Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Batman: Assault on Arkham Review

The Suicide Squad gets their small screen debut in this animated Arkhamverse thriller.

With the imminent release of Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham franchise coming sometime next year, Warner Bros. decided to keep fans occupied with Batman: Assault on Arkham, the series' first venture into feature length film. Don't let the title fool you though; this animated heist flick may be based in the Arkhamverse, but follows the story of the Suicide Squad, a band of supervillains contracted by the government to carry out deadly missions in order to lessen their prison sentences. 

The team, consisting of Deadshot, Harley Quinn, King Shark, Captain Boomerang, Killer Frost and Black Spider, are tasked with breaking into Arkham Asylum in order to retrieve a hard drive from The Riddler, who has stolen top secret information about the Squad and is threatening to leak it online. Things aren't going to be easy though, as the Batman is alerted of the break in, and the team must avoid being caught, lest they face certain death from their leader, Amanda Waller. To make matters worse, the Joker breaks free and plans to detonate a bomb that will kill half of Gotham, meaning the Dark Knight has his hands full, and the Squad's loyalties are put to the test. 

As is typical of a Suicide Squad story, there's danger, deception and certain death at every corner, and there are plenty of twists and turns to keep the plot interesting. The story itself becomes very complex further down the line, with multiple subplots coming into play, but all thankfully tying together nicely for the film's climax. There's rarely a dull moment, as the action sequences showcase the film's stellar animation and are a joy to watch, not to mention it was great to see slightly more adult violence in 2D animation, but done in such a manner that it isn't over the top or too grotesque. Humour is also used effectively throughout, making the film highly enjoyable to watch. The jokes hit bullseye the majority of the time, and some moments are so unexpected that they instantly make you laugh out loud. Despite featuring very little, the film successfully uses both Batman and the Joker in bitesize doses, stealing the show each time one is on screen, satisfying die-hard fans of the two nemeses whilst also keeping the main focus on 'Task Force X'. Ultimately though, the film's focus on the character interactions of the Squad is it's highlight, with sharp dialogue and a constant uncertainty of how trustworthy the team-mates are that makes the characters much more interesting to watch interact with one another. 

It's a shame then, that the film predominantly focuses on just Deadshot and Harley Quinn rather than each team member individually; though the latter's portrayal by Hynden Walch is the surprise stand-out performance of the film (although her over-the-top characterisation feels out of tune with the Clown Princess of Crime's usual mannerisms), Deadshot is portrayed too sympathetically in an attempt to make a personal connection to the audience, contrasting to his over-confident personality we see in the Batman: Arkham games and other media. Though this depiction is true to the character's comic backstory, the film overuses this trait to make him seem a more empathetic protagonist to the viewer, but ultimately makes the character seem a tad cliché. Black Spider and Killer Frost get the short end of the stick, having the least amount of screen time, with Frost in particular having a disappointing portrayal in which she's forcibly written as a love interest for King Shark. 

Both characters have their moments though, and nevertheless the film's outstanding voice work manages to give each individual so much personality, even when the script restricts them. Veteran voice actors Kevin Conroy (Batman: Arkham series), Troy Baker (The Last of Us), John DiMaggio (Futurama) and Jennifer Hale (Mass Effect) amongst many more lend their talents to the film, achieving pure perfection with each line delivery and giving each character a memorable portrayal through just their vocal chords. The only let down is CCH Pounder as Squad leader Amanda Waller, who although performs fantastically as always as the no-nonsense government official, is given very little to do throughout the film and is written too naively in the third act to be taken seriously. 

Perhaps the biggest flaw in the film is that many elements felt out of place. Though the majority of the adult content is done effectively and in-character (we never thought we'd see the day where the Joker proclaims, "I'm here bitches!" and still be funny), there was a large amount of sexual content that was either deliberate fan service or forcefully written-in events that served to tie the film in to New 52 lore. Though the latter plot device comes into better light as the film progresses, the fan service depicts the female Squad members as sex pests, and although modern DC comics are no stranger to exploring sexual themes, these elements felt like they were put in the film "just because" and didn't serve to drive the plot forward. 

In addition, having the film based in Rocksteady's Arkhamverse feels extremely out of place. The Tarantino-inspired violence and comedy completely juxtaposes to the gothic and mature setting of the video games, making you wonder at times why the film-makers even bothered to make the film canon in Arkhamverse lore in the first place.  Of course the simple answer to that question is brand recognition, in an attempts to get more sales from avid video game fans, and it's a pity that Warner Bros. felt a Suicide Squad film wouldn't get mainstream attention of its own accord. 

However, the film takes many liberties in remaining faithful to Rocksteady's depiction of the Dark Knight, having many easter eggs scattered throughout for keen-eyed Arkham fans to spot, and certain character interactions that hint to this universe's rich history as a whole. In particular, many of Batman: Arkham Asylum's set pieces are beautifully recreated for the film, and although these picturesque backgrounds contrast to the film's main art style, they still stand out as one of the film's highlights, and make it worth a second viewing to see what you missed out first time around. 

Overall, Batman: Assault on Arkham stands out as one of DC's best direct-to-DVD line-up, relying upon it's thrilling action sequences and vibrant character dynamics to carry it forward. Having the villains take centre stage allows for a refreshing viewing experience, and will certainly make you want to see more of the Suicide Squad as soon as possible. But despite having stand out moments of dark comedy and character interactions, many elements feel too forced or clichéd in order to appeal to a wider audience, which takes away some enjoyment of the film. As an experimental adult animated flick though, it's definitely worth a shot. Yahtzee!

Score: 7/10