Nowhere in the title Batman: Assault on Arkham will you find the words "Suicide Squad", which is both an unfortunate misrepresentation of DC's latest animated film and, well, somewhat understandable since most of the general public likely hasn't heard of the universe's government-helmed initiative. In so many words, the group's existence taps into some of the wasted potential among DC's lesser-known villains -- from passing assassins to the henchmen and throwaway "copies" of more renowned antagonists -- offering them a chance to cut their incarceration time by executing dangerous missions as a team of classified, off-the-books operatives. With the emerging popularity of the Arkham series of videogames (along with the recent TV iteration of Arrow), some of the Suicide Squad's notable recurring members have further increased in exposure, including the laser-sighted Deadshot and the Joker's bonkers ex-psychiatrist partner Harley Quinn. That makes it an opportune time for Warner Bros.' animation to get the band together for an outlandish hit on Gotham's iconic nuthouse, resulting in more brazen entertainment than one might expect of a Batman film that's only peripherally interested in Batman.
While it's getting released as a lead-in of sorts to the next entry in Rocksteady's videogame series, Assault on Arkham actually takes place a few years before the events of Arkham Asylum (and a little while after Origins), making it a prequel with loose, flexible ties to the games' Batman mythology. Unsurprisingly, there isn't a whole lot more to the premise beyond what's covered in the title: after a black-ops attempt to apprehend The Riddler (Matthew Gray Gubler) goes sideways thanks to the Dark Knight's (Kevin Conroy) nobler intervention, bigwig government agent Amanda Waller (CCH Pounder) -- "The Wall" -- assembles a crew of imprisoned villains to covertly raid his new place of residence, Arkham Asylum, to recover a sensitive device that was in his possession. Veterans to Waller's "Task Force X" (both in-universe and on a meta level) including Deadshot (Neal McDonough), a Joker-less Harley Quinn (Hynden Walch), and Captain Boomerang (Greg Ellis) are brought together with newbies -- Black Spider (Giancarlo Esposito), Killer Frost (Jennifer Hale), King Shark (John DiMaggio), and KGBeast (Nolan North) -- for a calculated strike involving sleight of hand and usage of their individual strengths, all while evading Batman's grasp both off and on the grounds.
Following Son of Batman's rickety, severe writing -- y'know, where Batman essentially gets date-raped and produces a murderous ten-year-old Marty Stu -- the straightforwardness of an antihero heist that isn't really focused on Batman at all, instead centered on some of his lesser-known rivals, sounds like an appealing distraction. While its own lapses in logic keep DC's latest direct-to-video animation from translating into a tighter overall story, from wonky lie detectors to flimsy security protocols at several levels of the asylum, Assault on Arkham soars past several of their recent offerings with its presentation of the villains and an unabashed, darkly-humorous attitude. Mostly, it's because the concept doesn't intrude on the characters' varied demeanors: there's plenty of breathing room for the loose-cannon leadership of Neal McDonough's excellent Deadshot and the supercharged quirk of Hynden Walch's jilted Harley Quinn, as well as Captain Boomerang's roguish gristle and the unlikely bond between King Shark (basically a cross between Bane and Croc) and the saucy Killer Frost. Allegiances fluctuate within the group amid the moving parts of Waller's plan(s), and the erratic rapport between their allowable one-note personas spices up the simplicity of casing Arkham.
Starting from the dubstep-infused intro to the Suicide Squad's roster that resembles a modern caper flick, Assault on Arkham doesn't take itself too seriously -- or, rather, very seriously at all -- which could make it somewhat divisive with those yearning for harder-nosed storytelling. Working from a script by Justice League: War's Heath Corson, the pairing of directors Jay Oliva (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) and Ethan Spaulding (Son of Batman) have cranked out a mischievous tongue-in-cheek feature that's entirely aware of the B-list and C-list reputation of their merry band, allowing them to push the boundaries of "adult" vulgarity and self-reference in the space of the games' independent canon. While some of the violence and sexuality skews more towards the needlessly juvenile than maturity, namely in Harley's ... uh, infatuation with Deadshot (a carry-over from DC's recent books), its constant references to the external Batman universe are welcomingly lighthearted: visual triggers from Returns, verbal puns from Batman & Robin, and even a familiar Nolan-verse clown mask make appearances. Some predictable stabs at being "edgy" and on-the-nose Easter eggs stick out like sore thumbs, sure, but they're threaded into the narrative well-enough to dig them in context of what's going on, too.
