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Superficial Batman Character Analysis

This post was inspired by Mark "Mr Ak" Johnson's recent discussion Danananana Batman! An in-depth case study of archetypes in different media formats. Batman! Batma-an!. Because it's an interesting topic, and sometimes I just can't leave well enough alone.

I agree with Mr Ak that Batman: Arkham Asylum (game) is more enjoyable than The Dark Knight (movie) – less so about his opinions being objectively correct. I (deliberately) don't have as much confidence in my own opinion, and trying to understand why I agree in this case is almost bringing me undone. I'm not sure I should be right – 'should' is the wrong word, since opinions are all valid, but my reasoning and my gut reaction are at odds this time. Can I back up my own opinion, then? I'm going to try.

To explain this I need to step back and come from a different starting point. Arkham Asylum vs The Dark Knight isn't the right comparison for me to start from.

Arkham Asylum was not based solely on any specific imagining of Batman, but I still played it while keeping a particular graphic novel firmly in my head. Probably unsurprisingly, this was Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (hereafter referred to as Serious House, for clarity).

I like Serious House since I have a weakness for darkness and symbolism, call me pretentious if you like. But I have to admit, it's not the most accessible graphic novel I've ever read. Dave McKean's artwork leans towards the surreal, and panels are often placed very close to the action. The details of what's going on are not always clear, but it does very well at creating feelings like panic and madness.

The Batman of Serious House is vulnerable, and forced to play entirely on the Joker's terms. To be trapped in the Asylum is to start to wonder if he belongs there. To me, that's the core of Batman as a character – the need to maintain a fuzzy line between sanity and madness; hero and villain.

Serious House

A panel from Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. Shows a close-up of The Joker's gun with his face shown unclearly in the background. Dialogue: "April Fool! Your wife's dead and the baby's a spastic!!".

In Serious House, the Joker is even scarier than the Heath Ledger version. He thrives in the chaos, and easily understands Batman well enough to push his buttons. He flirts and pinches Batman's bottom, because he can see how uncomfortable Batman is with intimacy. In later stories, I believe Bruce Wayne becomes stronger as a man as well as a hero, but at this point he's horribly dysfunctional.

This is nothing like Arkham Asylum the game, where Batman is predominantly presented as strong. He executes those wonderfully fluid combos, and swoops down from gargoyles to take enemies by surprise before disappearing back into the darkness. Overall, he's clearly the goddamn Batman, and worthy of fear. The Joker still has control of the playing field, but he can never actually go so far as to reach the man under the bat-suit. There is always the sense that Batman will eventually catch up to him and win. Which is okay, because the Joker is just there to enjoy the game for as long as it lasts.

The Dark Knight falls somewhere between these two extremes, with Batman and the Joker possessing a similar amount of power. It's that perpetual situation where neither can ever really best the other. I think I enjoy imbalance more, but it does do a good job of highlighting how dependent on each other the Batman and Joker can be.

The Joker is in all cases pretty hard to pin down, as he should be. Heath Ledger and Mark Hamill present different facets, but neither could create the whole.

Considering the game some more, the Joker in many ways isn't really the ultimate villain of Arkham Asylum. The character who can actually get through to Bruce himself is the Scarecrow -- reminding me once again of why he's my favourite Batman villain. The Scarecrow sections are really the only moments of true vulnerability in the game.

Since weaknesses are important to how I see Batman's character, the predominant emphasis on strength could have made me appreciate the game less. So why didn't it?

It's probably because it didn't quite work that way in my mind. I enjoyed Arkham Asylum partly because I was projecting elements into it that weren't really there. Serious House never left my mind (partly reinforced by collecting elements of Amadeus Arkham's story), and I utilised my pre-existing interpretations of the characters to add extra layers. I added more vulnerability to balance out the power fantasy.

So, I focused extra attention on Batman's suit becoming progressively more banged up and ripped, and assumed he was also becoming mentally exhausted. I was afraid when I encountered Clayface, even though he remained safely sealed behind thick glass -- knowing what he could do was enough. I worried about where Doctor Destiny might be, because I knew I couldn't really fight him.

The game allowed me to become the character, and left me enough space to build my own understanding into him. I don't find that space in the comics or movies -- they are too strongly someone else's complete vision.

(Plus, I'm nerdy enough to enjoy collecting references to more obscure villains like the Ratcatcher. Movies don't let me do that.)

Where Arkham Asylum almost fell down for me was the sense of place. I got to know the layout extremely well, and that was one form of power I couldn't over-write in my mind. I couldn't get lost and create anything like the level of panic experienced in Serious House. Mind you, if I could I probably would have been too terrified to continue playing, so that's for the best. The game provided me with an Arkham Asylum I could conceivably overcome.

Part of me really wants to see unwinnable story-driven games, but this probably wasn't the place to try it. The existing balance was pretty much right. Overcoming Arkham Asylum is fun, which of all things is an element of play I often overlook.