Suicide Squad may be hitting cinemas on August 5th, but a variation of that team of villains has beaten Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto and the rest to the punch with the 2014 animated film, Batman: Assault On Arkham.
Set in the universe of the Batman: Arkham games and taking place after the events of Arkham Origins, the film sees government agent Amanda Waller sending a group of criminals on a (wait for it) suicide mission. Their goal: to locate a hard drive supposedly hidden in the Riddler's cane, while at the same time Batman is after a dirty bomb planted by the Joker. Needless to say, both storylines intersect.
James Tucker (producer): I have to say that at first we were nervous, because originally, when we were told we were going to do an Arkham movie, we didn't know it was going to be tied in to the video game. Usually they don't like to cross-pollinate like that, so we thought we were just going to do a regular movie set in Arkham.
Jay Oliva (director): I would say the events of the film take place two or three years before the first video game. All of the events that happen in this will in some way coincide with the later games, but also with the prequel.
Tucker: Suddenly there was the pressure of honoring the game, making sure it worked for the fans of the game and also worked for people who didn't play the game. It became more challenging, but I love how it turned out. I think it honors the game but is still its own thing. It works for both audiences.
Heath Corson (writer): When I went in to meet with them, they said, "We want to do something in the Arkham universe." I said, "Great, I've played all the games." Then they said, "We want to do a Batman adventure with the Suicide Squad." I said, "I'm a huge Suicide Squad fan! How about a Suicide Squad movie and we sort of shoehorn Batman into it?" They wanted to know what the plot would be and I said, "We'll do a heist move where they break into Arkham, because to break into Arkham you have to be suicidal."
Oliva: For me this was kind of freeing, because when I'm doing Batman or Superman, I have to do the thing where there's no killing and constantly ask myself, "What would a hero do?" But with these guys, it's more like, "Okay, morals are out the door; these guys are villains and let's play up the fact that they're bad guys." I kind of took a cue from Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. When you watch that film, you think that Clint Eastwood is the good guy, but when you really look at it, you realize he's the bad guy and Gene Hackman's character is really the good guy. I wanted to play that up; where you're cheering for these protagonists, but you realize that their agenda's actually up against what Batman's agenda is, and that's where the fun hijinx ensue.
Tucker: Everyone loves the villains. It's always fun when you can do a story from the villain's viewpoint and you actually make the hero the villain in a way, because you're rooting for them to get away. I love doing that twist, where you make the audience fall in love with these horrible people and they're actually rooting for them to get away from Batman or whoever it may be, because we always see the hero's side of things. It's more interesting, because you don't know. There's more surprises when the person is morally ambiguous. Plus, you know, everyone loves a heist movie.
Corson: But what I didn't realize is that heist movies are hard. You've got to do a lot of twists and turns, and pivots and people double crossing each other and I was, like, "Oh, man, what am I doing? I could've done a Batman adventure." But this came out great, and I'm incredibly proud of it. It's super dark; they kept pushing me to make sure we earned our PG-13 rating, and I can say we absolutely do. When you play the game, the idea is you get to be Batman. But what if when Batman swings off, you're not Batman and you're staying with the guys that he beats the snot out of? I thought that was kind of cool; I don't think I've seen that. What happens is there's a whole Batman adventure going on, but we're staying with these other guys that are behind the scenes. I know they've done stuff like that in the animated series and I've seen it in the comic books, but I've never seen a movie like that. For the first time, the villains are center stage. It's very cool.
Oliva: Batman's there. There's a problem he has to solve in that Joker's hidden a bomb somewhere and he needs to find out where it is. But it just so happens that his investigation kind of leads him to the heist that Amanda Waller has set up in Arkham Asylum, and you realize that their paths cross because of the information they're given. Batman doesn't really have an arc, because there's no revelation for his character. But the one thing for me with Batman is I just made him as badass as possible. I made sure that he's an integral part of the story, so at the end, even though we're dealing with the villains, he still has a conflict that he has to resolve.
Corson: When it came to the Suicide Squad, we went through a couple of different versions of the roster. The ones I knew I had to have were Deadshot, Harley Quinn and Captain Boomerang. I told people it's like Ocean's Eleven, if Brad Pitt kept trying to stab George Clooney in the back everytime he turned around. Then we went through a couple of versions of who King Shark was going to be. I think at one point it was Solomon Grundy, at one point it was Blockbuster. We needed somebody that was grounded in the Arkham universe, so we don't really have anybody with superpowers...well, except Killer Frost. We kind of bent the rules a little bit for her.
Tucker: We were told that we couldn't use Killer Croc, so I said, "What about King Shark?" and everybody was, like, "It's a guy who looks like Jabberjaw." I said, "No, this is the Arkham version, which looks really different. We can reimagine him." So we did, into something we thought would work in the video game. Now if the video game ends up doing a Jabberjaw version, we're screwed.
