Batman Is Boring in ‘Arkham City’

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.

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.

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