Writer/director David Ayer’s Suicide Squad has introduced one of the great DC Comics teams to the mainstream and to the DC Extended Universe. But this isn’t the first time The Suicide Squad, aka Task Force X, has been featured outside of their comic book incarnations. Not only that, but two previous stories, one an animated feature film and the other an episode of an animated television series, feature superior storytelling and stronger takes on the iconic characters that make up their stories than the new live action film.
These are the 2014 direct-to-video Batman: Assault on Arkham and an episode of the 2004 animated series Justice League Unlimited titled “Task Force X.” For both old and new fans of The Suicide Squad, these interpretations present something bold and exciting. Not only that, but they are vastly different from one another as well as from Ayer’s movie, while still retaining the thrilling core ideas of the team that have captured the attentions of fans since the ’80s comic book series created and spearheaded by writer John Ostrander.
While The Suicide Squad was featured on season two of the CW live action television series Arrow, Warner Bros. studio interference cut the storyline short, causing The Suicide Squad to only appear in three episodes before the series was forbidden to feature them again. While no official word was ever given, most rumors suggest the studio did not want a television version of the team to interfere with the DCEU cinematic version. As such, the Arrow Suicide Squad is frustratingly truncated and far from satisfying, despite its potential.
But through Assault on Arkham and “Task Force X,” vibrant and unique takes on the squad are ready to make new fans of this classic DC team.
Dark Criminal Adventures in Assault on Arkham
Batman: Assault on Arkham is vaguely set in the grimy and gruff world of the Arkham Asylum and is written by Heath Corson and directed by Jay Oliva and Ethan Spaulding. The setup is the same as every incarnation of Suicide Squad – convicted criminals are conscripted into a covert special ops team to embark on a deadly mission in exchange for reduced prison sentences, with an Escape from New York-like bomb in their necks helping to keep them in line. However, unlike Ayer’s film, Assault on Arkham establishes character and plot as fast as possible, as the entire squad is introduced and sent on their mission within the first 10 minutes of this 76 minute film. It’s a refreshingly fast and simple approach that keeps the narrative moving forward and the characters in focus.
Not only that, but Task Force X has existed for some time before the start of the film, giving the sense of a larger and more complex world. While members Deadshot (Neal McDonough), Harley Quinn (Hynden Walch), and Captain Boomerang (Greg Ellis) have taken part before, others like Killer Frost (Jennifer Hale), King Shark (John DiMaggio), KG Beast (Nolan North), and Black Spider (Giancarlo Esposito) are new recruits, helping to improve the dynamic of the team. They’re kept in check by the commanding and fierce Amanda Waller. She’s voiced by C.C.H. Pounder, who also voiced her in the Justice League Unlimited cartoon series, where she was given her greatest incarnation yet. Having her be in direct command of the unit but out of the main action gives her an ideal amount of screen time and lets the squad’s supervillains play off one another without interference from an agent like Rick Flagg.
Here, the squad’s mission is to break into Arkham Asylum and retrieve the villain known as The Riddler’s cane, which contains a hard drive with top secret information on Task Force X. The mission is thankfully straightforward with just enough complications to keep the twists coming, including classic infighting between squad members and some unexpected interference from both The Joker (Troy Baker) and Batman (Kevin Conroy), who battle over a dirty bomb planted somewhere in Gotham and frequently intersect with the squad’s mission. Strong character moments, lots of fun action (benefited by better animation than most recent DC animated films), and plenty of Easter eggs that don’t slow down the story help heighten the fairly simple film at hand. If Batman: Assault on Arkham was at least partially made as a way to test whether the squad would play well on film, then this certainly proved it, even if the live action film to follow didn’t pick up on its strengths.
General similarities like Deadshot and Harley Quinn having lead roles, The Joker interfering with the narrative (including a large helicopter set piece), and Batman playing a role may make Assault on Arkham seem awfully similar to Ayer’s Suicide Squad in synopsis, but the differences pile up to the point of making them far different. The stories vastly differ, the tone often diverges, the film acts like a partial Batman film without taking away from the main characters, and Joker plays an actually vital role in the story.
