REVIEW: 'Batman Ninja' cannot be unseen

Batman Ninja , directed by Junpei Mizusaki, sends Batman (Kôichi Yamadera) back in time to feudal Japan.

Batman Ninja, directed by Junpei Mizusaki, sends Batman (Kôichi Yamadera) back in time to feudal Japan.

Created by Warner Bros. Animation and directed by Junpei Mizusaki in his film debut after starting his career in video games, Batman Ninja got a lot of initial buzz because of its truly wonderful designs from Takashi Okazaki, the creator of Afro Samurai. It received a lot of praise upon its release, so I was very intrigued… and despite my fairly deep knowledge of the Batman universe and exposure to some awesome anime in my formative years, it wasn’t close to what I expected.

Let’s start with the good; Batman Ninja looks gorgeous. The smoother CGI and cel animation threw me for a loop because I’m still used to some of the herky-jerky action of the old hand-drawn ones, but the colours are vivid, the movements look cool and smooth and the transitions are creative. I watched it with its original Japanese audio and I had no qualms with the voice acting or the translated subtitles, but note there is a completely different set of subtitles to go with the English audio. There’s a sequence in the middle of the film that’s particularly noticeable because the style changes drastically, going from a Dragon Ball-ish feel to something not unlike Dianne Jackson’s The Snowman, both in visual quality and method of storytelling.

Unfortunately, that’s all Batman Ninja has going for it because the rest is either formulaic, derivative or outright bonkers. The pacing is all over the place. Sometimes it allows the gorgeous animation to gradually sink in, but at other times it speeds through everything, as if it can’t keep itself from showing off. It puts a lot of anime tropes and Batman characters into a blender and the results are unsurprisingly messy and nonsensical. Perhaps what’s most tragic about this Batman adventure is that it adds nothing to the broader Batman lore, and instead feels so forgettable and minor in Batman’s large library of adventures – this is definitely not Mask of the Phantasm.

The Joker is reimagined as Lord Joker, voiced by Wataru Takagi

The Joker is reimagined as Lord Joker, voiced by Wataru Takagi

The plot is promising: after building a Quake Engine time machine, Gorilla Grodd sends Batman and some of his nemeses back to Feudal Japan so he could rule Gotham, but upon arrival Batman learns the Joker rules the land, and so to defeat him he must team up with the rest of the Bat family.

There’s a lot of potential for new interplay between the characters since Grodd is more commonly associated with The Flash, but there’s no character development at all. Two-Face, Deathstroke, Poison Ivy and Penguin get nods, but they barely have any lines and serve as eye candy than rather than plot devices. Alfred shows up out of nowhere with a Batmobile that he’s basically fashioned out of thin air (incidentally, in hindsight this is probably the first clue of how none of Batman Ninja makes any sense), and Batman is regrettably viewed as a prophesized white saviour for a clan of Bat ninjas that has no discernible history or purpose other than to wait for Batman’s arrival and serve as an army for the big Final Battle.

Speaking of the big Final Battle, this is the part where many superhero films really stumble, but I’ve never quite seen something like this. While I expected a final showdown between the Bat family and the Joker, what I definitely wasn’t prepared for was the sudden shift to an episode of Gundam. It was so bizarre I wondered if I had popped in the wrong disc, but burst out laughing moments after realizing a room full of smart people agreed to do this… I mean, just read the Wikipedia entry:

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These monkeys aren’t even robot monkeys, they’re Animalia monkeys, and the samurai monkey they form is this Monkichi-looking dust cloud. And, after being covered by a swarm of Animalia bats, they form first, the Bat symbol (because why not) and then basically a 100-foot tall Batman. I mean, how can you not laugh, right? This stupid fight that cost me minutes of my life I’ll never be able to get back, but weirdly enough I’m kind of happy to know that something so bizarre exists, and it’s like knowing DC’s dirty secret because so few people have seen it. Don’t believe me? Watch:

You have to give anime credit for pushing the boundaries sometimes, but I find the genre still has trouble in certain areas and fails to show restraint. Catwoman’s outfit, in typical anime fashion, is several sizes too small and serves little function other than asking to be objectified, and despite introducing every iteration of Robin in the Bat family it casually leaves out Batgirl and Batwoman. Batman’s relationship with the Robins and the villains are similarly uncovered, leaving little significance behind its tracks.

Batman Ninja gets two stars out of four.

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