Batman Ninja is a gloriously insane reimagining of Batman, his friends, and his adversaries, with astonishing visual design and more ludicrous action than you can shake a katana at.
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When I reviewed Gotham by Gaslight, I said that while there’s always another Batman story worth telling, perhaps we could do with a few less. Apparently to mock me, then, here is Batman Ninja, which is not just another Batman story, but a very good one that I can’t easily make fun of.
The plot sees Batman and a fair number of his mates and enemies being temporally displaced by a time machine built by Gorilla Grodd (Fred Tatasciore). Thanks to the frankly lackluster engineering capability possessed by great apes, which I can’t believe nobody mentioned during the thing’s construction, Batman et al wind up in feudal Japan – Bats himself touching down two whole years after everyone else, giving them plenty of time to Japanify their outfits and for his most well-known adversaries – Penguin (Tom Kenny), Two-Face (Eric Bauza), Poison Ivy (Tara Strong), Deathstroke (Fred Tatasciore) and the Joker (Tony Hale) – to have conquered various territories and styled themselves as feudal lords.
That’s about it for setup, and thank heavens for that. It’s all breezily covered in the first few minutes, leaving the remainder of the running time to busy itself with characteristically over-the-top action. And the little wrinkle that allows Batman to arrive late, as all good playboy billionaires must, provides a decent-enough excuse for characters to explain things to him (and, thus, the audience) without the exposition seeming out of place.
Not that there’s much explaining to be done. It’s really any old Batman tale with a Nipponese aesthetic and the East’s usual predilection for absurdity. This is, again, not a bad thing. Now that I think about it, it’s basically everything I might ever want from a film with the title Batman Ninja.
Besides, precisely nobody is watching this for the plot, or character development, or any of that hoity-toity horseshit. You could, if you were so inclined, watch Batman Ninja on mute, so impressive and enjoyable are the character designs of Afro Samurai’s Takashi Okazaki. It’s fascinating to see how the Bat-family and rogue’s gallery have incorporated the setting into their usual costumes and disguises, from the Joker’s trademark green hair tied up a top-knot to a reimagining of Bane as a masked sumo wrestler. There’s even time for a scene in which Bruce Wayne poses as a missionary with a bat symbol shaved into his head – because of course there’s a ******* bat symbol shaved into his head.
Batman Ninja smashes the established characters against the setting to split a creative atom, from which spills all kinds of cool ideas; the Batmobile rocketing through the narrow streets of Japanese villages, say, or a ship-to-ship battle incorporating a minigun, or a rooftop swordfight. Batman Ninja is funny, too, sometimes in a way that’s knowing, but often by accident, such as when Batman earnestly embraces his responsibility as the de facto leader of a ninja clan, or another bit when Harley Quinn and Catwoman fling lesbian-tinged combat taunts at each other.
Lines like that, and the generally outsized proportions of Batman Ninja’s female characters, probably wouldn’t be as easy to get away with in the West. But this is the Land of the Rising Sun, where anything goes. And also, wonderfully, the homeland of gloriously insane animated action, which Batman Ninja gleefully embraces more and more as it develops – particular in a latter half characterized by a distinct change in visual tone to shifting watercolors and more outright insanity than a Western filmmaker could reasonably dream up.
I could go on, but I won’t. What’s the point? Just have a look at some images, watch a trailer, whatever – it’s pretty obvious that Batman Ninja rules. This is a film in which giant mechanized castles get into scraps and Robin (Yuri Lowenthal) makes friends with a monkey. Sure, some more thought spared for ordinary people of the era might have been welcome, and in every way other than visually it’s slightly predictable, so much so that it can sometimes suck some drama out of goings-on. (When Batman says, “Time to settle this once and for all,” you suspect he’s probably not going to settle anything long-term, or else what would he do with his evenings?) But if you want all that, you’re looking in the wrong place. This is Batman Ninja, and if you want Batman, but as a ninja, then you’re in ******* luck.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.