Joker: No Tears for a Clown (Spoiler-Free + Ending Explained)

Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix bring us a new and unusual version of the classic Batman villain.

SUMMARY (Spoiler-Free)

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a clown-for-hire and aspiring stand-up comic with Pseudobulbar Affect, which causes him to laugh at inappropriate times. He takes care of his invalid mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), has a crush on his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) and fantasizes about appearing on the late night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). However, a series of events, starting with him being brutally assaulted by a group of kids for no reason, lead to Arthur becoming the symbol of  anarchy: The Joker.

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Ask him how he got those scars. Just ask.

END SUMMARY

Okay, here’s the spoiler-free analysis of the movie: 

This movie’s going to be divisive as hell. I’m not even talking about the issue of whether or not The Joker, a character famous for not really having a definitive backstory despite being around for 75 years, needed an origin movie. This is like any other figure with this many alternate characterizations: If you don’t like it, no big deal, it’s not canon. Heath Ledger caught crap because his Joker only wore makeup, and he was still amazing. What I mean by divisive is that I walked out of this movie being unable to say definitively if what I just watched was brilliant or not. I’ve come to the conclusion that it was probably a bunch of brilliant parts that were not quite assembled in a brilliant way. If I thought that was a commentary on comic book histories being composed of equal parts of brilliant storytelling (like The Killing Joke or Spider-Man’s “Kraven’s Last Hunt”) and not-so-brilliant storytelling (like All-Star Batman and Robin or Spider-Man’s “One More Day”), then that would itself be brilliant, but… nope, that’s not what they were going for.

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Y’all ‘member when Batman kidnapped and abused Robin? I ‘member.

One thing is that Joaquin Phoenix really went above and beyond in his performance. He may not be playing the “Joker” as we know the character, or even a character that really rings true to being the Joker, but the role that he is playing is absolutely perfectly realized in his portrayal. A big thing was his commitment to getting a kind of impossibly lanky figure which more resembles the traditional joker physique. He lost over 50 pounds for the role, but he also manages to move and shift in ways that emphasize the unnaturalness of it. However, when he wants to, he can look almost normal, because how he holds himself is so key to the audience’s perception. He also manages to do a perfectly horrifying version of Pseudobulbar Affect (which is a real thing), showing how sad and embarrassed he feels while still laughing externally. He shows us the grand gestures and performances that the character wishes to pull off, but also the awkward reality of him trying to do them and not being able to. I don’t know that the movie used him well, but I know that his performance really carries the weaker portions.

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Laugh through the tears, man. 

However, the movie’s themes are, at best, a little disconcerting and vaguely defended and undercut. The film wants you to empathize with Arthur and, to ensure that you have a shot at it, gives him an incredibly terrible life that only gets worse throughout the film. Moreover, it makes sure to convey that almost everything that happens to him isn’t really his fault. Most of the film is just randomness, something that actually DOES align with The Killing Joke’s origin for the Joker of just having one really bad day. But, when we finally do see him actually make a decision, it’s one that he actually tries to excuse, while he’s doing it, by saying that it’s not his fault. The problem is that this is the Joker. He’s not a character we should empathize with. He’s a psychopath. Even when people have portrayed his backstory as tragic, it’s always shown that he chose to use his backstory to become evil as opposed to Batman using tragedy to become a force for good. This movie doesn’t have Batman, so we don’t really have a solid figure to remind us that we are NOT supposed to like what Arthur does. So, basically, we’re cheering for a figure who is famous for being a psychotic killer. That’s bad.

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Not quite THIS bad, but still bad.

From a technical standpoint, the music and camera work in the film are great. They really feed into the madness of the character. The supporting characters are also well-done, particularly Frances Conroy as his mother who is arguably crazier than he is. The settings are perfect for the environment. Gotham is dirty, it’s dying, it’s filled with homeless people, and it’s increasingly segregated by class. It’s basically New York in the 1980s, which… is what Gotham was a stand-in for anyway. 

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De Niro also nails being a knock-off Johnny Carson.

