Review: Madness Reigns in "Batman: Assault on Arkham"
In the 1980’s, John Ostrander and Kim Yale revived DC’s Suicide Squad as a team comic book starring second-string supervillains performing plausibly deniable black bag covert operations for the government in exchange for reduced sentences. The title proved early on that its title was not a figure of speech — members of the Squad could and did die on missions, ensuring that readers could never make the usual safe assumptions that ruled in superhero comic books at the time. It’s still brilliant today for its dense storytelling, deep moral ambiguity, and rich characterization that brought depth and nuance to secondary or marginal characters. The comic also gave us Amanda Waller, an unforgettable government operative who handled the Squad through force of personality and an iron will. While the latest DC Animated direct-to-video movie Batman: Assault on Arkham is based on the Batman: Arkham Asylum franchise of video games (and exists in the same continuity, for those who get hot and bothered about that kind of thing), the movie is really a showcase for the Suicide Squad in the same way that Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox was really a showcase for the Flash. The end result isn’t quite as successful as the earlier film, unfortunately. To be sure, there’s lots of nasty, dirty fun to be had from Batman: Assault on Arkham, and the movie has more visual flair and filmmaking elan than any of the earlier DC direct-to-video movies, but the movie is ultimately undone by its thin, poorly thought-out plot.
The central hook to Batman: Assault on Arkham is that the Riddler has stolen something that Amanda Waller wants back, but her earliest attempt to capture him is inadvertently foiled by the Batman. Now locked away in Arkham Asylum, Waller is forced to pull in a wretched hive of scum and villainy to get what she wants. Her new “Task Force X” consists of the assassin Deadshot, the lunatic Harley Quinn, the psychotic Killer Frost, the hulking King Shark, the lithe ninja Black Spider, and the self-interested Captain Boomerang. The group is somewhat unwillingly tasked with breaking into Arkham and grabbing the Riddler’s cane without calling attention to themselves or to the theft. The group is kept in line by nanotech explosives that can blow their heads off remotely, with Waller’s finger at the switch. Weaving in and out of the Suicide Squad’s mission is the Batman, on the hunt for a dirty bomb that the Joker has hidden away somewhere in Gotham that threatens to kill half the city.
The best thing about Batman: Assault on Arkham is its distinctive sense of style. Batman: Assault on Arkham definitely feels different from all the DC direct-to-video productions before it with heroes that are pretty despicable human beings, along with heaping helpings of sex, violence, and obscene language. Violence is certainly not new to these movies, but the nature of it is different in Batman: Assault on Arkham, and the sex and profanity are definitely without precedent. It might be a little jarring, but I think it’s all appropriate color for a movie focusing on the seamier underside of super heroics. The characterizations and interactions between the members of the Squad are also great fun, happily playing with the “slimeballs screwing each other over” tropes of grittier pulp fiction. Deadshot is surprisingly sympathetic, taking on the damaged leading man role beautifully, and I’ll freely admit any issues I have with Neal McDonough’s vocal performance are because he doesn’t quite line up with the voice I’ve had in my head for the character for years. Hynden Walch’s unhinged Harley Quinn easily steals the show, curdling the underlying sweetness in Arleen Sorkin’s original take on the character just enough to fit this grittier, uglier world, while retaining enough of that sweetness to make her feel deeply, genuinely insane in that uglier world. Deadshot and Harley get entangled early on, producing a moment that’s both entirely gratuitous and entirely fitting and yields one of the funniest jokes in the film. This also organically injects a major complication once the mission is underway.
I’m amused by the weird relationship that develops between King Shark and Killer Frost, and also enjoy the performances by voiceover veterans John DiMaggio and Jennifer Hale, respectively. Kevin Conroy and Troy Baker reprise their roles from the video games as Batman and the Joker, respectively, with Conroy inhabiting the familiar role beautifully and Baker successfully channeling the psychotic tinge that Mark Hamill gave in his iconic Batman the Animated Series performance. Unfortunately, Giancarlo Esposito is mostly squandered as the strong, silent Black Spider — an underwritten and slightly redundant role. Of the major characters, the only disappointment is Greg Ellis’ Captain Boomerang, partially because he doesn’t quite match up with how I’ve heard the character in my head but also because the script can’t quite decide whether to treat him as a legitimate villain or dismiss him as comic relief.
Also contributing to the movie’s sense of style are the kinetic action sequences and the flamboyant visual flourishes. An early scene where Batman takes out a black ops squad manages to capture the music video sensibilities of fast-cut action sequences without making the action itself completely incomprehensible (as most of those fast-cut action sequences do). It’s a moment that underscores the power of animation, since the medium allows Batman more speed, agility, and power than any live-action actor or stuntman could muster in the costume. It has the feel of a fast-cut sequence without the actual cuts because of the disorientation triggered by Batman’s superlative combat skills as he moves faster than the eye can follow, combined with a deliberately dark setting. In contrast, most live-action fast-cut sequences that use real split-second cuts turn action into an incomprehensible mush and feel like they’re just covering the fact that the leads are terrible fighters. Another highlight is a battle between the Squad and Arkham guards, which captures a larger-scale sense of chaos without being too visually chaotic to follow. Batman: Assault on Arkham engages in some new cinematic gimmickry like frequent use of split-screen images or the amusing title cards used to quickly introduce the candidates for the Squad. If anything, I’d argue that the movie could use more of that visual flair, perhaps adapted in ways to exploit animation as a medium like pulling in weirder camera perspectives or defying the physics that a real camera would require. However, I’m not sure how easy it will be to integrate such visual experiments into future movies since they fit the sensibilities of this one so well, linking this film to the Ocean’s Eleven movies or Guy Ritchie’s modern gangster films.
