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Justice League Dark

Posted : 5 months ago on 19 May 2017 07:15 (A review of Justice League Dark)

Maybe it’s just a general sense that dark magic, weird mysticism, and twisted fantasy are subject matters that fascinate me, but Justice League Dark is one hell of a fun ride. Here is a film that dives into a niche group of characters and gives them a chance to shine. Yes, some of that shine is only possible because of an unnecessarily shoehorned Batman, but if everyone in the production felt he was required in order to make and sell it, then I can forgive it. After all, we got a film that features Deadman, Zatanna, and Constantine fighting an ancient evil, and that is worth a lot for me.

 

Not everything works entirely. Despite his prominent placement on the artwork Swamp Thing is a mere glorified cameo reduced to two scenes, but that second one is a dozy. While fighting the big bad demonic presence at the end, Swamp Thing barrels in with twisting and swirling vines and Venus flytrap-like tendrils on the attack. And Etrigan the Demon, and Jason Blood by extension, plays a larger role, but he still feels underused and awkwardly deployed. If nothing else, Etrigan’s origin story provides a perfect avenue to maybe get a Demon Knights film up and running. (How is THAT for a fringe property? I love it.)

 

I still maintain for all of my immense enjoyment of Justice League Dark that time would have been better served removing him from the narrative and redistributing it to Swamp Thing, Etrigan, explaining to non-obsessives just who the Demons Three, maybe giving Black Orchid more of a personality, and really diving into the mythology. A one-and-done Justice League Dark film is not for me. I demand a series of these things. If a brat like Damian Wayne can get a full-fledged trilogy, then give John Constantine’s sardonic, chain-smoking magic wielding presence a chance to explore the worlds of I, Vampire and his own rich mythology.

 

But that is everything that Justice League Dark does not do well, and everything else it excels at. Constantine’s a fun presence to spend time with, and he works well with Zatanna and Deadman acting as foils for his more brazen zingers. For characters that are so tortured in their histories, this league is a lot more fun to spend time with then the major league players. They joke, they have believably lived-in pasts and tensions within the group dynamic. Much credit goes to Matt Ryan’s vocal work as John Constantine which fits the character like a glove.

 

The past few years have not been kind to female characters in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies. Justice League Dark has it at a 50/50 split with Zatanna feeling like a fully realized character and Black Orchid just kinda…being there. After Constantine, Zatanna is clearly the leading presence here. If Constantine is the de facto leader then she’s the bruised heart and soul of the team. She also gets several stellar action scenes where she witness just how formidable she is as a magic user. Camilla Luddington’s vocal work cannot go without praise as the character feels nearly impossible to imagine working without the textures and range she brings to it.

 

In the end, Justice League Dark works so well because it’s briskly paced, unafraid of going dark or completely bonkers, and presents us with a group of characters that are more colorful then some of the big leaguers. Is this one of the best of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies? I would argue that yes, it is, flaws and all. Batman sells, and if his presence introduces more people to characters like Deadman, Etrigan the Demon, Felix Faust, and Black Orchid, then all is forgiven.



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Justice League vs. Teen Titans

Posted : 5 months, 2 weeks ago on 4 May 2017 03:19 (A review of Justice League vs. Teen Titans)

Don’t let the title fool you, this is far more a Teen Titans story than it is a Justice League one. They’re very much not on equal footing, and the forced presence of the league ends up being a detriment to the rest of the story. It’s predictable where the story is going to take the league’s presence from frame one, and it feels like the creators wanted to ensure this would sell on the strengths of the bigger named characters instead of trusting in the presence of the Titans.

 

Justice League vs. Teen Titans is a step up from the prior New 52 adaptations though, even if this one is uneasy in how it manages to shoehorn in the newer incarnations of the league with a classic-run Titans story. If I had been a creative in charge, I would have made it so the league only appeared in the opening teaser just long enough to get into the argument with Robin and dropping him off with the junior team. They wouldn’t have returned to the story until the very end.

