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Geekly Mailbag: 'Arkham Knight' talkback

Nightwing is a badass.

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Last week, I finally finished Arkham Knight, the final-or-maybe-not entry in Rocksteady’s fantastic Batman videogame trilogy. I had some thoughts about the game’s story, and how it connected to the last few decades of the Caped Crusader’s mythology post-Frank Miller. Readers responded, because everyone on the face of the planet has at least 10 different opinions about Batman. (You can always email me at darren_franich@ew.com if you want to keep the conversation going.)

Let’s Mailbag! (NOTE: There will be spoilers, spoilers, spoilers aplenty.)

I played the game and wondered if they were setting something up. With no Batman there will be a void in Gotham. Does Nightwing fill in? (Grayson as Nightwing always been my second favorite behind Batman) Is there more to tell about Red Hood? Can Azrael claim the mantel once he inevitably escapes prison? Can Tim Drake and Barbara Gordon leave Robin and Oracle behind? I think Rocksteady could do a game sans Batman but still be a Batman game. Your thoughts?

—Buster R

Confession time: I love Nightwing. The original Robin doesn’t have the best costume ever — although his current no-frills basic black look is a big improvement over his original costume, which looked like John Travolta cosplaying Dazzler. But I dig the character’s core principles.

The whole central idea of a grown-up superhero sidekick has allowed writers to play around with things that don’t usually come up in superhero stories. There’s the father-son anxiety of influence that comes from being raised by one of Earth’s greatest and weirdest superheroes. There’s the argument that Dick Grayson is a victim of a double tragedy: He lost his parents, and then his entire young life was spent living with a half-crazy billionaire whose version of parenting required bashing bad-guy heads. The Arkham games specifically lock into the ’90s-era idea that Nightwing operates out of Blüdhaven, Gotham’s nastier sister city. They also play up a central idea of the character: the fact that he’s actually kind of funny, and lighthearted, and weirdly way less emo than spiritual-daddy Batman.

So I would love a Nightwing game, and I wouldn’t even mind if Rocksteady’s version of a Nightwing game is just putting the Batman outfit on Dick Grayson. (For inspiration, they could look at Grant Morrison’s run on Batman and Robin, which paired lighthearted Grayson-Batman with a new sociopathic child-soldier Robin.

I really like the Arkham games. But the Arkham version of Batman isn’t a particularly interesting character. Which is fine: Strong-Silent Batman is actually a good videogame persona, a cool-looking avatar that the player guides around town. But I’d love a game that focused on the interesting people in Batman’s life: His sidekicks, his friends, and their relationships with Batman’s enemies. I’m sort of imagining the Arkham version of Grand Theft Auto V, where you can keep shifting between the three Robins: Dick Grayson-as-Batman, trying to keep the peace on the ground in Gotham; Jason Todd-as-Red Hood, killing his way to the top of some new reigning crime family; and Tim Drake-as-Red Robin, working with Oracle to uncover some deeper horror. (Ideally, the big twist at the middle of the game would be the “No Man’s Land” earthquake.)

Did you start the New Game+? In it, the story actually begins “this is the night the Joker died.” Which to me signaled what this game was really about: the true end of the joker, which can only happen if this version of Batman is gone.

One of the old premises of Batman along with now the death trope is that his greatest foes are motivated by his existence. Riddler doesn’t find anyone cunning enough to challenge him but Batman, and it drives him insane. Joker, already a ruthless killer, wants to make Batman break all his rules and live in a world of anarchy with him.

To me the “main story” was the side plot, Batman was always going to have to confront his inner Joker. The one who longs for the anarchy that gives him purpose. He was going to have to do it while the whole Gotham underworld tried to return the world to the order that gave them power in the workplace. No one likes Joker or Batman because they both disrupt the criminal world so much in their battles against each other. But without Batman there likely is no Joker beyond a petty thief, and without Joker, Batman doesn’t go to nearly the same lengths.

