The Joker In Animation: A Retrospective

Stu

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I never watched this film after reading the bad reviews, but I regard the original story as one of the best Joker tales in any medium (what Moore thinks of it now is irrelevant--trust the tale, not the teller). It portrays the Joker a nihilist who regards life as a nasty joke ruled by chance--all it takes is one bad day to turn a man into a monster.

Batman is the Joker's philosophical opposite. He didn't let a bad day destroy him. He used it turn himself into a hero. He is an existentialist who believes you can make yourself into something better and overcome chance. Life is not a sick joke but an opportunity.

Commissioner Gordon is the site of the Batman and Joker's philosophical struggle, their tug-of-war. The Joker wants to drive Gordon mad to prove his point. Batman wants Gordon to triumph and cheer his violent revenge on the Joker. But Gordon ultimately emerges as the sanest man of all three.

TKJ is therefore a very tight drama involving the struggle between these three characters. Adding any other major protagonists immediately throws the dramatic premise off-balance. That's why adding a chunky prologue devoted to Batgirl doesn't make sense except as a misguided attempt to make a more woman-friendly narrative.

Even less understandable is why the powers-that-be greenlit an adaptation of a one of the most famous and respected Batman graphic novels but decided to be cheap with the animation and the very look of it. What's the point of animating an extremely famous and extremely distinctive graphic novel if the animation doesn't come anywhere near the look of the original? They sabotaged their own prestige project and made it look cheap.

If I was in charge, I would have insisted on two things: doubling the budget and adding nothing to the story. No prologue. Instead I would have decided on including a "bonus film" about Barbara Gordon's life after the events of TKJ. This would a completely separate story but available on the same Blu-Ray or Digital package as the TKJ. I would have commissioned someone like Gail Simone to write it, thereby providing a critical exploration of the now-problematic aspects of TKJ. This would allow for a self-contained adaptation of TKJ and a follow-up addressing what people now find objectionable about the book. Lovers and haters would be equally catered to, instead of being fed a tone-deaf botch of an adaptation.
Yes, unfortunately, there were many ways in which to do adapt this take, and I think the creative team sadly zigged when they should have zagged in several areas. I am personally not fond of scene for scene retellings, but on the other hand, it worked tremendously for The Dark Knight Returns movies, but this was a sheer miss. Given how many times Timm and Burnett have worked with The Joker, one would've thought this was something they'd know what to do with, but follow up interviews with Timm seem to suggest he did indeed struggle with this story.

It is also disappointing, visually. I'm aware you have not seen the movie, but it looks so much weaker than the other Direct to video features, which stings more as the book it is based upon is stunningly beautiful. I don't know how old you are, but given how I remember you and I discussing these DC shows during the original airings of Justice League, I imagine you grew up on shows that had occasionally sub par, if not terrible animation, but something with the budget this feature has should look a lot far better than this does.

Yojimbo said:
Well once upon a time, some guy named @James Harvey did an interview and Phil Bourassa said:

I might have known Jim would beat me to this! :)

Excellent interview, too. I especially like how he realises that simply redoing the classics over and over again does the show/characters few favours and occasionally a revamp/update is needed, but with a classic feel. Bourassa is the best in the business, for me.
 

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I remember being absolutely excited for The Killing Joke movie, mainly due to the fact it brought back both Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill and was the first R rated DC animated movie (though it felt like a soft R, Suicide Squad Hell To Pay really took advantage of the R rating, including a few boob shots). I liked it back when i first saw it but then later found out how hated it was. I even remember thinking it was Hamill's swansong as Joker (thought the same thing after Arkham Knight), then Justice League Action, Lego DC Super Villians, Scooby Doo And Guess Who happened............still holding out for a Teen Titans Go apperence!
 

Stu

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One of the more surprising announcements from the DC Direct to DVD features was the announcement of Batman: Return of The Caped Crusaders, a new feature based upon the old Batman television series which would see original series stars Adam West and Burt Ward reprise their roles as Batman and Robin, The Dynamic Duo. I didn’t think we’d ever seen this as DC Comics themselves had spent years distancing themselves from West’s Batman and its campy tone. Many fans thought this was because they were trying to market Batman as a dark, serious character, but we would eventually learn it mainly came down to very complicated licensing issues which took many, many years to resolve. With the original production company, Fox and Warner Bros. all claiming to own a portion of the show, it became a legal nightmare for all concerned, with other complications including the various celebrity cameos, the show never made it into DVD/Blu Ray in the peak of Home Video releases (which would have surely sold an ungodly amount of units back in the mid 2000s) but eventually made it onto Blu Ray in 2014. I own the full set, but, to my shame, haven’t made my way through it yet. For a show that only lasted three seasons, 120 episodes are a lot to sit through. It was considered, for many, many years to be the holy grail of TV on DVD releases. Not bad for a show reaching 50 at the time!