Overall, I keep going back and forth over whether I think this is a good movie. The truth is, it’s a well-done film, but the way it handles its message is haphazard and, given the kind of message it’s sending out, that’s dangerous. This movie could, with just a few tweaks, have been a solid statement about the fact that society suffers at the mercy of the few or that everyone benefits from taking care of the mentally ill. Instead, it basically says that if you kill random people, there’s a large group of people that will worship you. I feel like that’s a really bad message. Well, maybe see it yourself to decide.

ENDING EXPLAINED *SPOILERS*

So, a big part of the film is that Arthur has fantasies about what’s happening around him. This is a throwback to the film The King of Comedy, a movie starring Robert De Niro that revolves around a mentally-ill comedian holding a talk-show hostage. If you’ve seen the movie, you probably know how this fits in with Joker, since that’s kind of what happens briefly at the end. Joker shows us very early on in the film that Arthur fantasizes about being famous, telling off his therapist, killing his boss, or getting the father figure he always wanted, but he clearly knows they’re fantasies. Later, after Arthur’s social services are cut and he can’t get his meds, he ends up confusing the fantasies for reality, including hallucinating being a charming boyfriend to his neighbor Sophie. We’re later shown that, in fact, she doesn’t really know who he is. 

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Which you should know because no single mom gets to go out at will.

Because of this, many parts of the movie could be, and in fact probably are, only in Arthur’s mind. However, unlike The King of Comedy, where the ending is actually in De Niro’s character’s mind, this movie actually shows us that Arthur’s shooting of Murray Franklin and the ensuing riot are definitely real, because we’re given an objective third-person viewpoint showing it. In other words, the part where he is the Joker is him acting in real life the way that he always wanted to act in his fantasies. 

He’s able to do this because, as the Joker, he is not Arthur Fleck. In fact, he’s never been Arthur Fleck. He was just an abandoned child that his mother adopted (though she claims that this was a lie put forth by Thomas Wayne) and allowed to be abused by her boyfriends repeatedly throughout his childhood. It’s even possible that his laughter is the result of a Traumatic Brain Injury from this abuse, meaning that the most embarrassing and constantly tormenting thing about his life was her fault. He then kills her and applies a pure-white level of greasepaint to his face, erasing his own identity even further. He says then that his life is not a tragedy, it’s a comedy. That’s because a tragedy, from a traditional Aristotelian standpoint, requires the downfall of a good but flawed person, while a comedy is the rise of a sympathetic, but not necessarily good, person. In other words, while Arthur fell, that lets the Joker rise. So, the Joker doesn’t actually have a backstory, in Arthur’s mind. He’s a blank slate that has been shaped by the society he lives in, which happens to be a mass murderer. That’s why he just keeps killing at the end.

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Dear God, his body took a lot of punishment.

This movie could, and probably should, have been a solid commentary about what kind of society treats its most vulnerable people the way Arthur has been treated. He was abandoned. His mother was allowed to adopt him, despite her being mentally unwell. He was given back to her even though she literally chained him to a radiator and beat him. Then, at last, they cut the funding for his mental healthcare, resulting in him having a complete psychotic break. That’s Arthur’s backstory and it’s a solid way to do a tragedy. The problem is: HE’S THE F*CKING JOKER. You cannot empathize with the clown prince of chaos. He’s a literal force of anarchy and he knows it. When asked why he killed three people, he doesn’t point out it was in self defense, he just says it was funny. It wasn’t because they were rich, or because they were assholes, it’s just because it was funny, because that’s what the Joker would say and that’s who he is now. That’s not something we should empathize with, but it is something that can be emulated, and no one should want that. 

This movie should have been a solid cautionary tale about what happens in a society that has a giant class imbalance and treats the poor like crap, but instead it’s a movie about how shooting people will make you famous and happy. After all, everyone knows who the Joker is. 

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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Firefly Fridays – Episode 7: “Jaynestown”

So, this was the fourth episode aired, but it was also the first one after the show was pre-empted for baseball, something that definitely didn’t help with Fox’s reputation amongst the fanbase. But, whatever, on with the review!

SUMMARY

In the beginning, Simon and Kaylee are talking about Simon’s language; specifically, that he doesn’t swear. Simon insists that he does, just only when appropriate. Inara passes by on her way out of the ship, to which Kaylee wishes her “good sex.” The pair are then interrupted by Jayne destroying the infirmary looking for tape so that he can conceal a gun on his person, only to be told by Mal that there will be no guns on the planet. Jayne mentions that he has enemies on the planet, which Simon sarcastically questions, but Mal insists on going in unarmed.

