is the best animated Batman film of all-time.
Aht aht! Step away from the keyboard…
I know what you’re probably thinking.
“What about Mask of the Phantasm? Did you just step out of a bomb shelter and miss Under the Red Hood?”
I don’t hold it against you if you thought either of these options was the best Batman animated film. They’re both great movies that should be celebrated in their own right.
But there’s only room for one spot on the top. Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker has components that neither of these other two do which takes it to new heights.
Return of the Joker vs. Mask of the Phantasm
First of all, the stakes in Return of the Joker are higher than Mask of the Phantasm and have significantly more weight. While I enjoy a good reunion and star-crossed lovers narrative as much as anyone, most of the events that happen in the latter film don’t have any significant, lasting impact on the Batman mythos. While the information adds more context and clarity, it doesn’t answer any lingering questions.
Mask of the Phantasm is very high-quality filler.
Return of the Joker, on the other hand, is an extension of an ongoing story and is actually set directly in the continuity of Batman Beyond. The show even kept running for another year after the movie came out.
As a kid who grew up watching Batman: The Animated Series I was constantly wondering what happened to the Joker in the show’s sequel. No, not the face-painting teenagers Terry fought every week. I meant the actual Clown Prince of Crime.
Which brings me to my next point.
If your main reason for placing Mask of the Phantasm on a pedestal is that it’s tangentially connected to one of the best animated series of all time, look no further. Return of the Joker gives you a perfect and succinct story that feels like it was ripped straight out of 1994 in a masterfully done 10-minute flashback for the ages.
This flashback takes us almost 40 years into the past where Dick Grayson is off doing cool Nightwing things and Gotham is protected by the trio of Batman, Batgirl and Robin (Tim Drake). One night, Tim’s off on patrol alone and gets kidnapped by the Joker. For three weeks Bruce and Barbara try to chase down leads to no avail. Eventually, they track down the Joker and Harley Quinn, who have done the unthinkable. [Note: This is also a reminder of how ruthless Harley Quinn used to be before her impressive anti-hero rebrand of recent years.]
They kidnapped Tim, tortured and drugged him for weeks, and brainwashed him so that he unwillingly revealed Batman’s secret identity and adopted the new persona of “Joker Junior” who dressed up just like Papa and wore a permanent smile.
BRUH. Those 10 minutes packed the same punch as some of the best 20-minute episodes of Batman: The Animated Series.
I’ll get to how this scene ended later, though…
To be fair…
Next up, I’m admittedly going to nitpick a little bit.
One of my biggest personal pet peeves about older DC animated stuff is that there isn’t any ambient sound for any of the scenes. If there isn’t any background music playing, everyone’s just sitting in awkward silence like they’re in some kind of vacuum-sealed room. Once you notice you can’t un-notice it ever again.
To my recollection, Return of the Joker was the start of this problem going away. And Mask of the Phantasm, which came out seven years prior with very different methods of animation, was far before that time and suffers as a result.
Lastly, only one of these movies has Terry mf’in McGinnis. And that’s all I feel I need to say about that…
Return of the Joker vs. Under the Red Hood
Full disclosure, Batman: Under the Red Hood is what I would call the best animated Batman film if not for Return of the Joker. It’s the one Batman film I actually forced my dad—who hates most animated films—to sit down and watch with me.
But even it doesn’t stack up quite as well as Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker.
As a start, let me point out of key thing these films have in common but handle differently—resurrection. Under the Red Hood [*SPOILER WARNING but, honestly, how have you gotten this far and not seen this movie?] brings Jason Todd back from the dead with the use of the Lazarus Pit. He then goes on a revenge mission against the Joker for killing him in the first place. [*SPOILER WARNING*] Meanwhile, Return of the Joker uses a microchip inserted into Tim Drake during his torture session to allow the Joker to take over his body years later and essentially gain a second lease on life.
Pick your poison
Personally, I find the second option to be much more impressive. It not only serves as a reminder that the Joker is just as much of an evil genius as Bruce Wayne is a non-evil one, it fits well into the world it exists in. Batman Beyond has flying cars, teenagers getting elective surgery to look like hyenas and advanced technology that would make the Jetsons’ jaws drop. A microchip that stores and transfers one person’s consciousness into another isn’t all that far-fetched in hindsight.
Also, the resurrection in Return of the Joker came with much more shock value. While Under the Red Hood is a great adaptation of a pre-existing story, it’s still just that. If you’re well-versed enough in the ways of Batman you may have already known exactly who the Red Hood was and how he came to be given how big of a deal it was in comics. Return of the Joker was an entirely original story (that was later adapted into a comic book) that no one could’ve predicted. [Note: And if you’re telling me you saw it coming, exactly how it panned out, I’m going to call you a liar and ask you to buy me a lottery ticket.]
:Let’s go there
One of the most captivating parts of Under the Red Hood is how its characters don’t shy away from crossing the line into darker material—which is saying a lot for a Batman property. Battling the concept of whether Batman’s refusal to kill the Joker makes him partially responsible for his later actions is a core part of the story. While that’s dark, Return of the Joker makes it look like child’s play.
The darker themes of Return of the Joker—the extent and lasting effects of Tim Drake’s torture, the alluded-to fate of Harley Quinn and, lastly, the Joker’s murder—take the cake here. The film had scenes that were so dark, it was heavily edited upon its original release to make it less controversial and violent. In the edited version, Joker doesn’t murder someone 15 minutes into the movie, key phrases were changed and the Joker’s death was the result of an accident.
And the edited version still gave me chills!
In the end, it’s the people, man
Lastly, the one thing that Return of the Joker has that Under the Red Hood doesn’t is the original voice cast that made Batman: The Animated Series so iconic. I’m talking Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong and then you add on WilL Friedle as Terry McGinnis to top it all off. [Note: I concede that Jensen Ackles is amazing and I would love for him to do even more Batman-related work in the future.]
You may think I’m totally off base here—you’d be wrong—but if you think that’s the case you’re more than welcome to send Apple a quick $5, watch the movie for yourself hit us up in the comments to try and convince me how Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker isn’t the best animated Batman movie of all time.