BATMAN NINJA (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for some language, sequences of violence and action, and for some suggestive material)
Released: May 8, 2018, on home video platforms
Runtime: 85 minutes
Directed by: Junpei Mizusaki
Starring: the voices of Roger Craig Smith, Tony Hale, Grey Griffin, Adam Croasdell, Tara Strong, Fred Tatasciore, Yuri Lowenthal, Tom Kenny, Eric Bauza

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Slap a ! at the end of the title and works as its own rave review.

I mean, what else could you want? It’s Batman, and he’s a ninja.

In what will no doubt become a cult favorite incarnation of the Dark Knight, Batman Ninja is an inspired conceit that seems both fresh and overdue. This official straight-to-video production from DC and Warner Bros. (on all home viewing platforms, both disc and digital) is a bats-to-the-wall blowout of what the title promises.

Produced by Japanese artists and filmmakers, Batman Ninja boasts a credibility of spirit and form that an American-made effort may not have fully reached. Even so, director Junpei Mizusaki’s approach is pure Manga, for better and worse.

That style, which has its origins in late 19th Century Japan, is driven primarily by visuals and less so by plot and dialogue. The net effect in the English translation is a much wordier and fleshed-out narrative than what can be gleaned from the subtitled source, making for a gonzo ride that’s much better experienced than understood.

Not that it’s confusing, just wildly erratic. Swinging from one sharp turn to the next — between allegiances and betrayals, victories and defeats, and then back round again — this time travel adventure sends every Bat villain back to feudal Japan where they divide and conquer territories in order to reunite them under one shogun: The Joker. Batman goes on a mission to stop them, joined by Robin, Nightwing, and even Catwoman.

What that amounts to is an orgy of Bat-manime, with every character from the Gotham mythos reconceptualized in a genre mashup extraordinaire of East and West (even Alfred has a mini-hair bun), transforming gothic to samurai.

It’s an absolute full-tilt commitment across its brisk 85 minute run time, rich in graphic novel detail and unrelenting in the visual ideas its imagination can muster. A finale manifestation of the Bat in his original, earliest Bob Kane design is another brilliant touch in a movie chock-full of them.

One wishes, however, that you could take it a little more seriously.

Or, rather, that it would take itself more seriously. No need to rein in the premise and all the bizarre possibilities it allows, but the cartoon level theatrics and voice performances of melodramatic camp do it no favors, reducing the mind-blowing animation to something cheaper than it actually is.

It’s as if the tone isn’t in on the “LEGO Batman intensity” joke the rest of us are, at times becoming self-parody. Heath Ledger this ain’t, although Tony Hale’s Joker (yes, Buster Bluth is unrecognizable as the Clown Prince of Crime) will rival Mark Hamill’s beloved take on the role even as it draws liberally from it.

A brief twist halfway through teases a hope for some unexpected depth, even humanity, but this movie doesn’t have the patience for actual character study or thematic complexity, so it abandons that potential all too quickly.

Fortunately what we’re left with is a jaw-dropping visual feast, one that puts to shame the bloated efforts of the DC cinematic universe that, Wonder Woman aside, is in creative exile. If they’re smart, the DCEU brain trust will treat this as a fully formed pre-vis Proof Of Concept for their next Batman reboot.

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