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Have good sex… Seriously, you two.

The ship lands in Canton, a town that harvests mud for manufacture of high-grade ceramics using indentured labor. In an attempt to spend more time with him, Kaylee suggests that Simon should come along. Mal agrees, saying that Simon could easily pass for a rich man looking to buy mud, which will divert attention. Book offers to watch after River while Simon’s off the ship.

The land-crew, consisting of Wash, Simon, Mal, Kaylee, and a disguised Jayne, wander into the Mudding Pits, only to find a statue of Jayne which people have clearly been treating as an altar, lighting votive candles and leaving gifts. Simon, proving his word, can only mutter “son of a bitch.”

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Jayne says he has no idea what the statue is about, as the last time he was in Canton he committed a robbery that “went South,” which he imagines the Magistrate is still pissed about. At that same moment, Inara is meeting with the Magistrate (Gregory Itzin), who wants her to solve a problem for him.

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If the problem doesn’t go away after 4 hours… Keep Inara around.

Back on Serenity, River is “fixing” Book’s Bible. She’s attempting to solve the scientific impossibilities of the Garden of Eden by incorporating “non-progressional evolution” and Noah’s Ark with quantum-state phenomena. Book states that “you don’t fix faith, it fixes you.”

In a Canton Bar, the group is trying “Mudder’s Milk,” the single greatest alcoholic beverage ever created: It’s proteins, carbs, and vitamins, described as “your grandma’s best turkey dinner,” plus 15% alcohol. Why do I love this so much? IT’S BASICALLY VITAMEATAVEGAMIN!!!! Only with less alcohol. Simon points out that Mudder’s Milk is basically the same as the beer they gave slaves in Ancient Egypt to keep them from malnutrition, because why be subtle?

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Same great taste!

Mal finds out that the man they were supposed to meet was killed a few days prior, so they need another way to get the merchandise across town without being detected by the Magistrate. They’re then interrupted by a man playing a god-honest folk-song about Jayne called “The Hero of Canton.” The song explains the hero-worship, explaining that when he was here previously, Jayne robbed a large amount of money from the Magistrate, then dumped the money over all of the poor mudders of Canton. Jayne explains to the crew that when he stole the money, his ship got hit by a missile, and so he had to dump all of the money in order to escape. It was completely unintentional.

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This must be what going mad feels like.

Back on Serenity, in one of the best short gag scenes in the series, River is trying to apologize to Book, saying that she “tore these [pages] out of your symbol and they turned into paper.” Book, who’s using the sink, turns around with his hair unbound from his usual ponytail, and reveals himself. I’m gonna put a picture in here, because I think the only verbal description is that he looks like a cross between that photo of Einstein sticking his tongue out, a man getting electrocuted, and John Legend in the year 2065. River, naturally, runs away screaming. Zoe comes to see what happened and is similarly taken aback by his hair.

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As the crew leaves the bar they are confronted with a crowd who now recognizes Jayne as their hero. Jayne is quickly mobbed, while Mal tries to figure out how to use this to their advantage.

Inara is on her shuttle when the Magistrate brings in his “problem,” his son, who is 26 and a virgin. Inara, annoyed by the Magistrate’s attitude, convinces him to leave the pair alone.

At the bar, Simon and Kaylee are getting drunk and somewhat flirty. Mal tries to get them to leave, but Kaylee insists things are “going well,” which Mal correctly interprets and leaves them to their drinks.

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Hamsters come up as a topic. Because they’s nice.

On Serenity, River is hiding under the stairs, saying “They say the snow on the roof was too heavy. They say the ceiling will cave in. His brains are in terrible danger.” I consider these lines nothing short of brilliant. Book asks her to come out, to which she explains: “I can’t. Too much hair.” Book tries to explain that it’s part of his vows, but Zoe just tells River that he’s putting the hair away. Wash and Mal return, explaining the Jayne situation to an incredulous Zoe. Mal plans on having Jayne be at a celebration in his honor in the town, which should distract everyone enough to transport the cargo.

