Since this movie just came out, I’m going to do something I usually don’t do, and I’m going to provide a brief spoiler-free review of this movie before the actual review below.
Regular readers of this blog will remember one of my general rules for movies: A movie can do anything, as long as it is consistent in the amount of disbelief it asks the audience to suspend. This movie follows that principle by telling the audience right from the beginning that this movie is going to be insane, and you just need to strap in, hang on, and love it more than your pets or children.
Everything about this movie is borderline insane, from the premise and the plot to the dialogue and the characters. It operates on a logic that is basically akin to a Muppet movie, and that is in no way an insult. It tells you right from the start that this movie is going to be different from any Batman film you’ve ever seen, and it delivers on that promise. The character designs are amazing, as expected from Takashi Okazaki, the creator of Afro Samurai. Each Batman villain and sidekick gets a Japanese re-design, each of which is an homage to an anime trope or Japanese stock character. My favorite small element is that Harley Quinn’s giant hammer now is decorated to be a Den-den Daiko drum (just look at the picture). It’s a detail that I really love. Even better, each character gets an over-the-top intro screen like a video game cut-scene. Batman himself gets, I think, 4, and if you are a Batman fan, you will be cheering loudly at each of them, for they are all magical.
The art style is one of the most interesting things in the movie, because it varies wildly. Sometimes it’s done more in the traditional comic-book style, sometimes in a more manga style, and at one point it flat out becomes a series of Ukiyo-e drawings (including famous ones like the Great Wave Off Kanagawa, seen below). The movie itself is basically a three-penny tour of Japanese art styles and motifs, which is probably exactly what it wanted to be, since this movie is a great opportunity to pull in some of the people who are only comfortable with Western art.
Batman himself is pretty interesting within the movie. I don’t think it’s spoiling much to say that the movie starts with him basically attempting to defy space-time being warped around him through sheer force of will. This both serves to confirm that yes, this is Batman, and yes, his will is indomitable. Then, when brought back to Feudal Japan, he’s immediately confronted with the harsh reality that he can’t really be “Batman” here, hilariously exemplified by him attempting to grapple to a skyscraper only to be confronted with the fact that Sengoku-era Japan didn’t have skyscrapers. The movie is about Batman trying to play by his usual rules in this new world and failing repeatedly, until he learns to play by the new rules.
The fight sequences are great, as are the action sequences, and all of them are really unique, though they’re all tributes to other series and Japanese motifs.
Oh yeah, one other big thing for this movie: It is not slow. At all. If this were collected as an actual comic book, it would be years’ worth of plot progression. If you’re a Batman fan, I’d compare it to the “No Man’s Land” arc, which lasted 80 freaking issues. Despite this, the movie also never feels rushed. It finishes in 80 minutes, and you’re really seeing a ton of stuff. Maybe not all of it is fully clarified, but, again, the movie told you 3 minutes in that you’re watching a movie with Batman fighting samurai after being transported to the past along with Arkham Asylum. Just watch and love it.
Also, it’s great in either English (Tony Hale plays the Joker!) or in Japanese (Koichi Yamadera, who voiced Spike in Cowboy Bebop, plays Batman!), so take your pick. Actually, I recommend watching both, because the English script is not really a translation of the Japanese, so it appears to be two different movies.
That’s all I can say without spoilers, so go see the damned movie (you can buy it on Amazon for $20 bucks right now), then read below.
Okay, so, the movie starts out with Gorilla Grodd (Fred Tatasciore) fighting Batman (Roger Craig Smith), and this was one of the most bizarre and brilliant decisions in the movie. First of all, none of Batman’s traditional rogues gallery has the super-science to be messing around with time-travel, so adding a Flash villain was a great idea. Second, Grodd’s level of supergenius provides most of the crazy technology in this movie, and somewhat justifies it even in Feudal Japan.
Batman tries to shut off the machine, even as it literally warps reality around him, and this is one of the best intros to Batman on film. He doesn’t care about the fact that everything is being sucked through a portal or what’s happening, he’s going to, through sheer force of will, defy this physics-defying technology and shut it off. He fails, but that’s still EXACTLY what Batman would do.
Batman ends up in ancient Japan. The movie quickly shows that Batman is being hunted by samurai in Joker masks who are, naturally, revealed to be working for the Joker (TONY F*CKING HALE). Batman investigates and finds out that the Joker has now taken over most of Japan, built oil and coal refineries, and is living as a feudal Lord, with Harley Quinn (Tara “Supa” Strong) at his side.
Batman escapes from the Joker’s forces and runs into Catwoman (Grey “Best Daphne” Griffin), who reveals that everyone else got here two years before Batman, because of Batman’s attempt to shut down the machine. It’s then revealed that Alfred, Robin, Red Robin, Nightwing, and Red Hood are all there as well (Adam Croasdell, Yuri Lowenthal, Will Friedle, Croasdell, Lowenthal), as are a number of Batman villains.
Several of the villains have taken over various kingdoms of their own, most notably Poison Ivy, Two-face, Deathstroke, and Penguin (Strong, Eric Bauza, Tatasciore, Tom Kenny). Since they’re in the Sengoku period, which means “warring states,” each of the villains have replaced the daimyo which originally were warring over the land. Nobody knows where Grodd is, but it’s assumed that the villains are trying to take over Japan, and therefore change history. Joker is revealed to be in possession of the time machine, but only 1/5 of the energy sources which power it. The other villains have the rest.