I don’t honesty recall seeing much of the television show in my youth. I know I did watch reruns, but couldn’t tell you what happened in any of the specific episodes. It is loathed in some quarters by Batman fans, but I actually attribute Batman’s enormous popularity to this show, there is little doubt in my mind that this show turned Batman from a comic book character into a pop culture icon.



This new feature no doubt came from producer James Tucker’s love for the show. The piece is clearly a love letter to the show, and is not afraid to go to the same ludicrous lengths the show did. As with the feature length spin off from the show, the original Batman movie, Return of The Caped Crusaders features the four’s biggest villains from the television show, Catwoman, The Riddler, The Penguin and of course, The Joker.

The Joker was famously portrayed by Cesar Romero in the television show but unfortunately passed away in 1994, so a recast was required. Jeff Bergham steps in and does a fine job of channeling Romero, who offered great energy in the few clips I watched as research for this piece. He has no problem going full camp for the role and pulls it off wonderfully. Excellent effort here! Despite featuring little of the original cast (for obvious reasons), I found the replacements all did a fine job. William Salyers deserves special mention as The Pengion. Close your eyes and you're listening to Burgess Meredith!

The Joker’s character model is a streamlined version of Romero, which thankfully does not include a painted over moustache for a cheap laugh. The purple suited clown looks terrific here, and loving detail was put into making the show look like the 66 television show. One can tell with the sheer number of visual nods even less than causal fans of the show like me noticed, including an awesome 360 spin of the famous Batmobile when the dynamic duo drive into action. It looks quite different from the other DC movies as it surely needed to, but still manages to animate well. The closing animation of Batman and Catwoman dancing features some very impressive animation, to the beat of a remixed version of the television shows iconic theme (arguably THE most iconic theme ever - 54 years later and everyone alive recognises that bad boy!)



The casting highlight is clearly the return of West and Ward who haven’t missed a beat in 50 years. Julie Newmar also reprises her role as Catwoman (the only surviving cast member from the villains sadly) but one can tell she is showing her age here (understandably so, of course!) West himself acts like he last played Batman only days beforehand, he pulls off the often ludicrous dialogue with such a straight approach it’s hard not to chuckle at almost everything he says.

The story sees the aforementioned quartet team up to utilise a duplication ray, a device with such power that it can create an exact duplicate of whatever the ray touches. The plot loses its way somewhat in the middle act as Batman is infected with Catwoman’s Batnip, a concoction which caused Batman to turn evil, which by Catwoman’s estimation, would stop Batman fighting crime and be with her. Upon apprehending the troublesome trio, Batman takes what he believes to be a well earned vacation and Gotham plunders into a crime spree. Blaming an ineffective Police force, Batman uses the duplication ray on himself and creates an army of Batmen to run the city and do a proper job of it.

Robin deduces Catwoman has clearly done something to Batman and the two team up to help Batman return to normal. The actual hero of the piece is Alfred, who, after being handed his walking papers, realised that there is clearly something wrong with Wayne and devises an antidote via the form of a celebratory drink. The film gets back on track with the fairly clever twist that the villains Batman and Robin captured on the space station (animation budget for the win!) were in fact duplicates and the real Joker, Penguin and Riddler are still at large, stealing valuables (look out for a cracking line from The Joker when he explains the clown painting he has stolen will be worth so much more when he offs the artist!)

This is a much more of a Batman/Catwoman film, so Joker, Penguin and Riddler and pretty much dressing here. I did enjoy how much we saw of Joker, but beyond adding what a fine job they did of channeling Romero there isn’t much to consider here. I enjoyed the film more than I thought I would, as someone who enjoys his Batman as a bad ass detective, seeing him as The Bright Knight again could’ve been a jarring experience, but I was engrossed in the film straight away.

A follow up film, Batman Vs Two-Face was announced before this film was released but sadly, tragedy struck between release dates as Adam West passed away. It was confirmed he managed to record all of his lines so his role in the film was completed prior to his passing. West’s death was one seemed to confirm just how beloved he was in his role as The Bright Knight as tributes poured in following his passing. On this very Blu Ray, there is also a fantastic story Gary Miereanu tells about how George Clooney, the lead in Batman and Robin met West backstage and offered his sincere apologies for his lousy portrayal as Batman.

Two-Face was the most famous villain missing from the original television show and the crew managed to get a casting coup with William Shatner of Star Trek fame to voice Harvey Dent and his deranged alter ego.



There are a few moving parts to this story, as Batman attempts to rehabilitate a jailed Catwoman as Hugo Strange creates a device which manages to suck the evil out of villains, instantly rehabilitating them. The Joker only appears briefly in this one, as one of the villains who overloads said machine with sheer evilness along Pengiun, The Riddler and Mr Freeze., which causes the explosion which turns Dent into Two-Face.