 

What would the rest of the story have encompassed then? Why a straight-up adaptation of the classic Trigon, which this somewhat resembles. I mean, they do place a strong emphasis on Raven – finally there’s a female character without torpedo tits (seriously, what’s up with the anatomy of Starfire and Wonder Woman?), a complete personality, and the ability to function as something other than window dressing. It’s in these moments that Justice League vs. Teen Titans feels straight out of the best moments of the 80s comics with team functioning as a close group, and Beast Boy cracking numerous jokes.

 

If nothing else, this just made me want an entire film dedicated to the team without the crutch of Batman, Superman, and et al. to ensure sales figures are up to snuff. The teaser in the mid-credits lays the groundwork for an adaptation of The Judas Contract, one of the more famous stories and a canceled film that was originally planned as the third offering from these direct-to-video films. This is a good thing as it means more Taissa Farmiga as Raven, Jake T. Austin as Blue Beetle, Brandon Soo Hoo as Beast Boy, and Stuart Allan’s reliably entitled brattiness as Damian Wayne. But next time out could we possibly spend a little less time animating Starfire as a brainless piece of cheesecake? 



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Justice League: Throne of Atlantis

Posted : 5 months, 2 weeks ago on 4 May 2017 02:38 (A review of Justice League: Throne of Atlantis)

It picks up directly where the teaser from War left us off, but Throne of Atlantis sidelines Aquaman in his own story for about half of the running time. This is a damn shame because it is at its most fun and engaging when it places the Justice League in the backseat to the craziness of Aquaman’s story. His name is Arthur, and the comics have never shied away from treating his mythology as Arthurian in scope and emotional textures. Justice League: Throne of Atlantis flirts with these moments and tones then pulls away from them to give us more of the Justice League.

 

How odd that they decided to make Aquaman a mere supporting player in a film that places him in the center of the cover and title’s implications would say otherwise. In fact, the presence of the Justice League often feels unnecessary. Much of the film combines parts of “The Trench,” the first solo storyline from Aquaman in the New 52 continuity. There’s just so much story to tell involving Aquaman, his origins, and his mythology that spending the first 30 minutes with the league is just…odd.

 

Oh well, at least this thing is wonderfully animated and with a solid voice cast. Michelle Monaghan’s shout-heavy Wonder Woman has been replaced by the regal, tough vocal work of Rosario Dawson. Can you say upgrade? Justin Kirk’s irksome Hal Jordan has been replaced by the more playful, rascally voice of Nathan Fillion, and the character falls into place. Shemar Moore remains as Cyborg, but someone told him to turn down the gruffness and chest-heavy speaking and he sounds more comfortable in the role. The replacement of Alan Tudyk with Jerry O’Connell as Superman was unexpected, but man is O’Connell fun in the role.

 

Then there’s the newest cast members, like Sumalee Montano as a warrior version of Mera, Sam Witwer as Ocean Master, Harry Lennix as Black Manta, and Matt Lanter as Aquaman. I love all of them in their respective roles, with each of them perfectly capturing the vibe and emotional textures of their characters. In fact, I want more of Lanter as Aquaman in these films. Give me an entire solo outing from him, with Montano and Witwer returning, and I would be one happy comic book guy.

 

Justice League: Throne of Atlantis is bloodless in comparison to the Justice League episodes “The Enemy Below,” but it’s entertaining enough in its own action-heavy way. While “The Enemy Below” managed to place the emphasis on Aquaman’s tragedy and history, Throne of Atlantis seems unconcerned with exploring any of its characters. It just wants to set up two sides on the board and watch them attack each other. It’s a fun 70 minutes, but it could have been so much more.

 

And, yes, there’s another post-credits stinger. This one hinting at the Legion of Doom. Make of that what you will.



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Justice League: War

Posted : 5 months, 2 weeks ago on 3 May 2017 06:44 (A review of Justice League: War)

Frenzied and chaotic are the best terms to use for Justice League: War. Another lean 75 minutes that’s puffed with too many ingredients and the bread never rises. Unless all you wanted was a series of action scenes with the occasional pauses for one character’s origin story, a few moments of groan worthy comic relief, and a general sense that something is off about all of these characters.

