Thursday, October 15, 2015

Batman: Arkham Knight storyline review


This article will contain spoilers for Batman: Arkham Knight's storyline.

    There is a temptation in comic books to attempt to do the definitive story for a character. This is why so many stories are either the origins of superheroes or some life-defining moment like facing the most dangerous opponent of their lives. The later, especially, can lead to a glut of supervillains who are the best at everything or have some personal connection to the heroes.

    Arkham Asylum was a notable aversion to the above as it was just an attempt to tell a Batman story rather than the Batman story. It's just another night in the Caped Crusader's life, albeit a stressful one. Arkham City, by contrast, told a story which ended with the deaths of both Joker as
well as Talia.

    Arkham Origins retold the first meeting between Batman and Joker as well as the rise of "freaks in Gotham." Arkham Knight tells what is meant to be the last Batman story, at least for this universe, with the "death" of the Batman. It is one of the hardest stories to pull off as it is required to be a grand finale for a seventy-five-year-old franchise. Even as a finale to the quadrilogy of games, it has its work cut out for it.

    Did it pull it off?

    Yes and no.
Batman unmasked! For now, at least.

    To me, one of the few stories to ever succeed in "ending" the Batman saga was Batman Beyond's "Rebirth part 1" where Alan Burnett and Paul Dini chose to go small rather than big. What is the event which drives Batman to retire from the game? It is the simple act of growing old and battered to the point he uses a gun during one of his battles. After that, he realizes there's only a continued degeneration into what he hates awaiting him so he retires and buys a dog.

    Here, the story chooses to go big rather than small. Scarecrow forces an evacuation of Gotham City and then invades with a Private Military Corporation run by the Arkham Knight. What follows is Batman dismantling an army and saving the Eastern Coast of the United States from Scarecrow's fear toxin before being unmasked on live television. In the 100% ending, Batman is implied to fake his death with Alfred and possibly return as something even more terrifying.

    There's a running theme throughout the game of Batman's failures and inability to trust having driven him from both succeeding at his quest as well as living a quote-unquote "normal" life. He wants to protect Dick, Barbara, and Tim from the consequences of his Batman life but they're adults who can make their own decisions. He also keeps everyone at arms length, which doesn't protect his loved ones from being targeted like Jason and Catwoman. This is a game about Batman's failures as a mortal human being and how they eventually catch up with him, destroying him.

The Killing Joke homage needed Babs to talk to Bruce about it.
    As a theme, it's not a bad one but it doesn't really work for the Arkham series Batman. This is an informed flaw, basically, because while Batman is pushing away his children, he's also trusting Alfred and Jim and others to help him in his business. We also have his "greatest failure" in failing to protect Jason Todd muted because we've never heard of him before this game. Indeed, the "shocking" revelation that Jason Todd is the Arkham Knight is going to be clear to every single one of the Bat fans from probably five-minutes onward while it will just be confusing to those who have only played the video games.

    In short, Batman's greatest flaw is that he doesn't trust his partners enough but we have his partners getting crippled and kidnapped as a direct result of his actions. Barbara gets kidnapped, Catwoman gets kidnapped, Poison Ivy gets herself killed, Jason is brainwashed, Tim Drake lets his emotions get the better of him, and even Jim Gordon betrays him. If there's a message about what Batman can or should be feeling about the dangerous life he's leading his followers into, then it's muddled as keeping them close or pushing them away doesn't do anything to make them safer or Gotham City safer.  If there's an aesop in the game, then it's learn to do it alone since all of his allies are damn-near useless. Life just sucks for Batman and his family, no matter what he does.

    Honestly, when I first heard this game was going to focus on the Scarecrow and lesser rogues from the Bat-Gallery without the Joker, I was ver excited. I felt the Joker was overexposed from previous entries in the series and was hoping to see more insight into the colorful rogues who are every bit as interesting. Sadly, the Scarecrow loses the majority of his interesting qualities in the game and becomes something of a generic one-note doomsday villain. He's going to shower the world in fear-gas because he's a bad guy, basically, and not even John Noble's performance can raise him above this empty expression of cruelty.

    The Arkham Knight, by contrast, is also just confusing when you discover he's Jason Todd. He acts like he's uninterested in humiliating or torturing Batman and just wants to kill him. However, since he knows Batman is Bruce Wayne, there's literally no reason he can't just send his 1000+ tanks up to Wayne Manor and blow it up while our hero is sleeping. Hell, he has access to NUCLEAR WEAPONS that can kill everyone in a ten-mile radius. If Jason Todd wanted Batman dead, then he could just kill him. There's no real reason for him to participate in the Scarecrow's mission unless he wants to see Batman humiliated before his death yet Jason insists this isn't the case.

Jason really could kill Batman at any time.
    It doesn't help Jason's motivations are as muddled as the Scarecrow. Even if he kills the Batman, I'm not sure why he's interested in covering the East Coast in Fear Toxin. I don't require my villainous motivations to make much sense but they have to have a relationship to their theme on some level. Deathstroke is being paid to kill everyone in the East Coast with the Scarecrow's fear toxin and while that reduces Slade Wilson to a one-note mercenary psychopath, it still makes sense.

