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Batman Ninja is BONKERS, and I mean this in the best possible way! While this is an experimental and highly artistic film, it is also one of the most entertaining Batman movies I’ve watched in recent years. As I’m sure you can tell, Batman Ninja isn’t your standard romp in Gotham City. No, this an out of this world, at times absurd, adventure that has Batman and the Joker coming to blows in a sword fight! But what else would you expect from a Batman film that takes place in feudal Japan?

Clearly, not everyone will be excited to depart from the status quo, and that’s ok. This take on Batman is unique, but if you are open to experiencing and exploring something different, then I recommend giving this film a shot. Despite all of the risks taken here, it’s still very much a Batman film. At the same time, it’s also a Japanese film through and through. Junpei Mizusaki, Kazuki Nakashima, Takashi Okazaki – the director, screenwriter, and artist in charge of character design for Batman Ninja – have their fingerprints all over this project as much as DC does. Thankfully, it’s the marriage of these two identities that make this film a success… or perhaps a failure depending on your perspective.

I’m open to exploring different ideas, and it’s this notion that allows me to enjoy, perhaps even love, the first two acts of Batman Ninja. Every character feels familiar. There’s great action, high stakes, and the themes presented resonate strongly with me. As unique as this movie is in appearance and setting, the heart of Batman is alive and well… until the third act. What’s wrong with the third act? For me, it’s almost unwatchable. Aside from the fact that it grates with my personal appeal, it nearly abandons everything Batman stands for, as well as the themes established by the movie itself. So, where does that leave Batman Ninja when all is said and done? What’s so great that it has me stating this is the most entertaining Batman film in years? And what’s so bad that it leads to a claim that it nearly ruins the movie? Find out below! But be warned, there are spoilers!

 

THE MOVIE

Trailer

 

Synopsis

Batman Ninja takes a journey across the ages as Gorilla Grodd’s time displacement machine transports many of Batman’s worst enemies to feudal Japan – along with the Dark Knight and a few of his allies. The villains take over the forms of the feudal lords that rule the divided land, with the Joker taking the lead among the warring factions. As his traditional high-tech weaponry is exhausted almost immediately, Batman must rely on his intellect and his allies – including Catwoman and the extended Bat-family – to restore order to the land, and return to present-day Gotham City.

 

Plot

I avoided trailers and plot details prior to seeing this movie, so I assumed that the story would be a “What if…?” scenario that imagined all of our heroes and villains living during feudal Japan because they were born and raised during that time period. As it turns out, that’s not the case at all. Instead, the narrative starts in present-day Gotham City where Batman is battling Gorilla Grodd. I know it sounds like an odd choice for an antagonist in a Batman film, but trust me, it works.

The intro to the film doesn’t pull any punches either. You’re immediately thrown into the plot at break-neck speed.  Grodd is at Arkham Asylum, where he’s starting up a machine that he’s built. It’s not clear what his intentions are, or what the machine does, but right as Batman tries to stop him, reality starts bending around him. Arkham’s walls begin to curve, there are crazy lights, and then the next thing you know, Batman is standing in ancient Japan. The experience is jarring, but it’s jarring for Bruce as well, and since we’re experiencing this with him, it works.

Before Batman can fully process what’s occurred, samurai approach him with an intent to kill… Oh, and they’re wearing Joker masks! The scene contains some nice, quick action beats, and serves as an appetizer for what will come later. By this point, we’re not even five minutes into the film, and I’m fully invested. I mean, we have Batman, samurai wearing Joker masks, great action, and a mystery… What else could you ask for?

As it turns out, the machine Grodd built is a time displacement machine that transported a number of characters to ancient Japan. Batman’s late to the game though. While he was hit by the time machine’s field mere seconds after other characters, he doesn’t appear in feudal Japan until two years after everyone else. This means the Joker, Penguin, Poison Ivy, Two Face, and Deathstroke have all had two years to establish their dominance, and have done so by becoming the lords of various regions – much in the way villains ruled parts of Gotham during the “No Man’s Land” event in comics.

The rogue with the strongest hold on Japan is the Joker. No surprise here. Batman immediately begins to investigate the situation, but Joker remains one step ahead of him. The two come to blows, and it’s clear this isn’t the Joker we’re used to. He’s different in this story. He’s more dangerous, if you can bring yourself to believe that. Imagine a highly trained killer with the mentality of Joker, and that’s what you get in Batman Ninja. His antics are the same, but his skillset is far greater than we’ve ever seen. It’s something Batman isn’t prepared for, and considering Joker has an army of samurai at his disposal, Bruce knows the odds are stacked against him without his allies or tech.

