So you and Dick Grayson (Night of the Ninja)

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It’s October 26, 1992, a week after “Perchance to Dream.” The top song is, as it seemingly always was and always will be, Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road.” The top movie is, as it was last weekend, Under Siege. There’s thus not much interesting to say on that front.
In the news, yesterday Lithuania held its first constitutional referendum since leaving the Soviet Union. Today, Canadian voters reject a package of constitutional amendments known as the Charlottetown Accord. And the day after tomorrow, the world fails to end, to the disappointment of the South Korean Dami Mission, who’d predicted that it would. So we do have a deferred apocalypse, but still, not much interesting to say about the news, either.
Indeed, not providing much opportunity to say anything interesting seems to be a theme this week, as there is very little to say about “Night of the Ninja.” This is not to say that it is a bad episode; an interestingly bad episode can produce quite a lot to say, as witness “Pretty Poison.” No, it’s just not an episode that tells us much about the characters or has anything in particular to say about the world.
Which might be surprising, given that this is known as a rare instance in which we get to see how Bruce Wayne trained to be Batman–the DCAU Wiki, for example, refers to it as such. However, this is something of a misnomer; the Wayne we see in flashbacks is fundamentally indistinguishable from the Batman of the present. In the first flashback, we see that he was just as intense and serious when he was training as he is in the present. In the second, we see that he demanded perfection of himself, trained intensely, and was, in the words of his sensei, “like a man obsessed.” And in the third flashback, we see his hatred of crime and criminals.
No, he was not training to be Batman in those flashbacks. He was training to start doing his work as Batman, but he required no training to become Batman. He already was Batman, and had been since he was eight years old.
Unlike many episodes which give us insight into the villain, here Kyodai Ken is about as flat a character as they come. Even his name is fairly generic, being simply kyodai (huge) plus ken (sword). His sword is not particularly big, but then again he’s as tall as and broader than Batman, who’s already fairly large. As for the character himself, he’s a thief that justifies his actions because he needs money and rich people don’t know what that’s like. He targets Wayne specifically because he (unfairly, at least as depicted in Wayne’s flashbacks) blames Wayne for getting him kicked out of the dojo. It’s basically an even less sympathetic version of Clock King’s backstory, which in turn was a less sympathetic version of Mr. Freeze’s.
No, to find something to talk about in this episode, we need to turn to Robin. He’s been showing up more frequently of late, and hitting some fairly familiar character beats: he feels unappreciated, trapped in the sidekick role, and wants Batman’s respect and trust. He demonstrates fairly clearly that he deserves it, saving Batman twice: first in the rooftop encounter with Kyodai, and then a second time when he first draws Kyodai out of the room where he has Wayne and Gleeson imprisoned, so that Wayne can break free, and then obstructs Gleeson’s view so that Batman can stop holding back to maintain his cover identity.
Batman doesn’t take being rescued at all well, especially the first time. Robin is clearly frustrated, and drops heavy hints after the second rescue that he wants to be thanked, with Batman grudgingly and guardedly does, saying that he might not have been able to win without Robin’s help. Even though this satisfies Robin, it is still clear that Batman cannot fully admit to Robin that he needed help, because he is still the man he was in the second flashback, the one who needs to be the best there is.
Being rescued by Robin, needing Robin, creates the possibility that in some sense Robin is better than him. This makes Robin a rival, just as Kyodai Ken was. Note what Batman says at the end of the episode: that he’s not worried if Kyodai returns, because now he knows he can beat him. Recall that earlier in the episode he rather handily defeated Robin in their sparring march; Batman isn’t just reassuring himself that he can handle Kyodai, but that he can handle Robin.
As we will see in later episodes, the rift between Batman and Dick Grayson will continue to widen until they fall out completely and Grayson sets out on his own as Nightwing. It is only in The New Batman Adventures–which is to say, only after Superman debuts, and it is no longer possible for Batman to be the world’s best crimefighter–that he will be able to adopt a Robin with whom he has a better relationship or reconcile with Nightwing.
So while in isolation this episode gives us very little, it does work as a step in a process, a depiction of how Batman handles the notion of having a rival (which is to say, badly) and advancing the long arc of his falling out and eventual reconciliation with Dick Grayson.

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