 

Maybe it’s the voices, maybe it’s the change in animation styles, I’m not sure exactly what it is, but a lot of them don’t feel right. Justin Kirk whiffs it as an obnoxious Green Lantern, Shemar Moore’s voice is too mature for teenager Cyborg, Michelle Monaghan’s too angry and shouty as Wonder Woman, and that’s half of the league right there. This Superman is voiced well by Alan Tudyk, but he seems too violent and dark here. There’s a distinct lack of hope and joy in his character.

 

Even worse is how Darkseid, a towering force of malevolence in the DC universe, feels so undercooked. There’s a little bit of buildup, then he’s here, and then there’s a never-ending climatic battle with him that just becomes monotonous. It lives up to the title of War, but that’s all that there is involved here. I’ve read the origin story that it’s based off of, and that still managed to pause its narrative long enough to give its characters room to breathe and develop bonds. I mean, we get so little of Sean Astin’s Shazam that it feels criminal given how giddy and scene-stealing Astin’s vocal work is here.

 

There’s a lot to enjoy here, mainly in the ways that the animation allows the characters to unleash the full use of their powers, but it feels anemic in comparison to a few of the other films. Justice League: The New Frontier had deeper things on its mind, The Dark Knight Returns was operatic and glorious, and Batman: Under the Red Hood kept everything focused on the characters and emotional stakes. War is just….75 minutes of the Justice League wailing on Parademons and Darkseid, eventually. Then there’s a mid-credits stinger for the sequel, Throne of Atlantis. Maybe that one will recast a few of the players and find a better balance between making us care about the characters and the giddy thrills we get in watching them turn it up 11.



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Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox

Posted : 5 months, 2 weeks ago on 1 May 2017 08:37 (A review of Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox)

Oh my god, a Justice League that doesn’t place its focus on Superman or Batman (or both), but on another member of the league’s expansive roster? We haven’t seen that since way back in 2008 when The New Frontier placed a stronger emphasis on players like the Flash, Green Lantern, and Martian Manhunter over the big trinity. Of course, it would be near impossible to tell The Flashpoint Paradox without, you know, the Flash, but still! Let’s celebrate DC doing something slightly different!

 

I must admit that by this point, I feel fatigued by the omnipresence of dystopian hellscapes as alternate realities for superheroes. Watching the Amazons and Atlanteans fight each other grows wearisome after a certain point. Same goes for the gruesome violence and never-ending parade of distracting cameos. (Hey Grifter, whatcha doin’ here?) I mean, do I really need to glimpse the hole that Batman blows through Reverse Flash’s head? It’s sub-Tarantino at best, complete with his nihilistic violence without deeper meaning or context. There’s a point at which something just becomes merely excessive for the hell of it, and The Flashpoint Paradox hits that point and just continues running right on through it.

 

Despite some moments of truly glorious animation, The Flashpoint Paradox does suffer from inconsistency. All of the female characters look like cheap anime knockoffs with soft, blurry features and gigantic eyes while the male heroes are bulky, hulking brutes with ornate designs. You know when the animation is at its most consistent? In scene after scene of stabbings, shootings, neck snapping, and blood artfully flying across the screen.

 

And once more the abbreviated running time leaves little real time for developing the cavalcade of heroes and villains that pop across the screen. Cyborg gets no development, while the war between Aquaman and Wonder Woman feels rushed in beefing up to it, Superman is a mere afterthought, but this twisted Batman is fascinating, and the Flash is a solid translation. If nothing else, this just works as a temporary satiation for the deep hungry I feel in seeing more of these expand beyond Batman, Superman, and the Justice League. Would a solo Aquamna, Flash, Batgirl, another Wonder Woman, a Batwoman, Birds of Prey, Gotham City Sirens, or the Demon Knights not be awesome to watch? C’mon, expand beyond the safe, comfortable waters and into the wilder territory.

 

Of course this thing ends up a stinger that points towards the inevitable sequel, the first official entry in the New 52 adaptations, Justice League: War. Can’t say it didn’t make me smile, but I’m hoping future entries will drop the oppressive nature of the Superman and Batman, focus more on character, and maybe tone down the excessive violence a bit. I may be the only one asking for any of this, and I acknowledge that.