That night, Inara and the Magistrate’s son, Fess (Zachary Kranzler), talk, with Inara insisting that he be more confident in himself. At the same time, the Magistrate releases the partner Jayne abandoned four years ago, sending him to attack Jayne.

The next morning, Jayne’s still basking in his own glory, and Simon and Kaylee wake up together, resulting in Simon saying something exceptionally stupid and offending her. She insists he stay in the bar, because “that’s the sort of thing that would be appropriate.” The “ya blew it” look Mal gives him after is perfect.

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That’s the one.

Inara wakes up with Fess, who explains that he’s going to be helping his father get revenge on a hero who thwarted him. Inara starts to defend Mal, only to find out that it’s actually Jayne, something that leaves her flabbergasted. God, I love an opportunity to use that word. Fess reveals that the Magistrate has grounded Serenity.

Jayne’s old partner, Stitch (Kevin Gage), attacks Simon and cuts his arm when he tries to avoid telling him where Jayne is. The crew transfers the cargo successfully. Jayne gives a short, somewhat decent, speech to the mudders before being confronted by Stitch who tells everyone the truth about what Jayne did. Stitch tries to kill Jayne, but one of the mudders who has been idolizing Jayne most jumps in front of him and is killed. Jayne proceeds to beat Stitch to death with the base of his own statue. Jayne tells the crowd that there are no heroes. There are just “people like [him].” With that, he destroys his statue.

FireflyEp7Hero

With the help of Fess, the crew takes off. Book goes to talk to River who is highlighting a Bible. She tells him to “Just keep walking, Preacher man.” Simon and Kaylee flirt again, with Kaylee pointing out that his manners don’t mean anything in their position, but Simon insists that’s how he’s respectful. She then makes a joke about them sleeping together to mock him.

The episode ends with Mal and Jayne sitting together, and Jayne remarking that it’s stupid for the man who died for him to have done so, and that they’re probably putting the statue back up. Mal agrees, but tells Jayne:

“It’s my estimation that…every man ever got a statue made of him, was one kind of sumbitch or another. Ain’t about you, Jayne. About what they need.”

Jayne closes the episode saying, “Don’t make no sense.”

END SUMMARY

Alright, so, this episode again highlights a big theme of Firefly: The inequity of the system of government. In Canton, the Magistrate holds all of the workers in indentured servitude. It’s even a selling point for the mud. The Foreman flat-out says: “We have over 2000 workers, mostly indentured. We pay them next to nothing, that way we can pass the savings directly to you, the customer.” Basically, they’re advertising “hey, we force people to live in terrible conditions to enhance profits.” Now, many people might point out that this is similar to the business model of [insert almost any major corporation], but the difference in Canton is that the Magistrate is the one in charge of this and also the one who has legal right to enforce debts. It’s basically like if Wal-mart had a private army keeping their workers in the store… or if this were the railroad and mining conglomerates of the 1800s and early 1900s.

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Railroad strikes were fun

However, while watching this episode, one other aspect of the society in Firefly becomes apparent: There’s almost no automation within the series. While we know that computers are capable of auto-piloting spaceships, we don’t see some of the basic automated processes we see emerge in the present, like crop-sprayers or self-driving harvesters. The focus of this episode is on “mudders,” literally people who farm mud, something that lends itself readily to being done by machines.

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This automated planter exists already.

 And yet, somehow, slave-ish labor is apparently the way they choose to do things. There are only 3 ways this makes sense:

Option 1 is if indentured servitude is cheaper than automation. Given that the workers A) constantly are trying to undermine the Magistrate and B) appear to only work during the day, this seems unlikely. It’s not like it’d take a complicated mechanism to harvest mud and, as evidenced by the very existence of Serenity’s engine, near-limitless power is not particularly expensive in the future. I can’t imagine it costs less to feed, clothe, govern, etc. the mudders than to upkeep some machines. Since the Magistrate is rich and able to both import and manufacture goods (as shown by his home), there’s also no scarcity of materials issue.

