“This is how it happened. This is how the Batman died.”
That’s Commissioner Gordon at the start of Arkham Knight, the final chapter of this decade’s other Great American Batman Trilogy. Rocksteady’s Arkham videogame series started back in 2009 — one year after Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight became the defining phenomenon of our blockbuster movie era.
You can see the Nolan influence on the Arkham series. Like all open-world games, Arkham Knight tells several dozen stories of varying size and importance. Even the “main” story is really three stories about three different villains: Scarecrow, the Arkham Knight, and [name redacted for now]. The Scarecrow story is taken straight from Batman Begins: Fear toxin, Gotham infected, Batman must face fear itself. If you only know Batman from the Nolan movies, you might argue Arkham Knight begins when the bridges explode in The Dark Knight Rises. This is a game about an entire city taken hostage, abandoned by the government, transformed into a war zone.
But Rocksteady and Nolan are both working within (and against) several generations of mythology. Gotham-as-sealed-war-zone is an idea most profoundly realized in 1999’s “No Man’s Land,” although a truly encyclopedic Batman pedant could probably cough up an earlier example. The Dark Knight Rises took its chief antagonist and spine-busting visual conceit from “Knightfall,” a 1993 story arc. I don’t know anyone willing to praise “Knightfall” — it’s best remembered now as the Batman version of Superman dying and Green Lantern turning psychopath and Wonder Woman getting Wally West-ed by a redhead and all the other violent-trendy DC hero-reboots from the early-mid-’90s.
The Arkham series positively adores Batman’s history. Arkham Asylum and Arkham City patchworked the comic books and the beloved Animated Series into a new Gotham history. The Arkham Batman seems to have at least a decade of history behind every character, even though Arkham Batman also seems to sit around most of the time, waiting for that one night every couple years when every villain attacks simultaneously. 2013’s off-brand prequel Arkham Origins already mopped up all the ambient third-string bad guys: Copperhead and Shiva, Black Mask and Electrocutioner. So Arkham Knight hits the emergency red button. It doesn’t just tell any Batman story; it tells The Last Batman Story.
The Dark Knight series had a much weirder relationship with the character’s history. Nolan could be openly dismissive of Batman’s wild-campy history — no sidekicks, no Riddler, no gadgets, no color — and his Joker was a brilliant head-to-toe reimagination of comic’s most famous supervillain. But the trilogy built its foundation on the weirdest Batman sub-mythos: Ra’s Al-Ghul and the League of Shadows and all the bizarro colonialist mysticism therein.
Dark Knight Rises is another Last Batman Story, of course. I’m not sure we need to worry about spoilers — you’ve either seen Dark Knight Rises or you don’t watch movies — but it spoils nothing to say that the lead-up to Dark Knight Rises was identical to the lead-up to Arkham Knight. “Would they really kill Batman?” we all asked. When Gordon says “This is how the Batman died,” does he mean actually died? Or is it like a metaphorical death? Or is “Batman” dying, while Bruce Wayne retires to a lifetime of Eurotrash cafés?
Arkham Knight and The Dark Knight Rises are both variations on a theme introduced almost 30 years ago, in what has turned out to be the most influential superhero comic book ever. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns has been praised and condemned and imitated and deconstructed ever since its publication in 1986. Its moment has not passed; it might just be starting.
Toward the end of The Dark Knight Returns, a very old Batman has beaten Superman into a bloody pulp. “I want you to remember… my hand… at your throat,” he narrates. “I want… you to remember… the one man who beat you…” Two years ago, actor Harry Lennix read those words on stage in front of several thousand people. It’s also how Zack Snyder announced Batman v Superman. In The Dark Knight Returns, those are Batman’s last words. His heartbeat flatlines, and he falls to the ground, dead.
This seems as good a time as any to throw up a SPOILER ALERT for everything — Knights dark and Arkham, returning and rising. Because Batman in The Dark Knight Returns isn’t really dead. He just took some special medicine to stop his heartbeat, and faked his own death, and now he’s living underground with a gang of criminal converts. “We have years,” he narrates. “Years — to train and study and plan… here, in the endless cave, far past the burnt remains of a crimefighter whose time has passed… it begins here — an army— to bring sense to a world plagued by worse than thieves and murderers.”
The implication is that “Batman” has died because the world’s problems can no longer be solved by masked crimefighters. At the time, Miller wasn’t crazy enough to actually explain how Bruce Wayne would “bring sense” to the world, or precisely who his “army” was going to be attacking. You can look at that moment and tease out everything that became hilariously problematic about Miller’s later work. (“Billionaire creates army built on personal cult of personality” is like Ayn Rand writing a book about Charles Manson.) But you can also admire how that moment makes a clear self-effacing argument: The Dark Knight Returns is a great superhero comic about the pointlessness of superheroes.
