Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Social Satire of Batman: Arkham City

    One of the hardest things to write is satire. One could say that all media is informed by the social injustices of the world but I think that's a bit pretentious. Really, it's damn hard to do a piece on the current problems of the world without coming off as preachy.

    Even attempts to slip a message under the radar are rarely successful because people usually sense when they're being talked down to. One of the worst serials of Doctor Who was The Two Doctors, which was a lengthy track against eating meat. It's no surprise we later see the Doctor eating steak, people reacted that badly to it.

    I think part of the problem is that it's impossible to exaggerate a problem to suitably heroic levels without somewhat warping the message. The X-men are effective metaphors against intolerance because they're a mixed group of ethnicity and genders working together for a common goal. The best lesson against prejudice isn't that Sentinels are hunting mutants for having superhuman powers but that Storm is black, Kitty is Jewish and both of them are way cool people.

    At least that's my opinion.

    It's why I think that Batman: Arkham City is a surprisingly good piece of social satire. People tend to forget that Escape from New York was satirical, designed at highlighting the increasing crime in urban areas and the seeming disconnect from the central government.

    Brazil is a tremendously funny comedy which only makes sense if you appreciate what it has to say about British society (and society in general). The satire is interwoven with the storytelling and the two do not function without each other.

    Batman: Arkham City is effectively a diatribe about dehumanization and giving up the rights of individuals. It's easy to say it's a satire of the War on Terror. The in-universe Arkham City can be taken as an analogue for Guantanamo Bay and the use of Tyger soldiers as a reference to Blackwater in Iraq. That's actually demeaning Arkham City. It has a much larger applicability to a variety of situations and places. Throughout history, governments have routinely gone through periods of oppression and militarization when its citizens have feel threatened. They often crack down on undesirables and the "other" in hopes of appearing strong.

    One of the least controversial groups to crack down upon is criminals. For obvious reasons, criminals have less rights in society than regular people. Television and movies indoctrinate us with criminals as stock villains worthy of death.

    Batman is one of the few characters in cinema who attempts to arrest his villains and even then, they usually die in his movies. Heck, in Tim Burton's Batman, the Cape Crusader kills probably a hundred or more of the Joker's henchmen before the later is finally dealt with.

    Batman: Arkham City is a wonderful satire of that attitude, using a backdrop of Gotham City to ask what necessary measures should be taken to deal with criminals. I think just about everyone even passingly familiar with Batman, which is probably half of the people on Earth, have a vision of Gotham City as a crime-ridden hellhole. So, if someone were to suggest that Gotham City should take extraordinary measures to deal with its criminals, most people would just nod their head.

    There's already a staggering number of people who ask, "why doesn't Batman just kill the Joker?" After all, no prison can seemingly hold him and he kills more people every time he breaks out. This ignores that, theoretically, the state could execute the Joker or build a prison where he can't escape. We just assume Batman should do it because he's the hero. Indeed, the only reason the Joker hasn't been executed or killed in action is the cyclical narrative of comics.

    In the backstory of Batman: Arkham City, the decision is made to put all of Gotham City's criminals in a gigantic penal colony surrounded by a sixty-foot concrete wall. The implication, supported within the game itself, is that the criminals will have no one to victimize but each other. Presumably, they will eventually kill each other off in a battle royale for supremacy. In a very real way, Gotham City has chosen to summarily execute its surplus criminal population in a way that leaves their hands bloodless.

    In real life, the death penalty is a highly controversial subject. In most of the Western World, it's soundly condemned with the United States being the odd man out. Even if you agree with it in certain cases, it's a messy affair that rarely leaves anyone satisfied. Proponents of the death penalty dislike the endless series of appeals which denies families closure and frequently re-opens wounds that are best left healed over. Opponents of the death penalty, in addition to human rights issues, often cite that you rarely know 100% for certain if an executed party is guilty or not.

    Wartime removes much of this uncertainty. You can have individuals assassinated and/or killed during a bomb drop. The use of Tyger mercenaries in Arkham City takes the police out of the equation. It's obvious that the soldiers have orders to kill anybody who attempts to escape from Arkham City.

    Likewise, martial law has long been a codeword for a situation which cannot be handled by normal civilian authorities. It's a common belief those who willing to fight for their country are more trustworthy with power than those who aren't (a fact talked about by Robert Heinlein in Starship Troopers).