As an action-driven story in the annals of the Batman mythology, this Assault on Arkham doesn't really accomplish much beyond being an overstated, amusing diversion, unsteadily juggling that "root for the bad guy" flip in perspective with seemingly-obligatory screen time with Bats and his bigger nemeses, including an excellent Troy Baker as the Clown Prince himself. The breakneck twists and turns involving the squad alternate between dubiousness and predictability (there's a big "gotcha!" that can be seen a good distance out), but the animation style's brisk action sequences and self-aware humor, surrounded by visual inspiration from the Arkham series of games, frequently offsets the shallow plotting. Despite some missteps, there's a fuse of enjoyment lit in how Warner Bros. worms "Task Force X" into the fray of the familiar setting -- along with Batman's well-restricted presence as their menacing foil, a smaller role for Kevin Conroy's iconic voice -- with no promises in who'll be escaping Arkham as the clashing personalities gleefully tear the place apart. Whether a Suicide Squad movie needs more than that is up for debate, since it doesn't reach the heights of Under the Red Hood or other "mature" glimpses at the Caped Crusader's progeny, but it ends up being a madcap explosion of fun regardless.
Batman: Assault on Arkham arrives in a standard two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo presentation from Warner Bros. / DC Animation, contained in a standard eco-friendly case with Batman's image pressed atop each in black (purple) and silver. For those who enjoy the pizzazz of DC Animation's cardboard slipcases, they've incorporated subtle shininess to shadowy elements on this one that's not readily apparently at first blush, but ends up adding a slick touch to Batman's cowl, Deadshot's eyepiece, Harley's costume, and a snaking rope leading the downwards.
Video and Audio:
Veterans to DCU's direct-to-video animated features know what to expect from Warner Bros.' Blu-ray productions by now, flaws and all, but Batman: Assault on Arkham skews much higher on the quality spectrum than others. While color blocking remains a nagging inherent issue within the animation's backgrounds and under intense lighting, along with the slight haze of intentional diffused lighting that's become a mainstay in their aesthetic (Waller seems to be a source of constant radiance), these issues are far less distracting in this 1.78:1-framed, 1080p AVC presentation than with other installments. What stands out, instead, are the sharp and satisfying lines forming the character models and facial expressions, the rich vibrancy of colors -- neon greens, rich reds, and electric blues in the glow of lights; pale and tanned skin tones and Killer Frost's soft-blue hair; verdant greens and rusty oranges in and around Arkham -- and the exquisite, respective black levels that never hide details in the artistry. Blasts of vividness creep out from the animation's generally dim aesthetic, and it looks rather smashing in high-definition.
Matching the visuals, a furious and razor-sharp 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track telegraphs about as much punch as many modern live-action blockbusters and relishes the nuance of the voiceover work every chance it gets. There's a lot of activity going on in the track -- magical freezing of water, aggressive firefights, electrical surges, a noteworthy batch of explosions -- and the aural design delivers each element with the force and clarity you'd expect from their impact, along with a reputable amount of activity stretching to the rear channels. Slightly subtler elements also tease some intricate clarity from the track, from the peeling-back of rusted metal to the dispersal of gas in a room and the thump of bass in a pub, that also sprawl and separate among the channels. Most noteworthy, of course, is the range of vocals that show off some impressive awareness of their intended environments and impeccable clarity: Hynden Walch's high-pitched lunacy as Harley, Neal McDonough's rich mid-ground attitude as Deadshot, and Kevin Conroy's gruff rumble as the Dark Knight. Fantastically balanced and free of distortion, it's a superb sonic outing from DCU's animation wing. Audio and subtitles are available in English, French, Spanish, German, and Portuguese.
