Batman Ninja is a gorgeous, almighty mess. Its frenetic incoherence is matched only by its desire to top itself again and again with vivid, striking imagery. I spent almost 90 minutes barely having a clue what was going on, but somehow despite that, also knew that I loved every goddamn second of it.
Warner Bros.’ range of DC animated movies have leaned on the world of Batman a lot over the last few years—to the point that sometimes he just shows up in other characters’ movies for little reason other than to be on the cover image and help sell copies. Batman Ninja might be more of Gotham’s brooding hero, but it transplants him out of the DC animated universe into a visual style and setting quite unlike anything this series of direct-to-video movies has ever done before. That stylization offers the movie an unparalleled sense of freedom, which Batman Ninja uses to essentially claw its way out of your TV screen, grab you by sides of your head, and shake you vigorously while screaming at the top of its lungs.
Created by director Junpei Mizusaki and screenwriter Kazuki Nakashima, featuring some truly fabulous character design from Afro Samurai creator Takashi Okazaki, and produced by Kamikaze Douga, the studio behind the delightfully irreverent Pop Team Epic, Batman Ninja opens in present-day Gotham. Gorilla Grodd has built a bold new device, and invited the criminals of Gotham’s underworld to witness its activation, as Batman, Catwoman, and the extended Bat-Family (Red Robin, Red Hood, Robin, Nightwing, and even Alfred) arrive to take care of monkey business. But it turns out that Gorilla Grodd’s machine is a time machine, and when it goes off accidentally, it transports both rogues and heroes alike to Japan, sometime around the 16th century.
All that literally happens in the first two minutes, and if I explained—rather, attempted to explain—anything else that happens in Batman Ninja’s 85-minute runtime, two things would happen. Firstly, I would have told you everything that happens in Batman Ninja and you wouldn’t have to watch it, which you absolutely should. Secondly, I would descend into a spew of gibberish so frantic and incoherent I’d look like I’d promptly lost the entirety of my mental faculties. Batman Ninja defies description, and frankly, it defies understanding, because it is so thoroughly, entirely dedicated to showing you the coolest ideas that it can muster in the coolest manner possible. What it isn’t worried about is making sense.
That isn’t just a big-picture, overall comment—the movie barely even attempts to present a coherent story as it barrels from scene to scene. Batman Ninja never offers an explanation for anything that is happening on screen at any time. It spits in the face of your petty qualms about “logic” or “narrative coherence.” There were times while I was watching where scenarios and lines of dialogue came out of nowhere so sharply and so suddenly, one moment after the other, that I honestly thought my internet connection had gone awry, causing the streamed video to skip and lose a few seconds. This was not the case. The team behind Batman Ninja’s only concern is fully embracing the idea that putting Batman and his stable of characters in a Japanese samurai setting and style is rad as hell. They are correct: Batman Ninja is rad as hell. The obvious glee and the makers had bringing this gleefully ridiculous idea to reality is infectious.
Even in the moments when Batman Ninja decides that maybe it’s time to just take a break for a few minutes and, you know, actually deliver some important plot and world-building beats (like, say, “Oh, by the way, the Penguin, Two-Face, Deathstroke, Poison Ivy, and the Joker have each overthrown the feudal Daimyo of Japan’s warring states and become warrior lords themselves, and are vying for rule of the entire nation”), the movie wows you by switching up to a completely different visual style, ensuring that even when it’s just dumping information on you, it looks absurdly gorgeous. The aforementioned segment explaining the Rogues gallery’s overtaking of Japan renders each character as if they were gigantic paper lantern models lighting up the night sky. Another later on is done in the style reminiscent of the ukiyo-e genre of tradtional Japanese art, only to be followed by another segment that style switches into a hazy watercolor. That these are the “quiet” visual moments of Batman Ninja is a testament to what a remarkably bold and gorgeous movie it is.
And that, really, is what binds Batman Ninja together more than any kind of plot ever could. Practically every frame of the movie is a visual treat, both in terms of the style it offers and the action it frequently wields to tell its wild rollercoaster of a tale. The movie builds on the scale of its action, from one-on-one fights with Batman masterfully zipping through bamboo trees to full-on scraps between mechanized, moving castles, to battles even grander and larger than that. Everything breathlessly, ceaselessly escalates, as the movie darts from one awesome idea to another, to the point that almost nothing makes sense and you have to end up letting go, and simply basking in the visual splendor of watching all these imaginative, exhilarating events unfold.
In less loving hands it would be an unholy mess, but the passion behind the sheer audacity of what Batman Ninja lays down transforms it into an utterly joyful experience. Mizusaki and his team clearly hold the utmost reverence for the Dark Knight’s almost eight-decade-old mythos, and pack the movie with loving homages to the characters, moments, and iconography that have made Bruce and the Bat-Family endure in the hearts of millions for so long. But, like the best interpretations of Batman we’ve seen over three quarters of a century, it isn’t paralyzed by reverence—it’s a movie that’s more than fine with taking Batman and pushing him as far and as wild as he can go. In doing so, Batman Ninja reaps the reward with what is easily the best, and most unique, entry in Warner Bros.’ roster of DC animated Bat-movies, period.
Batman Ninja is available digitally now, with a Blu-ray release coming on May 8.