Oliva: I'd say the main character of the main story is Deadshot, but what's great is that I also had Harley Quinn, so I had to interject her as much as possible. In the end, I realized that even though Deadshot's the main storyline, it's really her story, too. When she runs into the Joker later on, the whole plan goes askew and it kind of takes on a life of its own based on Harley's past with the Joker. So you get the dynamic between Joker, Harley and Deadshot, and I think that works really well.
The final line-up for the Suicide Squad in this film is Deadshot (Neal McDonough), Harley Quinn (Hynden Walch), Riddler (Matthew Gray Gubler), Joker (Troy Baker), Captain Boomerang (Greg Ellis), Black Spider (Giancarlo Esposito), King Shark (John DiMaggio), Killer Frost (Jennifer Hale), and KGBeast (Nolan North), along with Amanda Waller (CCH Pounder) and, of course, Batman (Kevin Conroy).
Andrea Romano (voice director): Whenever I'm given a job, because I'm a freelance director and they come to me and say, "We have this job and it has Batman in it, it has Joker in it," my first question is, "May I use the actors I've used before? May I use Kevin Conroy?" They said, "Yes, you can use Kevin Conroy on this one." And that's a relief, because there's a bit of, "Okay, I don't have to explain anything to Kevin." He knows that character better than practically anybody I know.
Kevin Conroy (actor, "Batman"): The great thing about Andrea Romano is she's so good at working with actors. She can keep you honest and keep you authentic without hitting you over the head with a hammer. She started out as an actress when she was very young and she understands the way actors approach roles.
Romano: I like what actors do; I like their creative process and I like working with them through it. They have to do a lot of homework before they get to me. There are times when you work through an entire script with an actor and go, "It's good, you did a great job, but what if..." Or during the entire recording the voice evolves, and by the time we get to the end it's not the same voice we started with, so you have to go back and start again. But because you've already gone through the script, it goes very fast. I like the fact that we have the ability to go back and fix things, because the character evolved through us working together.
Matthew Gray Gubler (actor, "Riddler"): All my life it's been a dream to be a maniacal super villain, and I can finally scratch that off my list. Previous versions of the Riddler are all deep-seeded in my mind, but I didn't really revisit anything in creating the character. I wanted to make him (hopefully) unique and wanted to bring more of a showman, like a P.T. Barnum, quality to him. But a lunatic version. The one thing I attempted to do was I feel like the Riddler often asks questions as though he wants to prove he's smarter. I wanted it to seem more like an Obsessive Compulsive obsession. Like he needed these things answered. It was a sickness more than a prideful thing.
Conroy: Troy Baker as the Joker is such a great example of how different actors can interpret a role, because I didn't think anyone would ever be as good as Mark Hamill, but then I saw Heath Ledger and thought, "Oh my God. This is a whole other take on Joker and it's brilliant." Then they told me Troy Baker was going to do it for this film and I thought, "Well, we'll see what this is...." Then he came in with a whole wonderful other approach to it. It's the same character, so there's a great similarity to them, but the life is breathed in from a different person, so they bring a different perspective to it.
John DiMaggio (actor, "King Shark"): Getting to play a bad guy is the most fun; you get to do things that normally you wouldn't be able to do. To be honest, I had no idea who King Shark was, nor did I ever see anybody's portrayal of the character. So I was just going to jump in and do my take on it. All I had to really go on was the drawing and seeing the character design.
Conroy: Acting in the videos games is so much harder than the animated shows or films. It's much harder to keep it alive and fresh in the games. In animation, you have other actors you're dealing with and you're bouncing things off of. It's like playing ball: you toss the ball, they toss it back, and back and forth. You give as much as you take from the other actors. In games, you're alone in a booth four hours at a time, day after day, month after month, for over a year. It takes forever to build a game. The rewarding part is you see the game and realize you were a part of that and contributed to it, and it's incredible. It's this great creation, but the process is grueling.
Tucker: When I took over the animated films, the one thing I really wanted to try to achieve was to somehow, within the limitations of being able to only use certain brand names above the title (like Batman), use secondary characters; characters who might never get their own movie. Just sneak them in, because as a fan I would want to see that. I didn't like being hamstrung by the perception that certain characters don't sell. Just because we're not going to do a movie of a certain character, doesn't mean they can't be part of the story. With each one of these, I try to include someone who I know wouldn't get their own movie.
This is called Batman: Assault On Arkham. It's supposed to be tied in to the video game, but it's really a Suicide Squad movie. Would they ever do a Suicide Squad movie? At the time we green-lit this, no way.
Check out Empire's exclusive behind the scenes look at Batman: The Killing Joke.