Batman: Arkham Knight’s opening is incongruous, an odd blend of 21st-century terror and classic post-war Americana imagery. The scene is set with sights and sounds that evoke the 1950s: some golden oldie croons faintly in the background as a Gotham City police officer sits down at the bar of an old-fashioned diner, while a waitress in a skirted apron pours a cup of coffee from across the countertop.
Within seconds, the diner spirals into chaos as Dr. Jonathan Crane—the Scarecrow—floods Gotham with the “fear gas” that sets the game’s plot in motion. It’s a strange opening to a superhero story meant for a 2015 audience.
But that incongruity is only a symptom of a much greater problem—Arkham Knight’s total reliance on the naivety at the heart of all superhero stories. The game removes any narrative elements that might have interfered with its own feasibility—with the idea that a story about heroic justice could reasonably star a character who makes positive social progress through the corrective power of excessive force.
SCRATCHING THE SURFACE
Batman is always surrounded by superficial darkness. He’s a tortured character—a wealthy playboy haunted by his parents’ violent death. Batman is compelled to struggle against Gotham’s dark side while grappling, too, with the personal demons he faces. But despite this surface-level complexity, Batman is still a superhero, and the world he inhabits adheres to a superhero story’s naive central conceit: that a lone person, with proper material resources and personal fortitude, can strike back at institutionalized crime through violent force.
Arkham Knight doesn’t skirt around that logic or use it as a backdrop for more interesting stories, like the best superhero fiction. Instead it leans into it, removing any and all obstacles between players and Batman’s fist-powered “justice.” Thanks to that cloud of fear gas, Gotham’s been totally evacuated, and just like in past Arkham games, the city is totally devoid of complicating influences. The only people left are willing participants in the fight between good and evil.
Commissioner Gordon says it best, if unintentionally: “Yesterday there were 6.3 million people in Gotham City. Today: not so many. The only people left on the streets are the sort that enjoy the chaos. Scum, criminals—and worse.”
By ridding the game world of anyone not directly involved in the battle between Batman and his enemies, the Arkham games try to neatly separate good from bad. Look back at this game’s opening, with its midcentury callbacks, an aesthetic that colors the whole Arkham series. It all recalls a (presumably) simpler time where bad guys were bad guys and heroes were heroes.
That simplification is hardly unique to superhero stories, and it’s not new to gaming either—just look at how many video games pit well-armed players against armies of evil Nazis or zombies or Nazi zombies. That escapism is cheap, though, and these days the superheroes first dreamed up in post-war America—the era Arkham Knight is so quick to conjure up—can seem like fairly impotent fantasies.
CLOSE TO HOME
As Arkham Knight allows players to upgrade Batman’s arsenal, acquiring bigger and bigger rocket launchers for the Batmobile, it becomes increasingly difficult not to think of the supposed hero’s resemblance to militarized police, rolling through towns in retrofitted army vehicles, dispersing crowds with tear gas and sound cannons. Batman runs down fleeing criminals in the tank-like Batmobile and dispatches enemies with sophisticated weapons, and he does it all while wearing an armored costume that’s more SWAT than spandex. The high dramatic stakes even require Batman to torture criminals by breaking their limbs and spinning his ride’s enormous wheels centimeters from their faces.
Arkham Knight asks you to fill up the Gotham PD’s holding cells one criminal at a time, a quota that players, conditioned to complete objectives, feel compelled to fill. Thus the fantasy of justice in a city stripped of all but opposing sides—well-meaning heroes and villainous criminals—begins to crumble as the game, intentionally or not, reflects the everyday horror of the real world’s deeply flawed institutions. And Batman’s on the wrong side.
A large part of the Arkham series’ appeal (and, perhaps, that of both video games and superhero stories as a whole) is that they act as a reprieve from the anxiety of our actual lives. Within them, the audience is given an opportunity to imagine that forces for good can triumph over those responsible for evil. They play off the childlike dream of incorruptible cops chasing down nasty robbers—of jails filled with people who deserve to be there.
But, as Arkham Knight shows, these kinds of fantasies are too flimsy to be truly fulfilling. The hope they offer is shallow, like sticking your head in the sand—or being blind as a bat.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Pixels or Death, Paste, VICE, and The Escapist. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, runs Digital Love Child, and tweets @reidmccarter.
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