Batman (Roger Craig Smith) has raced over to Arkham Asylum in Gotham City because he has learned Gorilla Grodd (Fred Tatasciore) has constructed a time machine and he is planning to activate it tonight. Grodd wishes to master time itself, but Batman arrives too late and the ape's creation springs into life sending arcs of energy across the building and zapping everything in a wide radius out of existence in the twenty-first century and hurtling back through the centuries. The next thing the Caped Crusader knows, he is in a Japanese village - Feudal Japan, that is, as he quickly learns the denizens of the asylum have established themselves there as warlords. How can he stop them?
DC were going through a rough patch when Batman Ninja, a few years in production, was released, as Justice League had arrived hot on the heels of the much-admired Wonder Woman and seemingly landed the producers back where they were when their projects were being criticised left, right and centre, nowhere near as consistently popular as their rivals at Marvel were. This was a co-creation between the American company and Japanese animators, with the latter taking most of the creative duties; after a brief introduction in Gotham City, Bats was well and truly in the hands of those talents from across the Pacific, and the reaction was, predictably for the twenty-tens, a mixed one.
Many fans did not appreciate what the Japanese had done to these classic American characters, but if you were not so precious, Batman Ninja was a lot of fun and once again proved he was one of the most versatile of the comic book heroes: plonk him down in just about any setting and he made perfect sense, adapting to his environment thanks to his innate moral code and drive to right wrongs. Everyone can understand that, and here he was given the trappings of Japanese traditions in entertainment, most prominently the way in which he got to battle giant robots, all powered by his greatest foes, of course. Yes, they have made the leap to Japan as well - why? Why not?
If the premise was flimsy, sit back and enjoy what was a simple idea to set the Dark Knight in a foreign clime which invigorated his basic motivations thanks to his gadgets and machines being quickly whittled down to nothing, forcing him to reassess himself and retrain as... a ninja! You may observe this was pretty much what he had done back in Gotham for decades, but here it was more overt, as he is present to fulfil a local prophecy about a bat-based pioneer who will save the nation from bad guys who have dominated the land with an iron grip. It was true most of that bunch who made the trip didn't get a fair crack of the whip, baddies like Deathstroke or Poison Ivy barely getting ten lines between them, but the imagining of The Joker, voiced in the English dub by Tony Hale with lunatic aplomb, was a fine design.
Each of the characters were recreated in anime style, produced by relative newcomer director Junpei Mizusaki in a combination of hand drawn and CGI stylings that looked rather splendid, breathing new life into the same old appearances. Only the female characters looked as if the Japanese artists had not quite gotten the hang of Western feminine characteristics, with Catwoman sporting a most matronly bosom and Harley Quinn over-generous in the backside area. But body-shaming aside, the energy of Batman Ninja made up for plenty, and each time you thought it was running out of steam it would turn another corner and justify itself with a new innovation that may have been part and parcel of many an anime fantasy, yet in this context with these heroes and villains the novelty was extremely strong. Some may find it disrespectful to their beloved comics, but really it was picking up the concepts and having fun with them; again, the exuberance of the imagery made up for a lot, where else would you see a giant Batman made of bats and monkeys punching out a Joker Transformer? Music by Yûgo Kanno.
[BATMAN NINJA is out on Digital Download now and available on Blu-ray™ Steelbook, Blu-ray™ and DVD May 14.]