RETURN OF THE JOKER - A Batman Beyond All Expectations (Mania.com)

By:Steve Fritz
Date: Wednesday, December 06, 2000

When it comes to creating direct-to-home animated videos, you'd think producers would have a lot more freedom than when they contend with Saturday morning fare. Bruce Timm, who's been with the Batman animated shows since they started back on Fox in the early 1990s, is finding out otherwise.

'We thought so at first, but let me explain,' says Timm, who's latest OAV project, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker is released domestically on Dec. 12. 'We assumed that with direct-to-video we now had this tremendous license to deal with subject matter we couldn't normally deal with. The idea was theoretically that home videos aren't bought by our younger audience, so we could put in a little more adult values. When we do a direct-to-home video, we just don't want to make it a longer episode of the show. We want to make it special. We want to give you your money's worth.

'That's why we brought the Joker back. We tried to give it more depth of character, bigger and better action sequenceswe actually tried to treat it like a movie. Then the video people came back to us and told us that they wanted us to make the tape exactly for the same audience as the Kids WB!, which caught us kind of off guard.'

As fans of the hit series know, one of the biggest mysteries is why, 50 years in the future, there's no sign of either of the past Robins, Dick Grayson or Tim Drake. We now know that former Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, is Commissioner of the Gotham City Police Department. She also has a very bitter relationship with Bruce Wayne, the original Batman. She keeps on advising the new Batman, Terry McGuiness, to not don the Batsuit, but her entreaties are falling on deaf ears.

With Return of the Joker, we get the real reasons why. Let's have Timm explain the basic plot elements of this latest addition to the Batman legacy. 'We mention Dick Grayson in passing and probably will save him for a sequel,' says Timm. 'You definitely find out what happened to Tim. It's a big part of the movie.

'What basically happens is the Joker has come back. He looks a little different, but he still has that Mark Hamill voice. He's also back to his old nasty tricks. The rest is the big mystery as to how he did come back, particularly as he looks no older than he did fifty years ago, which is the last time he met up with Batman.

'As Terry is quick to point out to Bruce, how is the Joker able to do that? As it turns out very quickly, it's not possible. The Joker had died. Batman had seen it himself. How the Joker had died has a lot to do with how he's come back, and that's all you need to know.'

Well, let's add one more well-known bit of gossip on the Internet that does happen to be true.

Warning! Spoilers Follow!

What kicks off the Joker's initial demise is his kidnapping and brainwashing of Tim Drake. As a result, the Joker's sidekicks don't just include everyone's fave henchwoman, Harley Quinn, but the even more psychotic J.J. (Joker Jr., the former Robin). Outraged, Batman and Batgirl go into 'take no prisoner' mode with a final major showdown in the ruins of Arkham Asylum.

And yes, the Joker does buy it. We see the body. For all we know, Harley also takes one last fall in her final confrontation with Batgirl, but no body there. That leaves Tim/Robin/J.J., and it takes years to clean him up.

Meanwhile, this new Joker not only is organizing the Joker gangs into lethal fighting units, he's got an ultimate agenda for the new 'Bat-Fake,' as he calls Terry, and the still alive Mr. Wayne. Before the first third of the film is over, things get so heated between McGuiness and the surviving original Gotham Knights that Terry throws his suit down in disgust and swears he'll never return.

We know better, of course. The point is Timm didn't know what he got himself into until it was nearly time to release Return of the Joker on its original launch date, last Halloween. Just a few short weeks before the release date, the suits from above came down to his office, yanked the production of the video, and said the thing needed some serious editing.

As it turned out, when they explained their reasons even Timm had to concur with their logic. As much as we hordes of adults love the series, there's a much, much larger younger audience of pre-teens who watch religiously. 'For six year olds and older, they probably could understand it,' admits Timm. 'But for fives and younger, it was probably a bit too much. We had to go back in, edit it and redo some of the animation.'

