Superhero Sundays: Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014)
Batman's weird eyes6.5
Matthew Turner | On 29, Dec 2019
Director: Jay Oliva, Ethan Spaulding
Cast: Kevin Conroy, Neal McDonough, Hynden Walch, Matthew Gray Gubler, Troy Baker
On Sunday mornings, we like to watch cartoons. So we’re working our way through animated superhero cartoons. We call it Superhero Sundays.
Co-directed by Jay Oliva (Batman: Under the Red Hood) and Ethan Spaulding, Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014) offers something slightly different to the other movies in the DCAU (DC Animated Universe), in that it’s both adult-themed (that 15 certificate is well deserved – be advised that it’s definitely not for young children) and based on the popular Arkham Asylum video game series, which allows for certain dramatic liberties. The result is an entertaining animated adventure that knows just how far to push the limits of its more adult material without becoming too gratuitous.
Despite the title, the film is essentially a Suicide Squad movie, operating along similar lines as the 2005 Justice League Unlimited episode Task Force X. When The Riddler (Matthew Gray Gubler) lands in Arkham Asylum, A.R.G.U.S. Head Amanda Waller (CCH Pounder) recruits criminals Deadshot (Neal McDonough), Harley Quinn (Hynden Walch), Captain Boomerang (Greg Ellis), Black Spider (Giancarlo Esposito), Killer Frost (Jennifer Hale), King Shark (John DiMaggio) and KGBeast (Nolan North) for a special mission: they are to break into Arkham Asylum and destroy the Riddler’s cane, where he has reportedly stashed damaging information.
Dubbed Task Force X, or the Suicide Squad, the group have no choice but to comply, thanks to the nano-bombs implanted in each of their necks, with no-nonsense Waller demonstrating that she’s not bluffing by blowing up one of their number early on. Meanwhile, The Batman (Kevin Conroy) has his hands full looking for a dirty bomb that The Joker (Troy Baker) has apparently planted somewhere in Gotham City, despite the fact that he’s currently locked up in Arkham.
Batman: Assault on Arkham pre-dates the live-action Suicide Squad movie by two years, so it’s not too much of a stretch to see it as a dry run for the big screen version, especially since they share so many of the same characters. Whether or not that’s the case, this is certainly one of the more successful on-screen outings for the Suicide Squad (they’ve also featured in the Arrow TV series), showcasing fun interactions between the characters and finding interesting tensions in the push and pull between hero and villain.
Putting the villains centre stage means we spend much more time getting to know them than we otherwise would. That pays off significantly in the various interactions, most notably a comics-ordained (in the New 52 universe, anyway) relationship between Deadshot and Harley (it’s especially refreshing to see her with someone other than the Joker), the bickering rivalry between Deadshot and Captain Boomerang (“You two-bit C-lister!”) and an unexpectedly touching connection between Killer Frost and King Shark, even if that does feel at least partly inspired by the Hawkgirl / Solomon Grundy relationship from the Justice League cartoon series.
On a similar note, using villains as the main characters also has the effect of legitimising the more adult themes – after all, it’s hard to imagine the Justice League swearing, biting people’s heads off (okay, that’s just King Shark) or getting naked. Here, the adult themes work surprisingly well (concerned adults can be assured that the language doesn’t extend to f-words or c-words), though the film is a little on the sexist side (female nudity is used as a distraction twice) and isn’t exactly equal opportunity on the nakedness front.
The film handles the more adult violence nicely too – there’s believable blood and injury as well as some inventively gruesome kills, particularly where King Shark and Killer Frost are concerned. Similarly, setting the film in the video game universe means relatively well known characters can be killed off without harming continuity elsewhere. (In addition, if you’re a fan of the games, there are plenty of references and Easter Eggs, as well as a couple of bonus villains whose character designs come directly from the game.)
As is no doubt obvious by now, Batman is basically reduced to a supporting character in the film, which is probably just as well, considering how deeply creepy and weird his eyeballs are. (Seriously, Batman with visible, badly animated eyeballs takes a lot of getting used to). That said, he pops up just enough to keep the story going, though the more interesting sides of his character (the detective work, the humour, the genius intellect etc) are somewhat lacking considering it’s meant to be a Batman movie.
Script-wise, the dialogue is full of good lines (“For someone who’s not Batman, you’ve been a real pain in my ass…”, “Mate – you just out-crazied the Joker”), but the plotting is rather weak. For one thing, the heist could have used some better twists and turns, as the ones we do get are either obvious or make little dramatic sense. Also, some of the details are unintentionally laughable, such as a key plot moment that hinges on Batman knowing the shift rota at Arkham.
Speaking of which, Arkham itself is both unimaginatively designed and badly under-used, particularly when you consider that it’s practically a character in the video games (and the DCAU) that bear its name. It ought to at least have a bit of atmosphere, but here it just feels like a generic prison.
On the plus side, the voicework is typically excellent, courtesy of the peerless voice casting legend that is Andrea Romano. Here she deploys a mixture of DC animation regulars (e.g. Conroy, Pounder, Hale) alongside voice actors from the video games (Martin Jarvis, Nolan North, as well as Troy Baker’s very impressive Joker). Her most interesting decision is in the casting and direction of Neal McDonough, who gives Deadshot a more traditionally heroic voice than the other Squad members, cleverly underscoring his de facto lead character status.
Ultimately, Batman: Assault on Arkham deserves to be filed under “successful experiment”, finding exactly the right story to justify its incursions into slightly more adult material. You wouldn’t want every corner of the DCAU to be like this, but it makes a refreshing change from DC’s more family-friendly output. It’s also, needless to say, a much better Suicide Squad movie than the actual Suicide Squad movie.