It’s referenced by all of the criminals as they talk of what Joker being gone means. Everyone enjoys he’s gone. Now they just need to get rid of the Bat and they’ll do anything to do so, which is the same hysteria which allowed the Joker to rise in the first place. So by killing Bruce Wayne, or locking himself away as he was set to do prior to all knowing who he was, Batman effectively ends the night having brought back balance in a world his existence makes uneven.

So I don’t know. I honestly think this is probably the best Batman story and best realized one of the bunch in gaming. While it has been a while since I played Arkham City, I don’t think there’s anything that game did better than Knight. I thought the misdirection in this game was better. The Joker was a better character in this one not being a rotting dying corpse and all. And other reasons.

So let me know. Do you really think this story was about the death of Batman or the crazed world he and Joker put everyone in?

—Tony

P.S. Enjoyed your review.

P.S.S. I probably would have hated the Batman game where you play as characters that aren’t Batman. Lol.

Look, the best thing about Arkham Knight is the Joker. I love the idea that, even after death, he lives on in Batman’s consciousness. (Or thanks to a blood transfusion, whatever, don’t ask.) And I love how the whole game teases you with the possibility that the worst thing that can happen to Batman isn’t death—it’s becoming the Joker, embracing his inner maniac. But at the end of the game, Joker briefly takes over Batman’s brain…and then gets defeated, because Batman is too strong for him? Or something? I loved the image of the Joker locked away, but the game didn’t really convince me that Batman had done anything to earn that moment. Besides just, like, being super cool and super badass.

Also, I get that it’s very popular now to read the Batman mythology in super psychological terms—like, Batman somehow creates bad guys because they have to match up to his level of craziness, or whatever. That idea made total sense in The Dark Knight, but it makes no sense in Arkham Knight. Batman spends hours chasing down Two-Face and Penguin and Crazy Pig Man and Firefly! And they’re still alive at the end of the game! What, are they going to walk out of prison and say, “Ah, bummer, Batman’s gone, guess it’s time to take up golfing?”

Also, also! “The best Batman story?” Tony. Tony, Tony, Tony, Tony. Here are 15 Batman stories off the top of my head that are better:

—The Long Halloween

—The Killing Joke

—Hush

—Batman: Shaman

—Batman Returns (second-best Batman movie behind The Dark Knight, although it might actually age better purely because no other movie ever tried to be another Batman Returns, whereas you can drawn a line from The Dark Knight to Man of Steel to Catching Fire to The Maze Runner to Fantastic Four to every other self-serious fantasy film of the last seven years.)

—Batman: The Black Glove when Grant Morrison totally owns the goof idea of the Batman Of All Nations and transforms that into the best Agatha Christie mystery since Agatha Christie was writing mysteries.

—Any issue of Gotham Central.

—Batman: Year One

—Any story from Batman: Black and White

—The recent Batman: Zero Year arc by Snyder and Capullo, a totally original take on the impossibly well-trodden First Batman Story trope.

—The initial story arc from “No Man’s Land” with art by pre-Daredevil Alex Maleev.

—The first Joker story in Batman #1

—The very weird Batman-Superman generational saga Elseworld’s Finest, where they age in realtime across decades (and centuries)

—The “Heart of Ice” episode from Batman: The Animated Series. Oh god, I’m crying just thinking about it!

—Arkham City (which gave every villain way more to do and managed to actually push the general craziness of the Ra’s Al-Ghul/Talia Al-Ghul sub-mythology into even crazier places than it usually goes. Also, there was a shark!) 

No review of Arkham Knight covers the wrongness of Tim Drake Robin being with Barbara Gordon. Depending on which timeline you use, with Tim being the third Robin, Barbara is much older than him. She was paralyzed before he even became Robin. Hell in one story at least she’s a year or two older than Dick Grayson.

—John P.

