Roger Craig Smith: Diving Into the Crazy World of “Batman Ninja”

  The new Batman Ninja animated movie is a different animal from other Bat fare. It’s a Japanese anime production that has also been voiced by English-speaking actors for the North American market, and it possesses a quirky visual style all its own. The set-up is simple: Through high-tech means, Gorilla Grodd zaps Batman, various allies, and multiple villains back in time to Feudal Japan, although for some odd reason involving his place in the time stream, our cowled hero ends up there a little later than the rest. The resultant showdown of good versus evil gets played out on battlefields with technology that fuses the ancient and the modern in wacky ways. Utterly over the top, Batman Ninja is not meant to be super deep, just a crazy, action-packed concoction for those willing to get on board.

  Voice actor Roger Craig Smith has portrayed Batman, along with Captain America and Sonic the Hedgehog, in various animated movies and video games over the last few years. Smith spoke with the Aquarian about his latest and most unusual adventure as Gotham’s caped crusader, who is literally out of his element in this time travel tale.

You’ve been taking on a role that other actors have done. So you have to find your own Batman, am I right?

  Well, yes and no. In reality, I don’t really find it. If it’s an original character, there’s a contribution of sorts to where I can walk in and ask the writer, the producer, the director, “Where do we want to go? How do we want to tweak this? Do we want to age him up? Age him down?” Add texture to the voice, take it out, all those things that we do to create the voice print. But with Batman and established characters, it depends on going in and understanding that if we depart too far from what’s been the collective, understood, agreed upon version of this character, then it usually backfires.

  When we started working on the Arkham Origins videogame back in 2012, we played around with as many different versions of Batman as we could in the booth to try to figure out which Batman we wanted to do. We settled on a slightly younger version where people would understand, because it was an origin story, that this character could morph into what Kevin Conroy has established as that iconic animated Batman and video game Batman for over 20 years. It was finding our “own Batman” with pretty good guidance as to where we wanted to steer the performance. Believe me, there’s a part of me that would love an opportunity to explore Bruce Wayne as a character from an original perspective. But even then, he would still have to be a brooding, quiet, mentally tortured soul. When people say, “your take on Batman,” well, it’s a collaborative effort. There’s a lot of us that contribute to that.

Watching past interviews with you on YouTube, I can tell that you chat quickly and that you’re very animated, pun intended. But in this role you have to slow down. Is that a challenge at this point? Or are you used to it?

  Yeah, I’m used to it. It’s the fun of the job. Very often I have to have a director tell me, “Hang on, take a breath, slow down.” Maybe that comes from the stand-up [comedy] days and trying to think quick on my feet. And a desire to want to entertain people or have them like me or think I’m funny, or all those little weird desires that are inside. A lot of people will ask, is Bruce Wayne, Batman or Batman, Bruce Wayne? For me, it’s always Batman is Bruce Wayne.

  This is a guy that went through a pretty traumatic experience in childhood, and so that would be something that would affect your entire life. We had a hard time finding the peaks and valleys in Arkham Origins because that was a story arc where Batman was figuring out, “I need others in my life to help me.” For so long, he was just, “I can go it alone, I don’t need anybody else, and I will solve this problem on my own.” For me, [it was about] him always being very thoughtful, very pensive in some ways, but always figuring it out. It lends itself to a more metered read style.

  It just depends too on the project. I think for Batman Unlimited, which was a DVD series of films inspired by a toy line for kids, we played around a little bit because it was for a younger audience. It was a little more loose, if you will. Even for Batman Ninja, it was the same approach, a Batman that we all know. I think if he were to be too quick or too animated, it would be out of sync with what we think of as that character.

I’m assuming you were trading lines with the actor playing The Joker during the actual English dubbing process?

  Unfortunately, [there were] only a couple of sessions like that when we did Origins. But Batman Ninja was primarily done in Japanese with the original voice cast. Any time we’re doing ADR like that — and most anime is done that way, at least if you’re localizing it into English from any other language — you’re recording by yourself. Which is kind of a bummer to a degree, but with that style of recording, you’re basically replacing the performance of another actor, so they have to have you isolated in the booth by yourself.

  For the first two or three sessions, they were teasing me with, “Have you figured out who’s doing the voice of The Joker yet?” I hadn’t worked with Tony Hale, and he would have been so far off my radar as a guess. He sounded great. He was kooky and weird with screaming and yelling and all the things that make him The Joker. Then finally it was like, “Oh, no way. Really?” I was a huge fan of Arrested Development, so it was cool to find that out. But we rarely get a chance in anime recordings or any sort of ADR to work with somebody else. Even in video games, it’s the same thing. If it’s just straight voiceover or facial motion capture, you’re usually just by yourself.

This Batman story is completely over the top. It is a lot less about character development and just going bat shit crazy.

  Absolutely. And a good choice of words. It’s so funny to me when I see somebody who has a derogatory take on it because they just go, “The script is this, and the visuals are all over the map.” [But] it’s anime at its core, and usually the visual style is at the forefront of most anime productions. This is no exception. Initially, I was worried going in thinking, this is an extremely animated kind of film. And if fans are thinking they’re going to see a Batman film that happens to be anime, they might be a little disappointed. But if fans understand that they’re going to see an anime film that just so happens to feature characters from the Batman and DC Universe, then they’ll be very, very pleased because they’ll go into it knowing they’re about to watch something very cool and pretty and unique. And yes, over the top. It is just a wild ride.

It’s like Batman goes to Feudal Japan with samurais and Transformers.

  Exactly, exactly. You basically nailed it. Oh, and don’t forget monkeys.

This is Gorilla Grodd’s version of Planet of the Apes.

  Absolutely. When we premiered it at WonderCon in Anaheim, it was really fun to be in a large auditorium with that many people. I breathed a sigh of relief because going into it I just thought, I don’t know how people are going to receive this. I really don’t know if people are going to get what’s going on here. In one of the earlier scenes, Batman winds up in Feudal Japan and is trying to figure out just what the heck is going on. He throws his little smoke bomb and immediately points his grappling hook gun up to the skies, looking for a building to attach to.

  Suddenly, he realizes there are no tall skyscrapers, no buildings for him to escape to. Everybody started laughing. They got the visual joke of him searching left and searching right into the sky and finding no tall buildings. It was really neat to see people laughing at all the right spots, cheering at all the right spots, and just loving the sheer audacity of Feudal Japan-era robots doing battle.

You just have to go with it. There’s no way the villains could have brought all that technology and created all those crazy robots in just two years. I like when in such scenarios there’s at least an element of realism with the characters, such as when The Joker here loses his memory after a traumatic battle.

  There are certain little story moments that lend themselves to being more grounded. Obviously, in that scene that you’re talking about, it’s the visual style they shift to give it this surreal, pastel, almost watercolor-y vibe. That even lends itself to it being a little darker and a little weirder. For the most part, the suspension of disbelief that we’re asking you to adhere to is a pretty tall order. If you go into it with that, and understanding that this is not going to further your knowledge of Batman or his backstory, I just call it a wild ride because it goes to some pretty zany stuff. But it’s all a lot of fun if you understand that that’s the flick you’re about to witness.