August 4, 2016

Batman: Assault on Arkham is the Original Suicide Squad!

Batman: Assault on Arkham is the Original Suicide Squad!
NOTE:  Now Playing Podcast and La La Land Records are giving away 5 copies of The Killing Joke limited CD Soundtrack. Follow @nowplayingpod on Twitter and retweet their pinned tweet to enter!
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Starting today, DC movies are committing Suicide.  

Sure, everyone knows Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman – the featured characters in last Spring’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But Killer Croc? Deadshot? Captain Boomerang? These are some lesser known characters–and the stars of the new movie Suicide Squad.

With an August release date and a story of criminals out to do good, it’s obvious DC is hoping to capture some of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy magic (and dollars). Outside of comic book die-hards these characters aren’t household names, but with this film DC hopes they will be.

So to prepare for this live action film, I watched another movie version of this tale:  DC’s 2014 animated direct-to-video Batman: Assault on Arkham.

 

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Like the live-action film, this cartoon tells of a “Suicide Squad” formed to infiltrate Arkham Asylum — Gotham City’s infamous sanitarium for the criminally insane.  Government official Amanda Waller calls together a team of seven criminals to covertly infiltrate the prison.  Batman foe The Riddler is imprisoned there, and he has a thumb drive that could expose Waller’s above-the-law operations.

The group she assembles consists of five lesser-known DC baddies: Captain Boomerang, King Shark, Killer Frost, Black Spider, and the hilariously named KGBeast.  For a little star power, the headliners are two more popular Batman enemies: Harley Quinn and Deadshot.

For full disclosure, I certainly hadn’t heard of most of the characters in this film.  When it comes to DC comics, if a character wasn’t featured in a live-action film or the ‘60s Batman TV show, odds are I don’t know them.  I have seen a handful of episodes of Batman: The Animated Series though, and I find great enjoyment in several of DC’s direct-to-video animated films.  

 

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I suspect those excited by seeing Captain Boomerang and KGBeast in action are already DC Comics readers and fans.  Those die-hards would excitedly pre-order a Suicide Squad animated film, because they know what that means.  Instead, for marketing, this movie is called Batman: Assault on Arkham but the Dark Knight is very much a supporting player in this tale.  This movie should have been called Suicide Squad, but wasn’t, I suspect, for two reasons.

First, invoking Arkham in the title shows this movie is set in the universe of the immensely successful Batman: Arkham video games.  In fact, the movie is a sequel to Arkham: Origins and takes place about two years before the original Arkham Asylum game.  

Second, giving Batman top billing appeals to more casual fans like me.  Without a heavy marketing campaign like the live-action film has, I would likely skip an animated movie called Suicide Squad.  Call it Batman and you have my interest.

If you don’t know these characters as I didn’t, it won’t be a barrier to your enjoyment.  These enslaved villains are introduced quickly with ‘70s style title cards announcing their names.  Before you know it, this motley crew is rounded up and told of their mission.  If they don’t comply, Waller will detonate explosives planted in their necks.

 

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Why are these specific people chosen?  Why use criminals instead of more traditional assassins?  The film glosses over the answers so we can get to the action!

Once the titular Assault begins, the fun never ends.  The plot is full of so many twists and turns I am hesitant to discuss them lest I rob you of the fun of discovery.  Suffice it to say the team’s objectives change every ten to fifteen minutes, and when Quinn’s former beau The Joker shows up, it all goes sideways.

The animation is rudimentary, and I sometimes had trouble distinguishing between Deadshot and Black Spider. Even though one is African-American and the other Caucasian, the coloring muted the skin tones.  Add to that identical facial hair, somewhat similar hairstyles, and my lack of familiarity with these characters, at times I found myself confused.

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Despite that, this hard PG-13 cartoon did the seemingly impossible–the action excited me.  This Squad isn’t afraid to kill some cops in brutal ways. In truth, I haven’t seen so many decapitations since David Cronenberg’s original Scanners!

Not only are nameless guards and cops taken out, but so are some characters from DC Comics.  The team is called a Suicide Squad and, surely enough, some of them don’t survive the mission.  This feeling that all the characters are at risk upped the suspense–no one feels safe in this cartoon.

If you know these characters, if you are steeped in the Arkham video game universe, I can only imagine your enjoyment is even greater than mine. I did, however, become giddy when Poison Ivy, Bane, Penguin, and other characters I actually knew, made minor appearances.

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Beyond violence, there is a PG level sex scene, and some “almost see it” nudity with the femme fatales Quinn and Frost.

What the film lacks in visuals, it makes up for in the score.  The music is omnipresent and sets a mood that the script and characterizations sometimes fail to do. But I found myself tapping my fingers throughout.

The voice acting is also well done.  Nearly all the actors, including Kevin Conroy (Batman), C.C.H. Pounder (Waller), and Jennifer Hale (Killer Frost), have played these characters for years. Their familiar performances were welcome.  Newcomers Greg Ellis (Captain Boomerang), Neal McDonough (Deadshot) and Giancarlo Esposito (Black Spider) also do very well.

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I did, however, truly miss Mark Hamill and Arleen Sorkin, the respective voices of The Joker and Harley Quinn since the ‘90s Batman: The Animated Series and several of the Batman: Arkham games.  Both had retired from the role (though Hamill reprised in this year’s Batman: The Killing Joke).  Troy Baker and Hynden Walch are fine in the roles, but I felt a lack of menace and chaos from both.

While Batman: Assault on Arkham is by no means a perfect movie, its manic action is a blast. The script does an admirable job of introducing the characters and the “Suicide Squad” concept. And, based on the trailers, I strongly suspect today’s live-action Suicide Squad took many beats from this animated version.

I give Assault on Arkham a solid Recommend.

Now Playing Podcast’s review of Suicide Squad will be released Tuesday, Aug 9th!

Buy Batman: Assault on Arkham now on Blu-Ray

Buy Batman: The Killing Joke now on Blu-Ray

Hear Now Playing Podcast’s entire Batman movie review series.

*Note: There are no plans for Now Playing Podcast to do podcast reviews of the direct-to-video DC Animated films. 

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