Option 2 is if the Union of Allied Planets has banned robotics. This actually seems probable, since the only robot I remember from the series is Mr. Universe’s (presumably illegal) robot bride. The only problem is that banning AI or humanoid robotics wouldn’t likely prevent the kind of mechanisms required for harvesting mud. It’s not like you need to be able to process emotions or quantum physics to figure out “check how muddy this mud is. If it’s muddy enough, collect it. If not, muddy it more.” It’s at this point I should reveal that I’m not 100% sure what the mudders actually do, since they don’t actually make the ceramics, but I can assume it involves purifying the material and making it the appropriate chemical composition to be made into ceramic plating. Pretty much no matter what, it seems like a relatively simple set of algorithms could handle it, compared to the ones required for INTERPLANETARY TRAVEL. To those of you who would point out that interplanetary travel is not as complicated when you don’t have to account for fuel… yeah, okay, but it’s still a lot of math to figure out the closest routes based on orbitals and such, or routes that don’t intersect with certain territories, so shut up you pedants.

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Yeah, she’s a sexbot

Option 3, and probably the actual reason, is that many of the members of the Alliance, like the Magistrate, thrive on preserving their status. For the Magistrate to be wealthy and authoritative on his moon, he has to make sure that no one else on the moon ever has any wealth or authority. Power only exists in relative terms, after all. Even though pseudo-slavery might not be the most economically viable model for the Magistrate to be rich and powerful on an Alliance-wide scale, it makes sure that he’s the most powerful man on his little moon. I’m sure there’s an analogy one could make to certain historical models of government or society where people were kept in an intentionally deprived state for the claimed purpose of easier economic exploitation but might instead have been based more heavily around preserving a power structure by suppression of a large group, but my slavish attempts to name one have been feudal.

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And, really, this is somehow one of the most ridiculous and yet one of the most understandable aspects of the Firefly future: People have shitty lives entirely because the Alliance wants them to have shitty lives. This is the future. Energy is now post-scarcity (though not to the Star Trek level). Interplanetary shipping is part of life. Asteroid mining is stated to exist repeatedly. There are dozens of planets worth of resources and finding more is no longer a ridiculous concept. Everyone should basically have all of their base needs met at all times, just because it would be easy to provide them. The starting point in a future society with this level of resources should be above safety on the hierarchy of needs, and yet it’s often below physiological, with people dying from lack of medicine or adequate shelter, and a huge percentage of the population not being “burdened with an overabundance of schooling,” despite the fact that they have an interplanetary internet. Even without knowing that the government experimented on River in a completely unethical and immoral way, the state of the future speaks volumes as to their cruelty.

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River and religion is just a very funny aside for me. It’s a perfect point-counterpoint when she’s trying to make the Bible into a scientifically viable, logical system, something that Book, accurately, states is not the point of faith. Faith is supposed to make you better through your interactions with something bigger than yourself.

Overall, I love this episode. It’s not in the top-tier for me, but it’s a damn good hour of television. The idea that Jayne, literally the LEAST moral member of the crew, becomes a folk hero through complete happenstance is hilarious, but the message at the end is really what makes the episode for me:

The truth of a person isn’t what people need. They need the idea.

Jayne himself even says that there aren’t really heroes in the world, that there are only people like him, who do good through failing at their own selfishness. But, in the end, the mudders need someone to believe in. They need something to unite them, so they can keep going. They even point out that the only things they’ve ever been able to beat the Magistrate on was to keep the money they believed that Jayne gave them and to keep up the statue of Jayne. Those were the two things that convinced them to have a riot serious enough to defeat the administration. And maybe one day they’ll believe in the story of Jayne enough to unite and change their circumstances again for the better. You’d think they’d realize they could do that based on the fact that their riots actually forced the Magistrate to change his mind, but history says people in oppressed groups often take a while to hit their breaking point. However, faith in a focal figure also helps, since interaction with something bigger than yourself can make you better… oh, wait, I said that already. Weird.

Also, the “Ballad of Jayne Cobb” should have gotten certified gold.

Score: 4.0 Fireflies (or 1 Jug of Mudder’s Milk)

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See you next Friday, Browncoats.

PREVIOUS – 6: Our Mrs. Reynolds

NEXT – 8: Out of Gas

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

 

Batman Ninja: When Crazy Meets Brilliant (Spoiler-Free)

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.

SpoilerFree

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.

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Afro Samurai

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.

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A Den-Den Daiko Drum

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.

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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.

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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.

Continue reading Batman Ninja: When Crazy Meets Brilliant (Spoiler-Free)