Batman Ninja movie review: The most original version of the Dark Knight since Christopher Nolan
Director - Junpei Mizusaki
Cast - Roger Craig Smith, Tony Hale, Tara Strong
Rating - 3.5/5
After Christopher Nolan’s Batman, the prevailing belief was that to make a successful superhero movie you’d have to reinterpret these characters in unexpected new ways. Comic book movies, ironically, couldn’t be faithful to their rich source material. In the Dark Knight trilogy’s case, the grounded take on Batman gave fans of the often campy character - and superheroes in general - validation for liking these stories in the first place. Finally, we were understood - that too by an icy, well respected British man.
This theory - that for superhero movies to survive, they’d consciously have to distance themselves from the books that inspired them - has been proven wrong roughly twice a year for the last 10 years. With every new Marvel movie, we are reminded that there is a reason that superhero comics have sustained immense popularity for close to 80 years. And despite films such as Chronicle, Unbreakable, Kick-Ass and Logan - subversive as they all are - we are reminded that if the storytelling is solid, then we, as an audience, are still willing to suspend our disbelief for a couple of hours.
The last three weeks have been particularly eventful in the world of superhero cinema. In April, Avengers: Infinity War shut down every cynical prediction that was made a decade ago - back when two industry altering superhero films, The Dark Knight and Iron Man, were released - about the infeasibility of these movies. A week after Avengers, an entirely new kind of superhero film emerged out of South Korea (and Netflix) - Psychokinesis was in many ways the antithesis of Infinity War, a smaller, more urgent story about a father and his daughter, made with a respect for the genre and a passion to take it further. And now, a week after that, we have what is probably the most refreshingly original take on Batman since Nolan’s beloved films.
Batman Ninja is exactly what you’d imagine, a film in which the Caped Crusader is transported - via time travel - to feudal Japan. There, he learns that his entire rogues’ gallery - or at least his most popular foes - have already settled in, having been similarly transported before him. They’ve taken control of four feudal states, and each of them owns a piece of the puzzle that when combined, will give them the ability to build a time machine and return home, to Gotham City.
And even in this strange new land, the Joker has asserted himself as the alpha, a sort of shogun-like figure, a rogue samurai warlord who through typical nihilism challenges Batman on soil that is as foreign to him as the thought of killing his adversaries.
With stunning character design by the renowned Afro Samurai creator Takashi Okazaki, and an almost avant-garde aesthetic, Batman Ninja is certainly more interesting as a visual experiment than as a piece of storytelling. For one, it feels absolutely unrestrained by the limitations of live-action - they go to places in this movie (both literally and not) that you’d never have imagined - Scarecrow threatens to rape Harley Quinn in a painterly flashback, there is a third act showdown that seems to have been inspired by the giant mecha robots from Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Bane, of course, is a Sumo wrestler.
Once again, DC animation has proven that they’re doing far more interesting things with these characters than the seemingly cursed film division. While their more traditional adaptations of iconic Batman comics may be rather hit or miss - The Dark Knight Returns was acceptable, but the R-rated The Killing Joke was a travesty greater than Batman v Superman - the experimental ones such as the 1966 Batman TV throwback, The Return of the Caped Crusaders, have been quietly pushing boundaries.
But despite Batman Ninja being almost entirely set in the Japan of a Takashi Miike film, the influence of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s iconic Batman: The Animated Series is unmistakable. For instance, both Roger Craig Smith - who previously voiced Batman in the video game, Arkham Origins - and Tony Hale, who plays Joker, borrow heavily from the seminal work Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill did in the animated series. And like virtually every great Batman story ever told - be it Tim Burton’s gothic movies, Nolan’s realistic ones, and even the Arkham games - once you remove the cape and cowl, you realise that beneath the constantly evolving surface, there is a uniformity to the spirit of this character that these different creators have all tapped into.
Batman will be there wherever help is needed, even if that means going back in time and battling the same crazed lunatics who haunt him at home. That is his duty, the duty that he, almost as if her were a samurai, has undertaken for himself. He will keep reinventing himself, he will keep evolving, because he lives in a transient world. It’s often said that nothing is permanent in the world of comic books - friends become enemies, enemies become friends and the dead come back to life. There is one constant though -- Batman’s parents will always be dead.
Batman Ninja honours this legacy - this journey that we have been on for almost 100 years - in the most surprising and nostalgic ways - if only for true Batman fans and no one else.