The Batman Arkham Quadrilogy (Retrospective)

It goes entirely without saying the Arkham Batman games are generally pretty stellar. Although all of them have their issues be it from clumsy writing, a few too many narrative coincidences, deus Bat machina and some disservice to popular characters (i.e. Bane in the Rocksteady-made games), this series has proven that the transition between a comic book to a video game is not impossible; it just requires a lot of effort.

You may be wondering dear reader as to why I am writing a piece about this series around six months after the release of the final chapter Arkham Knight especially since zombievictim and myself reviewed it, well let me set the record straight for you. Rather than this article be a review of the games AS games, I wanted to discuss the thematic elements of all four titles. Yes, four, because in my eyes, Arkham Origins was indeed a very solid game and one I find has more re-playability I could have anticipated. For all of the conventional comic allowances made for the sake of the progress of the plot, the series has more going on than what could have been imagined. So without further ado, lets dive bomb into the collective madness of this bangin' series and see what philosophical dirt we can dig up.


Batman: Arkham Origins

Chronologically, Origins sits as the first installment of the franchise, showing a young, brash and occasionally frighteningly violent Batman in his second year of crime fighting. He is a myth, a phantasm to Gotham City and he has no fans among the corrupt as the Salvation Army G.C.P.D. On Christmas Eve of an uncertain year, career gangster Roman Sionis, aka the notorious Black Mask orders a hit on the rambunctious young Bat for $50,000,0000 dollarydoos by employing eight creme de la creme assassins to bring him the vigilantes' head. Batman takes on his first significant challenge and makes key relationships along the way, both ally and adversarial.

I eagerly anticipated Origins, quite frankly even if you put a ball-gag in my mouth I would have found a way around it to blab. The trailers looked great, it showed a young angry buck of a Bat and a curious congregation of villains (Bane, Deathstroke, femme Copperhead, Lady Shiva, Firefly, Electrocutioner, Killer Croc and Deadshot) who were out for the Bat's blood and that fiercely interested me. I played the game and while it was nothing absolutely groundbreaking, it was a LOT of fun and it finally made me a fan of the Bane we deserve (I can just hear The Beast muttering "About time, you vampiric philistine") plus it actually gave us a legitimate character arc for Batman who in the Rocksteady games vastly stayed the same when he realises a man is not an island. The game is mainly devoted to Batman admitting this revelation to himself while attempting to stay two steps ahead of the assassins only to find himself meeting his future arch nemesis the Joker and understanding this is unlike anything he could have prepared himself for. Now sure, while there ample evidence the series tended to lean a little too much on the Clown Prince of Crime as the main antagonist, here, the Clown is part of an ensemble.

This is the start of the Batman we would come to be familiar with but he not without his faults. He is angry, volatile and impulsive and despite the fact he has made that solemn vow to never kill, he doesn't entirely pull all of his punches because he is a man mainly lorded by passion. For all of his bravado, Batman makes the mistake of underestimating his foes and overestimating his talents and the story punishes him for his oversights and entitlement, especially when it comes to the aforementioned Joker and Bane. Bane, at least to me, was perhaps the main adversary of this game and he posed the biggest threat to the Bat, namely because he was brilliant enough to deduce the Batman's true identity as well as his techniques and weaknesses. Dare I say it, Bane eclipsed the power of the Joker, which was an unexpected yet utterly pleasant surprise. Although the end of the game sees Bane turn into the ridiculously muscled, quasi-mentally deficient idiot he would come to be in Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, this encounter was what helped shape Batman into the controlled, disciplined crime fighter he became.

Silly little aside: If you could equate this game to a holiday or a special occasion, Arkham Origins could be considered as not just Christmas, but also a birthday- the birth of Batman and the birth of what would become his mythology.