I vaguely agree, although I also like how the Arkham series freely mixes and matches several different elements of Batman history. I think the Robin/Batgirl stuff would’ve made more sense if that storyline had been given more time to play out. Actually, one of the weirdest things about Arkham Knight is that Batman interacts one-on-one with a lot of characters, but those other characters never interact. Like, there’s no communication between Nightwing and Robin, which seems insane given the fact that Arkham Knight begins with Gotham City entirely evacuated and every indication given that this is the craziest thing to ever happen to Batman since Arkham City.

Darren,

You hit it out of the park with How the Batman Died. I thought it was a great read and it convinced me that you were, in fact, the man that could answer my question.

Now I just beat the game myself, and since I’m way ahead of my (less nerdy) friends I have to get another opinion. Do you think Arkham Knight sacrificed some of its more “comic booky” Batman content in light of a more mature, realistic interpretation?

I mean, Asylum and City were both bursting to the seams with easter eggs, backstories, and in-your-face batman mythos. Back then the GCPD was frozen in ice. The botanical gardens were overtaken with gigantic plants. ACE chemicals was a freakin’ Joker carnival. And every riddle revealed some new piece of Batman history.

Now, when you look across Gotham City, it’s just… a city. Don’t get me wrong — it’s gorgeous. But there just doesn’t seem to be as much Batman there as there was before.

How would you weigh in on all of this? And if you agree, do you think it was worth making these cuts, so that Rocksteady could achieve the sleeker style of Arkham Knight?

Thank you for your time.

I’m Batman.

—Cameron F.

Interesting! I definitely think that City was more fantastical in its interpretation of the Batman mythos. That was partially baked into the concept, since City imagined a whole corner of Gotham taken over by different fiefdoms of supervillainy. But what I really loved about City was the sense that it was treating every part of the Batman mythology with awe and respect, even the goofy stuff.

Like, Arkham City was a game that suddenly took a long Act 2 tangent into the history of Gotham City, imagining a subterranean retro-future BioShock cityscape hidden underneath the subway tunnels — a wild and elaborate and oddly philosophical riff on Gotham’s history. And Arkham City was also a game where this could happen:

I think Cameron’s right that the setting of Arkham Knight was a little bit more of a typical open-world city — although at least it wasn’t as bland as, like, the Boring American City that Ubisoft always uses for its open worlds. But then again, Arkham Knight is also the game that basically treats Poison Ivy like an elemental goddess from a Guillermo Del Toro movie, complete with a giant living plant that grows into a skyscraper. And the flying ships! And the whole phase of the game when the ground is covered in fear gas!

I want more of that stuff. Like, I don’t want to be the guy who always harps on The Dark Knight Rises — I like the Anne Hathaway parts! Doesn’t that make me a defender? — but I do think that, between Nolan and Miller and now Arkham Knight, we’ve pretty much reached the apex of the idea of Gotham-as-terrorist-war-zone. At this point, the boldest interpretation of Batman would be giving him a Batmobile that looks like a car and letting him smile.

Here’s a long email with lots of truth:

Darren,

Enjoyed your piece on Arkham Knight. I’m also chomping at the bit to talk about it, so you might get a couple emails from me.

I agree with you that the approach of the hero faking his death is overdone at this point. It feels like a way for them to “have their cake and eat it, too”, play up the death of the hero, in this case Batman, while not really killing Bruce Wayne. After Dark Knight Returns and Rises, we didn’t need that again. I, too, would prefer them to either avoid it entirely, or else actually kill the character. 

Also, in this case, with the release trailer featuring Gordon’s dialogue, “This is how the Batman died,” I felt certain they weren’t actually going to kill him. Because if they were going to, I’d expect them to keep it under wraps for a big, dramatic surprise. Getting that in the release trailer, and then hearing it early in the actual game, it seemed clear they were going to play up the possibility, but not actually do it. 

