DC Animations spate of bi (sometimes tri)-annual direct-to-home-video features began with Bruce Timm as an offshoot of his now legendary animated DCU. Once Timm was done with TV, he began adapting popular comic book stories like Doomsday and Public Enemies into surprisingly strong animated features. Towards the end of Timm’s run, he got ambitious and started adapting comic masterpieces like All-Star Superman and Batman: Year One. It all peaked with the epic Dark Knight Returns feature that perfectly recreated Frank Miller’s classic in an animated film that somehow managed to top Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises as the Batman feature of the year. Since then, Timm’s moved on and DC Animation pulled a New 52 switcheroo. Following the brilliant Flashpoint Paradox, the company delivered the deeply mediocre Justice League: War and Son Of Batman features that marked a huge step back in ambition. Now we have Batman: Assault On Arkham, a film that continues the current trend, yet at least marks a slight upswing in quality. It’s clear now that expecting all of these movies to match The Dark Knight Returns was as big of a mistake as expecting all comics to suddenly do the same back in the 80s. Nope, DC Animation now has a new model of edgy PG-13 fan service features with gorgeous animation and little ambition beyond superhero fun. There’s nothing wrong with that just as long as you aren’t expecting more.
Batman might be the first word in the title of this new feature, but he’s more of a secondary character. DC is going out of their way to use the animated features as a means to boost popularity in side characters these days and this is actually a Suicide Squad feature. That’s right, it’s about the vicious Amanda Waller hiring a gang of DC miscreants for a mission and instead of payment, she promises not to kill them if they succeed. In this case, she’s pulled together a collection of villains like Captain Boomerang, Killer Frost, King Shark, and Black Spider. Of course, those characters are really just wacky faces to fill out an ensemble. The two stars of the show are Deadshot and Harley Quinn, who not only lead the assault on Arkham Asylum to stop some sort of Riddler plot, but also enjoy a little roly-poly in the sack. Obviously, that also means that The Joker will end up being a wild card that screws things up and Batman will arrive just in time to set things straight. It’s an outlaw team up picture a la The Wild Bunch with a Batman setting and thankfully it’s just about as entertaining as it sounds.
DC animation directors Jay Oliva (The Dark Knight Returns, Flashpoint) and Ethan Spaulding (Son Of Batman, Avatar: The Last Airbender) joined forces to pull off this puppy. Given that they are both action specialists, that means the flick is a wild ride from first frame to last. It’s essentially a story told through set pieces, where plot is secondary to ass-kickery and the action doesn’t let up for a second. The story is told at a fever pace, the characters are one-liner delivery systems, and stuff blows up real good. It’s a film clearly made by comic book fanatics who fill their story with comic references and treat the material with reverence. It might not be intellectual, but it’s always canonical and should make the target audience giggle with delight. The DC Animation PG-13 mandate is also pushed to the limit with lots of goopy action including exploding heads and even a little Harley nudity and sex. It’s fun to see the team embrace their ratings board freedom and deliver an animated feature that could never play theaters, but at the same time there’s an undeniable sense that they are being adolescent and naughty rather than mature and adult. It’s a style of superhero storytelling that anyone who remembers the post Dark Knight era of 80s/90s Xtreme comics will recognize. Hopefully, the gang in charge of these features will dig a little deeper in the future, because as fun as that style is, it’s also pretty limited.
Oddly, the film is set in the Batman videogame universe developed by Rocksteady and Warner Brothers Interactive over the past few years rather than the continuity DC animation has been pushing since Justice League: War. The plot takes place between Arkham Origins and Arkham Asylum, but it’s honestly not necessary to have played the games to follow the film. Sure, the character designs are the same (which a joy to see translated to 2D animation) and the settings are littered with Easter eggs, but honestly this could be any Bat story told at any time. Of course, the big plus is that also means Kevin Conroy returns once more to deliver his definitive Batman performance and they really should just hire him for every one of these animated features. Troy Baker also pops up to play a faux Mark Hamill Joker like he did in Arkham Origins and the guy is getting better at it all the time. Hynden Walch returns to the role of Harley Quinn that she played on The Batman and she’s pretty excellent. Actually, the whole voice cast is wonderful. There are no fatale castig mistakes hear like the unfortunate Damien Wayne from Son Of Batman. Taken for what it is, Assault On Arkham is an absolute blast. It might be easy to whine about the new direction for these DC animated features, but they can’t all be Dark Knight Returns. At least these features are helping to keep the universe alive and offer big steaming piles of fun in the process. If you’re a Batman or DC fan, you’ve got to see it. Simple as that.Warner Bros’ Batman: Assault On Arkham Blu-ray is just as pretty and stacked as we’ve come to expect from this series. The transfer is gorgeous with deep beautiful colors, while the score and sound mix would suit a theatrically released feature film. On the special features front, things kick off with a pretty interesting 30-minute documentary about Arkham Asylum that digs deep into the history and meaning of Gotham’s madhouse through interviews with a collection of comic book experts. It’s a pretty fun doc even if it’s shame that Grant Morrison didn’t pop by to discuss his famous graphic novel given that he’s popped by to do plenty of talking head work for DC in the past. Thankfully that’s more than made up for with a 15-minute featurette about Harley Quinn that’s essentially the Paul Dini show and just as fun as it sounds.
Then there’s the usual bonus crop of classic DC animation episodes that includes a fun Justice League Unlimited ep centered on Deadshot leading a heist, a hilarious episode of Batman: Brave And The Bold that introduces their silent film version of Harley Quinn (plus Jokermite!), a Paul Dini-penned Harley-centric episode of The Batman that’s far better than most of that series, and an episode of Young Justice (which I didn’t watch because I hate that show). Definitely an entertaining crop of episodes that highlight some of the more obscure TV shows in the DC animation arsenal. Finally there’s an extended trailer for the next DC Animated feature (which centers on Aquaman…shudder) and an audio commentary from a few of the filmmakers that proves they are in fact a collection of giggling fanboys and fangirls as you’d hope. Overall, it’s a pretty damn nice disc for a Batman movie that might be dumb as a bag of rocks, but is far too entertaining to be annoying. Hopefully this gang of goofy filmmakers will get more ambitious with their animated features again soon, because as fun as Batman: Assault On Arkham is, it’s just a sugar rush bag of candy that feels insubstantial after the three-course meal of The Dark Knight Returns.