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Justice League: Gods and Monsters

Posted : 5 months, 2 weeks ago on 1 May 2017 04:49 (A review of Justice League: Gods and Monsters)

Elseworlds, as they are known in the comics, are a long-standing tradition with DC. They provide creators a chance to explore the rich mythology and complex character relationships in standalone stories that can recontextualize the entirety of the character without infringing on the main continuity. Some of them are just bugnuts crazy like Batman as Victorian detective in Gotham by Gaslight, or Superman as Russian agent in Red Son, while others are epic visions of the final years of the universe like Kingdom Come.

 

Dark versions of the characters are a dime a dozen though, and darker versions of the Justice League in particular have been done to death. Several episodes of the Justice Leauge/Justice League Unlimited tackled the subject, so did Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, the video game Injustice: Gods Among Us, and Justice League: Gods and Monsters feels anemic in comparison. It also feels like it’s been seen and done before, which it has several times over. Maybe if it wasn’t a one-off I could get more excited about it all, but there’s little chance we’ll see these versions of the characters again.

 

Shame because these versions of the characters are interesting in the smaller moments that reveal their backgrounds. Superman and Batman are born from mistakes and violence, but it’s Wonder Woman that hits us hardest with her tragedy, vengeance, and tortured emotional state. It doesn’t hurt that Tamara Taylor’s voice work out paces both Michael C. Hall and Benjamin Bratt as the vampire Batman and Mexican immigrant Superman. Hall and Bratt are both a bit too stiff, and they fumble their emotional moments with their detached line readings.

 

There’s some good here, with Timm’s retro-futuristic designs and angular animation style making a welcome return, but the film relies so heavily on blood-letting and scenes of shocking violence that it all ends up feeling like it’s being edgy and dark just for the sake of it. Eventually all of the violent, gory scenes end up feeling dull and blurry into each other, but the scenes of emotional purging and character investment really linger. And the never-ending cameos from DC’s deep bench of characters, both known and obscure, are a treasure trove for any fan. I just wish Gods and Monsters added up to something better. 



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Justice League: The New Frontier

Posted : 5 months, 2 weeks ago on 1 May 2017 03:59 (A review of Justice League: The New Frontier)

Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier is a sprawling, seminal, absolutely brilliant love letter to the Silver Age of comics. Any adaptation of the work will inevitably be viewed through a sliding scale of success and/or failure, yet Justice League: The New Frontier is a resounding success. Possibly because Cooke played such a strong hand in shaping the material. Undoubtedly there’s a rushed nature to the material that cannot be avoided, and it does hamper things a bit, but it’s a glorious piece of pop entertainment.

 

I wonder if there was ever any discussion of treating this material as two halves of one long film, like they would eventually do with The Dark Knight Returns. The New Frontier could handle such an extensive adaptation though, as the source material tracks the changes from the Golden Age to the Silver Age, the forces that changed the older icons, forged the newer ones, and explained how the Atomic Age anxiety/Cold War paranoia shaped all of these influences. Pieces of that are glimpsed throughout, but there’s just not enough breathing room to really explore it in the same manner that the comics did.

 

There’s also the problem of the massive cast. Again, the book had the time and pacing to doll them out, go on tangents, and explore them all as individuals while the film merely presents a series of vignettes that string them all together as individuals, slowly bring them together as a group, then unleash them all in a grand finale of superheroes versus prehistoric beasts and tentacle monsters. The film never feels rushed, but prior knowledge of the history and the massive universe they encapsulate helps fill in the gaps. I mean, would a more casual viewer known who exactly the Blackhawks are? I doubt it.

 

If much of the scope and complexity of the narrative has been forsaken for expediency for the broad strokes and big character moments, then at least The New Frontier consistently looks stunning. Cooke’s drawing style isn’t entirely Jack Kirby, Bruce Timm, or any renowned Silver Age artist, but a clear progeny and collaborator of them all. His style translates beautifully to animated images, and I would not complain about seeing more of his work given the direct-to-video animated film treatment. I mean, hiw work on Catwoman is just begging for it.

 

Even better is how The New Frontier remains hopeful, heroic, and finds a nice tonal balance between the grittier parts of the story and the lighter ones. The PG-13 feels about right here for the brief moments of blood and violence and occasional swear words. Later films would prove unnecessarily gore and blood heavy, as if everyone involved thought that the PG-13 rating made it necessary to include these moments just because instead as a natural outgrowth of the story they were telling. The violence in The New Frontier is what a natural outgrowth looks like.

