First, let’s get one observation out of the way: Batman: Arkham City is the best Batman video game since Batman: Arkham Asylum, which at that point was the best Batman game of all time. It is the best simulation of what it should feel like to be the Dark Knight, Gotham’s only hope against hordes of insane criminals. You solve mysteries using cutting-edge gadgets, you swing and glide from the rooftops, and you take on thugs in packs of thirty at a time. It’s like a grown-up version of the 90s classic, Batman: The Animated Series, even featuring many of the same voice actors (Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, etc). If you like Batman, get this game.
So that’s the gameplay and the atmosphere. What about the story?
[WARNING: there's no way for me to do justice to this article without spoiling the entire plot of Arkham City, so I'm going to do that now. The game is still playable, and even enjoyable, if you know the entire storyline, but consider yourself warned.]
So: Quincy Sharp, fresh off the success of his stint as warden of Arkham Asylum, runs a successful campaign for Mayor of Gotham City. His first major act is to wall off an entire borough (including a museum and the old police station) and turn it into a giant open air prison. Armed guards patrol the skies in choppers, while Gotham’s master criminals war for territory. Weird psychiatrist Dr. Hugo Strange has been placed in charge of the prison.
(All the above is prologue, by the way, spelled out only through indirect references)
Bruce Wayne holds a press conference calling for an investigation into abusive practices within Arkham City. He’s arrested and thrown inside the walled prison. But this was all a clever ruse to get Wayne inside, where he changes into Batman and sets off on his investigation. Of course, Dr. Strange already knows that Bruce Wayne is Batman, and taunts him privately with this knowledge before boasting that he will soon put “Protocol 10″ into effect.
Batman tracks down the Joker, hoping to learn from him what Protocol 10 is. Joker is dying from the TITAN-enhanced Venom derivative that he used in Arkham Asylum, however. He injects Batman with a sample of his blood in a surprise attack, forcing Batman to hunt down a cure. Mr. Freeze had been working on a cure, so Batman goes to rescue Freeze from Penguin.
Freeze claims that the cure won’t work without a serum derived from blood with regenerative properties. Batman reasons that Ra’s al-Ghul’s blood might work, and trails one of his assassins to a secret hideout. Talia al-Ghul, Ra’s daughter, invites Batman to undergo the “Trial of the Demon” to prove his worthiness to replace Ra’s; Batman accepts, defeats Ra’s, and swipes a sample of his blood.
Freeze uses Ra’s blood to engineer a cure, but Harley Quinn steals the last sample before Batman can take it. Batman fights Joker and his goons, but is pinned beneath rubble as Dr. Strange initiates Protocol 10, bombarding Arkham City with rockets. Joker is about to finish Batman off when Talia appears, offering Joker a chance at immortality. The two of them leave together.
Batman gets free and infiltrates Strange’s tower. He learns that Ra’s Al-Ghul was Strange’s benefactor shortly before Ra’s kills Strange. Strange initiates a self-destruct in the tower control room, forcing Batman and Ra’s to jump out; Ra’s dies in the fall.
Joker sends a message to Batman, saying he’s taken Talia hostage. Batman goes to save her, only for Talia to overpower Joker and kill him. But the Joker she “killed” is in fact Clayface, masquerading as a healthy Joker. The real, TITAN-infected Joker shoots and kills Talia. Batman then defeats Clayface, retrieves the cure from Talia, and ingests enough of it to cure himself. Joker tries to swipe it from Batman, but the vial shatters. Batman carries Joker’s body outside the walls of Arkham City and delivers him to Commissioner Gordon, before returning to the prison to continue cleaning it up.
Does that look ridiculous to you? Because it’s twice as ridiculous when experienced live. But let’s ignore the Joker subplot for the moment and focus on Dr. Hugo Strange.
Ra’s al-Ghul approaches Dr. Hugo Strange, tells him that Batman is Bruce Wayne, and provides him with the funding to help Quincy Sharp get elected Mayor [UPDATE: a commenter reminds me that Strange actually approaches Ra's, not the other way around. I think this makes even LESS sense, but that's what the game gives us]. Quincy Sharp then creates Arkham City out of some old Gotham neighborhoods and puts Strange in charge. Once the place is full of prisoners, Strange initiates Protocol 10, which is an order to murder every prisoner inside the walls. This is all part of Ra’s al-Ghul’s master plan to cleanse the world of corruption and return it to a “natural” state.
