Screenwriter Heath Corson demonstrated a knack for characterizing the World’s Greatest Superheroes in the animated “Justice League: War,” but he admits writing for the bad guys in his latest effort, “Batman: Assault on Arkham,” was a bigger challenge — and many ways, so much more fun.
After Corson impressed fans of Warner Animation’s direct-to-video films with his adaptation of Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s inaugural tale depicting the origins of the New 52’s Justice League — particularly the way he peppered the script with sly, genuinely funny one-liners that were true to the characters — the screenwriter’s next challenge was to craft the animation line’s first wholly original DC entry since establishing its own in-house continuity.
Loosely inspired by the massively popular “Batman: Arkham Asylum” series of video games, as the title promises, there’s an invasion of Gotham’s horrific home for the criminally insane and the Dark Knight appears alongside some of his iconic rogues gallery. But the actual heroes of the story — or, at least, protagonists — are the greedy, bloodthirsty and in some cases full-on psychopathic villains drafted into the service of Task Force X, a.k.a. the Suicide Squad.
In speaking with CBR News, Corson revealed his longtime love of the team of reluctant mission specialists, the degree of difficulty he encountered when he realized he was writing a super-villain heist film and why, in the end, the bad guys really are the most fun to write
CBR News: Tell me why you love Suicide Squad. You’re a fan from way back — what was the specific thrill of getting to write these characters?
Heath Corson: Especially coming off of “Justice League: War,” where you get to write heroes, whether or not they get along, all the heroes want the same thing. When you get to write villains, it’s a different animal altogether because they don’t have any impulse control, and they don’t all want the same thing. Even though they all have a bomb in their neck and they’re all being steered towards this mission, they don’t all want the same thing, and that’s really fun to dig into because every step of the way, Boomerang tries to kill Deadshot because they don’t like each other; every step of the way, Shark tries to protect Killer Frost because they have this sort of brother/sister relationship; Harley is trying to turn Deadshot into her boyfriend to make the Joker jealous. Everybody is unhinged and we really get to mine some dark, dark stuff in a way that you can’t do with heroes, because in the end, they all want the same thing: They want to beat the bad guy. That is not what’s going on with these guys, and that is incredibly exciting to write.
Why these particular members of the Squad? Did you get to pick them yourself, or were there some synergistic needs to fill?
I got to pick anybody I wanted. I said, “Who do you want me to put in?” And they said, “You tell us who you want. We don’t care.” So that was great. Now, I’m a big fan of the [John] Ostrander “Suicide Squad” series — that’s why I knew I wanted Deadshot, and I knew I wanted Boomerang. And they didn’t blink. They were like “Cool, Captain Boomerang, fine. We’ll design Captain Boomerang.” Because it’s in the world of “Arkham” video games, you can’t go to someone with crazy, crazy powers, because there aren’t really any powers in the “Arkham” games. They’re all sort of grounded. Killer Frost was kind of a cheat because she actually is the only powered character in the whole universe, so I was like, “Well, I need her because we need someone to actually be the assassin, right?” I knew she was going to be in it. I wanted Harley because it gave me all the twists and turns of the relationship with the Joker, and you can loop the Joker in. I’ve never seen Harley used as espionage back into Arkham, and it made sense if you’re going back into Arkham because she used to work there. She knows the codes. She knows all the stuff that everyone — she knows the layout. So that made sense.
Then it became “Okay, who can we use for other stuff?” I knew we needed a big, strong guy, and we went through a couple different versions of who that would be. Would that be Blockbuster? Would that be Solomon Grundy? We pulled King Shark because he was actually in the Adam Glass “Suicide Squad,” and I liked the way they played him — I liked having sort of a hulky, big, dumb character, so that was going to be a fun element. Black Spider was also in that Adam Glass run. I went back and I remembered old versions of Black Spider and I was like “This is kind of a cool character because he’s sort of urban ninja — okay, I think I can make this work.” I suggested KGBeast, because it also had to be someone that Rocksteady didn’t have any plans for down the road. That had to all get vetted by everybody.
This storyline is set both in the continuity of the new DC animated movies, and it fits in neatly with the plotlines of Rocksteady’s video game series. How did that work, as you dug into the project?
