Batman Ninja isn't just a fascinating new take on Batman, with character designs by iconic Afro Samurai creator Takashi Okazaki. The movie's real fun comes from the violent collision of Batman universe gadgets and characters, over the top anime style action, and the setting of feudal Japan. These disparate elements come together in endless surprising ways, from the Batmobile speeding through the streets and alleys of historic Japanese villages, to the Joker--green hair tied back in a distinctive top knot--whipping out a minigun in the middle of a watery ship-to-ship battle.
Batman Ninja, which screened today at Wondercon 2018 in Anaheim, California, sees the Caped Crusader transported back in time to feudal Japan thanks to a time machine built by Gorilla Grodd. There's not much more set-up than that--the time travel happens in the first minute or so, which is fine, as it gets us to the real action as quickly as possible. The cast of supporting heroes, villains, and other characters who find themselves in the past is massive, including Alfred, Catwoman, Nightwing, Red Robin, Red Hood, Robin, Grodd, Joker, Harley Quinn, Two Face, Poison Ivy, Penguin, Deathstroke, and more.
Watching these friends and foes navigate the perils of temporal displacement would be fun on its own, but there's an added wrinkle in the fact that, through some vague time travel shenanigans, Batman arrives in the past two years later than most of the other characters. That's given his enemies ample time to set up shop, and by the time Bruce Wayne arrives, they've already completely taken over feudal Japan. Joker is on top, worshipped by the common people as the "Demon King." Penguin, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, and Deathstroke are all in positions of power as well, with various other character playing as wild cards throughout the movie.
Not everyone has a major part to play, and some characters barely appear as more than a cameo. Predictably, the action mostly follows Batman, Catwoman, Grodd, and Joker. And in the movie's first half, they're all basically up to their old tricks. Batman defeats his enemies, he gives them the benefit of the doubt, and for the millionth time, they betray him. It's a little tiring.
But as the Bat continuously loses more and more of the modern technology he brought with him from the present, things get more interesting. An interlude around the middle changes up the animation style to beautiful, shifting watercolors, marking a shift in the story as well. Batman spends some time training with a clan of bat-worshipping ninjas, and his enemies hunker down for the final fight.
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Batman Ninja is worth watching for its aesthetic alone. Okazaki's character designs are as strong as ever, although the exaggerated female proportions on characters like Catwoman, Harley, and Poison Ivy look somewhat out of place in this setting. That doesn't detract too much, though, and overall it's fun simply to see how these various characters have incorporated elements of the setting into their typical costumes and disguises. Batman even briefly dresses as a visiting missionary, shaving a conspicuous bat into the top of his head. It's ridiculous, but that's the point--and Batman Ninja is surprisingly funny, using the clash of settings and characters for humor whenever possible.
That sense of humor does produce some unfortunately cheesy dialogue, from Batman's "Time to settle this once and for all"--come on, Bats, no one actually thinks you're going to finish Joker off this time around--to Selena's pandering "Time for some girl on girl action" before a vicious fight with Harley.
The action, at least, is smooth, frenetic, and fast, not unlike Afro Samurai itself. Combatants zip through the air like demons, trading blows with lightning speed. As Batman learns the ways of the ninja, the fights only gets crazier and crazier. The final act is completely insane, pulling influences from all over anime history, from the exaggerated one-on-one combat to giant mech battles. At some point during the lengthy climactic battle, the movie ditches any attempts at maintaining even a tiny bit of realism, and the results are hilarious, awesome, and totally bizarre.
Many of the English language voice actors have played these characters before, but as a newcomer to his role, Arrested Development and Veep's Tony Hale takes a high-pitched and maniacal turn as the Joker. He cackles and growls in all the right ways, even showing a new (or at least, seldom seen) side of Joker for a brief stretch.
I do wish Batman Ninja spent more time with the actual people of the era, showing their perspective as demonic warlords in giant mechanized castles lay waste to their homes and villages. Besides the clan of bat ninjas, Batman Ninja doesn't actually introduce any characters into Batman's world--unless you count Robin's tiny monkey sidekick--which is a shame. The fun is in seeing these familiar characters in a weird, unfamiliar, setting, but it also makes things slightly predictable, as characters like Batman and Joker never really change. And besides the aesthetic and Batman's lack of modern technology, you don't feel the time period as much as you might hope going in.
Still, Batman Ninja is gorgeously stylized, self aware, and heaps of fun, and Batman animation fans shouldn't miss it.
Batman Ninja releases on digital in the US April 24, on physical media May 8, and in theaters in Japan June 15.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Beautiful aesthetic and animation||Some cheesy dialogue|
|Pulls from a ton of anime influences||Some exaggerated character designs seem out of place|
|Takashi Okazaki character designs||Spends little time with people of the actual era|
|Tons of time travel fun|
|Totally insane and bizarre action|