While Ben Affleck continues to toil as a beefed up Bruce Wayne on the big screen, Batman is going from strength to strength on the small one.
Fresh from the success of the Jack the Ripper-themed animated adventure Batman: Gotham By Gaslight, the Caped Crusader has returned with another animated effort that takes the Dark Knight to daring new heights.
Batman Ninja might be the most striking take on the character yet; an adventure that sends Bruce Wayne back in time to Feudal Japan to tackle the Joker, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Deathstroke and Gorilla Grodd.
It’s a premise that had voice star Roger Craig Smith sold from the off. “The minute somebody said the words ‘Batman’ and ‘ninja’ to me my mind started racing,” he told loaded. “Then when I showed up for the first voice session and saw those initial images of the Joker in that distinctive style, I just knew this was going to be very unique and different to a lot of what Batman fans are accustomed to.”
Having started out his voiceover career dubbing anime, this felt like a return to familiar territory for Smith, who is keen to stress that Batman Ninja is very much “an anime movie featuring Batman rather than a Batman movie featuring anime”.
Even so, Smith was well aware of the fan expectations that surround any animated Batman adventure, given the legacy surrounding the character. After all, most fans probably still associate the character with Kevin Conroy, who voiced Batman through that seminal initial run of Batman: The Animated Series and in several features and games since.
It’s not something Smith is necessarily daunted by though. “Those are shoes you simply can’t fill.I understand how as fans growing up with any franchise grow up coveting these characters. We covet that reaction you had when you first heard that theme music or first heard that voice.
“The idea of it changing violates our love of these things and I get that. So, when people tell me Kevin is their favourite but I did a good job I take it as a huge compliment.” And when it comes to any Batman project, his approach is always the same: start with a blank slate.
“I try and be a vocal lump of clay for whoever hires me. It’s important not to freak myself out too much by thinking ‘you’re about to be Batman don’t screw this up.’ I try to honour something I feel internally would be what people think of when they think of an animated Batman performance.”
Even so, he has his own idea of who Bruce Wayne is and the fact there is a “subtle, underlying rage against injustice” in everything Batman does.
“There’s this very humanistic element to Batman,” he explains. “Underneath the cape and cowl, there’s a little boy that got harmed at some point. I like there to be this believable human element rather than him being just a superhero. So, I almost think of him as Bruce Wayne with a lot of gadgets.”
This perspective might go some way to explaining why Smith considers Bale’s to be the best film representation of the Caped Crusader to date, leaving aside Conroy’s “iconic” representation. He’s got no issue with Bale’s vocal approach to the role either.
“I know people like to do impressions of the Christian Bale growl but for me, I’ve always felt that was a justifiable choice,” he tells loaded. “Bruce Wayne is not a voice actor and if he was trying to come up with a way to manipulate his voice and not have it sound like his speaking voice, doing it low and growling like that would be a natural choice for someone like that.”
Away from the Dark Knight, arguably Batman Ninja‘s most notable vocal addition is that of Arrested Development actor Tony Hale as The Joker. A significant departure from his signature role as milquetoast mother’s boy Buster on the cult comedy series, Hale’s standout performance was a source of some surprise to Smith.
“During recording, they kept teasing me asking if I had figured out who the Joker was and I genuinely hadn’t,” he admits.”I was truly blown away by what Tony did. It’s a no holds barred performance. He goes all the way to the wall with this character and it’s such a treat. It’s that sinister, dark, unhinged Joker that we all hate to love or love to hate.”
The response to Batman Ninja has already been incredibly positive, with Smith confident that it could lead “to a sequel of sorts”.
“Somebody mentioned that going to Medieval Europe would be a really interesting scenario. Travelling back in time presents some pretty cool ideas for a fish-out-of-water story though. Like we have done with feudal Japan. In the animated world, he can go anywhere. He could be fighting the Joker in outer space. The sky is the limit.”
Batman Ninja is out now.
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Loaded staff writer Jack Beresford has produced content for Lad Bible, Axonn Media and a variety of online sports and news media outlets.