*I am fully aware WB Montreal were in charge of the development of this game, but I still consider it in the canon Rocksteady have created given it is referenced several times in Arkham Knight.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

First and foremost, Asylum makes no qualms about showing you up front about what the game is all about- insanity and mental decay. Batman finds himself trapped in the quintessential madhouse in the company of many of the super villains he has locked away on a dark and stormy night. Arkham Asylum is a horrendous facility- crumbling architecture, filthy walls, canker-ridden floors, all of which that do not present a positive healing influence, but a negative, harming one, contrary to what some of the pre-recorded intercom messages played through the buildings say otherwise. To say the various locations Batman battles his way through is a metaphor for not only the minds of his enemies but also himself is an understatement.

Batman sees himself as the necessary good, yet it is built upon a mental illness; he saw both of his parents violently murdered as a ten year old child by a faceless bogeyman which resulted in a lifelong case of PTSD that he refuses to address by dressing up as a Bat. Although he understands the mind of the clinically insane, he chooses not to look within himself until he is forced to by being subjected to Scarecrow's nightmares.
In all three of these sequences Batman peels back the layers of the raging subconscious he chooses to conceal; not being able to save his allies, not being able to save his parents and finally, not being able to save himself. In the final nightmare, and in an admittedly brilliant twist in-game, Batman finds himself to be in the Joker's position at the beginning of the story, being wheeled through the disgusting asylum by his enemies, vehemently insisting he did not kill a family which we never see. One of his greatest fears is becoming the very thing he hates, the very thing he made an oath to defeat. Although Batman does manage to triumph (at least in the broader sense) at the end of this night from Hell, his psychology still runs astray and he continues to force himself to keep a lid on it. In fact, when Batman hears a radio broadcast about Two-Face robbing a bank, he doesn't palm the responsibility over to Robin who is in the city, he instead flies off in the Batwing, tireless, duty-bound and determined. Batman has made the choice to not address his cerebral health and persists to do the duty he promised Gotham and her residents.

Narrative-wise, Joker cooked up this break-out/break-in to force Batman to give in to the madness that both surrounds and festers within him. While this 'plan' is oddly particular (how exactly did Joker know where Batman would be at any given time? Sure he could have had cameras monitoring Batmans' movements across Arkham Island, but surely the Caped Crusader would have found a way to interfere with the surveillance systems) every incident of chaos the Clown incites is all for the 'benefit' of the Bat. What better place to lose your mind than a place where others abandon theirs? Giving into ones' violent, uncompromising, unflinching nature and succumbing to the illness that resides inside of the mind and the forbidden temptation to give into that sickness is the universal and underlying theme of Arkham Asylum, right down to the very score of the game, a soundtrack that sounds more like a deranged Hammer Gothic horror.

To the Joker, this was perhaps one of his greatest April Fools pranks, but Batman kept refusing to play along, a long-held tradition... just the way Joker wanted it.

Batman: Arkham City

Right out of the gate, the third installment of the quadrilogy (up until Arkham Knight, of course) was the Passion Play with the Joker in this canon dying. It was admittedly a huge risk taken by Rocksteady, but frankly, there was no other way for them to tell the story they wanted to tell and keep the Clown Prince alive. When the Joker coerces Batman into helping him by infecting the blood of his greatest nemesis/best friend, it is a gesture of becoming bonded by blood- Blood Brothers. Blood Brothers will never abandon each other, no matter how great the desire to do otherwise.The action of Joker infecting Batman is a literal representation of the relationship they share and Joker knew that Batman would not kill him... but what he didn't count on was that Batman did not have to save him either. In their final exchange as Joker takes his final ragged, gasping breaths, Batman says softly "Every decision you've ever made ends with death and misery. People die. I stop you. You'll just break out and do it again... you want to know something funny? Even after everything you've done, I would have saved you." Yet he does not expediently save the Joker who lets out a harsh, sputtering snicker saying "You know... that actually is pretty funny.".

