This article contains spoilers for the “Arkham” series
When Batman: Arkham Knight landed in Summer 2015, I had never been more excited for a video game. Not just for another chance to beat the snot out of some punks, not for another Batman story, but because I was so excited to see the resolution of this particular story set up in previous games Arkham Asylum and Arkham City; backed up by all the incredible technical advancements the medium had made in the four short years in between games.
I pretty much liked it from the get-go, though not as much as I would grow to in later years, as the story and themes allowed themselves to sit with me over time. It was a different experience; the previous two games tell an engrossing story married with the instant gratification of being the Batman in the coolest possible way. Arkham Knight instead strips you of this gratification and forces you to contend with every single aspect of becoming the Dark Knight.
It’s a series of questions, a story that burrows deep, its insights and observations weaving and expanding the more you think about them. And it’s incredibly ballsy – for a video game with the tagline “Be the Batman”, its main takeaway is “fuck, I really don’t want to be the Batman.” You could argue that the game does not warrant needing a “second chance” since it debuted to mostly positive reviews. But it deserves a dust-off because Arkham Knight honestly deserves to take its place as not only one of the best superhero games but one of the greatest Batman stories in any medium.
The general reaction on release that I saw was: “It’s pretty good!” The improvements on the visuals and the perfection of its combat/traversal formula that began with 2010’s Arkham Asylum was a given, but still an achievement in how insanely fun it is. The maxed-out reaction times, the ease and power you get from this game in harnessing Batman’s power – it’s bigger, louder, as bombastically faster as a finale of a franchise feels like it has to be… but I agreed with the criticisms of the game, especially the main two. One was the complete overreliance on the Batmobile. I just wanted to drive the thing! Not use it to abseil up a building within the first half-hour of gameplay! And I can’t tell you how disappointed I initially was to spend years getting the Arkham Knight’s identity hyped up, being told by Rocksteady that they were a completely original character designed in conjunction with DC… and then receive a re-skinned Jason Todd and Red Hood origin. But replaying it recently for the first time in a while, I was struck by just how little I cared.
Because the story is where it truly shines; it takes all these brilliant innovations, allows you to connect with Batman and channel him in a way that only a video game can – and for a good chunk of the runtime, makes you feel horrible for doing so. For nearly the entire stretch from an explosion at ACE Chemicals to the reveal of the Arkham Knight’s identity, it doesn’t feel good to be playing as Batman. It’s obviously fun in the gaming sense, but you don’t feel the gratification or the heroism you think you would. Doing a Fear Multi-Takedown somewhat loses its sense of fun directly after you think you have caused Barbara’s death. Performing a sick trick-shot on ten drones becomes in itself droning when you know that there are fifty more approaching from around the corner.
Every victory is short-lived, every setback monumental, every back-footed move more desperate as your back is firmly against the wall. You feel yourself take out your frustrations on the various thugs and militia on the streets, but nothing about that feels heroic. Add in the almost compulsive ways in which Bruce pushes away those closest to him and makes terrible decision after terrible decision. In a game where we have Scarecrow, Two-Face, Penguin, and more, Rocksteady made something where at times you feel like the worst person in the room is you. It’s an incredible achievement.
One of the main reasons for this is the devastating twist that Batman is actually himself turning into the Joker, having been one of five patients who didn’t fully recover from being a victim of the world’s most unappealing blood donor in the last game. Every villain has always waxed lyrical about the thin black line Batman holds between himself and the freaks he dedicates his life to pummelling, but this time they force it into the realm of the literal. The logistics of it are ridiculous; so Joker just has some magic blood that turns people into him? Sure, whatever. But again, it’s so thematically brilliant that who cares?
The importance of the Joker’s role in the world has sort of been exacerbated by Todd Phillip’s underwhelming recent remake of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy as a wise fool, a truth-teller that represents the darkness hiding within everyone. But as Arkham Knight and the best Joker stories like The Dark Knight and The Killing Joke have articulated so brilliantly, it couldn’t be further than the truth, firmly denying him any semblance of moral clarity. In The Killing Joke, Joker is obsessed with proving that all it takes is “one bad day” to turn anyone into someone as broken as he is, as he attempts with a kidnapped Gordon. But despite the humiliation, physical torment, and the sight of the Joker crippling Barbara, he keeps himself throughout. Likewise, Joker pulls a similarly desperate sort of trick in The Dark Knight with the boat stunt, but they refuse to blow each other up to save their own skins. Batman sums it up: “What were you trying to prove? That deep down, everyone’s as ugly as you? You’re alone.”
Because the Joker is alone. What divides him from Batman is that Bruce suffered a monumental tragedy and resolved to never allow that to happen to anyone else again, yet the Joker gives up on making any more meaning out of life but is desperate for others to share his views. This is emphasised in the outstanding last act of gameplay where you become first-person Joker combing through his own fears – namely of being forgotten, of his symbol being discarded. “And you will be forgotten, Joker.” Arkham Knight takes the most famous supervillain in history and denounces him not as evil, not as wrong, but – worst of all – useless. He has nothing to contribute. So we lock him away forever, in a dark, dingy corner of Batman’s mind. How’s that for getting over your ex?
