Knight of the Villains
It's high time that Hollywood abandon its pursuit of the villain-based comic book movie. I'm not talking about something like Chronicle, where we see tragedy befall an unstable figure who gets bestowed with superpowers, but rather a flick focused on the bad guys just doing what they do. The draw is understandable; in most cases, it's the antagonist who's blessed with a more colorful personality and fascinating back story. But there's a little matter of giving viewers a good reason why they should be invested in what a load of degenerate criminals are up to, and try as it might to take an unconventional whack at cracking this quandry, Batman: Assault on Arkham ends up a swing and a miss. Though it likes to boast about how much it wears irreverence on its sleeve, this animated adventure still feels tethered to a moral center of some kind, as weak as the connection is. As a result, Batman: Assault on Arkham comes across as all talk and no game, never really letting loose as much as it wants to and supplying the most half-hearted excuses for empathizing with the main characters that it can.
As the film opens, we join the Dark Knight's latest fight against Gotham's underworld, already in progress. Batman (voice of Kevin Conroy) has saved the day and sent that cracked quizmeister the Riddler (voice of Matthew Gray Gubler) off to Arkham Asylum. But the fiend brought a little something in with him, and government agent Amanda Waller (voice of CCH Pounder) wants it back badly. However, due to the package's hush-hush nature, Waller can't send just anyone in to get it, so she assembles the only crew insane enough for the job: the Suicide Squad. From the first-class assassin Deadshot (voice of Neal McDonough) to the demented Harley Quinn (voice of Hynden Walch), the cream of Gotham's scumbag crop is brought together and given the task of breaking into Arkham itself. With the promise of reduced sentences for all, the baddies agree begrudgingly, although with this many thieves and killers having to work as a team, trouble can't be far behind. Sure enough, the Squad's mission nearly derails right out of the gate, thanks to the abundance of clashing egos, Harley's relationship with Arkham's "funniest" inmate...and a secret agenda Waller has in store.
If Batman: Assault on Arkham had to experiment with a story centered around the anti-heroes to end all anti-heroes, at least it chose the realm of animation to do it in. Without untold millions of smackers riding on its success or any limitations of shooting in live-action, the flick was more than free to kick open the doors of creativity and tinker with all the options that laid before it -- in theory, at least. Unfortunately, Batman: Assault on Arkham puts forth more effort towards looking and sounding different than doing anything interesting with the material. Its initial hook appears attention-grabbing enough, what with the Dark Knight himself featured in only a few scenes and the Squad -- many of whose members have received little screen exposure of any kind -- taking top billing. But setting aside the fact that these characters (which the movie's back cover literally encourages us to root for) are pretty cavalier about the innocent lives they take, what the story has them do is just really boring. What starts as a heist flick with attitude to spare soon unravels into a dull mess, where what's surprising isn't that certain players betray others but that they do so for exhaustingly convoluted reasons. Comics are known for having no one take the easy way out in getting anything done as is, but in a case like this, when a hard rock soundtrack and more bloodshed than the norm are all there is to distract us, the speed at which the premise collapses under scrutiny is awe-inspiring.
Batman: Assault on Arkham would have us be content with seeing its rogues gallery spend the bulk of the time blasting away guards and trading caustic banter, which isn't gonna happen. For all the attention it calls to itself regarding how high it's letting its freak flag fly, the movie does make some attempts at getting us to feel sorry for particular members of the Squad, which come across as mostly feeble and insincere. As he assumes leadership of the group, it's Deadshot who becomes the de facto "hero" of the story, and with this status comes cliched business about a kid who's addressed way too little for us to gloss over all the civilians he executes through the course of the movie. McDonough's emotionless delivery doesn't help much, and virtually all of the other villains are too gimmicky and one-note to be involved with, either. The only glimmer of hope lies with the dense but dangerous Harley Quinn, voiced to near perfection by Walch and inspiring the gamut of emotional reactions, from laughs to fear to sympathy. She's the closest this film gets to a complex character, and with the addition of a certain clown prince of crime who springs up later on, she would've made an infinitely more intriguing protagonist than a blank slate who has a daughter or something, so be sad for him.
Like this year's Son of Batman, Batman: Assault on Arkham offers a pretty skewed perception of what constitutes "maturity." The picture makes it clear from the start that it's not for children, but without a compelling narrative to tell, all its scenes of graphic violence (or whatever the limits of a PG-13 rating will allow) and characters hopping in the sack with each other are for naught. Though it thinks of itself as grown-up entertainment, Batman: Assault on Arkham looks more like a bratty kid doing a lot of playground posturing.
(Released by Warner Bros. Pictures and rated "PG-13" by MPAA.)