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Batman Ninja (2018)

Gorilla Grodd has summoned Gotham City's top criminals to Arkham Asylum. Batman hears of this and heads to Arkham as Grodd's Quake Engine is activated catapulting everyone back in time to feudal Japan. Now the criminals have all become lords it is up to Batman and the Bat Family to find a way to get everyone back to their own universe or their own time without changing history.

Along the way, Batman faces difficult choices and questions over his actions and the alliances that he forms to do what he thinks is right.

It has been many many years since I dipped a toe into the Batman universe so when I saw Batman Ninja advertised on Netflix I thought it had to be given a go. It looked very colourful, vibrant and a lot of fun. It was all of those things but there were a couple of hurdles I had to overcome to properly settle into the film. The first was the sheer number of characters I was introduced to (and to keep track of) and the second was the animation style.

I guess there is a fine balance to strike between pleasing a fan-base and appealing to new viewers. As I mention above I have dipped into Batman comics and seen some of the films over the years and I was familiar with most of the villains, but did get slightly confused with the various Robin-like characters I was introduced to. To be fair some of the villains I had only come across in passing but the main architect of this adventure, Gorilla Grodd, was completely new to me. It took a while for me to be able to put a name to a face - that wouldn't be a problem for target audience of Batman fans however or if this was a slightly longer form show. Once I was more comfortable with names and faces I could sit back, relax and enjoy.

Junpei Mizusaki and the team (including Takashi Okazaki, the creator of Afro Samurai on character design work) have put together feature with mixed animation quality. It tends to be solid throughout but the moments when it dips do stand out like a sore thumb. The opening action gives way to a stilted and at times almost weightless animation as Batman find out what is going on through extended dialogue scenes. It reminded me of those dialogue scenes in the later Professor Layton games (for the 3DS mostly) where all the body parts are connected to a frame but the joints are perhaps a bit loose. The motion was almost marionette/puppet like and it kind of threw me following the weighty, grounded action heavy opening moments. I always have moments like this with computer based animation where the characters seem obviously like a model that the team are getting used to working with. The animation style did settle down however and movements gained more weight, became more natural and as a result so much more pleasing to watch.

Once past these two hurdles what followed was an entertaining- if conventional- Batman tale set during the Sengoku period in Japan (around 1467-1600-ish). The tale never drags - the action keeps the story moving at a decent pace. I can say with confidence that I was never bored. At the end of the first act I was not expecting the questions asked by Bruce Wayne about himself. There was almost an identity crisis, or a wobble in his belief in himself, his values and his identity. I would have liked to have seen where an exploration of those ideas would have taken the character and the film (and that would have been a very different film!) rather than onto the next action-moment. If perhaps this had been more of a series (like the Godzilla trilogy) some of these themes could have been explored more.

I imagine that for those more steeped in Batman lore that the questions that Batman asks of himself have been well explored throughout the years. Batman is a very well established character with a well defined universe. Because the universe is so well established and very well known it felt that there was little room for creativity either in the character designs or their motivations. The sengoku period costumes for the villains were neat but we never get to see that much or enough of them. The Joker is resplendent in his costume (Okazaki has done a superb treatment of him)- it almost looked like he was wearing a samurai helmet for the entire feature - and was the most fantastic to look at. He was also, if you'll pardon the pun, the most animated of all. 

The contrast between how Batman and the Joker were animated reflected their personalities well. There appeared to be a restraint to Batman, more control and precision in his movement compared to the exaggerated almost chaotic nature of the Joker. The other characters didn't get such a treatment - they were all well animated but there was nothing that really set them apart in the same way.

Picking back up on the creativity point there are some wonderful textures used throughout. Early on the sky has a kind of wood-block pattern texture which was a joy to look at/ There were lots of these kinds of things to look at and the use of colour is wonderful. The day scenes have a bright and airy feel to them whereas those at night suggest something hiding in the shadows. It is visually interesting to look at. 

There was a distinct change in visual style mid-way through for a scene. It was a big contrast from the design work before. Bodies seemed stretched, chaotic lines and it was coloured in what appeared to be a mix of water and oil paints - or that was how the styling came across. It felt like a bit of a slap in the face as the tone and visuals changed but I really liked how off the wall it was. I had hoped for more of it but once the scene was over we never saw it again.

The fortresses that the residents of Arkham Asylum have established are particularly fun. Each one encapsulates the criminal-lord who commissioned their construction. Once these fortresses are on the move (yes, moving fortresses) in the final act, well, you know everything will be turned up to 11. The clich├ęs and tropes come thick and fast. The majority of them work if you just go with them but at times I found myself exclaiming "really?!"

There are a lot of these tropes or elements that feel like a set of items on a list was being ticked off. It was as if because it was set in Japan or produced by a Japanese studio these things had to be included. I'm not sure where this came from. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it but the architecture and other design work told us everything about where it was taking place and I think audiences are more intelligent than some creative teams give them credit for. Some items were fun and took the story in a different direction, other bits felt forced and "just because we have to include..."

At its core, Batman Ninja is Batman versus Joker. Even with all of the other characters the film only really comes alive when it is Bats squaring off against his nemesis. This is true from the early moments right through to the epic climatic battle at the end. The final showdown is superb and encapsulated all my experience of Batman vs the Joker. It identifies and hones in to what is at the heart of that relationship in a way that no comic or other animated feature has done. It is worth watching for that final act alone. It is full of movement and tension but it is clear what you are looking at. There were no shortcuts taken at all and through it all asks some deep questions about justice.

I would have been quite happy with the Batman-Joker focused story but everyone from Poison Ivy to Bane gets a smidge of screen time as do Robin, Nightwing and Red Hood. Batman, Joker, Catwoman and Harley Quinn get the bulk of the screen time. It is through them that the story and action are focussed but the plethora of characters brought in were a distraction and added nothing to the film aside from seeing them imagined in a different way. Had it been a longer format piece of entertainment I think these other characters would have been able to contribute more to the plot and ultimately justify why they were included.

Batman Ninja is a fun watch and is definitely entertaining. To say anything else would be an injustice. It has been a while since I have seen or read anything Batman related so it took a while to get up to speed and I was able to follow the wide array of DC characters comprising the cast. The whole feature felt familiar enough for a Western audience with "typical" Japanese elements thrown in. Of course there was a giant robot moment - it's very funny but it felt like it had to be there rather than serviced the story. The animation is decent enough with some neat experiments which I would have liked to have seen more of. Again it took a few minutes to get used to the animation style but it worked well and never detracted from the story. The final showdown between Batman and Joker is great and it asks some probing questions of the audience. It was entertaining but left no real lasting impression.

FORMAT: Streaming/Blu-Ray  FROM: Netflix/Warner Home Video RATING:PG [US] 12 [UK] RUNNING TIME : 1hr 25m [movie]

IN A NUTSHELL: The action-packed Batman Ninja entertains, but after the credits roll it fades into the shadows of other animated features.