King Tut actually plays a much bigger part here than Joker, who is pretty much absent until the finale when Two-Face attempts to auction off Batman's secret identity and the villains pool their resources to obtain the same, very similar to The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne from Batman: The Animated Series.

I felt the sequel was a better movie than the original, but I imagine this will be down to personal taste more than anything else. The film is dedicated to Adam West and following his death, any planned Batman 66 films were cancelled without its star. It is rumoured that a planned third film teaming him up with Linda Carter's Wonder Woman was pitched, but I am not sure how far, if at all, Batman and Wonder Woman made it into production.

I don't know if Mr West ever actually managed to see Batman Vs Two-Face, but I think he would've been proud of it.

Next: Ninjas!
 

b.t.

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I never watched this film after reading the bad reviews...
animation doesn’t come anywhere near the look of the original...
adding a chunky prologue devoted to Batgirl doesn’t make sense...
misguided attempt to make a more woman-friendly narrative....
sabotaged their own prestige project and made it look cheap...
tone-deaf botch of an adaptation.....
Golly, those are some pretty strong words for a movie you haven’t seen!
 

Revelator

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Golly, those are some pretty strong words for a movie you haven’t seen!

That is true, and as mentioned they are based only on the reviews and reactions I have read. I hope no one will consider them an actual review, rather than rantings from a fan attached to the original story.
 

Otaku-sempai

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I was a little disappointed that Batman Vs Two-Face was not adapted from the Harlan Ellison script, but we did get a comic-book adaptation of that.
 

Stu

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I was a little disappointed that Batman Vs Two-Face was not adapted from the Harlan Ellison script, but we did get a comic-book adaptation of that.

Less than casual 66 Batman fan here (haven’t seen enough to call myself causal)... was Two-Face planned for the original show but never used? This is a script that existed but was never filmed perhaps?
 

Yojimbo

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Less than casual 66 Batman fan here (haven’t seen enough to call myself causal)... was Two-Face planned for the original show but never used? This is a script that existed but was never filmed perhaps?
Yes, the script exists in a book called Brain Movies, Volume 5. Basically, an ABC exec held a grudge from an altercation over a script on a past series and put in place a ban that Ellison would never write for ABC again. Clint Eastwood was considered for the role.
 

Otaku-sempai

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Less than casual 66 Batman fan here (haven’t seen enough to call myself causal)... was Two-Face planned for the original show but never used? This is a script that existed but was never filmed perhaps?
More or less. Two-Face was proposed for the show in any case. Yojimbo summarizes what happened quite succinctly! There was the additional consideration of Two-Face's grotesque appearance.
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End of digression.
 
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Stu

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Very interesting. I previously assumed Two-Face never appeared due to budgetary concerns.

I wonder why Scarecrow never appeared? He was created way before the 60’s wasn’t he?
 

Stu

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Yeah, he was created in 1941. Not sure why Dozier overlooked him for the show. Considering his animated appearance in the Batman/Superman Hour in 1968, Batman '66 dodged a bullet.

I was actually working my way through the DVD of this show (one of my favourites from a tape I had as a toddler) before I had to start binging the other Batman shows for this retrospective.

Farmer Scarecrow sounds like something to not look forward to. That design is creepy for all the wrong reasons!
 

Otaku-sempai

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Yeah, he was created in 1941. Not sure why Dozier overlooked him for the show. Considering his animated appearance in the Batman/Superman Hour in 1968, Batman '66 dodged a bullet.
Well, the Batman 1966 team could probably have done a better job than Filmation did on Scarecrow.

Very interesting. I previously assumed Two-Face never appeared due to budgetary concerns.

I wonder why Scarecrow never appeared? He was created way before the 60’s wasn’t he?
"You'll never work [in/for] this [town/studio/network] again!" is often an empty threat due in part to the turnaround of studio and network executives. As I added to my previous post, Two-Face's grotesque appearance was another factor that kept him out of the 1966 Batman series. That might have played into Scarecrow's exclusion as well.
 
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Revelator

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I also get the impression that after a certain point (Lorenzo Semple's departure as script editor?) the show was less concerned about using comic book villains than making up its own. Hence Nora Clavicle, Minerva, Lord Marmaduke Ffogg, Minstrel, Archer, Chandell, Marsha Queen of Diamonds, Siren, Black Widow, Shame, Zelda the Great, Ma Parker, Louie the Lilac, Bookworm, King Tut, and Egghead. Most of these characters weren't particularly memorable and only existed as a means of incorporating the B-list guest star of the week.
 

Stu

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We continued with our Batman Direct to DVD features with Batman: Ninja. As soon as this one was announced, I immediately realised this went going to be one for me, as I sadly struggle to watch anime. I have simply never gotten into it and find the majority of it simply jarring to look at. It's too big a culture shock for me most of the time, despite how much animation I watch has been influenced by it.