Unfortunately, Batman: Assault on Arkham also shares Guy Ritchie’s tendency for style over substance. Heist films are often as bound by convention as superhero stories, but while Batman: Assault on Arkham dutifully lines up all the components of a good heist film and has great fun with them, none of the individual pieces fits together well with any of the others. The pleasures of a heist film come from the intellectual gamesmanship as much as the action, but inviting thought because of the genre only makes one realize how little makes sense. The entire mission is questionable from first principles, since it seems like Waller could easily obtain what she wants through official channels without revealing any of her secrets. The need for secrecy is also baffling, since she’s presumably already gone loud with the botched raid in the movie’s opening scene. In our modern times, one wonders why she doesn’t just declare the Riddler a terrorist and engage in extraordinary rendition just to save herself a whole lot of headache. If the 1980’s Suicide Squad feels dated, it’s only because it fit closely with political and espionage practice of the day. Batman: Assault on Arkham has updated the surface sensibilities, but seems to have kept the older cloak-and-dagger practices.
The composition of the team in a heist movie is critical, so it’s a also major flaw that lineup of the Suicide Squad feels entirely arbitrary. A movie like Ocean’s Eleven found specific roles for all 11 of its characters, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason for anyone other than Deadshot and Harley to be sent on this mission. I’m willing to accept Captain Boomerang’s inclusion on general principle, since he was a mainstay of the 1980’s Squad. Including Black Spider is understandable, but he’s almost completely misused. In truth, it seems like he would have had far more luck pulling off the mission alone (and probably would have done it without more motivation than a large sack of unmarked bills). I’m not sure how anyone could think that Killer Frost or King Shark would be useful on a “low profile” mission. All the plot twists and sudden reveals later in the movie might give each member a real reason for being there, but that’s putting the cart before the horse because a complication arises because someone is there or the character is there specifically to be a plot complication. The comic book Squad also always had plausible cover stories for their covert operations that exploited their lawless reputations. I don’t know that anyone, in-story or on the crew, gave any thought to what would happen if the Squad’s involvement was revealed. One of the big surprises is blindingly obvious, easily guessed from the second it happens. The big twist that reveals (naturally) that Not Everything Is What It Seems actively undermines the earliest portions of the movie even more, inadvertently underscoring the unnecessarily complex method used to solve a fundamentally simple problem. The net effect of all these flaws is to make Amanda Waller seem incompetent rather than Machiavellian, which may be the movie’s worst sin.
The video and audio on the Blu-ray edition of Batman: Assault on Arkham is excellent, which should come as no surprise by now. It also comes with a nice selection of bonus features, starting with a good commentary track with DC’s Mike Carlin, scriptwriter Heath Corson, and producer James Tucker (sadly, directors Jay Oliva and Ethan Spaulding are absent). A short but solid featurette spotlights Harley Quinn from her creation for Batman the Animated Series through her modern comics incarnations. The second featurette focuses on Arkham Asylum, and even though it runs a bit longer than it should and tends to repeat itself, it is also packed with information about the fictional insane asylum and the archaic attitudes towards the mentally ill that led to the popular vision of insane asylums. I think it’s one of the most fascinating bonus features that’s ever been included on these direct-to-video movie releases. We get the usual advance look at the next movie, Justice League: Throne of Atlantis, which seems to be an appropriately joyless follow-up to Justice League: War to give Aquaman a chance to be a humorless jerk alongside the rest of this version of the League. Obviously, I’m not a fan, but it is what it is. The four bonus TV episodes still look awful as they are inexplicably in standard definition. Justice League Unlimited‘s “Task Force X” only serves to make the non-sensical plot of this movie look even worse, since its plot does everything better than Batman: Assault on Arkham in a third of the running time. Young Justice‘s “Infiltrator” is a fine episode of the show even if I’m quite not sure why it’s included here. The bonus episodes are rounded out by Batman: The Brave and the Bold‘s “Emperor Joker” and The Batman‘s “Two of a Kind” (which, in all honesty, I haven’t been able to watch yet, though I expect they’re both focusing on the more popular denizens of Arkham in a more kid-friendly manner). Like all earlier combo pack releases, a bare-bones DVD and UltraViolet digital copy are also included.
In all honesty, Batman: Assault on Arkham feels like a leftover sub-plot to the video game series, or a product where some people wanted to take a stab at a Suicide Squad spotlight movie while others wanted to do the video game tie-in, so the two were bolted together to see what would happen. I applaud the experiment in principle, at least. Batman: Assault on Arkham has energy and style to spare, so it’s a shame it’s shackled to such an ineffective plot. As I’ve written of other cartoons, if you’re going for style over substance, you better have a hell of a lot of style. Batman: Assault on Arkham falls just short of that hurdle to excuse its flaws.