Miller could get away with this because he didn’t need to set up the character for sequels. But those sequels followed anyway, with The Dark Knight Strikes Again in 2001 and The Master Race this fall. Curiously, DC Comics has pitched Master Race as “the epic conclusion of the celebrated Dark Knight Returns saga.” Retroactively, Dark Knight Returns is now The (First) Last Batman Story.
The end of Dark Knight Rises is different but the same, smarter but dumber. Here again, Batman fakes his own death. The particulars don’t necessarily matter — fusion reactor and Batplane, Talia and autopilot. Alfred heads to Florence and sees a living Bruce Wayne hanging with Selina Kyle. This is a pretty boring end for Bruce Wayne; one could argue that the whole point of the character is that he will never be happy just being a cool rich guy. But Rises ends with its version of Robin finding the Batcave and ascending into Batman-hood.
This is actually an idea that used to be central to DC Comics: the notion that superhero identities get passed down across generations, to sidekicks, across alternate realities. There are multiple Flashes and multiple Green Lanterns and don’t get me started on the Hawkgirls. Bruce Wayne was almost always Batman, but his Robins could grow up, or die. Clark Kent was always Superman, but sometimes he was Superboy.
So Dark Knight Rises takes a much safer approach than Miller. Bruce Wayne lives on, but “Batman” also doesn’t die. There are no “burnt remains of a crimefighter whose time has passed.” The Dark Knight trilogy is always fundamentally pro-Dark Knight. (If we trust Dark Knight Rises at face value, the only truly bad thing about Batman is that he makes Bruce Wayne so unhappy.)
Maybe that reflects basic corporate realities. Warner Bros. could never let Batman die onscreen. (They’ve already confirmed further adventures for Ben Affleck’s Batman, removing any potential “Will he die?” buzz from Batman v Superman.) Of course, you could turn it around on the audience. Do we want to see Batman die? And if so, why? And if not, why do we obsess so much over projects that tantalize us with the possibility of his death? Until Dark Knight Returns, nobody ever took the idea of Batman dying seriously. In the last 30 years, apparent death has become a Batman trope. As I write this, the comic book Batman is dead again — “dead,” “again”— and Commissioner Gordon is patrolling Gotham in a cool robo-Batsuit. Comic Book Batman also died seven years ago — “died,” I mean.
I’m not complaining about this. It’s easy to rag on superhero deaths, but I’m not sure Batman’s “deaths” have been cheap publicity ploys. The “deaths” I’ve mentioned here were conceived by Grant Morrison, Frank Miller, Scott Snyder, and Christopher Nolan: Four of the absolute greatest practitioners of Batman storytelling in the modern era. You also can throw in Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, an attempt by the great Neil Gaiman to deconstruct the whole idea of The Last Batman Story. It’s terrible, but also fascinating, and perfectly representative of its moment.
And the follow-up question: Do these creators actually want to kill off Batman? Is it just gutlessness that makes them bring Batman back — either the fear of a writer scaring away the audience, or the fear of a corporation worried that any “death” might prove somehow ruinous for the eventual reboot? Would it be so bad if Bruce Wayne actually did die?
These are all important questions for Arkham Knight, because Rocksteady’s videogame series comprises one of the single best takes on the Batman legend ever. I realize it gets hazy when you compare stories across media, but I’d pick Arkham City as one of my 10 favorite Batman stories ever. The key is that Rocksteady is simultaneously more true to the mythology than any movie has been, and weirdly willing to throw mythology out the window. Case in point: At the end of Arkham City — spoiler alert, I guess — they kill off the Joker.
Which has naturally led Arkham fans to spend the last four years wondering: How will Rocksteady bring the Joker back? Rocksteady knows you are thinking this, so Arkham Knight begins with the Joker’s corpse burning to ashes. The game seems to be telling you, point-blank, “Seriously, guys, he’s not coming back.”
He does, sort of. But first, the game begins. Gordon gives his narration: The night Batman died, The Last Bastman Story. You start guiding Batman around Gotham City, empty except for the worst of the worst. Batman rescue-captures Poison Ivy from the Scarecrow. He either meets or calls some of his best pals — Commissioner Gordon, Robin, ex-Robin Nightwing, ex-Batgirl Oracle, Alfred. Batman meets a mysterious new bad guy, the Arkham Knight. He finds out that the Scarecrow is planning to detonate a fear bomb that will cover the entire Eastern Seaboard. So, when you’re a few hours into the game — deep enough to have learned all the basics — you guide Batman into some kind of reactor core filling up with fear gas. While Alfred begs you to leave, you very slowly carry a bunch of Important Things toward a bunch of Other Important Things. The music gets grand and quiet, and the sound effects fade, and the general implication is that Batman is sacrificing himself for the greater good.
At this point, the Joker appears and shoots Batman in the face.
And at this point, the scene suddenly shifts to daytime in Gotham City. You take control of Commissioner Gordon. You walk into Batman’s secret hideout.