Informed sources state that the original Joker's death scene was way over-the-top for the suits. From the looks of things, the brainwashing scenes were also heavily worked over. I wouldn't be surprised if Timm and company also had to cool things down considerably in other areas.

Does this weaken the overall effect of the video? Only if you never want a kid of six and under to ever see the final product. To do it would be the equivalent of seeing Mickey Mouse do porn. We adults might get our jollies off of it, but you better believe Disney will come down on the perpetrators like a ton of bricks. If you give the WB Animation suits their due, which most Batman fans appear willing to do, then what's left is still one heck of a great video, one that ranks right up there with the previous efforts Mask of the Phantasm and Sub-Zero.

'The story is still very intense and I think very satisfying,' defends Timm. 'The thing is, for instance, the sound effects were really, really hot. When someone got punched in the face, you could hear bones cracking. We had to go back in and tone things like that down a bit.

The projects boasts other changes as well, specifically in regards to the animation and the Joker's updated look. 'One of the things we did was go back to the original Batman: Animated style of animation. We felt it would help capture that era. We updated it slightly. [Another thing] we did is come up with a whole new Joker design. They are mainly subtle little things when you compare them to the last batch of original Batman episodes. If you remember, in that last batch we did such things as get rid of the Joker's eyes and his red lipstick. What we found is it didn't animate very well. So in the flashbacks, it's basically the old Joker with a little bit of retouching to him. I think it's our best classic Joker design yet.'

Indeed. Both the old and new Jokers are nothing to take lightly. The menace that made them such hits in the first place is back full bore, something that was sorely lacking in the last Batman: Animated episodes he appeared in. Mark Hamill, who probably will now be identified as much for his vocal performance of the Clown Prince of Crime as for being Luke Skywalker, gives one of his most demanding readings of the character ever. Also making great contributions are Dean Stockwell (as the much older Tim Drake), Kevin Conroy (Bruce Wayne) and Henry Rollins (the Joker gang member Bonk).

In other words, this is a must-own video, particularly as we are getting very near the end of the entire run of Batman Beyond anyway.

'There's maybe one or two episodes we haven't aired yet,' says Timm. [As far as new episodes], 'I learned to say never say never. When we finished the original Batman series I thought that was over. I didn't think we would get the chance to go back and do more, which is what we did when we went to the WB. With Batman Beyond, I would say that we are not currently going to go past that 52, but if the Joker video sells really, really well, then I wouldn't be surprised if they want us to do another video episode. If any of the Batman live-action movies ever get up and moving, that could cause us to do more animated Batman episodes. Right now, I would say we are moving on.'

TIMM DISCUSSES JUSTICE LEAGUE

What the Batman team is now moving on to is the long-anticipated series based on DC's The Justice League. As hardcore animation fans know, this is a project that's been on the WB Animation back burner since about 1994, when the WB was working hard on the animated Superman series. Among those who had worked on the series were the likes of Timm's former partner Paul Dini and current X-Men: Evolution executive producer Boyd Kirkland.

The scuttlebutt is that the series will take it's bow on the Cartoon Network, but if you ask the suits at the cable net or WB Animation, they will neither confirm or deny they're working on the series. Timm is refreshingly blunt about this whole situation.

'It looks real promising,' admits Timm. 'It will feature the current day Justice League, not the Batman Beyond Justice League. It's going to be the classic League, with everything all you fans out there should expect.

'Personally, I never wanted to do it, just because of the logistics. I thought it was going to be a real headache to do. For the last couple of years though, there's been a real big groundswell. Every convention I go to the fans keep on asking me when are we going to do it. That's the number one question. So you have to give the people what they want. So we talked about it with our people and this time they jumped on it. So I'm basically going to bite the bullet and do it.

'I have no doubt the logistics are still going to be a headache, because trying to do that many characters in a half-hour series causes all kinds of problems. It was hard enough just trying to do an eye-grabbing scene of Batman taking on three thugs in a warehouse. Now we're doing seven or so superheroes, all with really humongous powers. So it's not going to be enough for them to fight in a warehouse anymore. We are going to have to have them fight giant monsters and super-villain teams and galactic threats.

