Harley Quinn doesn't get naked and have sex in any of the Batman video games that she's appeared in. But the Joker's psycho girlfriend does exactly that in the new animated movie tied to Arkham Asylum and Arkham Origins. It's not the only surprise in there either.
Out in DVD, Blu-ray and digital streaming forms this week, Batman: Assault on Arkham isn't really about the Dark Knight. Sure, he's in it but he's not the character the movie spends time following around. Instead, it's a crew of villains who serve as the focus of this new DC animated movie. The finales of last year's Arkham Origins games ended with supervillains being gathered for a mysterious team. Directed by Jay Oliva and Ethan Spaulding and written by Heath Corson, this movie shows that team in action.
Deadshot, Harley Quinn, King Shark, Killer Frost and Black Spider share the spotlight in Assault on Arkham, which takes place in between Arkham Asylum and Arkham Origins. The supervillains get thrown together as the Suicide Squad, a secret government operation that abducts criminals and sends them out on high-risk missions so the feds can have plausible deniability. If the bad guys live, they get time off their sentences. They can't go AWOL because microscopic explosives will blow their brains up if they try to desert.
As in the long-lived comic book version of the Suicide Squad, it's federal official Amanda Waller who kidnaps and coerces the evildoers into service. She's after classified info stolen by Edward Nygma, a.k.a. the Riddler and the film opens with her talking to him. A black ops team busts in to apprehend Nygma, only to be interrupted by Batman. Batman wins the confrontation with the soldiers and takes Nygma to Arkham Asylum.
From there, the film moves to Waller assembling the team and assigning them the goal of invading the sanitarium and retrieving the data. And if you're thinking that complications might ensue from sending a team with Harley Quinn on it to the Joker's home away from home, then you've hit on Assault in Arkham's subplot. A search for a dirty bomb secreted away by Mr. J is what brings Batman and the Suicide Squad into conflict, and the hero and villains come to blows at the asylum.
Batman looks as he does in the Arkham games, with the segmented, armour-plate Batsuit and visible pupils. Kevin Conroy — a.k.a. the one true Bat-voice for many fans — returns to the role of the Dark Knight. There are a few uses of the games' Detective Mode gimmick. Some of the fight choreography matches the movesets of the games, too: very acrobatic, heavy on dodges and countering, with familiar environmental takedowns.
While Assault on Arkham supposedly picks up on the big teasers at the end of Asylum and Origins, textual connections to those games are actually left pretty loose. Neither of the Arkham games are explicitly referenced, though Joker says he remembers working with Deadshot. Some familiar environments from Arkham Asylum show up, too. Nolan North returns as Penguin and Troy Baker does another turn as the Joker. CCH Pounder reprises her role as Amanda Waller, last heard in the Justice League cartoon. Oddly, the film uses Black Spider instead of Bronze Tiger, who was the martial arts expert Batman fought against in the portable Arkham Origins games.
Boomerang, Deadshot and Harley Quinn all reference the fact that this has been done before, while the other team members are being shanghaied into duty for the first time. Harley's past with Joker gets mentioned, too.
As a piece of Bat-lore, the biggest divergence in this animated movie is in tone. It's not exactly light-hearted but the proceedings have a roguish tinge that allow for more fun and banter than most Bat-stories. It's essentially a super-powered crime caper, complete with heist-movie intros of Suicide Squad that signals that you're supposed to be rooting for the villains. The Squad itself is an assemblage of familiar character types — the tank, the ninja, the tactician, etc — in the form of already extant DC Comics characters. Deadshot is portrayed a little more heroically than his suicidal comics self. His twisted quasi-relationship with Harley Quinn in recent Suicide Squad comics gets drawn on heavily here, and the aforementioned sex scene features PG-13 nudity between the two characters.
Yet, because it's villain-centric, this one goes saltier than most DC animated fare. Characters getting punched in the balls, cussing (the s-word) and two very gruesome deaths are some of the surprising events that happen. It's much more fun in tone than the games it's connected to. The grim emotional reticience that's become part and parcel of today's Batman execution gets loosened up. Batman even makes a joke in here. The film does noticeably stumble with its portrayal of its female characters. They're props for the men to play off of, primarily. In particular, Assault on Arkham feels like a missed opportunity to add a few layers of complexity to Harley Quinn's character. Instead, she remains the wacky moll to the Joker and attaches herself to another man without exhibiting any independence of her own.
Assault's plot moves a quick clip and harbors one twist that some viewers will see telegraphed as soon as it's teased. But it's still good fun with cameos of the other alpha psychos from Batman's rogues gallery crammed into the climax. Even though the source material is different, Assault on Arkham succeeds in the same way that most Warner Bros.' DC Comics-based productions do: by streamlining previous iterations of existing characters and adding a touch of surprise to the stories they play a part of. You'll want to see more of this Suicide Squad. Maybe you'll eventually get to play as them, too.