And for about one full minute, Arkham Knight becomes the first truly new Batman story in a generation. Because for about one full minute, you think that the first few hours of Arkham Knight have been an elaborate con, the Batman version of Metal Gear Solid 2, a game that suddenly did a hard in-universe reboot after the first few hours, with a new setting and a new mission and a new main character. You’re controlling Commissioner Gordon. Is he investigating the truth about Batman, now that the Caped Crusader is dead? Will this game let you take over a lot of other Batman characters — Robin, Nightwing, Catwoman, even Alfred? Will this game be about those characters finish Batman’s work? IS THIS HOW BATMAN DIED?
Nope: The Gordon thing is a flashback, and then Batman wakes up, and then you play the whole game, and then Batman fakes his own death.
Probably. At the end of the game’s story, Scarecrow reveals Bruce Wayne’s secret identity, an act which the game treats as the end of Batman. I’m not sure this quite works. Ever since the ending of Iron Man, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has made a valiant and consistent argument against the secret identity trope. But Batman clearly thinks he’s over. He tells Alfred to activate the “Knightfall” protocol, and returns to Wayne Manor, and walks inside in full view of the news media, and then Wayne Manor explodes. The media thinks some bad guy killed Bruce Wayne; absolutely no one playing the game will believe that.
There’s a further ending, if you complete the entire of the game. A family walks down Crime Alley, gets attacked by a couple thugs. One of the thugs looks up at a building, sees a Batman-looking silhouette, says something like, “We ain’t scared of Batman anymore!” At that point, the Batman-looking silhouette suddenly explodes into a giant Bat-creature wormhole thing. The implication seems to be that someone — Batman or some Robin or other — is doing the Batman thing with fear toxin.
This is an altogether hilarious muddle of Miller and Nolan. The argument seems to be: “Batman” has to die, but Batman must live forever as a symbol, and Bruce Wayne either needs to retire or needs to refine his methods. I’m sure the ending was intended as a final statement. The return to Crime Alley is a classic “end where you begin” method, but it can’t help but feel like a tease for some future Arkham sequel.
The irony is that Arkham Knight has one totally awesome idea at its core. The Joker reappears as a fear-phantom in Batman’s imagination, haunting him and threatening to take him over. Implication: If the Joker is dead, Batman will have to create him. There are several dozen great angles on that story. Arkham Knight mostly uses it as an opportunity for Mark Hamill to deliver one last great voiceover turn in the Batverse. In the game’s most interesting moment, Joker actually does take over Batman… but then Batman manages to defeat the Joker inside his head, because Batman isn’t even afraid of fear itself, or something.
Arkham Knight is a really fun game. But the game’s story never entirely recovers from the broken promise of that first Batman death. At every turn, the game seems to be walking back on the promise of the Joker’s death. Arkham Knight kills off Oracle in the freakiest way possible — suicide-by-fear-toxin — but then it turns out she’s still alive, and Batman just got dosed with some fear toxin. (Aside: Arkham Knight proves that, unless you’re going to go Full Lynch, fear toxin is pretty boring.) The game actually does kill Poison Ivy, but it weirdly doesn’t bother finding some final reckoning for Batman’s other villains. This is the night Batman dies, and it’s a pretty typical Tuesday for Two-Face.
Could Arkham Knight ever have killed Batman? The Arkham series is walled off in its own corner of the universe; couldn’t Arkham Knight have turned into a game about struggling to find a new Batman, a four-way battle between Tim Drake and Dick Grayson and Jason Todd and, I dunno, Catwoman? Can you imagine how awesome that would be — a Batman game which argues that maybe the new Batman could be a woman?
Maybe not. So much of the geek mainstream now depends on wish-fulfillment and audience identification. You can both appreciate this and complain about it. I loved seeing a bunch of people dressed as Agent Carter at Comic-Con, and I also think Agent Carter is utterly boring. The preview for Arkham Knight put the game’s appeal in blunt terms: Be The Batman. Not “Be Robin” or “Be Catwoman” or “Be The Batman But It’s Dick Grayson This Time.” I guarantee that every videogame studio employs one guy who is just there to remind everyone how much people hated Metal Gear Solid 2.
But the problem is that Arkham Knight never lives up to its basic promise. Semantics aside, Batman doesn’t die. Not really, not even convincingly. And he never dies. You know this, I know this, the creators know it, and you can bet that every corporate vice president at the upper levels of Warner Bros. know it. And that’s okay. Philip Marlowe was never going to die, but The Big Sleep is one of the best books and best movies ever made. James Bond is never going to die, so the best Bond movies depend on different variables: exciting villains, believable love interests, compellingly devious plotlines.
But Arkham Knight does prove that the whole idea of The Last Batman Story, which started out as an attempt to defy tropes, has sprouted its own elaborate web of familiar tropes. If you’re going to kill Batman, then kill Batman. Or find a new story to tell. We’ve seen this one before.
Good lord, I’d love to talk Arkham Knight. If you’ve finished it, email me at email@example.com, and I’ll respond in next week’s Geekly Mailbag.