'The scale has been increased enormously and we will still have to do it on an equivalent TV budget. I will admit that I'm pretty encouraged by the Justice League's guest appearance in Batman Beyond. That was a pretty busy show. It was a tough show to do. Now we're talking about doing a show that's even bigger than that. So it's going to be a challenge, but I have every confidence that we'll pull it off.'

FOX BRINGS BACK SPIDER-MAN UNLIMITED

If you were watching Fox Kids last Saturday, you weren't having flashbacks. The kids net is re-airing the Spider-Man Unlimited series one more time.

For those who's memories are shorter than a frame of film, a little history.

Spider-Man Unlimited was part of Fox Kids initial Fall, 1999 animated programming. Among the other shows that took their bows that season were Dark Horse Comic's Big Guy & Rusty The Boy Robot, Marvel's The Avengers, Beast Machines: Transformers and a little-known series from Japan called Digimon: Digital Monsters. By mid-season, all these shows were yanked except Digimon and Beast Machines. It appeared that extreme toy or Japanese-based animation now ruled the roost and comic book-based shows were well on the decline.

What was particularly heinous was the way Spider-Man Unlimited was handled. It was an animated series set up to be independent of the mainstream Marvel titles, which had sent our pal Peter Parker off to a parallel Earth where the High Evolutionary and his beasts ruled. Humanity, what there was of it, was on the bottom of the pecking order and treated like slave labor. To make matters more interesting, old Spider-foes Venom and Carnage were also on this parallel world, and they had plans of their own.

Marvel fans reacted to this series the way they usually do when things go too far afield for their admittedly reactionary tastesthey revolted. They refuses to watch the show. What was conceived as a 13-part mini-series that would eventually find our Mr. Parker saving both our Earth and the parallel one was savagely yanked before the fourth or so episode ever aired.

The thing is, having seen more than a few of these episodes than the average Marvel zombie, I can only state it gives me more reason to think they, on a whole, are about as sharp as a bag of marbles. Spider-Man Unlimited was actually one of the better Marvel-related series ever produced. If the zombies had given the series even half a chance, they would have found it far superior to the original Spider-Man animated show or even their ever-hallowed (and what I felt was just overly-melodramatic) original X-Men: The Animated Series.

Of course, Marvel President of Publishing Bill Jemas has his own take on the matter.

'You know what's happening? It's a Marvel fest!' crowed Jemas. 'The X-Men movie was so hot that Fox immediately revived the X-Men: Animated Series. The ratings have been spectacular and they are having a blast with that. Now X-Men: Evolution is either number one or number two, right up there with Pokemon, and it generally beats up Digimon. So Fox thought it would be a good idea to put Ultimate Spider-Man on after Digimon.

'Nothing makes us happier than to see the media world with their spectacularly short memories suddenly remembering that five years ago Marvel dominated kids programming. Then Pokemon came out and everybody wanted anime. Well, the good news is since X-Men got in front of everybody, what you are seeing is a wave of superheroes. It is very cool now to be superhero oriented. That's a nice wave to be riding.'

We're sure it is, Bill. Just recall friends that Mr. Jemas wasn't working at Marvel when Spider-Man Unlimited originally aired and Fox Kids was working off of pure numbers, i.e. ratings, at the time. Pokemon was killing Spider-Man then and probably would kill Spider-Man Unlimited even now. That's why Fox Kids is putting it on at 11:30 a.m., oddly enough against X-Men: Evolution.

And is this the end of Fox's airing Marvel-related animation? Don't bet on it. There's something in the works but I'm not telling...yet.

On the other hand, I do have to agree with Jemas on one thing, it does appear that superhero-based animation is back. It will be fun to see how the new Justice League series will do when it does come out next year.