Say what you will about the perceived problems Warner Bros. has getting the live-action movies of its DC line up and running, but the same cannot be said concerning the other platforms the studio uses to profit off its superheroes. Strongly rated and respected animated and live action television shows, mega-selling video games, exclusive merchandising with chain stores, and, of course, the foundation of published monthly comic books all serve to keep to keep the DC brand profitable and distinct while the big budget tentpole movies are attempted. Another facet of WB’s superhero machine is its direct-to-video animated movies that are released like clockwork every four months to such solid acclaim and robust revenue that they are taken for granted or, worse, expected to fall in quality sooner rather than later. Happily, the newest entry, BATMAN: ASSAULT ON ARKHAM, doesn’t drop the ball and, in fact, fits right alongside standouts like UNDER THE RED HOOD and ALL-STAR SUPERMAN as the best of the currently twenty-one entries’ deep collection.
ASSAULT is a movie that has many ingredients drawn from WB/DC’s formidable cupboard of options that will appeal to comic book fans, movie geeks, and videogames enthusiasts while still being an easily accessible good time for any viewer coming to the material cold. The film has been advertised as a loose adaptation of the hit ARKHAM series of video games featuring the Dark Knight, but the emphasis is on the word loose because while Batman is definitely in this one, the story revolves more around characters from the DCU that can be charitably called C-listers like Captain Boomerang, Killer Frost and KGBeast. That’s an odd choice to make on its face but Jay Oliva and Ethan Spaulding, Heath Corson, and Andrea Romano as co-directors, screenwriter, and voice director, respectively, make it all work so well that screams of Yahtzee! will echo when the credits roll.
In a nutshell, the Riddler has information belonging to government spymaster the Wall, Amanda Waller, forcing her to put together a version of Task Force X, the Suicide Squad, to infiltrate Arkham Asylum to get it back and/or rub out the Master of Puzzles with a modicum of fuss. That’s easier said than done since the Suicide Squad is and always has been made up of a volatile mix of super-villains be they abused psychopaths in mad love (Harley Quinn), contract killers doing a job (Deadshot and Black Spider), or muscle just looking to make victims bleed (King Shark). Waller keeps them relatively in line with implanted nanotech explosive charges that she doesn’t hesitate to use if they go off script as a member finds out relatively early when he tries to go against her. Of course, any incursions into Gotham City by outsiders, especially a gang of federally-sanctioned murderers, will bring out the Bat, who has his own case to crack, and wherever Dr. Harleen Quinzel goes her spitefully sadistic Puddin’, Mister J, the Joker is sure to follow.
That’s a combustible mix with a lot of unstable parts to keep track of but again credit to Heath Corson for crafting a screenplay that never fills overstuffed with extraneous nods and winks to comic book minutia. The plot allows the whole of the main cast to make their unique marks while letting better known characters like Commissioner Gordon, Alfred, and the Penguin drop in and out of the fun. Actually, the story despite its large cast is lean and mean with a pitiless tone reminiscent of DREDD and THE RAID: REDEMPTION as well as more obvious influences like THE DIRTY DOZEN, OCEAN’S ELEVEN, and RESERVOIR DOGS. There are even blink-and-you-miss-them references to THE DARK KNIGHT and BATMAN ’66 with nods to Denzel Washington, JAWS, and a final scene homage (since it’s the Suicide Squad though rip-off probably works better) right out of the last few lines of the Richard Bachman (Stephen King) short story, THE RUNNING MAN.
Corson’s deft plot and dialogue is well-served by the feature’s look and sound. With ASSAULT, directors Jay Oliva and Ethan Spaulding have brought the art direction back up to the usual high standards of the DC animated collection after the flat, uninspired style of the previous two entries this year, JUSTICE LEAGUE: WAR and SON OF BATMAN, which are passable for lesser animated offerings but crude and shoddy when placed next to the superior earlier ‘toons and this one. Perceptive comic art aficionados can see the resemblance in the art to the expressionistic style of Luke McDonnell, the long-time penciller of the Suicide Squad book from the late 80’s, and a dash of Mike Vosburg, another respected sequential artist and animator, sprinkled in as well.
Andrea Romano bats clean up in this murderer’s row of behind-the-scenes talent by assembling another outstanding cast of face and voice actors to give the crackle to the sizzle of Corson’s plot and the crunch of Oliva and Spaulding’s visuals. Stand-bys like CCH Pounder, Neal McDonough, and the immortal Kevin Conroy mesh with newcomers and, by no means lesser, replacements like Giancarlo Esposito, John DiMaggio, Hynden Walch, and Troy Baker to give voice to this motley choir with Walch’s Harley Quinn as the undisputed soloist. The echoes of the original Harley, Arleen Sorkin, are there but Walch on her own takes Harley from being the Joker’s henchwench to a fully realized wildcard who will just as soon rip off an ear as crawl into an alpha male’s bed to relieve some stress. The entire cast is top-notch but Walch is a first among equals here.
BATMAN: ASSAULT ON ARKHAM once again is an appreciated return to tiptop shape for fans of the WB/DC animated films with story, art direction, animation, and voice acting all meshing perfectly to let the bad guys of the DCU swipe the spotlight from the morally upright heroes who normally get all the shine. Batman’s name is on the title but make no mistake this is through and through a Suicide Squad movie which lets the villains have all the fun. Warner Bros. and DC have taken some criticism the past few years for choosing a murkier road to take its characters down than its competitors but that’s nothing to be looked at as a flaw when the results are as darkly glittering as this presentation which unapologetically offers up a wickedly sinister story wrapped with a bow made of nasty humor and some of the old ultraviolence used as wrapping paper. The tenor of a piece means nothing if all the parts don’t come together whether it’s dark or day-glo so enjoy the light while always giving the darkness its due with a loud and healthy YAHTZEE!
NOTE: This film while animated is definitely not for kids unless the tykes are allowed to watch stuff dripping with graphic violence, strong language, and sexually suggestive scenes. If so, let ‘em enjoy but if not, let them watch TEEN TITANS GO! instead.
—Jason O. Logan