Creative director Mike Carlin, writer Heath Corson, and executive producer James Tucker are nearly as energetic as the film itself (well, at first) as they dig into the conceptualization of Assault on Arkham. They navigate some of the Suicide Squad members that they considered but decided not to use -- or couldn't, due to WB's connective web of lore -- as well as digging into the characters' visual representations and characterizations, discussing how the plot moves quickly enough to distract from loose logic, and navigating the idea of making these antagonists into likable antiheroes. They toss out anecdotes about the classic movie Scanners and how a more "salacious" version of a sex scene was considered for the film, as well as achieving an '80s attitude and grit to the heist itself. From discussing the art style to adapting the Arkham games' visual style to two-dimensional animation and being frank about over-explaining the plot, it's a pretty darn strong track.
Arkham Analyzed: The Secrets Behind the Asylum (27:16, 16x9 HD):
While it's probably a bit more stretched out than it needed to be, this featurette explores the origins of Arkham Asylum -- both in-universe and from the writer's table -- through interviews with writers, both current and past, and the filmmakers behind Assault on Arkham. The mysteriousness of Batman become a big talking point at first as they discuss the crippling psychological effects of Gotham's macabre loony bin, coupled with panels, covers, and concept sketches from the comics. Grant Morrison's iconic graphic novel about Arkham Asylum commands a presence as the piece progresses, then moves towards the influences that went into crafting Rocksteady's game entirely centered on the setting. Some of the discussed information repeats and meanders while the images play out on-screen, but it's a sharp look at one of the Batman mythology's more unique, enduring components.
The Joker's Queen: Harley Quinn (13:50, 16x9 HD):
it's a brief peek at character creation, but this piece does an eloquent and straightforward job of explaining Harley's meager roots -- as a female lackey for The Joker in Batman: The Animated Series who could've disappeared after that one episode, "Joker's Favor" -- and the conceptualization of her visual style. Interviews with her co-creator Paul Dini and other DC creative folks explore how the psychosis and dangerous strength of her character has developed, and how she wouldn't really exist as an evolved personality without Arkham Asylum as the root of her metamorphosis. Adam Glass also touches on Harley Quinn's newfound link with Deadshot in the recent comics as a unique cap on the featurette, and how it plays into Assault on Arkham.
Warner Bros.'s Blu-ray also comes equipped with a series of four cartoons From the DC Comics Vault (SD) -- Justice League Unlimited: Task Force X (23:12); Young Justice: Infiltrator (22:25); Batman: The Brave and the Bold: Emperor Joker (23:07); and The Batman: Two of a Kind (22:17) -- all of which vary in digital quality with heavy aliasing. A series of Trailers for other DCU animations and products has also been made available, along with a Sneak Peek at Justice League: Throne of Atlantis (9:10 16x9 HD), marking the emergence of a dedicated Aquaman narrative based on Geoff Johns' book of the same name. A nearly-bareboned DVD Copy of the film and a Ultraviolet Digital Copy have been thrown in with the Blu-ray package.
There are two hurdles to cross before being able to dig into Batman: Assault on Arkham and enjoy what it's all about: a) that Batman's put on the backburner to make room for a Suicide Squad plotline; and b) that the story has been largely engineered for superficial, gleefully non-kid-friendly entertainment within the familiar universe. Once expectations have been recalibrated with those things in mind, there's a lot of bracing action, fiery characterization, and rampant in-jokes to be discovered in this heist on the Arkham Asylum found in Rocksteady's series of videogames. Hiccups in common sense and undemanding plot purposes aside, it's a fine B-level entry in the DCU's animated roster that relishes how "Task Force X" reaches into the rogues gallery, namely Deadshot's no-nonsense antiheroism and Herley Quinn's spurned battiness and knowledge of Arkham. WB's Blu-ray looks and sounds terrific, arriving with a commentary and featurettes that are well worth a look. Strongly Recommended.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site