He’s a Fake
This conflicting character trait crops up in other parts of the game as well. Whenever Batman interrogates a Riddler informant, he lifts the henchman into the air and says something intimidating. But everything that Batman says at these points is a lie. He makes up a story that sounds badass, but the fact that it’s a lie undermines this strength. Arkham City, more than any other Batman story that I’ve seen or read (which is admittedly few), exposes the inherent dichotomy of this hero: his strong words and his weak actions.
The truth is that Batman is helpless against his villains, but most of them don’t realize this and continue to fear him. It appears that that is why Ra’s al Ghul assumed that Hugo Strange had failed when Batman showed up at Wonder Tower; the assassin wrongly assumed that Batman could stop their plan. That’s also why the Joker is such an attractive villain. He knows the truth about the Batman, he knows the hero better than the hero knows himself, and he exploits that knowledge every time that they meet.
That these issues creep up throughout the game shows that there was potential for a wonderful character study of Batman. Rocksteady could tear down his mask over the course of the game until he had to ask for help, but of course, this never happens. The mask remains firmly in place the whole time, even though there are several moments when the player can see past it, can see that it’s all a show, that the strength of Batman is a façade. And those moments undermine all the strong self-reliance that came before. Not only is he a flat character, his one defining character trait is faked and forced.
The game also misses a great opportunity to explore the limits of Batman’s forgiveness. The villains here do some pretty despicable things that would stretch the limits of anyone’s moral compass. Consider the end, when the Joker is dying and Batman holds the cure. The Joker has just shot Talia in cold blood, killing her right in front of Batman. The game had previously gone to great lengths to emphasize how much Batman cared about Talia. Seeing your lover murdered in front of you is not an easy thing to forgive.
When the choice comes down to it, Batman hesitates with the cure, but then the Joker attacks and the cure is dropped, shattering on the ground. This is a cop out. Rather than force Batman to make this painful moral choice, the writers find a convenient excuse for the Joker to essentially make the choice for him. This robs the ending of the emotional resonance that it could have had, and it robs Batman of an important character moment. I can’t help but think of the end of Batman Begins, in which our hero says “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you.” That one sentence gives Nolan’s Batman more complexity than Rocksteady’s Batman could ever hope to achieve.
He’s Not Catwoman
What’s most frustrating about Batman’s lack of character is that I know that Rocksteady can do better. Catwoman is proof. Several moments portray her as selfish and malicious (all those henchmen may have a point), but what’s great about her character is that she’s also more than that. She promises Poison Ivy that she’ll rescue a rare plant from Hugo Strange’s vault in return for some help breaking into said vault, but then she kills the plant the first chance that she gets with a smug smile on her face. She’s a liar, and she revels in it.
Moments later, after collecting her loot, she has a choice: leave Arkham City and a trapped Batman or go save him. The choice is actually offered to players, and if we choose to leave the game, it will end. Credits roll. After a minute or so, everything stops and time rewinds back to that pivotal choice.
This is a great moment because it highlights the anti-heroic traits of Catwoman. We know she’s mean and manipulative. Unlike Batman, she’s not resolute in her morals. She struggles with this choice, tries to talk herself out of it by saying things like “It’s Batman, they’ll never kill him.” The fact that the game lets us leave (and that it even goes so far as to give us an alternate ending if we do) drives home the fact that Catwoman is totally capable of such selfish actions; they are not out of character for her.
The fact that the game then rewinds time until we choose to stay drives home the fact that she won’t actually leave—even though she can. She may be selfish and cruel, but she’s heroic when it really matters. Catwoman is interesting because she’s conflicted and from that conflict comes character development. The same can’t be said of Batman.
Batman is a loner even in the face of death, which forces convenient leaps of logic to get him out of dangerous situations. He’s never at risk, we never see him struggle, so his character never grows. Villains do most of the heavy lifting in a Batman plot, again robbing Batman of important character moments. What character he does show conflicts with the tone of the rest of the game. The resulting story is one full of twists and turns, but without a central character that I care about. And without that, it’s a boring story befitting a boring character.
Give me more Catwoman, instead.