Additionally, and unsurprisingly, Arkham City emphasizes the notion of pretense and deception. Theatricality is part of what enables Batman to fight crime and it also applies to the villains he combats. The Penguin, Ra's al Ghul, Bane, Riddler, Mad Hatter and Victor Zsasz among others are all trying to fool Batman into playing along with their games withe the aim of either breaking him or outright destroying him so they may take center stage. As it is revealed in the finale, Clayface is revealed to have been flawlessly impersonating Joker for a majority of the time and as some of you out there may know, the current Clayface, Basil Karlo, was an actor in his previous life and he saw playing the Joker as the role of a lifetime. I mean, who doesn't want to fling poo mud at a dude who has mistaken every day of the year for Halloween? Throughout the entire game, Batman is constantly being yanked around thanks to the unfurling nature of his mission, he is not given a moment to meticulously plan out his strategies and he must work on the fly, much like an improvisational performer. Granted, this element of Batmans' character is of no surprise, but here, Batmans' very life depends on whether or not he will see the next hour as his body gradually starts to break down and he begins to feel his life whittling away.
He knows he is being played by multiple enemies with their own ends and he knows he needs to outsmart all of them so he can reveal the mysterious Protocol 10 and expose Hugo Strange M.D for the sadistic psychopath he is. When the revelation of Strange allying himself with Ra's al Ghul reveals itself, it further cements home that this entire mission has been an attempt to rip away Batman's indomitable willpower, with Strange wanting to eliminate Batman from the equation and Ra's wanting Batman to step up to the position as the leader of the League of Assassins (why he couldn't just hand that responsibility over to Talia is beyond me, seriously, that woman was more capable than Batman was). As Joker says Harley after he dissuades her from unmasking Batman who is just waking up by being greeted by several whacks of Harley's baseball bat, "Nobody's who they say they are my dear, why spoil the fun?"

A third and major theme that Arkham City firmly addresses is the treatment of criminals in society and the negative impact of a totalitarian leadership. Rehabilitation seems to have been foregone by Hugo Strange who has proposed locking away all of the maximum security criminals in one holed off city prison with the barest of living necessities (rudimentary health care from an understaffed MP unit situated in a church) and food drops. While the more extremist of mind may think "what is good for the goose is good for the gander", Arkham City with surprising ferocity questions just how plausible this theory actually is. To divert for a moment, Arkham City clearly takes a lot of cues from John Carpenters' 1981 cult classic film Escape From New York; walled off super-prison in the middle of an inhabited city (and remember, Gotham is the fictional equivalent of New York City), crumbled society all combined in a severely dystopian package. If the law-abiding society and it's governing body treated lawbreakers like this, does this make us better... or does it make us worse than those we lock away? Oh, and let's not forget a ruthless, rubber-clad, blue-eyed badass who breaks INTO the prison and given an allotted time to fulfill an assignment before he dies a horrible death. But the fact remains, Arkham City raises the very relevant point of the treatment of social dregs in the hellish, frozen and decaying maximum security prison in such a way that it makes the thoughtful among us remember the horror stories of Guantanamo Bay and how authority deals with anarchy.

Arkham City functions as both the death and rebirth of a legend, a new world, a new year and a new Batman... though perhaps not a whole Batman.

Batman: Arkham Knight

Tanks and explosions. Tanks and explosions are what immediately spring to mind when the fourth chapter of the Arkham gameverse in the finale in Rocksteady's tale enters a conversation and understandably so, much to the chagrin of players who wanted a little less The Bat And The Furious and more Metal Gear Bat when it came to taking out malcontents. Personally I get more 'Nam flashbacks to the oddly uncharacteristic Riddler race tracks, but nevertheless, Arkham Knight (which fittingly enough takes place on Hallow's Eve) still maintains several areas of thematic interest that will assist in closing out this article.