Without hopefully sounding too ignorant, I also have little interest in Japanese culture so a Japanese flavoured Batman story was of no interest to me. One must try new things but everytime I have attempted Anime, it does nothing for me.

I saw the sneak preview on the previous Blu Ray and my brother and I both agreed this would be one DC DVD we would be skipping (a rare occurrence - I think the only one I can't ever remember seeing is the first animated Wonder Woman movie... I still don't really know why I've never checked this one out.) We tend not skip these DC DVDs but we deduced that neither of us would find any enjoyment in this particular piece and decided to save a few quid between us. Although until recent time my Brother tends to buy the Blu Rays and invite me over to watch them with him, which has saved me a quid... there are a few of these films I sadly did not care for at all and have no real intention of watching again. The recent Covid situation had left me with time to kill and money to spend, hence a much increased Blu Ray collection.



I finally sat down to watch this film as part of this retrospective and concluded I made the correct call giving it a miss. I found the animation style to be difficult to look at and the designs looked a badly done PS4 cut scene. And they were too jarring and the animation quality itself was very substandard, far less than I would normally expect from a DC DTV feature. This was more than likely because of other complicated designs that the animators struggle with and ineffective computer-generated enhancements to the animation further disappointed. Visually? I wasn't a fan.

Casting wise… This one was a blunder sadly. The actors had clearly been instructed to ham this one up and some of the performances are simply cringe worthy. The normally hilarious Tony Hale comes across as far too camp to be intimidating and grating as The Joker. I have a lot of love for his performances on Veep and Harley Quinn, and on paper, this could’ve been great casting but it’s a fail for me. He works better during the very random painted animated sequence when he and Harley tone it done when they have lost their memories and live as simple farmers. He was a little too over the top, it would make Cesar Romero blush with it's campness.

Speaking of Harley Quinn... yikes. Tara Strong goes full on toddler Harley Quinn here as she did in the Batman: Arkham Knight video game and the results are simply very annoying. Given the number of times she has portrayed Quinn, you’d think I would get used to it however, it grates the more I hear it. I would much prefer they stop casting Strong as Harley Quinn however this seems to be unlikely as she is been cast once again in the upcoming Sucide Squad game. I hope she is instructed to tone it down slightly because she is simply difficult to listen to in this role. She has proven to be a solid Harley Quinn in the past and has a very impressive resume outside of Harley Quinn. I would chalk this one up to a pet peeve more than anything else.

Roger Craig Smith returns as Batman and it again sounds like he’s trying to hard to sound gruff. Smith’s Batman is sadly one I’ve never really gotten into, despite the number of times he has portrayed the character. Again, Smith is normally a solid voice actor, I simply don't buy into him as Batman.

As for the story of the film? Gorilla Groad randomly transports Batman and his various villains and supporting cast to Ancient Japan. Batman, for unexplained reasons, arrives years later than the various villains including of course The Joker, who is now top dog in the ancient world. I thought the plot was fairly out there and didn’t really work, jarring time travel included. Grodd's machine just happened to send the Batfamily and the villains back in a city of millions?



It didn’t take me long to completely lose interest in the film. I confess had I not needed to view it for this piece, I would’ve turned it off entirely. I am thankful this one is available on Netflix here in England, I admit I would’ve been annoyed at wasting £11.99 on this. My apologies for the shortness of this post... there are only so many ways to say "Nope, not for me" without sounding vindictive and repetitive. The film seemed to receive fairly favourable reviews online, but no sequel was ever announced.

In closing? I’m not the audience for this one. I am certain anime fans would probably enjoyed it, and our own Jim Harvey did too, reading his review at World’s Finest but for me? Nope. Can’t win them all.

Next: T-U-R-T-L-E Power.
 

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I did like how in The Return of the Caped Crusader the last villain standing for Batman and Robin to fight was Joker. Just felt right :).

I think Joker's inherent camp and hamminess is a perfect fit for an anime medium, and Tony Hale's take kind of grew on me. It was also his first anime work so that's also kind of impressive in my opinion :cool:.

(I'd put Roger Craig Smith in my top five Batman VA's).
 

GrantM

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It's funny he brings up Tony Hale because I've ben hearing him a lot, not just as Joker in Batman Ninja but as Forky in Toy Story 4, he was in the Hulu adult animated series Crossing Swords and as Dr Psycho in Harley Quinn. Also toddler Harley Quinn, thats new to me.
 

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It's funny he brings up Tony Hale because I've ben hearing him a lot, not just as Joker in Batman Ninja but as Forky in Toy Story 4, he was in the Hulu adult animated series Crossing Swords and as Dr Psycho in Harley Quinn. Also toddler Harley Quinn, thats new to me.
I love how Harley Quinn got to have two Jokers together in Alan Tudy and Tony Hale :p.
 
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