You’re also right about how odd the scene in the reactor core with the fear gas building up was. As you said, the combination of deliberate pacing, music, and Alfred desperate for Batman to get out of there created this sense of sacrifice, and Batman giving his life for the greater good. Batman even said “goodbye, Alfred”. So I did wonder, during that scene, if this was “how the Batman died”. That he’d slowly succumb to this exposure of toxin and die by the end.

But, bafflingly, they seemed to give up on this almost immediately. When Batman’s outside telling Alfred he got out, there’s no mention of deadly exposure, or risk moving forward, or anything. Maybe it was all a fake out, and like you experienced, perhaps they expected us to think he was dead when we proceeded controlling Gordon entering Panessa Studios. And then, its, “Gotcha!” when we come back to the present and Bats is alive and kicking. But I don’t think that worked. I found that reactor core scene to be wasted. It would have been better to get something like that late in the game with an actual sacrifice to go along with it. 

Now, the other aspect that had me thinking, “Oh, maybe this is how he dies” was with the Joker infected subplot. I wondered whether they’d actually have the stones to have the game end with Batman becoming his greatest nemesis. Admittedly, maybe that would have been too much, and a fate Batman didn’t deserve. But I was disappointed when we got to the end, and it felt like Bruce just “willed” Joker away. Now, since then, I’ve read some things on the internet suggesting I misread the whole thing. That Bruce was succumbing to Joker, with Joker on the verge of taking over, but Crane administering additional fear toxin lead to Joker defeated by his fear of being forgotten and Batman able to reassert himself. That, I suppose, is more interesting than Batman simply being too strong-willed. And an interesting irony that Crane would have won had he not injected more fear toxin. I’m on a second playthrough, so once I get back to those scenes, I’ll see if that interpretation does seem to hold water. 

But here’s what I do find very intriguing, and where my initial perception of Joker’s defeat in Batman’s mind being too easy/simple was perhaps wrong. In life, Batman never killed Joker. He’d never cross that line. He’d always turn Joker in to authorities. And, Joker always escaped, as no cage could hold him. In the battle in his mind, there, too, it seemed Batman would not kill Joker. They easily could have had Joker disappear into nothing, or otherwise depicted a complete elimination of Joker from Bruce’s mind/body But instead, as in real life, Batman does not kill him, and instead imprisons him in the deepest recesses of his mind. Well, again, no cage has ever been able to hold Joker. He always escapes. Whether the writers intended this or not, it does end up being a bolder move than I initially perceived. The Batman/Joker battle will live on as long as Batman’s alive, internally. As I see it, Joker will escape and Batman will continue to face the risk that he loses control of his mind/body to him. 

I’ll comment on a few other things, briefly:

* In the final ending, the new figure/Batman atop the building reminded me a bit of the Phantasm. I do like the idea of having to rebuild the myth/legend, though taking out the seeming use of fear toxin, the costume/silhouette seems too close to Batman. Unless Bruce’s intent is that criminals take this as the Batman returning from the dead, shedding his mortal confines. I think I would have preferred someone else taking over as Batman (Bruce Wayne dying rather than Batman). 

* I’m disappointed we didn’t get better resolution with Bruce and Jason. With the Batgirl dlc, I also see a missed opportunity. If they wanted to change from the usual Dick/Barb romance, I’d have preferred Jason/Barb. They could have featured Todd’s Robin in the dlc and foreshadowed what Joker was going to do to both. And Arkham Knight kidnapping Oracle within the main story would have taken on much greater, and difference significance. There was an unlockable audio tape from the Arkham Knight headquarters after solving all riddler challenes that featured Jason and Barb interacting, which was great, but had me feeling like we could have gotten so much more.  . 