First, lets talk about the ghoulish elephant in the room- the Joker, or rather, Batmans' psychological construct of the Joker who in truth stands for Batmans' id. Although the Joker is indeed dead to the world, he is very much alive in Batmans' mind, providing a ceaseless flow of observations and atypical 'wisdom'. Batman came to know Joker intimately through their entire game of cat and mouse that he is eerily able to 'hear' what his nemesis would have said. The most disturbing part? This is BATMANs' brain talking. These are Batmans' suppressed thoughts bubbling to the surface with the face of the man who claimed to know him the most. Add to that the literal fact that the remnants of Jokers' infected blood still pumps through his veins, thus altering his own psychology, Batman is effectively becoming the Joker, which was Jokers' original plan during the Arkham Asylum incident. Joker has, at least posthumously has been granted what he desired most and throughout the game Batman strives to dominate it, push it back, push it away, but it keeps coming forward, stronger, more persistent than ever before, a penetrating reminder of his sins.

Which brings us to the Arkham Knight aka Jason Todd aka Robin... Batmans' greatest failure.

While the canon of the Arkham series discombobulates those who are more in touch with the comics, lets look at what we have in the game and isolate it from other interpretations. Jason Todd was a tragic victim of the Joker having been trapped and held prisoner by the Clown and Harley for a year in an abandoned wing in Arkham Asylum, having his endurance and his mental wellness being torn to shreds like Prometheus on the rock with Joker and his moll being the squawking vultures. Day in, day out, it was heavily implied that they tortured him, fostering a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome before Todd finally broke and became subservient to Joker. In the videotaped message Joker sent Batman, he asks a chair and barbed-wire bound Jason Todd the true identity of Batman.
Before Todd says those words, Joker shoots him in cold-blood. After this, and unseen to his mentor and enemy, Todd escaped and went into hiding for several months, recuperating from his ordeal. While he was able to assume the new identity of the Arkham Knight and assemble a considerable army of well-trained militia, the wounds just underneath were not healed.

Everything Todd had done in order to convince himself he was well was just a band-aid covering an evisceration and it is made immediately apparent that unlike his tentative ally Scarecrow, he doesn't want to break and expose Batman, he wants to wipe him from the earth, the only way to mend his shattered mind is to eliminate the cause he believed had truly broken it; the man who abandoned him and not put Joker down like a rabid hound.

Misguided and untrue of course, but by that point, Todd was almost beyond the realm of help thanks to the barriers he built up around himself to prevent so-called weakness from staying his hand. Upon defeat after a lengthy battle (and a nice reveal of the Red Hood in the form of an altered visor), Batman pins Jason on his back, a preparatory fist raised to give his former protégé a good seeing-to before he looks upon the younger man's face. Jason's face, revealed partly by the cracked red visage seems to say "Do it. It's not as if I'm not used to the pain." before Bruce lets go, steps back and extends a hand to Todd in an entreaty so they may work together to heal his ailment. Todd disappears, but comes back later to help Batman when he needs it the most; it will be a long road to recovery, but Batman has now extended an alm of caring, something Todd deep down knew he needed. There is hope, even in those moments of which we think there is none; we need to reach out to each other in the darkness and grasp hands and not let go and not allow doubt to overtake us.

Random note: Did it occur to anybody else that perhaps Todd too was 'seeing' the Joker? Think about it, Todd spent a lot of time in the Jokers' company, being tortured in all manner of ways around the clock, so while Batman was being psychologically taunted by his own projection of the Joker, perhaps Jason could hear that cackling voice in his synapses and see that lanky, grinning form acting as a goad, and that was helping to galvanize his resolve about destroying Batman?

In direct contrast to the message of hope, the topic of the loss of such permeates through the story, courtesy of Scarecrow who seems to orgasm at the very notion of Batman being put up on exhibition to the world as being weak and impotent, a man devoid of hope and every he holds dear. Scarecrows' extremist views of desolation relates to the highly pessimistic point of view the the world amounts to nothing but the fear we as humans have of what we don't completely understand- each other. Everything he subjects Batman and his allies to is done to prove his radical world view, by ensuring Batman has nobody to turn to by dawn because those he cares for and are under his protection have either died or abandoned him after losing faith. It also helps this fundamental and twisted notion that Doctor Crane himself is an ordeal to behold- dressed like a terrorist from the nightmares of a hangman, strapped with canisters of Fear Toxin, no doubt a clear reference to a suicide bomber, a noose around his neck and his mangled face a horror of flesh, bone and stitches held together by hemp with various bio machinery such as braces and joinery acting as physical aids to enable movement. Frankenstein's creature with a PhD and a sonorous voice of treacle and serpentine that imparts promises of condemnation, suffering and death. Although Scarecrow is physically frailer than Batman and those who support him, Crane understands the unbridled power of the unstable mind and he uses every psychological salvo at his disposal to show Batman that without his mask, he is nothing but another frightened soul in a sea of fear.

