Whenever the topic of “superhero fatigue” comes up, it’s understandable to immediately jump to the raft of live action superhero films that major studios have been steadily churning out for the last fifteen years. However, I think it’s hard to really use these films as go-to examples when, even with the bad ones, there is always so much hype surrounding them that they still manage to make millions upon millions of dollars. To me, superhero fatigue is best encapsulated by the DC animated films and, more specifically, Batman. Yes, comparing the fan-targeted straight-to-DVD animated films to the general audience-targeted live action is like comparing apples and oranges, but I am so tired of Batman content and I’m pretty sure the large majority of fans have felt the same since they saw Batman and Batgirl have sex. I feel like I’m seeing ads for some kind of new Batman thing all the time, but one recent project that could not escape my curiosity was the high-concept and highly stylized Batman Ninja (2018).
Batman Ninja, to put it simply, is just “Batman, but it’s anime.” I’ll give credit to Warner Bros. though, because they actually stepped back and allowed this project to be entirely Japanese-made. The character designs were done by the same person behind Afro Ninja, and the film is even getting a genuine wide-release in theaters in Japan this June. However, the script that was written by Kazuki Nakashima was re-written by Leo Chu and Eric Garcia for the recent American straight-to-DVD release. I don’t know what would motivate this decision, but it has resulted in two different versions of Batman Ninja and I have to say: the American version is terrible.
Well, maybe “terrible” is a tad strong, but it is pretty boring and it’s all too representative of Batman fatigue. The story is that Batman (Roger Craig Smith) is investigating a gathering of Gotham’s supervillains at Arkham Asylum, called together by not-a-Batman-villain Gorilla Grodd (Fred Tatasciore), who has also built a time machine. Batman tries to stop the machine, but something goes awry and sends Batman and every character that was also coincidentally there (Red Hood, Nightwing, Red Robin, Robin, and Alfred for some reason) back in time to Japan during the Warring States period. However, Batman arrives two years further down the timeline than all the villains, after they have usurped the local daimyo to become warlords of their own with their own samurai. Batman has to stop the bad guys and yadda yadda yadda you can fill in the blanks. There’s absolutely nothing to the story of this movie, it honestly feels like it is on autopilot. What makes Gotham By Gaslight (2018) so good is the fact that it takes advantage of its setting and cares to explore the “what if” element of taking familiar characters and putting them in a new setting. Batman Ninja only does this in the most surface level way possible by redesigning all of the characters, and most of them don’t even look that impressive.
It boggles the mind how many creative opportunities were missed with this movie, and I can’t help but wonder if it was because of the script rewrite (it probably was). Apparently the language barrier isn’t an issue ever, but the only time anybody from the present talks to anyone from the past is when Batman and the Bat Family meet and work with a clan of ninjas known as the Bat Clan, who follow a prophecy that a foreigner dressed as a bat will come to Japan to lead the clan and bring peace to Japan. From helping the Bat Family upon their arrival to nursing Batman back to health, and even building “ninja technology” that apparently rivals that of the 21st century, the Bat Clan are the ultimate element of plot convenience. You don’t even see the clan train Batman! Batman is practically already a ninja so what’s the point, anyways. On top of this, Gorilla Grodd just has access to 21 century tech that allows him and the other villains to build these giant mechanized castles with a crap ton of weapons that also turn into Gundam mechs. Look, I know comic book films and anime have a built-in defense when it comes to defying logic, especially when it comes to the whole “how do the villains have the time and resources for their crazy contraptions?” – but come on! I just want some rules or consistency. You can’t make a big deal about the Joker introducing coal and steamships to feudal Japan when you’ve got giant goddamn robots. It’s just random thing after random thing and you hardly have time to take any of it in or get invested in any of the conflict, physical or otherwise.
I’m sure it might seem really foolish of me to pick apart something that is meant to be a fun twist on a familiar story, but outside of the art design, I am just not impressed. I can’t take Batman seriously when he keeps allying with villains YOU KNOW are just going to betray him and HE NEVER SEES THE BETRAYAL COMING! Come on, bats, stop being a chump. I am not looking for Seven Samurai starring Batman. I want him to overcome the adversity of being out of time in a technologically-limited foreign land. That would’ve been so cool, but no, the fact that they’re in feudal Japan basically doesn’t matter. Outside of the action scenes, Batman is incredibly passive and he kinda just lets the plot that he has very little agency in take its course. Speaking of agency, did I mention how the shot that introduces Catwoman literally starts on her big, jiggly cleavage? Come on, guys. Stop drawing women and animating women like this. It’s like I’m watching a dumb video game, which is pretty much what the 3D-modeled characters are animated like with their choppy as hell movement. I really hope the untouched Japanese version is better than this, because as it stands this is a big step back for DC animation and frankly I wouldn’t mind if Batman took a nice long recess after this.
Batman Ninja is a film that fails to live up to its high concept or its impressive art design. The animation, and frankly the story itself, makes you feel like you’re watching a ridiculous video game instead of a film. The creative possibilities of the premise are never adequately explored, and the inconsistent pacing and lackadaisical writing results in a film that just downright proves how played out the bat is.