I actually was writing this while they were still finishing “Arkham Origins.” They told me what “Arkham Origins” was going to be, but I hadn’t played at the time. There is a background line that people are starting to say, like,”Hey, I heard this — what the hell?” Which is at one point one gang member says to another gang member, “Dude, I ran up against this guy, and he started throwing boomerangs at me,” and he goes, “You mean Batarangs?” And he’s like, “No! Called himself Captain something-or-another.” And I was like, “This is theoretically like teasing my movie! That’s really cool!” And then at the end of “Origins,” there’s a Deathstroke/Suicide Squad tease where Waller comes in and puts him in the Suicide Squad. Then people wanted to know why Deathstroke isn’t in this. The characters have mentioned working together before — in the scene where they’re in the room, and they’re all talking, both Boomerang, Deadshot and Harley mention, “This again? Oh, we worked together,” so it infers that there’s something before their mission. And I don’t think I know what that is. But I do know that Rocksteady was like, “You can’t say this is the first time they met.” I was like “Okay. Done.”
When you started, who were you champing at the bit to write? And who was the surprise delight to write as you got into it?
I was super-excited to write the Joker because he’s just chaos. You can use almost any line, and it sounds great coming out of the Joker’s mouth. I was very excited to write Harley and Boomerang and Deadshot, my three core [characters].
The one that absolutely surprised me, which was a fun realization, was the Riddler. I was like, “I didn’t think I would feel such a connection to the Riddler,” and I was really enjoying him. I didn’t think I was going to enjoy writing him so much, but I really started thinking about this, and I was like, “Oh, wait: Riddler’s a good dresser. He’s showy, he’s exact, he wants to make sure that everything works together and it all clicks, and he’s the smartest, most clever guy in the room who wants to make sure that he’s getting all the credit.” I’m like, “Oh — Riddler’s the writer. Riddler’s the screenwriter. He’s the guy who’s like, ‘That bit you’re doing — that’s me! Look how smart I am! Look how good this is!'” That clicked for me and that made a whole ton of sense to me. I really enjoyed him playing the smartest guy in the room to everybody.
What was it like having Kevin Conroy delivering your Batman dialogue?
It was unreal. It made me feel bad that I didn’t write more of it for him. I sort of went, “If you had told me it was Kevin Conroy, I would have given him more to do!” I think he’s got something like 36 lines in the whole movie, but I met him at Comic-Con [International], and he was just the nicest, sweetest guy. He did say on the panel that this was the most violent Batman thing he’s ever been involved in, ever, and I was like, “I’ll take that as a big compliment.”
What was it like, writing this without any major filters on the violence and language?
Well, they wanted to earn their PG-13, so I wanted to make sure that meant we could be violent. We could be dark. We could be sexualized. We could be gritty. We could be just really down to Earth and grounded in a way that I think the video games are. And when you’re dealing with bad guys, that’s a lot of fun because you get to plumb some of those depths in a really interesting way. It was neat because I didn’t have to go back and go, “Is this going to be too complicated for people? Is this twist going to lose people because you’ve got a couple different things all going at the same time?” But I thought, “Well, why don’t we play it like it’s a Guy Ritchie movie?” We go as fast as we can and expect people to keep up with us, and that’s fine. If they don’t, that’s fine. They can go back. They can watch it again. But lets really move as quickly as we possibly can and throw in all these twists and turns. That was probably one of the most fun things, was just to be able to go, go, go, go, because I pitched them on a heist movie, basically. I was like, “This is the heist/con movie.” And they loved it. They were like, “Great — we love that idea.” And then I went home and I was like, “Crap — I’ve got to write a heist/con movie! Those are hard! Those are a lot of twists and turns!” I knew what the end was, but then I had to back all the way into it from the beginning. It ended up being a ton of work because you’ve got to figure out all the ins and outs of every little beat, and who knows what and who’s doing what and how do things change. That was really, really challenging, but a lot of fun.
And you have another DC-based animated project still to come.
The next one is “Aquaman: Throne of Atlantis.” The Aqua-fans have been clamoring for Aquaman since we saw the teaser at the end of “Justice League: War.” What I can say is that this is not the Aquaman you think you’re getting. This is not the “Throne of Atlantis”/Geoff Johns Aquaman. This is an Aquaman who doesn’t know who he is and has a hero’s journey in the course of this. This is an Aquaman who has just lost his father and doesn’t have any connection to the world. He’s totally lost, and finds his place with the Justice League. And when his brother decides to take his place and dominate the world, all of a sudden he is definitely underwater in all senses of the word. It’s super-fun to see Arthur Curry step up to be Aquaman.
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