* Scarecrow seemed thoroughly wasted to me. Without any further development of his character, not much of an arc, he ended up just being a cool voice (with me thinking of John Noble more than Scarecrow every time I heard him). And very much a disconnect with the portrayal in Arkham Asylum. I’m stunned they didn’t incorporate some variation of the Scarecrow levels from Asylum. He ended up just being a Hugo Strange-type figurehead speaking over citywide PA for much of the game while Arkham Knight‘s militia were rammed down our throats. 

* Speaking of monotony with the repeated Arkham Knight militia stuff, they also wasted their own setup regarding Two-Face, Riddler, and Penguin joining Scarecrow in this plot to bring down Batman. Instead of relegating them to side quests (especially Dent and Cobblepot, who were hardly seen), they could have each controlled a part of the city that Batman had to fight through in the main story, which would have mixed up the setting/atmosphere/game play a lot. Plus, it would have given Batman opportunity to question each as he got to them about what they knew about Arkham Knight and his identity, to give Batman some active involvement in trying to solve that mystery, to actually build up to the reveal and unmasking. 

Don’t want any of the above to make it sound like I didn’t like the game. Gameplay was excellent, with the exception of overuse of the Batmobile. Visuals and sound were perfect. The story felt like a mess in many respects, as mentioned above, but did entertain and provided a lot of great scenes/backstory. But, man, it could have been so much more. The ingredients were there. 

—Doug

To pick out the most important thing from a series of important things: Arkham Knight completely junked the Jason Todd subplot. I don’t really mind that the twist was obvious to anyone who knows Batman history. I weirdly kind of like Jason Todd as an idea, and think there’s a lot of rich storytelling to mine from the idea of a former Robin who isn’t really a good guy. Again, it feels like Rocksteady could have done a lot with the Robins in this game, if the game didn’t require every non-Batman character to live in their own corner of the world. Like, imagine if Jason Todd actually did get the upper hand on Batman — and it fell to Dick Grayson and Tim Drake to save Batman. Robin & Robin Vs. Robin!

This is a lot of Monday Morning Quarterbacking, and I should make it clear that Arkham Knight was a brilliant game on a technical level. I actually really, really liked the Batmobile stuff, which I realize puts me in an extreme minority. But it feels like Rocksteady was incredibly ambitious with their gameplay and generally unambitious with their storytelling.

This is something that’s been happening a lot recently with big AAA franchises. It’s easy to get nostalgic about How Things Used To Be, but there’s a clear difference between Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV (which took Rockstar’s open-world environments and flecked it with flavors of melancholy and flat-out nihilism) and Grand Theft Auto V (which starts out asking tough questions and winds up as a depressing cartoon.) And there’s a big difference between Metal Gear Solid 2 (which forces you to play as a completely new non-Snake character for most of its running time) and something like the Assassin’s Creed franchise (which turns every new character into an essentially identical hooded-robed super badass.)

I’ve come around to really appreciating The Last of Us, which doesn’t really have a particularly original story but does have a pretty radical conclusion. (Naughty Dog seems to be retreating into much safer territory with Uncharted, which is always fun but feels pretty well charted at this point.) I guess you could argue that videogame storytelling has been/will always be less important than the actual game part of videogames. Hell, I’ve argued that plenty of times. Far Cry 4 cuts way, way back on the goofy psychology of Far Cry 3; its story is by turns nonsensical and nonexistent; I loved it.

But I wonder if what we’re seeing is the result of videogame developers overcorrecting against the brave new era of fan rage. Call it the Mass Effect Effect: After seeing the visceral reactions that so many gamers had to the very definitive (and very weird) ending of Mass Effect 3, who can blame Rocksteady for turning their version of “The Last Batman Story” into a very safe “ending” which doesn’t really end anything?

This is a bummer, mainly because the ending of Mass Effect 3 was awesome. Maybe not perfect, but no ending is perfect, besides The Great Gatsby and Red Dead Redemption and Before Sunset and The Prisoner and Y: The Last Man and Point Break and Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World and “Heart of Ice” from Batman: The Animated Series, oh god, I’m crying again!

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