Batman: Arkham City
US: 18 Oct 2011
Playing Batman: Arkham City has confirmed a suspicion I’ve had for a while now: Batman is a boring character.
Sure, some writers and directors have done interesting things with him, and those stories are rightly propped up as the best of the Batman stories, but for the most part, he’s surprisingly static. Arkham City serves as the perfect example: Batman doesn’t change. He doesn’t develop over the story, he doesn’t grow, and there are no personal revelations or even tough moral questions that he has to consider. He’s a self-reliant guy who always tries to save everyone and at no point are these character traits ever explored in a meaningful way.
He’s Overly Self-Reliant
There are some potentially interesting moments for Batman as he is presented in Arkham City. He refuses help even when he’s literally minutes away from death, and when Robin appears for two minutes to offer assistance, Batman essentially tells him to fuck off, and we never see Robin again. Even after Catwoman saves him from certain death, he can’t even manage a “thanks”?
So there are clearly negative things about Batman that the game could explore to flesh out his character—such as why is he so determinedly detached?—but this is a title and character that avoids any such development at every opportunity. Batman never faces any negative consequence for his self-reliance and related antisocial behavior. He always manages to survive but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he finds a way to survive. Rather, his survival is the result of absurd and all-too-convenient plot developments like putting the headquarters of a secret cabal of assassins (not to mention a magical immortality pit) right beneath Arkham City.
Because of these deus ex machina moments, Batman is never presented as having any real conflict. The plot keeps upping the stakes—he’s arrested, then captured, then poisoned—and he keeps refusing help from Robin, from Catwoman, from Talia, and eventually it goes too far. The fact that a guy surrounded by a rouge’s gallery of psychopaths all bent on his personal destruction would refuse any help at all is unbelievable at best and lazy writing at worst. As such, it quickly becomes clear that Batman is never in any real danger and the story loses all tension.
Now, that’s not to say that antisocial heroes are a bad thing, but an audience has to be shown a reason for that antisocial behavior in order to care about the character. Otherwise, you’re just left with an unlikable protagonist. As it stands, Rocksteady is relying on Batman’s popularity to make him sympathetic, i.e., we care about him because of the knowledge of the character that we bring with us to the game, not because anything in the game actually makes him interesting or sympathetic.
If at least one person actually called him out on his behavior, it would add some complexity to his character, but for some reason, his foolish actions are ignored and everyone still treats him as some super hero. Which is odd, because he doesn’t really do anything heroic in Arkham City.
Batman acts self-reliant in the face of absurd odds, but the truth is that he’s not; he can’t do this alone—and doesn’t do it alone—but the people that help him may as well be alone. Batman is surprisingly passive throughout the whole story. None of the major plot developments involve agency or action from him. After getting captured by Joker, Batman doesn’t escape, the Joker releases him. He can’t come up with a cure on his own; he needs Mr. Freeze to do it.
He needs Catwoman to save him from being crushed, he needs Talia to lead him to Joker’s final hiding place, and once he gets there, Talia escapes from the Joker on her own. He doesn’t stop Protocol 10 (the planned destruction of Arkham City), Ra’s al Ghul does because he kills Hugo Strange. Joker’s own death is self-inflicted since the clown causes Batman to drop the cure. Yet throughout all of this, our hero remains staunchly and hypocritically self-reliant.
Neither the character of Batman, nor his writers at Rocksteady, seem to realize that all of this assistance and passivity undermines the idea of self-reliance that Batman is supposed to portray. Batman is helped when he needs it most and brushes off assistance as something unnecessary. When Catwoman saves him, there’s an unspoken “I could have handled it” in both his actions and expression, which makes him come off as arrogant, unable to acknowledge the assistance of those around him. The result is a flat character that has multiple opportunities to grow—but never does.
He’s a Bit Player
It’s interesting to think about how things could have played out differently if Batman never showed up in Arkham City. Catwoman would obviously be killed by Two-Face in the very beginning, but without the need to save Batman later on, she has no relevance to the plot—nothing would change. Mr. Freeze would never be rescued from the Penguin, so no cure would ever be created, but without the need to cure Batman, Freeze has no relevance to the plot anyway; the Joker would still be sick, but he seems destined to die either way—nothing would change. Talia would probably survive, but without the need to lead Batman to the Joker’s hideout, she has no relevance to the plot—nothing would change.
The only thing that would change is, admittedly, a very big thing: Arkham City would be destroyed by Protocol 10. But how exactly did Batman stop this in the first place? When he confronts Hugo Strange, the doctor never calls off the attack. Instead, Ra’s al Ghul (for some reason) takes Batman’s appearance as proof that Strange failed in his grand scheme and decides to kill Strange for his failure. Without a leader, the attack stops. B
atman doesn’t actually do anything other than show up. His biggest contribution to the plot is to make an appearance at Wonder Tower, everything else that happens would still happen regardless of his presence. Batman is a bit player in his own story, and I think a lot of that stems from his desire to save everyone.
Batman doesn’t just not kill people in Arkham City, he tries to save everyone, which leads to some frustratingly awkward moments. He helps Mr. Freeze, then Freeze demands he help more or… he’ll kill him… because that makes total sense? And then after the fight Freeze asks for help again, and this time Batman agrees. So what was the point of that fight?
After Hugo Strange reveals his plans for mass murder, all Batman can say is “I’ll stop you,” but without the threat of death, those words are toothless because Batman can’t actually do anything to stop Strange. Even after Ra’s al Ghul stabs the doctor, Batman cradles the dying man in his arms, a man who just gleefully confessed his plans for mass murder.