Superhero comics are rarely a good medium to talk about real-world issues. Why is this?
Superheroes themselves, depending on who depicts them and who you ask, live on a spectrum between “adolescent wish fulfillment” and “four-color depiction of Jungian archetypes.” Either way, though, superheroes are hard to imagine as people per se. Superheroes, by their nature, transcend the problems you and I suffer. When you’re stronger than anyone else in the world, or faster, or have sharper senses, or even just unerring logical accuracy, a lot of conventional limitations fall away.
Of course, a sophisticated superhero story will still depict the limitations that these invincible beings suffer. Superman can’t have a regular relationship with Lois Lane, and neither his heat vision nor his impervious skin will help. Iron Man suffers from alcoholism and serial philandering, driving away the people who humanize him. And even Batman has lost people close to him.
But these all-too-human limitations are just narrative obstacles that hinder the superhero’s ability to do what he’s meant to do: punch aliens, catch falling buildings, and shoot bad guys. Clark Kent never decides that the world can save itself (or that the Justice League can do the heavy lifting) if it means he can have a normal relationship with his wife. Tony Stark never decides that it’s the pressures of leading the Avengers that’s causing him to drink so much. And these aren’t unreasonable choices – real human beings make these decisions all the time! Hell, “give up your career to be with the one you love” is one of the most popular dramatic tropes in the 20th century.
Superheroes are colorful world beaters first, humans second (if at all). This hinders their ability to grapple with human issues.
Next, comic books, as an evocative, visual medium, give more weight to evocative, visual solutions than to prosaic ones. Comics feature images and text, but the images tend to be far more memorable. Everyone remembers the dying Superman cradled in Lois Lane’s arms; no one remembers the text in the pages leading up to that moment. So if you have a problem in comics, it had better be a problem someone can punch.
(This is one of the many reasons why Watchmen is a work of transcendent, deconstructionist genius: Ozymandias tries to solve a real-world issue with comic book methods)
The difficulty, of course, is that so few real world problems – if any! – can be solved by punching the right people.
Consider prison and asylum reform, a subject that Arkham City addresses in passing. Dorothea Dix spent over a decade railing against cruel treatment of the insane. State hospitals for the insane were the exception, not the norm, prior to her investigations and her crusades. She fought to establish state hospitals in Massachusetts, Illinois, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. It took her from 1840 to 1853 to accomplish this much, and none of it would have been made any easier by punching President Franklin Pierce in the jaw.
Rev. Louis Dwight popularized the Auburn System around the mid-19th century: a penal methodology that encouraged rehabilitation through labor. It was considered an improvement on the Pennsylvania System that it gradually replaced, in which inmates were cloistered in private cells at all times and forbidden to speak with each other. Of course, the Auburn System also enforced silence during group activities and allowed for a lot of corporal punishment that we would consider inhumane today: flogging, for instance, or soaking a prisoner under a deluge of icy water. It took nearly fifty years for the Auburn System to fall out of favor, as popular sentiments toward corporal punishment changed. Again, a problem that required extensive trial and error, not punching.
Now consider Gotham City, or specifically Arkham City. Bruce Wayne considers Arkham City abhorrent. What might he do to get it shut down?
- Finance a documentary film crew to interview guards, inmates and released prisoners;
- Bankroll a reform candidate for Mayor;
- Buy up the Arkham City contract (presuming that, like many large prisons in the U.S., it’s privatized) and appoint his own administrators;
- Spearhead a campaign for eminent domain reform: that’s a lot of land that Gotham City must have bought up to build an open-air prison.
And so on. But what does Bruce Wayne actually do?
- Sneak inside, punch people in the mouth.
As a cautionary tale on real-world abuses of power, Batman: Arkham City is disappointing. But in this way, it’s no different from other comic book depictions of real-world issues, like racism or isolationism. In the comics, these problems are solved whenever the hero punches the villain in the face. And since the greatest strength of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City has been in how they translate the comic book experience into a video game, this level of absurdity may just be part of the plan.