I am The Bat: One Fan’s Pilgrimage to Arkham City

For me, Batman began with Adam West.  As an aggressively physical boy of eight, each half hour installment of that venerated 60’s TV show was a smack dose of all the things an aggressively physical boy of eight needs: bright colors, capes and at least two massive fistfights for every twenty minutes of story. When Batman Returns came out in theaters around this time, I very desperately wanted to go but my parents deemed the film inappropriate due to its violence and menacing atmosphere.  They hadn’t even let me watch the first one, but they teased, they teased me by buying me those damn movie-version action figures that only built up the mythology of the Bat-man in my impressionable little head. This hurts-so-good trend peaked with a Halloween costume:

Yes, that's me.

Fortunately it was also around this time that Batman: The Animated Series began broadcasting, and if my love for Adam West’s Batman was analogous to being hooked on smack, then its animated cousin had me whoring myself out on the street for my next hit.

Pictured: fluffy children’s entertainment.

Though I may have been too young to fully appreciate it, Batman TAS showed me how the character could be interesting in manner way beyond fisticuffs. There was emotion, sinister character pathos, gorgeous art deco art direction and, of course, Shirley Walker and company’s stunning live orchestra scores for every episode. I was finally allowed to watch the Tim Burton movies, and although I loved them both and even developed a mild obsession with Returns[1], by that point Batman TAS was my main fix, the definitive version.

Later a new dimension was added to my appreciation:

Batman Returns, the video game … now I was the Bat.

As hokey as it looks now, that Super Nintendo game was the perfect evocation of the two Batman worlds I enjoyed so much, from the 16-bit animation to the MIDI renditions of Danny Elfman’s score. More importantly, I got to hit people … LOTS of people. When Batman Forever came out in ’95 while I was in middle school, I essentially rejected the movie for its abandonment of Burton’s aesthetics. The video game, however, found a huge fan with this author because it, like its predecessor, allowed me to once again control all the punches. All that crap about art and pathos was back out the window and all I cared about was kicking henchmen in the nuts.

Years passed without much more Caped Crusader action (what’s Batman and Robin?). I finally started reading some of the trade paperback graphic novels, mostly the Jeph Loeb / Tim Sale stuff, all of them impressive. In college a friend bought me The Batman Handbook as a Christmas gift and when I turned to the page describing ideal martial arts for becoming Bats, I zeroed in on Krav Maga, the Israeli military self-defense art. Less than two years later I was training for my Krav Maga instructor’s exam.

Self-defense is a serious subject, but I would still pretend I was wearing a cape.

Even though martial arts have taken up a large chunk of my life the past six years because of my initial fascination with becoming Batman, there was still a Bat-shaped hole in my life left by the movies, the games, and the TV show.

Enter Christopher Nolan, who with Batman Begins reawakened many a suspicious and cynical fan’s love for the character, my own included. But, it was a mostly left brain affair driven by excellent writing and excellent acting in a realistic urban environment. Great stuff no doubt, but the visual and aural flair I remembered so dearly had faded into the background. It was time to grow up, I guess.

24 years old and all grown up.

The Dark Knight eventually rolled out and the world of comic book movies changed forever, something about a Bush administration allegory, terrorism, whatever etcetera (ask Jon, he’ll tell you). Maybe a year after the zeitgeist calmed down I needed some blue-underpants-on-the-outside fun in my life. There were still oodles, oodles of Batman comics I hadn’t read. My thought was to spend the summer getting caught up on ALL of the major Batman trade paperbacks to come out since Frank Miller’s Year One. Sure I never followed the story threads, but how hard could it be sorting through nearly thirty years of continuity? There’s a Batman, there’s a Joker, and sometimes there’s a Robin or a Catwoman.

I found it to all to make no fucking sense, and despite many valiant attempts to create a reading list the fact was that so many writers had told so many stories under so many different titles with so many inconsistencies, ret cons, crossovers and non-continuity stand alones that it felt impossible to understand the chronology in any straightforward way. I even gave the New 52 a shot, but I never knew how the different Batman titles related to each other. I also found the issues I read to be needlessly ghastly, with a level of gore that didn’t jive with my youthful appreciation of the story. Yeah, Burton and Nolan could be dark and brutal, but they were still PG-13, not this X-rated nonsense featuring faces being ripped off and the like.

Pictured: NOT fluffy children’s entertainment.

Then came 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum for the PC, and after three weeks of non-stop play I had come to one definite conclusion: Arkham Asylum was for me the single most satisfying Batman experience ever, across any medium, film, TV, video game or rollercoaster.

There wasn’t so much a story as there was a brilliant and easily accessible premise: Joker deliberately gets captured, and when Batman takes him to Arkham Asylum a trap is sprung and the Dark Knight is locked down on the island with all of the inmates escaped and wreaking havoc. Responsible for that premise as well as the game’s fantastic dialogue was Paul Dini, one of the primary masterminds behind Batman TAS. Building on the TV show connection was much of the show’s original voice talent, featuring Kevin Conroy returning as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker. And the blue underpants were decidedly on the outside, the last evidence I needed to know that this was a continuation of the program I had loved so much as a kid.