 

Then there’s the uniformly strong voice cast. Neil Patrick Harris feels right at home in the Flash, Lucy Lawless makes for a tough and imposing Wonder Woman, and Kyle MacLachlan a perfectly square and stoic Superman. These are just three of the cast members, but there’s not a voice that doesn’t work nor a performance that doesn’t fit the tone. Later films would stick in bigger names to parts that didn’t mesh entirely well, either with the character or the material, but the symbiosis between tone, character, and vocal talent here is stellar.

 

After the uneven and mildly disappointing Superman: Doomsday, Justice League: The New Frontier was the second film to emerge from the DC Universe Animated Original Movies line. Not only is it an improvement over its predecessor, but it remains one of the best movies to emerge from the line to this day. Just the ending alone, a collage of superheroes and American culture at large while JFK’s famous speech which gives the project its name plays over, is a moment of miniature artistry that boils down the entire project to its purest essence.  



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Superman: Unbound

Posted : 5 months, 2 weeks ago on 1 May 2017 02:38 (A review of Superman: Unbound)

A ton of fun is packed into this 75 minutes, but do you get the vague sense that it looks and feels like a movie and more like the series/season premiere/finale of a never-made Superman show? I do, but it would have been on hell of a Superman show. The angular look is pleasing, the voice cast is solid, the pacing is tight, and the action scenes are uniformly solid.

 

Superman: Unbound is just another example of the pendulum swinging back after going hard the other way. What do I mean by that? Well, every few years there’s a pervading sense that DC wants to make Superman the last son of Krypton, and then they want to bring back Supergirl, Kandor, Krypto, and the like. Unbound is clearly swinging it back towards populating Superman’s supporting cast with fellow remnants and survivors of Krypton and its neighboring planets.

 

This is not a bad thing since it’s always a chance to explore the duality of the character as someone who is both an alien (quite literally) and a symbol of Americana. Throw in the ever encroaching threat from Brainiac and his hellbent sense of petty destruction, and you’ve got a greatly enjoyable little piece of action-adventure entertainment. But if you’re looking for something that explores the nuances of the characters as well as several episodes of Superman: The Animated Series or Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Superman For All Seasons, then you’ll need to look elsewhere.

 

Superman: Unbound is heavy on that sub-title. Granted, one doesn’t exactly come to a Superman property looking entirely for existentialism and deeper questions. You do want to see him throw his might around, and beating down on Brainiac challenges not only his super-strength but his mind and the lengths he would go to do the right thing. For all of those purposes, Unbound is a towering success, hell, it even throws in plenty of jokes and light moments that keep the hopefulness alive in the character.

 

But, like so many of the other films that DC has released, the limited running time doesn’t leave a ton of time leftover to really dive into the meat of the story. There are great, quiet moments between the characters where they express their fears and hopes, where the stakes are clearly laid out. Then we’re swiftly thrown back into exaggerated fight scenes. A little bit more time for the reflective moments would go a long way with a lot of these films, and maybe DC should invest in making a few that expand beyond the persistent 75 minutes. Sometimes the hardness of that allotted time leaves things feeling rushed or breathless.

 

Still, there’s a lot to like here, and even more that just feels right. Maybe the live-action franchise could take a look at films like this and steal a few ideas from them. I mean, Superman and actually inspire hope, smile, crack jokes, and level wave after wave of robotic enemies here. Oh, who am I kidding? Snyder and company would only borrow the weird, kinda ugly overly stylized visuals that are more distracting and a nuisance than anything else.



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Batman: The Killing Joke

Posted : 5 months, 3 weeks ago on 27 April 2017 02:35 (A review of Batman: The Killing Joke)

Well, here’s a mixed bag. The Killing Joke is a powerful but slim volume that could never be feature-length without expanding the narrative, so expand it they did. And maybe it should have remained a slim 45 minutes now that I’ve seen just what they’ve done with it.