Batman, now acting as a monk (because that’s the most common thing for white people in Japan in the 1500s), finds Alfred and the Batmobile, which he uses to assault Joker’s castle. However, it’s revealed that the Joker has been turning the castle into a giant Robot. While he’s only got one arm working, it’s enough to destroy the Batmobile and the Batwing. Batman then uses the Batcycle’s mech mode to turn into “Armored Batman” and fight a Sumo Bane (I have no idea if this is actually Bane or a sumo wrestler Joker made up to look like Bane, and I do not care). Finally, Batman is beaten, but is rescued by the Robins and a group of ninjas dressed similarly to Batman who appear to be able to control bats.
It’s revealed that the group that saved him is the “Bat Clan,” a ninja clan that believes that Batman is their mystical prophesied savior. They’ve been working with the Robins for the last 2 years. Batman receives a message from Grodd, who agrees to an alliance for the purpose of returning everyone to the future.
The Bat Clan, Bat Family, and Batman challenge the Joker’s forces on the river and win, only to be betrayed by Grodd with help from Two-Face (and, to a lesser extent, Catwoman, who helps Grodd so they will all be sent home). Joker and Harley, as a last resort, set off a giant bomb on their own boat, which disables most of the Bat Family for a few days. In the meantime, it’s revealed that most of the villains have almost finished building their own “castles” with the power sources they have from the time travel device.
Batman comes to the realization that he no longer has his technology and will have to adapt to use the Ninja Techniques of the Bat Clan in order to take down the villains. What follows is a training montage… SET TO A F*CKING SCROLL PAINTING. It’s a Japanese style called Emakimono, I think (Wikipedia seems to be saying that’s a thing, but I also don’t know enough about Eastern Art to be sure). Everything about it is amazing, and it basically crams a huge montage into an even shorter sequence by combining imagery and dialogue along the scroll.
The art style then shifts massively, signaled by a series of famous Ukiyo-e paintings, and becomes more akin to calligraphy or ink painting than to the more modern style of most of the film. We’re shown the Red Hood, dressed as a Komuso (a monk) in a red tengai (a reed hat that covers the face and represents an absence of self), finding a man and woman revealed to be an amnesiac Joker and Harley. The Red Hood (who the Joker once KILLED… he got better) starts to beat the crap out of them. Batman arrives and stops the Hood from killing them, saying that the Joker truly is a new man, because the Joker could never hide his true madness from Batman. Batman and Red Hood leave the pair, who harvest their first flower crop and begin laughing maniacally.
One month later, all of the villains agree to fight for supremacy on the Fields of Hell, which is apparently some place at the base of Mount Fuji, because of course that’s where you put the finale. However, all of the villains have converted their castles into giant moving fortresses, which, because this is in Japan, TRANSFORM INTO GIANT ROBOTS.
It’s revealed that Grodd has been using his mind-control powers to plant the designs for all of these robots in the minds of the villains, explaining how they managed to create such ludicrous technology. Apparently, he’s given up on returning to the future, and decided to make Japan into a country for apes. Grodd takes control of all the villains as the Bat Family assault the main castle via gliders, only for Joker and Harley to show up in a hot air balloon and re-take their former fortress. It turns out that Joker had hypnotized both of them into forgetting who they were, but planted a flower that would trigger the return of their memory when it bloomed. They then use Grodd’s controls to VOLTRON FIVE CASTLE ROBOTS INTO ONE SUPER ROBOT.
Batman rescues Catwoman and Grodd from the Joker, which leads Grodd to give Batman his mind-control flute that controls his army of apes (we saw it earlier, but not to this extent). Robin’s pet monkey Monkichi (named after the Sanrio character) manages to use it to control an army of armored monkeys to form a giant monkey to fight the robot (and, btw, yes, he plays the 60s Batman Theme). The giant monkey doesn’t work, because… well, not for any of the reasons it logically shouldn’t, but mostly because the Joker has a flamethrower. However, the giant monkeys combine with all of the bats that the Bat clan has, and form a GIANT F*CKING ULTRAMAN-STYLE 1930s BATMAN, AND I NEVER WANTED TO SEE ANYTHING MORE THAN THIS.
Batman and the Joker fight with their giant robot/bat-monkey-conglomeration, and the giant Batman manages to punch its way through the Joker robot, allowing Batman, Robin, Red Robin, Catwoman, Red Hood, and Nightwing to get in and have their showdowns against all of the villains. Batman and Joker end up fighting atop the burning castle, with Batman finally winning by using his super ninja skills. Joker dares him to drop him from the castle, and Batman obliges. Joker laughs that Batman isn’t a hero anymore, only for it to be revealed that Batman has attached his leg to a rope, so he ends up fine.
Everyone returns to the present, we’re shown the follow-up in comic panels over the credits, until we get the final scene of Catwoman selling a pot she stole from Japan to an antique shop for a fortune.
Pretty much everything I said in the spoiler-free review is still true. The art is great (and I have to hear the Grouch yelling loudly that this was exactly the kind of style matching that didn’t happen in GOTHAM BY GASLIGHT), the action sequences are great, character designs are great, and pacing is phenomenal, so much so that it almost defies belief. The plot is insane (as you can see), but it’s still amazing, because within the universe of this particular movie, even the crazy parts kind of make sense. The other thing is that this is a very different, but still very true Batman movie. Batman has his code and his willpower. Joker has his genius but also his insanity and his obsession with Batman. Despite the fact that Joker is not the one who designs the giant robots or any of that within the movie, Joker is still very much the villain he deserves to be by virtue of his ruthlessness and insanity.
Ultimately, this movie bizarrely delivers way more than it promised, something that… shouldn’t be possible for a movie called “Batman Ninja.” Really just brilliant all around. If you’re a Batman fan, an anime fan, or just a person who likes LSD, you should watch this movie.
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