And the things that irked people at the start – the Batmobile and especially the Arkham Knight’s true face – don’t feel like they matter as much because it’s part of a story that’s so much more than the sum of its parts. It makes complete sense that Jason Todd has to be the man under the mask on the night where Batman has to sink or swim with his greatest fears, the things he constantly buries as he dives deeper into the symbol of the Batman more than the man who embodies him. And aside from perhaps the best comics, no visual representation of Batman has better-articulated the struggle between being a symbol and being a human – and the way it resolves this central dilemma is fascinating.
Case in point; the overall battle with Jonathan Crane AKA Scarecrow. What would be a bog-standard third-act climax in a lesser superhero story (save half of America from a massive cloud of spooky fear gas!!) is resolved within an hour, and save for a brief reprise of that tune when he actually manages to coat Gotham in his Cloudburst until Batman and Poison Ivy team up to stop him, the stakes honestly couldn’t be smaller at times. Crane knows early on that merely killing Batman is detrimental to his scheme – he says as much to the Arkham Knight in the first showdown with Batman when the Knight is all-too-happy to immediately shoot him; “Killing him will make him a martyr…” So he has to reduce him to a mere human, seeing his symbol as the thing that separates him from the rest.
Because Batman can’t fail! He’s Batman! Because, if he’s seen to have weaknesses… doubts… humanity… then what is he? Just another man. It’s such a core tenet to Batman’s nature that it shows up even when he doesn’t have his superpowered Justice League friends to compare with, compounded by the fact that Batman basically doesn’t make a single bad decision in the entirety of the first two Arkham games. And hell, in Asylum he barely breaks a sweat, remaining largely unconcerned throughout without getting angry or desperate, knowing that this is just going to be a particularly long night at the office.
Interestingly, the worst parts of his evening come from the three hits of Scarecrow’s fear gas that he’s subjected to – where, very similar to what happens in Knight, he sees a friend “die” (Gordan this time) and dives deep into his own subconscious to interrogate what makes him better than the people his fists tend to connect with on a nightly basis. And whilst, like Barbara’s “death” in Knight, it’s eventually revealed to be a fakeout death, Asylum’s catharsis comes around ten minutes after trying to convince you that Gordon snuffed it, whereas Knight forces you to carry it around like an albatross around your neck for hours, letting you soak in the brutality of your failure.
The only misstep he almost takes before Arkham Knight happens near the climax of City where his first instinct is to save his love Talia al Ghul from the Joker instead of going after the immediate threat of stopping Hugo Strange’s Protocol 10 from killing every single inmate in the super-prison. He’s talked down fairly quickly by Barbara and Alfred, who says a very revealing line; “Batman can’t let all these people die.” It briefly but crucially shows the conflict Bruce has between what he must do as a man and a Batman, and how the two are seemingly incompatible at times. It’s strangely similar to Jekyll and Hyde – both protagonists are rich men who create a different version of themselves to enact the catharsis they couldn’t do as themselves alone – but whilst Batman and Mr. Hyde are both allowed to be symbols, when they return to being Jekyll and Bruce, they’re still the messes of humanity and insecurity that cannot be separated from the people they become in the night.
Even with the Batmobile, it makes sense that Batman would retreat into the technical, non-human side of himself, perfecting his war machine tank instead of, I don’t know, going to therapy (Bruce could afford at least a mid-tier one). It’s another example of Wayne, with the weight of his history, his loss, and his victories that could all be undone in one night bearing down upon him, pushes away the ones closest to him for fear of bringing them down as well. But after truly grappling with his greatest failure – what became of Jason – he’s allowed to become a hero again. Making amends with Gordon, saving Oracle, acknowledging her role as an equal, and giving himself up to Scarecrow to protect his friends, he then faces his greatest challenge and comes out exactly how Crane hoped – as just a man. But a man who faced incredible torment and retained himself. The story stresses that just being a human is not a weakness; it’s the only thing that separates you from the supervillains who reject their humanity and become shells of their former self.
But… it can’t make you the Batman. This is where the game solidifies itself as an extraordinarily interesting take on the mythos because it goes the complete opposite way to most Batman “endings.” Particularly in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, where we see Batman die so Bruce can live, and be able to breathe with a partner and a life. The reverse is true for Arkham Knight, a game that gently reveals its true tragedy in its final moments.
Throughout the game, Scarecrow and Joker’s hallucinations are betting on Bruce completely losing himself. And it happens. He does give himself up completely to his cause. But it’s on his terms, which makes all the difference in the world. Bruce dies so Batman can become this inhuman monster of fear, (presumably) weaponizing Crane’s fear gas to scare the piss out of criminals from here on out and free the people he loves from the path he can’t help but continue walking himself. I’ll try to ignore the semi-fascistic undertones of such an ending, or the disappointingly reductive statement that “criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot… the only way to beat them was to give something to be scared of.” Maybe it’s because Gotham is frequently shown to be a decrepit shithole of a city with poverty, corruption, and mob-rule galore?
It’s a blind spot for the game, the character, and superhero media as a whole, but the ending still works for the story because it provides a compelling ending with the triumph and the tragedy living side by side. It’s not a perfect game by any means. It’s messy, sometimes unclear, and ambiguous as to its true intentions. But it’s also full of hope, of complex emotion and drive, and the belief that victory comes with the power of your symbol – and what it represents – being able to overpower the fallibilities and inspire people for the better. In this, Arkham Knight contains multitudes. Just like the hero at its core.