You won’t find the greatest Batman story of our generation hiding in a comic book shop, your bookshelf or even the widest of DVD collections. The best Batman story of this generation, the one that’s defined a new benchmark for tales starring the Dark Knight Detective, actually hides within the hard drive of your gaming console.
His black wings unfold every time you power it on. They envelope you, the gamer, into his iconic persona. And with you under the cowl, the best Batman story unfolds in the Batman: Arkham video games.
The final chapter in this fabled saga ends today with the release of Batman: Arkham Knight. But no matter how the story ends for this Batman and his grimy world, it leaves behind a mythology that’s richer than any found in a comic, an experience that’s more immersive than any tale found at the cineplex, and a legacy that may last longer than either.
LAUNCH OF A LEGEND
Since the series’ launch in 2009 with Batman: Arkham Asylum, the Arkham franchise has infiltrated nearly every avenue of popular culture, with video game sequels (Batman: Arkham City in 2011 and Batman: Arkham Origins in 2013), multiple digital comics series, a direct-to-DVD feature film, and enough merchandise to fill an entire Hot Topic warehouse. But like Bruce Wayne is just a man underneath the smoke and mirrors, Batman: Arkham is just a video game series underneath all the t-shirts and fan-fiction. So what transformed what looked to be just another video game into one of the most influential Batman franchises in years?
When you take a deeper look, you’ll see that its success doesn’t hide behind a mask. Rather, Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City simply distilled what made the Dark Knight endure for the past 75-plus years. A dark—but not brooding—Batman? Check. A line-up of Batman’s best and brightest rogues? Clearly. A mind-bending narrative that blends psychological drama with high-stakes super-heroics? Players knew that by the opening credits.
Do all of these elements sound familiar? They should. Those same ingredients were used for another famous recipe in Batman: The Animated Series, a Batman cartoon from the early 1990s that’s heralded by fans and professionals alike for its timeless interpretations of the Caped Crusader. So it should be no surprise then to learn that the Arkham universe was concocted by the same master chef, Paul Dini.
“The best Batman projects I’ve worked on are the ones that cherry-pick here and there from Batman’s different versions, and then put them together in one unified vision,” says Dini, who wrote the first two Arkham games.
With developer Rocksteady Studios, Dini envisioned a sprawling and bold Batman tale that he’d want to see at the movies. It’s why some of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City’s strongest moments are those that wrap the gameplay within its deeply personal story.
Take for instance a particular sequence in Batman: Arkham Asylum in which the Scarecrow has just injected Batman with his patent-pending fear toxin, a hallucinogenic drug that brings its victims’ worst fears to life. Batman—and the player—feel fine at first, but slowly the game starts going south. Batman’s equilibrium slides, and reality transforms from the game’s Asylum environment to the dank alleyway where his parents were gunned down in. That’s a scenario we’ve seen play out a thousand times, but it’s different when you’re playing it.
“It was a perfect storm for Batman fans,” says Dini.
BE THE BATMAN
And what a massive storm it was. Batman: Arkham Asylum sold 2.5 million copies just a month into its release in 2009, while the follow-up, Batman: Arkham City, hit those numbers out of the park with six million units sold in six months. Though it wasn’t released until October of 2011, Arkham City became the year’s second-highest selling game. Reviews lit it with a bat-signal of praise, holding the installment up not against other comic book games, but the gaming industry’s absolute best.
IGN claimed that “Batman: Arkham City isn’t just better than Batman: Arkham Asylum, it’s better than most games on the market,” and The New York Times dropped bombs like, “Arkham City now joins the likes of the Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed series among the pantheon of great single-player open-world games.” A Batman game and Grand Theft Auto in the same sentence? That had never happened before.
With its profound critical and commercial success, the Arkham name evolved into a pop culture phenomenon with legs far longer than the video game industry’s. Batman: Arkham City merch soon appeared in comic shops, apparel stores, and even on the convention floor as fans attended Comic-Cons and PAX East dressed in Arkham’s distinct visual designs. The crossover birthed an entirely new Batman universe, which DC Entertainment and parent company Warner Bros. fleshed out with a prequel game (Batman: Arkham Origins) and a direct-to-DVD animated feature (Batman: Arkham Lockdown). To some, Arkham is now as canon to the Dark Knight mythos as the “main” DC adventures themselves.
“There are so many different takes on Batman’s universe. And the stories you can tell within the universe, if they’re done well, are all true,” says Dini. “You go into any toy store, and there’s the Arkham City Batman right next to the Adam West Batman. And it’s all good. It’s all Batman. Every version of Batman is someone’s favorite.”
HARLEY QUINN HAS ARRIVED
But the real ambassador between the games and pop culture wasn’t the Dark Knight at all, or even the Joker, the most popular character from recent Batman films. It was the Joker’s psychotic, gum-chewing girlfriend, Harley Quinn. Though the ancillary character had existed within DC’s wheelhouse for almost twenty years, Arkham City transformed her into a bubbly anarchist who no longer needed Joker around to justify her screen time.
It also didn’t hurt that Rocksteady stripped the character down into a much sultrier costume, bringing a darker visual edge. As an independent character with her own goals and motivations, Harley instantly connected with fans. The character is now as big—if not bigger than—The Joker himself, headlining T-Shirts, sneakers, and two DC Comic titles (a claim that "Mr. J” can’t even make). And it all started with the Arkham franchise.
“The writing in Arkham City and other Arkham projects has been so heavy and so real. There are moments where I’m crying with Harley. They’re so deep and they’re so real,” says voice actress Tara Strong, who inherited the character for Batman: Arkham City. Since City, DC has made Strong their default Quinn, utilizing her talents in other video games and animated series as well. “I don’t think anyone saw Harley’s success coming. She just started as a fun, authentic character, and maybe that’s why she still works,” Strong says. “She’s so real in this crazy world. Even though she’s still nuts, she’s still relatable.”
Relatability is another cornerstone that’s launched the Arkham storyline past its four-color and celluloid competition. Chris Nolan’s revered Dark Knight trilogy, loved for its hyper-realistic and believable approach to Batman, is still just a movie. And the comics, while they journey to the deepest sectors of Batman’s brain, are ink on a page (or pixels on a tablet, these days). As good as both will get, they will always have a curtain separating Batman from us. We’re merely spectators.
But with Arkham, players are the Batman. As they experience a well-crafted story that really gets who The Batman is, they must also think, fight, and behave as the Dark Knight would. Dini says that sometimes, he’ll pop in his copy of Arkham City just to feel, for a little while, like the Batman.
“I know that there are riots I should be putting down, or people I should be rescuing, but I don’t care,” says Dini. “When I’m playing the game, I just want to be Batman for a while. It’s such a phenomenal environment to play in.”
That environment reaches its final frontier with Batman: Arkham Knight. Though Dini wasn’t around to pen Rocksteady’s conclusion to their Batman saga, the finale looks to be just as deep as it predecessors. The story started in Arkham Asylum reaches its true ending in Knight.
Harley Quinn entrenches herself even further as a strong female icon by becoming a fully playable character. The escapism deepens as players control the Batmobile for the first time in the series. But even when you add these parts up, they’re still not greater than single fact that will hopefully make Batman: Arkham Knight one of the character’s single greatest stories in years: in the Arkham series, you are the Batman.
When he’s not wandering around the action figure aisles in WalMart (which is often), Andrew Steinbeiser earns his dollar reading and writing about pop culture. His work has appeared in Esquire, The Huffington Post, and The New York Post, and he currently edits and writes for ComicBook.com. He once cried while reading an issue of Jonah Hex, and is in no way ashamed of it.