This actually poses one of the dominant questions and themes of the entire film. What and who is Batman without his gadgets? I know most of us will automatically think,

“He’s a badass! Batman is one of the most skilled martial artists in the world, and he has a brilliant mind! What do you mean, ‘What and who is Batman without his gadgets?’ Go back to watching the MCU, you Marvel-tard!”

Yes, I completely agree with you… But it’s a relevant question to ask. More and more – both in comics and film – Batman is becoming less of the badass martial artist with a brilliant mind, and more of the tech guy who can create anything to get him out of a situation. He’s literally turning into Tony Stark, but he’s less cool because there’s never a full commitment to this ideology. And I don’t want Batman to commit to this idea. Why? Because at the end of the day, Batman, without all of the toys, tech, and gadgets, is way better than he is when he has them! In fact, I’ve had numerous conversations about how I wish stories would somehow do away with most of Batman’s tech, because he’s become too reliant on it. So, the moment Batman Ninja addressed this head-on, I let out a loud “<beep> yeah! Thank you!” because I knew we were going to get a Batman that went back to basics! Which is exactly what happens!

The plot moves forward to reunite Batman with some friendly, familiar faces. Catwoman is the first ally Bruce comes into contact with, and she provides the brunt of the exposition for the movie. Typically, I’m not a fan of narratives dumping exposition, but this example is handled with Batman trying to recollect his last night in Gotham, while Selina fills in the blanks. She also does this in respect to Bruce’s knowledge of ancient Japan. He’s studied it, but she’s spent the last two years living it. The back and forth works well and establishes the lay of the land.  We are also quickly introduced to additional allies such as Alfred, Nightwing, Red Robin, Robin, and a new character, Eian, with his army of Bat ninjas.

The “Robins” have all teamed up with Eian, and have taken on the way of the ninja. This is where Batman Ninja embraces Japanese culture and roots. Beliefs and prophecies come into play, and this touch adds a nice, spiritual-like hope to the film. By this point, every trajectory of Batman Ninja is pointing towards “awesome.” We have our hero, with allies we love, and now an army of ninjas. The mission is exciting and epic – stop Joker, the other lords of Japan, clean up the timeline, and return back to present-day Gotham. But there’s still one thing missing… Grodd.

The narrative charges forward as Batman seeks out Grodd. Without him, there’s no going back to present-day Gotham. From here, the plot really kicks things into overdrive!  Batman and team encounters Joker and Harley again, as well as other rogues, and endure a whole new set of struggles. We’re treated to more stellar action scenes – both large and small – as well as some unexpected team-ups and betrayals. Keep in mind, this all occurs in the first act! By this point, I’m literally sitting on the edge of my seat anticipating what will come next… And that next step ultimately ends up being an unexpected surprise.

The second act completely shifts gears. Not only is the art and animation different, but the style of storytelling also sees a drastic change. The film takes a side-step to catch up with Red Hood, who has been on a recon mission investigating the other rogues serving as lords of Japan. On his way back to reunite with his allies, he encounters farmers who resemble Joker and Harley Quinn. The resemblance is only in physical appearance though. If you’re familiar with Jason and his history with Joker, then I’m sure you can imagine where this is headed. Red Hood’s characterization is spot on. He’s portrayed as the brash, anti-hero who isn’t afraid to cross a line for the greater good… And he’s about to cross that line with these two farmers.

This act looks and plays out like a Japanese parable. It’s easily the most grounded and emotional part of the film, and I’d go so far as to say that it’s a masterpiece. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if this act led Batman Ninja to receive some award nominations – yes, it’s that good! I don’t want to share too much because this is the shortest act in the film, but it’s so special that it’s completely worth experiencing. The themes here are also excellent. This interlude speaks volumes to forgiveness and perception, and serves as a nice breather or pallet cleanser before returning to the main plot.

Which sadly brings us to the third act… Oh God, this is where things fall apart for me. With an all-out war for feudal Japan set before us, heavy themes of self-belief, motivations to embrace your identity and abilities, and a strong push to disregard tech… We somehow wind up in a situation with giant robots. And not just any giant robots… These robots were actually the castles that each of the rogues inhabited in their state. I’m over here expecting a war of ninjas and samurai, and we get giant robot castles… What the <beep>?