A few questions arise.
First: is this the best use of Ra’s resources? He’s a genius with the wisdom (and the patience) of having lived for centuries. If he wanted to isolate criminals or purge Gotham, he could have come up with a dozen slower and subtler means. What’s jarring about this plan is how rushed it is: Sharp gets elected Mayor and immediately starts building a fortified outdoor prison.
Second: Protocol 10, the insidious master plan that Strange has been alluding to ever since Wayne set foot in the prison, is “murder everyone”? That’s not a plan; that’s a tantrum. And there must have been easier, or less public ways, to do it. Why not introduce poison into the water supplies of existing prisons, like Blackgate? Why herd all of Gotham’s violent criminals into a brand new, highly visible prison and then order choppers to strafe them?
And finally, and most importantly: who would go along with this? Conditions in Gotham have always been depicted as bad, but is the city so plagued by crime that citizens wouldn’t object to turning an entire neighborhood into a penal colony? A penal colony with harsher rules than any existing American “supermax” prison, where transgressions are met with lethal force? Where inmates are left to openly war with each other? This is a Burmese level of fascism happening on America’s East Coast, and apparently it takes mere months to ramp up.
One might say that Arkham City is a commentary on the way democracy can slip into fascism: by electing tyrants to power, by targeting classes that no one cares about, and by paring down civil liberties at the margins. That’s a valid story, and one worth telling. But in Arkham City, democracy doesn’t slip into fascism so much as gallop. Gotham goes from a recognizable American city to a police state overnight. The people of Gotham don’t elect a tyrant: they elect a buffoon backed by a mad scientist, who is in turn backed by an immortal warlord.
Nothing about Arkham City is subtle. But then, nothing about superhero comics has ever been subtle.
Whenever superhero comics try to get “edgy” and “real,” they bump against the limits of the genre. Superhero comics are meant to have action and thrills. That’s why people read them. So when a writer introduces a problem in a comics storyline, it has to be a problem that can be solved through thrilling action.
I first noticed this in Warren Ellis’s Stormwatch (though Ellis wasn’t the first writer, and is hardly the only one, to suffer from this). When Ellis picked up the Stormwatch line, one of the first multi-story arcs he introduced was an American military conspiracy meant to kick Stormwatch, the U.N.’s superteam, off of U.S. soil. There certainly were fringe conservative groups in the 90s who believed that the U.N. was consolidating its power into “one world government” (black helicopters, Illuminati, etc). But in Stormwatch, Ellis uplifts these groups into a coherent, competent, punchable foe.
And then punches them.
We see similar absurdities with the X-Men storylines from the early 80s. Chris Claremont used the persecution of mutants as an allegory for social treatment of subaltern classes (e.g., race relations, sexual preferences, etc). On rare occasions, this meant debating tolerance with depth and passion (e.g., God Loves, Man Kills). Most of the time, however, this meant wild-eyed Senators signing the latest Sentinel Production Act, in which giant laser-shooting robots would fly around the country and kill or capture mutants. Why these giant robots were never put to use addressing the Marvel Universe’s many other super-threats (like the Skrull or Doctor Doom or the Mandarin) remains a mystery. But it gave the X-Men the ability to fight against social intolerance by blowing shit up, which is always fun.
And most recently, we had Marvel’s Civil War storyline. A super battle that causes massive civilian casualties results in a proposed Superhuman Registration Act. The superhero community is split down the middle on the merits of government licensing: some see it as a necessary safeguard, others as an unconscionable crackdown on civil liberties. There’s a deep and important story to be told about that dilemma. Unfortunately, Civil War didn’t tell it. Instead, the pro-registration side creates an extra-dimensional prison to hold refuseniks and clones an Asgardian god to fight on their side, while the anti-registration side started picking fights with the Feds.
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.