During the Panessa Studios sequence of the game when Batman and Robin (Tim Drake) attempt to secure the Joker-Infected, Bruce is haunted by visions of Jason Todd as the former Robin during his prolonged torture at Joker's hands. He is powerless to stop his students' torment of course, but one could also make the case that this is Batman's subconscious trying to tell him that his current adversary in the Arkham Knight IS Jason Todd, but he is trying to deny it, insisting that he saw Jason die because it prevents him from casting doubt upon his actions. The moment he stops to question the lies or at least figments he invents for himself, it is the moment he feels Scarecrow has won. Doubt is what weakens resolve, and weakened resolve leads to losing the battle.

However, this confrontational attitude Batman harbors for his ego blocking his id actually ends up becoming the ultimate relief for him. When Scarecrow unveils him in front of the world during that live broadcast at the abandoned Arkham Asylum, thus fittingly ending where this saga basically begun Batman allows for the personification of his id, the Joker to charge forth from the shaky fortress prison Batman has attempted to confine him to and wreck absolute havoc. This is perhaps one of the best parts of the game bar none because you see Batman seemingly willingly give himself over to what he has been trying so hard and so long to keep in check. First he as himself fights various clones of Joker in Crime Alley upon which stones ran red with his parents blood before he finally grabs a hold of one and breaks his neck. Upon this act, His Joker-Self fully emerges in a 'mind palace' if you will and gleefully guns down countless goons belonging to Riddler, Penguin and Two-Face in a tricked out and self-personalized Batmobile complete with an eerie grinning maw (for some reason he leaves Killer Croc alone) before he hunts each the former three super villains down like they are animals with a souped-up assault rifle. After bringing literal Hell to Gotham Batman steadily begins to regain control with assurance, knowing that this chaos had to ensue before he could bring back order. When Joker reaches the end of the line, Batman emerges from the monstrous Solitary Confinement cells that were in Arkham Asylum, renewed both mentally and physically. As he moves forward, his weakened Joker-Self constantly fires off rounds from his gun, each bullet hitting nothing as Batman becomes a swarm of of bats as he draws closer, his steady, menacing voice issuing in his struggling Joker personas' ears (and for that matter ours) with "You're afraid of being ashes. You're afraid of being forgotten. And you *will* be forgotten, Joker. Because of me.  I am vengeance! I am the night! I am Batman!" With that, he grabs the weak, mewling impotent Joker who begs him to let him stay and pummels him into the cell before slamming the door shut and pushing it away to the annals of his mind, a permanent abyss where nothing may return. Balance has been achieved. 

Can you tell that sequence gives me goosebumps?

When Crane realizes Batman has not been broken but has been repaired, he strives to regain control of the situation before Batman and Commissioner Gordon rapidly beat him into submission. Upon being brought back to GCPD after a long and tiresome night, Scarecrow is the only one fretting due to a heady dose of his own Fear Toxin meanwhile the officers don't treat Batman any differently even though they all know who he truly is. In fact, at least according to most of them, his sacrifice inspired them more to continue fighting the good fight for Gotham. At the end of the game, Batman ultimately needed to lose himself first before he could find himself. 

And it wasn't just he whom had been found.

Thank you all very much for taking the time to read this folks and allow me to re-emphasize this is by no means an academic analysis, just the musings of somebody, who, like yourself, got a huge kick out of what could be one of the best licensed superhero video game series out there. 



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Fallen Botticelli Angel/Elightened Eldritch/Lunatic Fringe
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