- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 14, 2011

The comic book permeates all levels of popular culture. This sporadic feature reviews some recent examples from the world of digital video discs (compatible with Blu-ray enabled computers and home entertainment systems) and also includes a recommended sequential-art reading list to extend the multimedia adventures.

Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (Warner Home Video, rated PG-13, $19.98)  Decades after Batman’s prime crime-fighting days, Bruce Wayne has retired his cape and cowl. His alter ego, however, is resurrected via Terry McGinnis, a pushy punk ready to assume the mantle of the Dark Knight and avenge the death of his father.

So went the clever animated series “Batman Beyond,” which took a futuristic look at the Caped Crusader. It lasted 52 episodes and aired from 1999 to 2002 on the Kids’ WB.

One of the series’ greatest standalone moments, a direct-to-DVD movie, arrives in the high-definition format, offering the uncut version of one of the nastiest encounters between Batman and the Joker ever captured by animation.

It’s not enough to appreciate the psychological unraveling of Bruce Wayne and Terry by a foe that should be just bones resting under Arkham Asylum. No, Paul Dini’s story is classic as it gives viewers a glimpse into the days when “Batman: The Animated Series” ruled the airwaves and delivers a brutal ode to the end of the Clown Prince of Crime and some surprising twists to the hero’s history.

I’ll offer nothing more other than to report that the chance to savor actor Mark Hamill’s voicing of the maniacal lunatic is classic, while Kevin Conroy’s rasp lends itself so well to the elder Wayne.

The movie stands up surprisingly well, with quite an eye-popping high-definition transfer blazing with color within a 4x3 full-screen format. I found the story as unnerving as the first time I enjoyed it.

I’ll remind readers that this is the uncut version, not the butchered original release from 2000, and it is well-deserving of its PG-13 rating.

Best Extra: How does Warner Home Video fill up the huge amount of space available on this single Blu-ray disc? With the same paltry extras it offered on the DVD back in 2000.

Fans will still love the optional commentary track featuring producer Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, director Curt Geda and art director Glen Murakami. Now, how about a selection of Mr. Timm’s favorite “Batman Beyond” episodes, guys?

Warner Home Video also offers something a bit unusual and definitely a prize for the new “Return of the Joker” diehards. Also included in the package is the original, uncut, DVD version of the film presented in widescreen format. For me, its inclusion just shows off how great the Blu-ray version looks.

Read all about it: DC Comics published the official movie adaptation of Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker back in 2001 (averaging $25 in near mint condition). Additionally, look for DC’s six-issue limited series Batman Beyond from 1999 in a trade paperback format ($29.99)

 Tron: Legacy (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, rated PG, $39.99)  The revival of a cult-classic after a 28-year absence is a rare treat  but it happened in 2010.

“Tron,” the groundbreaking effects-driven film from 1982, resonated with a loyal fan base over the last three decades through word of mouth and a trickling of comic books, video games and action figures.

Disney finally released a sequel to the film last year to satisfy the masses. Its Blu-ray release highlights the beauty of modern-day special effects, but still delivers only a passable story co-starring the first film’s protagonist Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges).

The story finds Flynn’s son Sam (played by Garrett Hedlund) searching for his father, an eccentric corporate giant who disappeared into his own massive computer-programming grid years ago. The younger Flynn is led to the gaming grid for some dramatic battles using razor-sharp disks and upgraded light cycles.

The folksy Mr. Bridges returns in two forms, a current, older Flynn and a much younger doppelganger named Clu  with some excellent digital double effects helping to carry his performances.

Overall, if you can deal with dialogue that makes “Star Wars: Episode I  The Phantom Menace” sound like “Hamlet,” the visuals of “Tron: Legacy” never stop impressing, even after repeat viewings in its high-definition glory.

Best Extra: Let’s just pass on the slim selection of extras found on the Blu-ray and focus on a digital convergence bonus that would make Kevin Flynn grin ear to ear.

Using Disney’s new application, Second Screen, owners of Apple’s iPad can find a generous supply of content to peruse on their tablet computer while watching the main event.

Simply download the app, enter a code found in the Blu-ray’s package and unlock multimedia goodies including over 1,000 storyboards, pieces of artwork and photographs, behind-the-scenes video, and filmmaker text comments.

It’s a bit overwhelming to try and plow through the archives while watching the movie, but a pause button on the app stops the film while a viewer clicks on a seemingly endless timeline of information icons on the iPad’s screen.

The art and photos can be enlarged by placing two fingers on the iPad and pulling the digits away from each other to really zoom in on the beauty of masterpieces such as Recognizer vehicles and concept illustrations of Tron City.

Also, users will find 360-degree views of digital set pieces, information nugget icons embedded on images, animated comparisons between wire-frame special effects and final renders of scenes (controlled by the viewer) and a slider show (move the finger along a bar and watch the magic) presenting the motion-capture transformation of an actor into Clu.

Disney’s Second Screen is a dazzling addition to appreciating the cinematic arts and really highlights the possibilities of the latest computer wizardry interacting with the Blu-ray format.

Read all about it: Marvel Publishing (now owned by Disney, by the way) released a two-issue miniseries last year called Tron: Betrayal (now available in trade paperback, $9.99) that covers the events between the movies.

Also, Slave Labor Graphics published a six-issue miniseries back in 2006, Tron: The Ghost in the Machine (available in trade paperback, $19.95), starring the son of the original Tron programming wiz Alan Bradley.

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• Joseph Szadkowski can be reached at jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com.

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