Did the title really need the “Batman” moniker? Batman: Assault on Arkham is the latest direct-to-video release from Warner Bros. Animation, and is another excellent installment in their long line of DC Universe Animated Original Movies. Viewers be warned, however, this is no Saturday morning cartoon—keep the kids away from this one.
The film follows a group of C-list villains pressganged by Amanda Waller to serve in Task Force X—an off-the-books “suicide squad”—demoting the typical star Bat to the background in favor of this ragtag squad of no-gooders. The squad is sent to infiltrate Arkham Aslyum to retrieve stolen information from the Riddler. And what a cast we’ve got here. Being a big fan of the DC Universe, and of Warner Bros.’s more mature and dark movies, it’s great to see such a fully-realized depiction of DC’s flagship villain ensemble. The incendiary, belligerent chemistry shared between these guys is excellently rendered; from the power-struggle squabbles of Deadshot and Captain Boomerang to Harley Quinn’s wildcard nature, this squad is like a walking powder cake. The clashing character dynamics and sharp tensions of this group and their lawless teamwork are loads of fun to watch unfold. Most of all, the characters are immensely likeable in their own twisted way. I was so invested in the antics of the Suicide Squad and their mission that I never once yearned for an appearance from Batman; in fact, I often hoped he wouldn’t interfere with their plans, so as not to interrupt the fun I was having watching them in action. That being said, I felt that Black Tiger, while being badass and competent in his own right, just played too much of a background role, and seemed like wasted potential by the time all was said and done. The vague semblance of a lead character the audience finds in the level-minded, rational, and empathetic Deadshot is just enough of a focal point to add some sense of direction to the relentless bedlam. There’s enough here so that two hugely iconic characters as Batman and the Joker rarely steal the limelight.
The production is a notch above what Warner Bros. usually delivers—the animation is crisp and the sound design is on point. The whole presentation is wrapped up as a stylish heist thriller—apparent from many of the adrenaline-inducing sound/music cues and title sequences as well as the nature of the plot itself. All the deceit and subterfuge enticing, and appropriate from a barely functioning team of villains. The action is exciting and framed well, encapsulating what a fast-paced rush of a flick this is. The voice acting is especially on point, from Harley Quinn to the Deadshot, to the Bat himself, the voice-work is on par with the games which with it shares its universe—Troy Baker knocks it out of the ballpark with his chilling rendition of an obviously Hamill-inspired Joker.
And that’s another interesting thing to note—the film is set within the universe of Rocksteady’s acclaimed Arkham games (some time after Arkham Origins and before Arkham Asylum). It’s been quite some time since I played a few of those games, so it’s likely I missed a couple of clever easter eggs and references, but the visual similarities were blatant and appropriate nonetheless. From the batarangs, to the layout of Arkham Asylum itself (as well as many of its denizens) this film isn’t shy about showing its heritage. Batman’s fighting style even mirrored the speedy, over-the-top acrobatic flair of the games. The only aspect that turned out for the worse were the grayed out pupils on Batman’s cowl—they didn’t translate all that smoothly into animation, and come off as unsettling, making the guy look lifeless (but perhaps this was intentional, given the movie presents the events from the perspective of those most intimated by him as nothing more than a source of fear, and not the fleshed out human we know him to be). Still, weird to look at whenever he’s on screen. It’s intriguing to note that Batman comes off as significantly more powerful and competent when he’s not the star of the show—likely because we don’t see his human side struggling when looking through the eyes of his rogues gallery.
Even though these direct-to-video releases have never shy about showcasing more mature details such as blood and cursing, this flick was especially darker from what we usually get. Now this is certainly appropriate, given the nature of the starring cast, but sometimes I felt the script got superfluously crass, such as with the gratuitous nudity of some of the female characters. Still, this just adds to the shameless vulgar lovability of the flick and its villains.
This film at its core is a pop-corn flick. It doesn’t raise any profound philosophical inquiries on the nature of the crime and the dark knight’s crusade like Batman: Under the Red Hood did. There aren’t any totally surprising developments or character arcs. It won’t make your head hurt thinking. It’s just pure fun, and the unrated romp on the DC Universe that any fan of the Suicide Squad would want. All of its characters are true to form, and fun to watch as usual. There’s enough enjoyment and fun to be had to overlook its kinks and hiccups. Here’s hoping that the more widely-released live-action depiction of Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, Harley Quinn, and company will fare as well.