    Arkham City is a place criminals can be disposed of in a way without Gotham City adopting the trappings of a fascist state. Arkham City, behind its large concrete wall, is a place where criminals are "out of sight and out of mind." In the city proper, life goes on as usual. Only behind the walls of the Arkham City does law and authority cease to exist yet is simultaneously omnipresent.

    One of the things I liked about the V for Vendetta movie adaptation was the fact that, minus minorities and curfews, life seemed to go on as normal in Norsefire Britain. The banal reassuring normality of the setting helped highlight the terrible nature of what was going on under the citizenry's nose. If Arkham City were to sink beneath the waves, which it literally is if the in-game flooding is any indication, no one would notice.

    The thing about imprisoning criminals and stripping them of all rights is there's always someone willing to exploit their newly reduced status. Doctor Hugo Strange and Mayor Quincy Sharp are the guiding forces behind Arkham City and neither of them are adverse to slapping the label of criminal on anyone who disagrees with them. The video game opens with Bruce Wayne, not Batman, being arrested for seemingly the crime of disagreeing with Arkham City. Likewise, Jack Ryder (the Creeper in DC comics) is arrested for apparently doing a journalistic piece on Arkham City.

    The abduction of Bruce Wayne, of course, starts the downfall of Arkham City. People start asking questions when a billionaire celebrity disappears they didn't ask when the dozens, if not hundreds, of innocent regular citizens inside Arkham City did. There's a reason that people usually quietly disappeared in totalitarian states.

    It's better to make it a private affair that causes an uncertainty more than a confirmation the government has taken your loved ones away. That willful ignorance is on display throughout the game with most Gothamites having no idea what goes on inside their newly constructed prison.

    Both Mayor Sharp and Doctor Hugo Strange believe their methods are necessary for protecting Gotham - which makes their actions all the more reprehensible. They are committed to their course of action, believing all of it is righteous and just.

    We don't need an explanation for why the Tyger soldiers obey their orders, either. They're mercenaries. Their job is to collect their paycheck, not serve any ideology. Besides, society has sanctioned their activities - causing the average Gothamite to be as responsible for any atrocities as Mayor Sharp and Warden Strange.

    On the ground, we also get to see the abuse the criminals endure at the hands of a prison system that hates them. They're denied food, warm clothing during winter, and are left to their own devices. Like in real-life America's prison system, gangs absorb all of the criminals who want to survive. These criminals are made worse by the environment they are surrounded with.

    After all, Hugo Strange is uninterested in rehabilitation, the entire prison is a giant death trap. So why not let the criminals tear each other apart? Replace the Penguin and Two-Face's gangs with the Bloods or Aryan Nation and the situation described in Arkham City isn't too dissimilar from many real-life prisons.

    In the role of Batman, we get a nice bat's eye view of the horrible conditions within Arkham City. I appreciate the game for giving us a surprisingly nuanced and sympathetic portrayal to not only the political prisoners but the criminals as a whole. Yes, some are scum talking about what they want to do to Harley Quinn or Catwoman but others are simply cold and hungry.

    It's one thing for Batman to go after the criminals trying to kill him but it's another to descend down to beat up one just trying to get warm near a burning steel drum. Batman: Arkham City does this without sacrificing story or game content.


  1. Actually, the Tyger guards turned out to be brainwashed by Hugo Strange, and stopped what they were doing as soon as he was taken out. Mayor Quincy Sharp also, and he actually did say to Hugo that he was taking things too far (and was promptly thrown in Arkham City as well).

    Though I'm not sure how "sympathetic" most of these criminals are. The Penguin, especially, is as bad as he's ever been, but even most of the ordinary inmates, if you listen to their conversations, don't sound like very nice people .

    1. True, though the political prisoners are there to give Batman someone to rescue.

  2. did you even play this game

    1. Obviously not enough as many of these things are explained: Hugo Brainwashed the all of the TYGER guards and Sharpie and you don't even touch on Talia and the rest of the Demon which are huge parts of why this is happening and totally rip your case to shreds

    2. If you feel that way, that's your prerogative.

  3. Very astute. I played the game again after reading this, and it was a totally different experience. I was on the verge of agreeing with Dr. Strange the first time around, and your talk about the mindset this engenders struck a nerve. Rehabilitation truly is a crucial aspect of society, all too often overshadowed by the instinctive need for a scapegoat. Well spoken.


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