If there’s an overall problem with Assault on Arkham, it’s that the film is simply trying too hard to be edgy. Yes, a story revolving around criminals sent on a suicidal mission should be darker than the average superhero slugfest, but the film’s sexual content, more explicit violence, and frequent mean streak feel out of place at times. While some of these factors may up the stakes of the story, they can’t help but leave a sour taste that lessens the film’s general sense of fun. It’s too hard of a push toward the adult side of DC Comics that sometimes forgets these are still essentially all-ages characters, even if this takes place in the fictional world’s darker side. That said, the brutal action sequences and strong character arcs make this an incredibly fun time that isn’t hamstrung by larger studio interference and world building like the live action Suicide Squad. It’s one of the benefits of being a straight to video animated film that has no greater box office or cinematic universe responsibilities.
The Squad Meets The Justice League in Task Force X
Bruce Timm’s Justice League and Justice League Unlimited animated series never lost sight of the fact that the world of DC Comics should appeal to people of all ages (and neither did the rest of the DC Animated Universe, which was kickstarted by Batman: The Animated Series). Timm and the team that worked on JLU sought to tell complex yet easily digestible stories that took full advantage of the vibrant DC Comics Universe. And it was late into their run in the DCAU where they finally brought the Suicide Squad to life.
Written by Darwyn Cooke and directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, “Task Force X” plays like a retro heist film that could just as easily fit into the ‘60s just as it could modern animation. It’s no surprise given the recently deceased Cooke’s affinity for old school charm, as seen in his works like DC: The New Frontier. This is a slick, noir-tinged piece of anti-hero storytelling that subverts the series’ typical heroics.
One of the few downsides to “Task Force X” is that it is placed securely within a larger story arc, preventing the episode from completely standing on its own, even if it has its own self-contained narrative. Taking place close to the finale of season 2 of JLU, “Task Force X” takes place in the midst of an escalating conflict between The Justice League and the government agency known as Argus, headed by Amanda Waller (Pounder), who sees the Justice League as a potential threat that is too serious to ignore.
Here, Deadshot, Plastique, Captain Boomerang, and The Clock King are recruited by Colonel Rick Flagg for a mission – infiltrate the Justice League’s orbiting satellite headquarters known as The Watchtower and steal a mystical armor known as The Annihilator. By using multiple villains and heroes who have been established in previous episodes and even previous series, “Task Force X” uses the interconnected nature of the DC Animated Universe to its full advantage. In addition, the episode wisely breaks away from the typical focus on heroes for a suddenly villain-propelled narrative that feels like a classic noir heist film, including its moody lighting, timeless character designs, and heavy focus on meticulous heist planning and execution that would feel at home in an Oceans movie.
“Task Force X” has a far lower key vibe to its story than both Assault on Arkham and Suicide Squad, with the starring villains lacking their signature vibrant costumes due to being in disguise and the much classier, timeless nature of the series’ storytelling and animation style meaning that being edgy isn’t the goal here. And given its unwavering focus on Task Force X as the protagonists, these government-sponsored villains are obviously the heroes of the story when the episode is taken as a pure standalone. Yet the larger context of the series shows them to be on the wrong side, which helps solidify their portrayals as great examples of antiheroes.
Whereas Assault on Arkham showed how dark and edgy a film starring the squad could be, “Task Force X” proves that the concept is just as compelling without a focus on violence or taboo ideas. In fact, the absence of these elements in this JLU episode keeps the story from tripping over itself like Assault. Sure, there are dark ideas at play like the classic implanted bombs to keep criminals in line and the dark fate of one of the team’s members, but their presence here helps to add some layers to the storytelling, rather than be the sole purpose of it.
Of course, having Task Force X go up against members of the Justice League adds to the light vs dark dynamics of the story. With the squad’s mission timed to infiltrate The Watchtower when the fewest amount of powerful Justice League members are onboard (only Martian Manhunter, Captain Atom, and Green Lantern pose a true threat), precise planning and execution is of the utmost importance. But even then the squad is outmatched, putting an emphasis on intelligence and cunning over physical power. That’s something that has always informed storytelling with the squad. They may be deadly, but they aren’t the most powerful on the planet, otherwise the villains would be impossible to control and the stakes wouldn’t be high enough. Here, it means that the tension is believably high throughout the story and once things go wrong (how could they not?), the story explodes into mayhem and a desperate battle between the squad and the league.
“Task Force X” is so good that you’ll bemoan the fact that the team was never revisted before Justice League Unlimited and the DC Animated Universe as a whole came to an end in 2006.
Beyond the best of the Suicide Squad’s stories in comic books (mostly Ostrander’s foundational work in the ‘80s), these two stories show the best of what Task Force X’s adventures can be. And whether or not you’re inclined to root for the bad guys, Assault on Arkham and “Task Force X” will soon have you cheering them on.