I had problems with 2011’s Batman: Arkham City. In short, Batman was a boring character because he never seemed to struggle against his enemies, and he was very nearly irrelevant to the plot since all the major bad guys killed each other. All Batman did was not die, which is just about the least heroic thing a supposed superhero could do.
Arkham Origins doesn’t have any of those narrative problems because it’s not blinded by its reverence for the character. It’s more interested in Batman the person than in Batman the icon.
In Arkham Origins, Batman is a crime fighter in the truest sense of the word. While the previous games focused on his ]adversaries, Arkham Origins lets him battle it out against all sorts of crime. There are murders to be solved, which means investigating crime scenes, tracking down suspects, and interrogating them. He can intercept police transmissions about crimes in progress — drug deals, beatings, robberies, etc. — that you can stop before they escalate into something worse. There are also, of course, various villains running around causing trouble, but they’re not all major players. Some are here for the one-night-only bounty on Batman’s head, but others couldn’t care less about the money and just want to blow something up.
There’s a lot to do in the game. Your map is always cluttered with collectibles and side-quests, and every time that you finish one set of quests another set pops up. It feels endless. This is precisely why Arkham Origins succeeds in presenting Batman as a heroic figure, whereas the previous Arkham games fail to do so: Arkham Origins shows us that his struggle is overwhelming, but that Batman is more than willing to bear that burden.
As the main story escalates, more villains are introduced, and in this game, they don’t fight each other… much. The Joker is the only one who commits villain-on-villain violence, but that makes sense for his character. He’s an anarchist; he naturally defies order and logic. Everyone else gets along fairly well. Even if they hate each other, they’ll form a temporary truce once Batman appears.
This means that the game is constantly rigging the odds against Batman. It revels in watching him struggle, throwing villain after villain and crime after crime in his way, trying to overwhelm him, trying to break him. We see him start to crack under this pressure, hallucinating about his parents, haunted by the civilians that he’s failed to save, but he always manages to keep it together. When he doesn’t succumb to that stress and pressure and exhaustion, he comes out looking stronger for it. Arkahm Origins shows us that it’s not the gadgets or the costume or the strength or the smarts that make Batman heroic, it’s something far more innate and less superficial: his determination under adversity.
One of the most frustrating things about Arkham City was its tendency to put Batman into situations designed to test his moral limits, then copping out before he had to take any action, robbing him of any agency in the story and of any humanizing character moments. For example, towards the end of that game, Batman confronts the mastermind villain Hugo Strange in his ivory tower above Arkham City. Our hero stops the city from being destroyed, but Strange still has tremendous political power and knows Batman’s secret identity.
What can Batman do? How can he win against a villain that he can’t just punch and arrest? But it’s of no concern, since Hugo is promptly stabbed in the back (literally) by the real mastermind behind the plot in Arkham City, Ra’s al Ghul. This villain is also determined to destroy the city, wields tremendous political power, and knows Batman’s secret identity. So nothing has really changed, except that this twist gives the dying Strange a reason to blow up his tower, and Ra’s is conveniently impaled on some pole as he plummets to the ground. Both masterminds are dead by their own hand; problem solved with absolutely no effort by Batman.
In contrast, Arkham Origins actually follows through on its threat to test our hero. In the end, Joker and Bane team up against Batman in a wonderfully elaborate no-win scenario: Bane is determined to fight Batman to the death, and he’s hooked up to a heart monitor, which is then hooked up to an electric chair. The Joker is sitting in that electric chair like a king at a gladiator match. With every beat of Bane’s heart, the electric chair will charge until it fries the Joker. So either Bane dies, his heart stops, and thus the Joker lives, or Bane lives and the Joker is cooked. Or Batman dies.
Regardless, someone is going to die. It’s a great impossible choice, and since neither of the villains are outright trying to kill each other, this forces Batman to take action. He has agency in this story and uses it to make interesting decisions. He does kill Bane, just long enough to get Joker out of the chair, then he resuscitates the dead villain using his Shock Gloves as a defibrillator. It’s a clever use of his new gadget, a reversal of its intended use as a weapon.
In Arkham Origins we’re not just told Batman is smart, we see him being smart. We’re not just told he has a strong moral code, we see it in action when he saves his enemies from impossible odds. And then we see that moral code bite him in the ass when the villains he didn’t kill come back with a renewed vengeance. We see him struggle, and then continue on his path of righteous good even in the face of certain destruction. Which is precisely what a superhero should do, but Arkham Origins shows us the human cost of those superheroics. Batman is treated as a character, not just as an archetype.
Much of this is only possible due to Arkham Origins’ status as a prequel. This time shift forces the game to approach the character of Batman in a very different way compared to the previous games.
In Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, we don’t just play as Batman, but as The Batman. He’s already an established hero when those games begin. He’s already a legend and a symbol of fear who has defeated dozens of supervillains. He’s too competent, a pure power fantasy, nearly omniscient and never overwhelmed. It’s as if he knows that he’s a cultural icon and no harm will ever befall him. He knows he’s never in any real danger, so we as an audience are never invested in his struggle.