Less art deco and more gothic, the game also embraced a grittier vision more akin to Burton’s world, one that lent the story a sense of genuine peril and menace. While no faces were being removed, it created an environment where you feared something like that could happen, the perfect mix of fun and adult themes for kids (of all ages).

The hand-to-hand combat system was the most evolved I’d seen, delicately balancing realistic martial arts maneuvers with the more acrobatic flourishes you’d expect from Bats. And the fighting hurt; thanks to excellent sound design you could hear in graphic detail the snap of every limb, the breaking of every face, the destruction of every testicle under booted foot – all while wearing a cape. It was everything my inner eight-year-old ever wanted.

There were additional features to appease my admittedly underdeveloped mature side. Stealth missions involved leaping from cover to cover and hunting prey from the shadows as they became more and more terrified. And if you ever thought that there was a deficit of perching-on-gargoyle in your life, Arkham Asylum had you covered.

Now two years later I have the sequel, Arkham City.

Once again there is a simple, brilliant premise: Arkham Asylum has been expanded to include a walled-in portion of Gotham City where the criminals essentially roam free a la The Wire’s Hamsterdam. Bruce Wayne suspects dastardly intention and allows himself to be captured and imprisoned there. This is where the player enters, shackled and wearing a pinstripe suit while being escorted into Arkham City.

I haven’t completed the game yet, but at this point I’m ready to declare its prequel as a mere John the Baptist for the delivered bat-salvation that is Arkham City. Nearly every experience from the first game has been improved upon, beginning with the level design. The range of playable real estate in Asylum was actually quite limited, leading to many instances of retracing your steps through many of the same environments. No more! It’s an open mini-metropolis that, while smaller in size than a Grand Theft Auto cityscape, gives the impression of a thriving world beyond your immediate objectives. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the manner in which you interact with that environment. You race along rooftops at breakneck speeds, jump off ledges and glide down canyons of concrete before deploying your trusty grappling gun to swing to safety. Before continuing on with your mission, you spot a political prisoner being attacked by Penguin’s thugs and jump down (from your gargoyle) to save him.

Every surface seems able to be manipulated or grappled, leading to a sense of genuine freedom to improvise with the environment like, well, like Batman. This is also felt in the new and improved combat system, where it’s not unusual in the middle of a melee to slam some poor sap’s head into a brick wall. At first I was a little wary; the camera had been pulled back, and the action no longer slows down during a limb-break, which obscured some of the detail in the fights. I see now the wisdom in the change. The environments are darkly gorgeous, and having Batman relatively smaller in that environment only sells the scope of Arkham City. Also there are simply more baddies to fight, which means the normal slow-downs would have dragged the fights on endlessly. New combat upgrades add to the complexity and fun of the brawls, creating a system that’s easy to learn and not only difficult, but desirable to master.

Special mention must be given to the score written by Nick Arundel and Ron Fish. The score for Asylum was clearly influenced by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s work for Christopher Nolan’s movies, as in not especially memorable and miserly with any thematic grandeur. This is not the case now; Shirley Walker’s more lyrical, more expressive spirit seems to live on in some of the choral pieces that accompany the action in City.

Arkham Asylum ultimately represented a particular instance in the life of the Bat, a scenario with its own rules and plot that took place outside your typical Gotham City adventure. With Arkham City, we are brought closer to the familiar dynamics of a Batman story and I mean this only in a good way. Remember why we’re attracted to comics as children in the first place. We may find much to admire in the plot and artwork, but ultimately I believe that we want to be those characters, to have their powers and to be genuine heroes in our own right. And it isn’t some sad wish-fulfillment complex that gives rise to the Travis Bickles of the world; it’s a natural part of our psychology to want to be better than we are, and to look for models and types that represent that nebulous ideal. Arkham City is so reminiscent of those original Batman stories that I am reminded of the days when I could still imagine myself as a hero, without any self-doubt or self-consciousness. It lets me be that hero, even if only in a video game.

There’s obviously still a future for this franchise. There’s still all of Gotham City out there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Batman’s wide array of bat-vehicles have a place in that future game. For now I am quite content. I’ve tangled with Catwoman, Two-Face, Penguin, Joker, Hugo Strange, Bane, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy. I’ve rescued innocents. I’ve perched atop gargoyles and struck fear into the hearts of criminals across an entire city, while silhouetted by a full fucking moon.

I may have thought that I was the Bat, but I was mistaken.

NOW I am the Bat.

I'm sure he's perched on some unseen gargoyle.

[1] To this day, my only personal Christmas tradition is to watch Batman Returns and think about the times my parents took me into Manhattan during the holiday season, an ambiance Burton captured and gleefully perverted.

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