I’m honestly still in shock at this movie, because, by the law of both Batman and ninjas, there shouldn’t have been a way to screw this up. As much guff as he gets for being the only thing that DC seems to want to do anything with (between movies, tv series, video games and so-forth), Batman is DC’s most marketable hero for a reason: he’s an inherently interesting character with an unparalleled rogue’s gallery, a great supporting cast and a cache full of awesome, Bond-like gadgets. For as much trouble as their live-action offerings have been in recent years DC’s animated features have all been exceptionally well-done. The movie further had a fascinating premise and an amazing art-style to match. Where did they go wrong in all of this?
The elevator pitch is simple enough: while trying to foil Gorilla Grodd’s latest criminal enterprise, Batman and most of Gotham’s most notorious supervillains got zapped back into Sengoku-era Japan (also known as the “Warring States Period,” occurring sometime between the mid-1400s and early 1600s). Because time travel is… well… time travel, Batman arrives two years after his nemeses do, by which point Joker, Harley Quinn, Penguin, Poison Ivy Deathstroke and Two-Face have positioned themselves as the leaders-to-be of ancient Japan, Catwoman has gotten up to her usual tricks and Grodd — the only person who can send everybody home again — is nowhere to be found.
By rights, this should have been a great — or at least endlessly entertaining — movie. You have Batman’s greatest villains all positioned as feudal lords of Japan, with anachronistic, industrial-age technology that they have been able to develop with the use of their knowledge of the future. Batman himself is stripped of not just his usual arsenal of weapons as well as his expansive network of allies (between Alfred, the Robins and the Justice League proper). You have Catwoman as an inherently unreliable ally and the presumptive route home, Grodd, in the wind. Throw in some anime-inspired animation, Kurosawa-inspired swordfights and the usual supervillainous antics, and you have the recipe for a memorable Batman adventure.
The problem is, though, that the filmmakers follow virtually none of this surefire setup. Not only does Batman have the usual assortment of high-tech gizmos, but he falls into the same trap that all of the least interesting versions of this character tend to: eschewing his hook as, essentially, Ninja Sherlock Holmes in favor of just making him a second-rate Iron Man. In addition to the Tron-inspired power-armor that he came in, Catwoman reconnects him with Alfred, all of the Robins, an ancient Bat-themed clan of ninjas and the Batmobile. And that Batmobile is essentially a Russian Nesting Doll of all of Batman’s most iconic vehicle: a mech inside of a Bat-cycle inside of a Bat-wing inside of the Batmobile proper. He literally has more to work with in ancient Japan than he does in most modern-set versions of the character.
The first two thirds of the movie are spent getting Batman to where he should have been since the second scene: cut off from his 21st century tech. He loses the vehicles, the toys and all the rest of his usual accoutrement, but only after a full hour has passed in the meantime. But even then, he is catered to by a shockingly well-adjusted Alfred, commands a legion of Robins (one of which now has a monkey sidekick that he can apparently talk to like in Scooby-Doo.
And for a master of disguise, Batman clearly has no idea how to keep hidden. As one of the desperately few White men in the country during this period, he decides to hide in plain sight (despite the fact that he is a famous billionaire playboy from the future that all of the villains would surely recognize from Gotham). He also shaved a bat-insignia into his head, because that somehow won’t also give him away.
Additionally, every single villain has their own uniquely-themed castle that transforms into a giant-sized mech. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. In fact, when the villains eventually unite under Grodd (via mind control), all of their castles combine into a single, even larger mech. It then fights an army of monkeys that, for some unknown reason, combine into a mech-sized monkey samurai. When that plan inevitably fails, Batman channels the sacred spirits guiding the Bat-clan he joined up with, summoning a flock of bats that subsequently combine into a mech-sized Batman. Because reasons.
No, I’m not joking. That is an actual thing that actually happens in this actual movie.
The saddest thing of all though — the one thing that they shouldn’t have been able to screw up even if they tried — is that the animation, despite what it might look like in the trailers, is actually terrible: bottom of the barrel, cheap-looked, CG animation that only approximates the anime style. The backgrounds look great, and everything else mostly looks fine… so long as literally none of it is moving The faces are particularly egregious, looking extremely tight around the mouth and eyes (like Paul Walker’s CG-approximated appearance in the final scene of Furious 7) and generally look as if they had been rotoscoped. The heads also keep bobbing around as if they’re too heavy for their bodies and sloshing around with some kind of fluid. Even that wouldn’t be so bad if they would just stop switching between subtly different art styles from scene-to-scene, which absolutely destroys any semblance of aesthetic continuity.
Although it was a genuinely inspired direction to take the character conceptually, the film fails on every conceivable level of execution. The animation is dodgy and inconsistent, the writing is atrocious, the characterizations are the least interesting that they have generally been over the franchise’s expansive history and absolutely none of it works in the context of anything else that they’ve come up with for this film. It isn’t entertaining as a Batman movie nor even interesting as a reinterpretation of a familiar set of characters. This movie is worth nobody’s time or money.
Buy on BluRay: Not even close.