 

In the original text, Batgirl’s role is merely that of a broken female body that functions as the inciting incident for Batman and Gordon to take down the Joker. The prologue makes vague hand gestures towards giving her more agency, but she’s clearly still a novice pupil to Batman’s hardened veteran. Even worse is how they sexualized the character. It’s as if the creators wouldn’t buy the fact that Batman can care about Barbara Gordon as an actual human without turning first forcing her into his creepy hookup.

 

But wait! The prologue just keeps getting worse the longer it goes on. Eventually this chunk of the story just ends, and all of the threads and characters that we have spent the past thirty minutes investing in are immediately jettisoned off into the ether. There’s no smooth transition between this unnecessary stuff and the actual adaptation of The Killing Joke, unless Barbara Gordon as sacrificial lamb qualifies as such.

 

However, once The Killing Joke just adapts the text as is the film perks right on up. Brian Bolland’s art style doesn’t entirely mesh well easily with DC’s in-house animation style, but there are a few moments of noir-ish and cracked beauty. At times, scenes with the Joker look like motion comics, and I mean that as a compliment. The artwork isn’t always consistent though, with Barbara’s mouth frequently looking like a trout or going strangely off model.

 

It’s in these later scenes that everything is cooking. Not only do we get Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill in top form, but Ray Wise makes for a nice Gordon. If any of these three performances would have faltered, then the film would not have worked at all. Tara Strong’s Batgirl is a nice lived-in performance, but it’s just a shame some of the scenes they’re forcing her to play.

 

Then there’s just how freaking creepy the whole carnival business is once you see it played out in action and not just on the page. I’m dying for a movie to adapt the image of Joker sitting atop a throne of baby doll parts. These are the strongest and best moments of the film. The Killing Joke has never been a story about Batgirl, it has always been a story about the Joker. Drop the awkward prologue and fast-forward to the straight adaptation for a chilling time.   



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Batman: Assault on Arkham

Posted : 5 months, 3 weeks ago on 24 April 2017 02:53 (A review of Batman: Assault on Arkham)

After seeing just how wonderful the Arkham games designs and overall style takes to animation, I’m hoping that maybe we’ll get a few more of these. Anything involving the Suicide Squad, or Task Force X depending on which character is spouting their code name, should be like this: dirty, smaller scale, and with a strong focus on a small handful of characters. They’re a duplicitous gang of amoral scoundrels, and half of the fun in watching them is wondering if they’ll turn on each other before completing their mission or getting revenge on their captors.

 

If you’re wondering if that description was a read at the live-action film, then yes, your reading skills are fundamentally solid. Assault on Arkham was the movie that I wanted Suicide Squad to be, but alas, that was not meant to be. I hope that a sequel or something like Gotham City Sirens can prove a course-corrective and bring the scale down to a smaller scale. We can clearly differentiate each character here, get a feel for their personalities and talents, and which ones are mostly likely to prove expendable as the narrative chugs along.

 

Coherence is always a solidly dependable friend to any storyteller, and there’s a clear objective in mind here. There’s the requisite twists and shocks that raise the dramatics like a frog in a boiling pot, but none of it strays from the core of these characters. It’s also just a ton of fun to watch Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, Harley Quinn, Shark King, Killer Frost, and Black Spider interact with each other. Throw in smaller roles for Batman, the Joker, Penguin, and the Riddler and you have a solid ensemble of major names dropping in to fill in some gaps on which these lesser-known entities are.

 

Of course, it’s all fun and games until the Joker breaks loose, heads start exploding, Arkham turns into a madhouse, and there’s a dirty bomb on the loose. By this point, Assault on Arkham threatens to fly completely off the tracks, but the strength of the characters saves the day. Deadshot, Harley, and Joker fighting it out on a helicopter while Batman tries to defuse a bomb is solidly entertaining stuff. I’m not entirely sure we needed seemingly every boss fight from Arkham Asylum glimpsed in quick cameos, but they’re so nicely done that I can’t complain too loudly.

 

I would if we can get a whole spinoff series from the Arkham-verse of these films. I wouldn’t mind seeing the Arkham-verse variation of Gotham City Sirens, Birds of Prey, Hush, or any number of other stories that the games have either flirted with or outright referenced through mini-games without digging into their larger significance and strengths. While not as strong as Under the Red Hood or Year One, Assault on Arkham still ranks fairly high in DC’s animated Batman film canon.



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