But wait! Things get crazier! Not only do these various castles transform into robots… these robot castles can also join together as one giant robot… I literally sat, shocked, wondering how in the hell we got here… And what’s worse, is I should’ve seen this coming because it’s foreshadowed in the first arc. Look, I’m all for Transformers, Gundam Wing, and Power Rangers, but I don’t want those elements in my Batman movies/ books (unless it’s obviously a crossover story). On top of this, it’s so far removed from the themes the film setup, that I have no idea what movie I’m watching anymore…

But wait! Things actually get crazier! If giant, robot castles that come together to form an even larger giant robot isn’t weird enough, then perhaps monkeys coming together to form a giant, battle monkey will seal the deal. No, I’m not joking. Thousands of monkeys come together to form a giant battle monkey. At this point, I felt like I was watching some insane crossover involving Batman, Transforms/ Gundam Wing, and Digimon… And I completely lost interest in the film. I had my laptop in front of me to take notes on the movie, and I actually stopped watching, and started surfing the internet. As quickly as I was swept up in Batman Ninja, my interest was abandoned even faster.

What I will say with respect to this scene, is that it is unique and unexpected. There are some interesting and cool moments, and I appreciate the attempt to do something different… But I’m not a fan. I feel that if you’re going to take a source material and try something different, there’s still a line that creators need to be cautious of crossing, specifically where the narrative subverts too far away from the source material. Batman Ninja does that in its third act.

Now, there will clearly be some people that absolutely love this sequence. For them, this will be an epic moment that combines multiple forms of science fiction that they love. I will admit that despite my dislike for this scene, it does continue the growing essence of grandeur that develops from the beginning of the film up to this point. And the giant robot battle, while climactic, isn’t the actual climax of the film.

The climax, and saving grace of the third act, is a rooftop sword fight between Batman and the Joker. I can’t praise this duel enough! The action is intense and visceral, while fused with personality. Batman comes off as a total badass, while Joker’s unpredictability gives him a different kind of edge. This scene is what I was hoping the film would build to, and I got it!

By the end of the film, I found myself quite satisfied. The overall story is engaging, and the stakes felt high without there being an “end of the world” threat. Would I watch it again? Well, I’ve watched it a total of four times now, so that would be a definite yes. But what is potentially more exciting, is the stinger that concludes Batman Ninja. As fun as this break from the norm is, seeing this animation team depict modern-day Gotham – even though it’s brief – is a real treat. I’d love to see this style of animation featured in a more traditional Batman film, but that would be stellar!

 

Characters/ Cast

This is a Batman film, but I need to focus on another character first…Joker. Tony Hale is brilliant as the Joker. I’m going to repeat myself: Tony Hale is brilliant as the Joker! I’d even say he’s on the same level as Mark Hamill. The script captures Joker’s voice well, but Hale takes the performance above and beyond! Yes, his portrayal is over the top, but that’s what I love about it. Everything about the Joker is insane and unhinged here, perfectly capturing the madness that makes Joker who he is. The range of Joker – and quite frankly, Tony Hale – is crazy entertaining. From wacky, to intense, to vengeful, to insane, the spectrum is endless, and Hale punches every moment perfectly.

And speaking of perfection, Tara Strong delivers what is potentially one of her best performance as Harley. I usually enjoy Tara Strong’s work, but there are times where I feel as though she misses the mark. She either oversells or undersells her performance, but for Batman Ninja, she’s at a ten from start to finish, matching the insanity that Hale delivers, and without these two, the film just wouldn’t be the same.

I will admit that Harley’s role in the film isn’t grand – she’s strictly a support to Joker – but both the characters and actors get to present their depth and range throughout the course of the movie, and they demand your attention when they’re “on screen.”. So, if anyone at Warner Bros. or DC is reading this, cast these two together for more animated portrayals as Joker and Harley!

While I loved Joker and Harley, Batman left something to be desired. He has some great action sequences, but his characterization didn’t really land for me. Roger Craig Smith’s depiction isn’t terrible, but it’s not great either. Ultimately, it’s the script that lets Batman down. This should be Batman’s film, and instead of taking the reins, he does nothing but react to everything that’s happening around him. And even when Batman is proactive, it isn’t believable. There are a number of instances where I thought, “This doesn’t feel natural.” or “Batman wouldn’t fall for this!” They’re not huge let-downs, and probably bother me more than the average viewer, but it’s worth mentioning.