This is the inevitable tragic end for any comic book hero. Eventually they reach a point of such cultural relevance that they become immortal, invincible, infallible, and boring as hell. Arkham Asylum and Arkham City start at the end of this hero’s journey. He has nowhere else to go, so he remains static. The villains in Arkham Asylum and Arkham City don’t exist to challenge Batman as a good villain should, but to showcase how powerful he is. With every encounter the game yells at us, “Look at all these super powered freaks Batman has defeated once before and watch him defeat them again. Isn’t he great?”
The developers of Arkham Origins aren’t hampered by their reverence for the character. By making this story a prequel, Batman doesn’t have that damning resume or cultural relevance. There’s a sense that he’s meeting many of these villains for the first time, and the game even makes it clear that this is his first encounter with the Joker, so the villains can’t exist as reflections of his past heroics. Instead they exist as a reflection of Gotham. They’re symbols of how corrupt and crazy this city has become, and by extension, how much Batman is needed here. The villains exist to challenge Batman by building up the city as an overwhelming adversary. Now, finally, can Batman be beaten down and reduced to his most heroic traits.
This is how a hero’s story is told.
Personally, the single most frustrating thing about Arkham City was Batman’s hypocritical self-confidence. As I noted in my previous column about Arkham City:
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. (“Batman Is Boring in Arkham City“, PopMatters, 25 January 2012)
In retrospect this makes sense, because the Batman in Arkham City was never meant to be a well-rounded character. He was an archetype, but he was also boring as hell.
In Arkham Origins, Batman doesn’t really act all that differently. He still claims over and over again that he has things under control even when it’s clear he does not, but this time the game and its supporting cast point out his hypocrisies.
Anarky’s wonderful speech takes Batman to task for the contradictions in his symbolism. Anarky laments the downfall of society, “Fidelity. Once upon a time that’s what defined society. Community meant progress… But now it’s all backwards. We have become the things we feared.” Considering that Batman is very explicitly a symbol of fear, Anarky is equating the rise of Batman with the downfall of society. The fact that a symbol of fear is deemed heroic is not something that should be celebrated. No matter what Batman does, he can’t really help Gotham because he represents everything that’s wrong with society.
Black Mask’s concise speech mocks the ineffectual efforts of Batman: “That justice system you love so much? It’s a scam. And you? You’re the mark. Because you keep tossing us in — and we keep bouncing right, back, out.” The villain acknowledges Batman’s limitations and throws them back in his face. Now, this has always been the status quo for Batman, but it went unspoken in Arkham City, which made all of Batman’s tough talk ring hollow. By acknowledging it, Batman becomes the underdog in this conflict even with all his gadgets and strength and skills.
However, even as the game criticizes him, it also lionizes him. Arkham Origins is able to turn Batman’s arrogance, his most off-putting character trait, into the backbone of his heroism. After a particularly brutal run-in with Joker and Bane, Batman goes back to his Batcave to pick up a new gadget. While there, Alfred tries to stop him from going back out into the city, fearing for his life against these powerful and insane enemies. Batman protests, saying he has it under control, but this is where the acting shines. We can hear the stress and exhaustion in his voice, as if he’s trying to convince himself as well as Alfred.
Beyond the acting, the game shows us the stress weighing on Batman. After the brutal showdown with Joker and Bane when he goes back to the Batcave, he starts hallucinating about his parents. Earlier, when he’s poisoned by the villain Copperhead, he’s taunted by visions of civilians that he’s failed to save (also, in an important divergence from the Batman in Arkham City, he only survives the poison because Alfred sends him an antidote by airdrop. Batman doesn’t save himself. He needs allies — even he’d never admit it). We see that not only is he pushed to edge of physical exhaustion but also mental exhaustion, as well.
Batman is deluding himself when he says he can handle things on his own, but in his speech to Alfred, we see that this is a necessary delusion. He’s feared because he seems to be everywhere, and he seems to be everywhere because he’s “out there [every night], the only thing between the innocent and the predatory.” He only strikes fear into the hearts of criminals because he seems so unrelenting. If he hesitates, his symbolism falls apart, so by extension if he doubts himself, then his symbolism falls apart. He has to be arrogant. That’s the only way he can confront so many insane criminals in a single night. The developer of this Batman understands his status as a symbol, but also how much stress comes with being that symbol and how exhausting it is to keep up the appearances of that symbol: the human cost.
In a wonderfully paradoxical way, Arkham Origins succeeds because it doesn’t try to build up Batman. It doesn’t revel in him defeating villains. Instead it breaks him down, reducing him to his most heroic traits: a willingness to carry the burden of all that stress and a refusal to force it on anyone else. Arkham Origins doesn’t assume Batman is a hero. It wants to prove that he’s a hero. It’s a game that understands the difference between what Batman thinks he is, what he really is, and what he needs to be. It revels in his contradictions and paradoxes and hypocrisies, all the things that make him fallible and fascinating and a character worthy of the zeitgeist that surrounds him.