Neo-Gotham City is a sprawling nightmare city, it makes old Gotham look positively timid by comparison. For a long time the city needed a hero and Gotham's old protector, Batman, was nowhere to be seen. The Bat may be a legend but legends still grow old. Bruce Wayne, now a decrepid pensioner, is incapable of fighting the good fight.
That's when he hires Terry McGinnis, a young tear-away, to fill in his shoes. Using a specially enhanced suit, McGinnis capable of amazing strength and agility and can defend the people of Gotham from the horde of crazies that swarm the streets.
That's the premise to the Warner Bros animated series Batman Beyond (or the infinitely less interesting Batman of The Future to us UK folk), an off-beat spin on the Batman mythos with some magnificent art design and a reliably excellent cast of voice actors from Warner Animation. The series may not be as definitive as its predecessor Batman: The Animated Series but it offers enough unique thrills to justify your viewing time.
Return of The Joker, however, expects you to know all about this show before hitting play because it is quite unkind to newcomers. It rolls through a lot of information during the first half hour that would be like a foreign language to new viewers. We are offered a glimpse of standard Batman staples warped into something familiar yet unfamiliar; like a new Batman, a new Commissioner Gordon (Barbara, formerly Batgirl), a new Gotham, new villains (one looking an awful lot like Scarecrow but sounds like Christopher Walken), it likely feels a little daunting trying to keep up with all of this new information.
The one curious constant in all of this is the Joker, who hasn't aged a day. More surprising still, he's supposed to be dead. His existence is presented matter-of-factly, fans of the TV show will know his presence here is an anomaly but new viewers will likely wonder what the hell is going on? The film makes no initial attempt to explain his presence, new fans could be forgiven for thinking this is just another confusing new detail to the mythology to catch up on, but no, this is just the first piece in a grand mystery that started on the streets of old Gotham.
What makes Return of The Joker more than just a good Batman Beyond movie but a good Batman one in general is the way Bruce Wayne looms large over the whole story. Joker may get the title but Bruce Wayne gets the guts of the story; it's all about him. His failings are what create this new hell that Terry's new Batman must face and Kevin Conroy's work as the elderly Wayne really delivers all of that accumulated guilt. The once mighty, indefatigable Batman is actually afraid of the past coming back to haunt him, almost accepting that he deserves it.
The way it deals with the back story of Batman and the death of the Joker is possibly the highlight of the entire movie; the exploits of Terry's new Batman are thrilling to watch, more akin to an Iron Man story than Batman but great nonetheless, and the way the mystery pays off is equally strong, but it's the groundwork laid out via flashback that gives this tale its power.
Just because this is an animated movie, do not be fooled into thinking this will cop-out on the gravity of the moment; watching the death of the Joker is a harrowing experience. The depths they take the Clown Prince of Crime to are ugly to an extreme and the emotionally charged confrontation between mortal enemies feels more like a sustained gut punch than a roller coaster rider.
Every fan lives to see Batman deliver justice to the Joker, this time we are left wondering if justice is enough. It is hard to deny that he finally crossed the point of no return through his actions here. I won't spoil it for anyone interested, all I will say is that out of every Batman film made to date, the Joker flashbacks can stand toe-to-toe with the best of them.
Unforgiving to non-fans, Batman Beyond: The Return of The Joker requires more focus than you would expect but if you are willing to keep up with the fast paced, constantly twisting narrative then you will be rewarded with an exciting, dark and unpredictable slice of Batman action.