What I thought the film got right with Batman is his relationship with various characters. He has the most interaction with Catwoman, and it’s an absolute joy to witness and experience. Selina is an incredible character in Batman Ninja, and the writers didn’t shy away from playing up her flirtation and opportunist nature. More importantly, they nailed the depth and understanding that Bruce and Selina have with one another. Between her insistence to push boundaries and his ability to unequivocally forgive her, their relationship helped ground the entirety of the film.

The “Robins” are all fun, and they each embody the traits that make them unique from one another, with the exception of Damian. He’s a far cry from who he is in the comics. In fact, he’s pretty much the opposite. There’s no sign of the arrogant and petulant child that we hate to love. Instead, this portrayal features an eager, positive kid who is full of hope. I was a little miffed by this, but they kept Damian’s love for animals, so that quickly calmed any distaste I had. Overall, none of the “Robins” play a huge role, but Jason is probably the most memorable because of the second act… Plus, he wears a basket to serve as his red hood… Yes, a basket.

If this film presents any question, it’s “Why hasn’t Gorilla Grodd become a prominent antagonist for Batman in the comics?” Yes, I know Grodd is a Flash villain, but my God does he make a great adversary for Bruce! His brilliance matches, and potentially exceeds, Bruce’s, while he also poses a physical threat. I’m not saying he should become a full-time Gotham rogue, but you could definitely develop some interesting stories with him. I also have to applaud Batman Ninja for giving him quite a bit of depth. While the Joker is the main antagonist – and he is set up that way – Grodd almost steals Joker’s thunder!

As for the other characters… They’re mostly just there. I felt Deathstroke received a short end of the stick because he literally had nothing to do – which is odd considering he, out of all of the rogues, is physically the greatest threat. But alas, Poison Ivy, Penguin, and Two Face all suffered a lack of purpose as well. There is a nice cameo by Bane, but I’ll let you watch the film to enjoy that moment. My only complaint, is that we have a Japanese themed Batman film and Katana is nowhere to be found. That seems like a slight miss. A cameo would’ve sufficed, I just feel a Japanese film could have benefited by featuring the most famous Japanese character with ties to Batman.

 

Animation

First and foremost, this is a beautiful film! The opening sequence is so manic that it’s hard to notice at first, but the moment Batman arrives in Japan, you’ll be in awe of the sheer artwork. Forget the animation. The design and rendering alone is breathtaking. There’s a texture to the art that elevates it above your stand animated films.

As for the animation itself, it’s hit or miss in my opinion. The slower moments of the film tend to remind me of story mode in video games. While I don’t think this is a bad thing, I tend to expect a little more from animated films. There’s also a noticeable timing situation between dialogue and mouths moving because of the dubbing. However, Batman Ninja more than makes up for any of these instances with its action sequences!

A large reason this movie is such a pleasure, is because you get such a wide range of action. And not only are there various forms of action, but they’re all incredibly well thought out and executed. From car chases, to fighting robots, to sword fights, battles on ships… There are so many great scenes, and there are many great moments within scenes.

A highlight for me is the chase! Batman starts in his Batmobile, but we get to see the Bat-Pod and Bat Wing within this same scene. It’s just a nice nod to long-time fans of Batman. The sword fight between Batman and Joker during the climax of the film is the scene that takes the cake though. I imagine I’ll come back to watch this movie just for that scene because it’s so good.

Finally, there are the character designs. When you have a film that looks this unique, you have to give credit to someone as talented as Takashi Okazaki. As weird as the hair choices might be (Nightwing is totally supporting a Super Sayan hairdo by the way), everything is just perfect. Each character still looks like a perfect representation of a “Japanese reimagining” of themselves. And considering the market for Japanese art/ collectors, I suspect we’ll see statues in the near future. After the success of platforms like Bombshells, it seems like a given market to explore.

 

Overall: Batman Ninja is an incredibly fun film that takes a number of risks while still respecting the source material. While this won’t be a film for everyone, I can’t help but think long-time comic book fans will appreciate this movie for what it is. There’s a lot to enjoy here, especially if you understand the relationships and nuances of all of these characters. What I really think Batman Ninja succeeds at though, is being an experiment. Warner Bros. and DC Comics are able to get a pulse on a number of different approaches to storytelling and animation within this single film, an approach that could be promising for future films.

SCORE: 8/10

Batman Ninja is currently available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and in Digital HD!