Where do I even begin trying to describe Batman Ninja? Usually after watching a film, I have a pretty solid idea of whether I liked it or not. We all have an immediate, gut feeling after we’ve absorbed a piece of media that we can easily share with others when they ask the obvious question – “How was it?” But Batman Ninja? Words fail me. Not because it’s so good or so bad, but because I have no idea how I feel about it.
I guess I’ll start with the usual info. Made in Japan and released last year, Batman Ninja is an animated film that sees Batman, alongside his many allies and enemies, accidentally travelling back in time to Feudal Japan, where he must learn the ways of the samurai to free the country from the tyrannical grip of his most dangerous enemies. You’d probably think “Well, this doesn’t sound too bad.” But trust me, this synopsis does not accurately sum up this film.
You know how all films ultimately follow very similar structures so as to tell a cohesive story? Batman Ninja does not care for such a structure. It has almost NO structure. It laughs at the very basic and fundamental rules of storytelling and does whatever the hell it wants. Some scenes have very little connecting them, with entire swathes of the story being completely overlooked and ignored just so the film can get to the next big action scene. There are about, like, five different inciting incidents throughout that kept changing the focus of the plot, and some aspects simply aren’t explained, like how the villains were able to create their giant, mechanical fortresses.
The pacing is all over the place, with shit happening almost at random. Batman has, like, three super climactic battles with the Joker before the half-hour mark. There are very few moments where the characters stop to take a breath and talk and, when they do, it’s purely to exposit. If you know next to nothing about the Batman franchise, you are going to be beyond lost and confused because this film will not explain even the basics to you.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing since not every film should have to re-tell the characters’ origins and relationships just to get newcomers up to speed. We’ve seen Bruce’s parents get shot enough times to the point where it’s lost a lot of impact. Sometimes it’s nice to have a film where we already know the players and how they relate to one another so more time can be spent on telling an original story and having cool character interactions. But even as someone who knows the characters, I couldn’t even enjoy seeing all of Batman’s allies join forces to fight off the villains because there are so many damn characters in this movie and only a small handful of them get any meaningful screen time – specifically Batman (obviously), Gorilla Grodd (the main villain of the film) and Joker (the ACTUAL main villain). Everyone else simply exists so the film can be all “Look, it’s Nightwing!” or “Look, it’s Two-Face!”
It’s especially infuriating since, early on in the film, it has a pretty cool set-up. Since Batman arrived in Japan two years behind everyone else (how did that happen when everyone got transported at the same time?!), all the villains were able to take over different regions unopposed and each of them has a part of the machine needed to get them all home. You’d think the film would then be all about Batman and friends storming their individual bases and reclaiming the machine parts as they went. But no, most of the villains don’t even appear until the tail end of the movie for the big final battle. Hell, there’s a moment where Bane randomly appears out of nowhere, is swiftly defeated in a few minutes and then never appears or is even alluded to for the rest of the film.
You know what it’s like? It’s like those videogame cutscene compilations on YouTube that end up making no sense because important context has been lost due to cutting out the gameplay parts. That’s how I felt watching this movie; I thought I was going insane because surely there had to have been something I missed. That was the only reason why so little made sense. But nope, the film’s THAT nonsensical.
It’s a hodgepodge of ideas that the creators all thought were really cool and they didn’t want to cut any of them, so they shoved them into the run-time they had and didn’t bother trying to write anything remotely cohesive to link them all. At one point, there’s a random sub-plot that was actually kind of interesting and could very well have been the focus of an entirely separate movie. But it comes out of nowhere, adds nothing to the overall plot, and is over as suddenly as it began.
I can’t even tell you what the movie’s about thematically. Is it a story about Batman learning to do his job without relying on his gadgets and understanding the importance of teamwork? Is it about the never-ending conflict between Batman and Joker and how they seem to be destined to do this forever? Is it about Damien forming a lifelong friendship with some random-ass monkey? I don’t know and the movie clearly doesn’t either, content to smacking its toys together like an excited five-year old.
I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that I hate this movie but, the weird thing is, there’s a small part of me that wants to love it. There is something weirdly delightful in how over-the-top it is at times. I’ve mentioned before how I love being surprised when it comes to films and such, and Batman Ninja certainly surprised me. If it’s got one thing going for it, it’s its unpredictability, though this is sadly a double-edged sword. Even moments that take the audience by surprise need to make sense and very little in this movie does.
There are also some aspects that I genuinely did like. The animation, while maybe not particularly flattering in screenshots, looks way better in motion and is very stylised, especially during certain scenes like the action set-pieces. I doubt everybody would like it but it at least helps the film stand out visually, though there are a couple of random moments where it’s animated in 2D and I’m not sure why they did that.
I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t appreciate the era-appropriate character designs. They’re not all winners (I’m especially not a fan of Damian’s or Red Hood’s) but they’re still pretty interesting, and I actually really liked the designs for Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn – the latter probably being one of the best characters in the movie just because of how animated she is. And while I can’t speak for the English dub, the Japanese voice performances are all pretty great. Fellow JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure fans will be pleased to hear Wataru Takagi as the Joker and Takehito Koyasu as Grodd, who were the voices of Okuyasu and Dio respectively.
In the end, though, I can’t call Batman Ninja a good movie. At the same time, though, I hesitate to call it a bad one. What I can say with confidence is that it’s a film you watch once and ONLY once, because once that element of unpredictability is gone, there’s no reason to go back to it. Unless you want to show it to somebody else because then you’ll get to enjoy seeing them react to all the nonsense.
Now, how about we get a Batman Ninja videogame?