    It seems like they wanted to The Dark Knight Rises but forgot Bane and Talia were BOTH psychopaths who wanted to destroy all of Batman's legacy. Jason's capacity as a villain is also undermined that 90% of the dialogue we get from him is insulting his men and insisting he'll get the Batman next time like Doctor Claw in Inspector Gadget.

    In short, by the time I blew up Ace Chemicals, I was already disappointed in these two rather one-note villains and grateful for the return of the Joker. While I wanted the Joker gone, Arkham Knight was in bad need of the character's peculiar brand of color and energy. If they had gone with their original plan to use all of Batman's rogues working together, I don't think it would have been a problem but there's no hint of the larger alliance we saw in the trailers. Harley Quinn, Two-Face, Riddler, and the Penguin are all working separate from the Scarecrow with the exception of having given him money to purchase the Arkham Knight's army.

    I was also disappointed in the handling of the game's female characters. Oracle, Poison Ivy, and Catwoman are all kidnapped by the end of the story. Given Catwoman was a playable character in Batman: Arkham City and is nothing more than a hostage here, I felt this was a serious downgrade. Say what you will about her outfit but Catwoman was an extremely fun character to play. I don't mind a kidnapping plot but maybe you should restrict the number of kidnappings to one rather than three out of four major female characters.

I will say I love Harley's redesign.
    Even so, I can't complain about Poison Ivy's story arc where she sacrifices herself to save Gotham City's albeit I wish we'd gotten more build-up for that. I was hoping we'd also get another boss fight with her. Harley Quinn's portrayal in the game is also, no pun intended, somewhat schizophrenic as the characters repeatedly comment she's become far more competent but there's a scene where Batman carries her like a toddler after easily disabling her. I admit to bias, though, as I was hoping we'd see some of the anti-hero Harley Quinn from the comics.

    One area I won't complain about, though is the Joker's portrayal and Batman's relationship to him. Mark Hamill gives the best performance of his career as the Clown Prince of Crime and the addition of the Joker having unfettered access to Batman's neuroses works wonderfully. I can't be too hard on a game which includes the Joker singing a musical lounge number about Batman's dead parents while surrounded by explosives.

"Thank you! I'll be here all night!"
    Some fans may dislike the climax of their relationship, where the Batman kills the Joker (in his head), but I feel this is a nice moment. Batman crosses his one unbreakable line and discovers that doesn't turn him into a monster. It, combined with Scarecrow's fear gas, gives him the strength to force the Joker into a prison of his memories and finally defeat him once and for all. Still, I'd love to know how the hell Joker's blood contains his consciousness.

    There's some other areas I'm a little iffy on. I'm not sure Jason Todd's redemption was earned and it would have been nice to see an explanation for why he decided to go with the Scarecrow's Doomsday plan only to switch sides at the last minute. Also, I don't really believe Lucius Fox can know of the Batman's true identity but Jim Gordon not know his daughter is Batgirl. Still, good acting makes up for a lot of the bad and the scene where Gordon feels betrayed by Batman was great.

    In short, I think they could have done with a lot more story-tightening for this game. Some more colorful villains, subplots, and the like would have improved this game quite a bit. The best bits after the Joker were, for me, the side-quests dealing with Professor Pyg, Man-Bat, and the Penguin. The Arkham Knight and Scarecrow weren't terrible but this game feels strongly like it had its plot rewritten three or four times. Even so, I liked it enough I wouldn't mind another game set in the timeline whether a prequel or a sequel dealing with the Court of Owls or other large-scale Batman villain group.

2 comments:

  1. Once again you echo most of my feelings on the storyline, everything about Jason I had mentioned before still applies here. I mean yeah I get it he's been driven to insanity by the joker and feels abandoned by Bruce. But how does that translate to working with the Scarecrow is where the game fell down on.

    They seem to just form point a to point e with the storyline in that regards, same with Jason's turn at the end, there's no reason why he turned against Scarecrow. they really needed someone to edit their plot at somepoint, that and it's clear it was rewritten all over the place.

    Yeah I would have liked to have seen anti hero Harley as well, or at least some of the Harley we saw in Arkham Assault, I get that the lose of the joker has driven her nuts, but they should have done better with her I feel in this game, loved the level with the joker type victims for a few reasons. But Harley's use wasn't all that good. Though agree on her design, loved it myself.

    Origins did a better job of exploring Bruce's flaws overall due to it not making Alfred or Gordon useless in the story, and Bruce's pride actually causing him more problems than his allies are.

    Agree wholly on the Batman Beyond bit, it was a very book end for how batman's career started because of some punk with a gun, and it ended Bruce fighting some punks with a gun when his body couldn't handle it anymore.

    That's really the most believable way Bruce would end his career, since the mission is everything to him and to let that go is something that for the most part he can't do, which feed's a lot of the tragic element to his character.

    Plus as the rest of BB and Return of the Joker showed, his sidekicks didn't want to do the mission forever and Bruce alienated each one in his own way.

    I loved how the joker was used in this game, Hamill got to take his performance to places you can tell he's always wanted to and he milks every second of it, the way he comments on everything from events around him, to Bruce's parents to Talia tot he villains. It really was the highlight of the game despite my opinion like you of him being overused in pervious games.

    Plus the face the appeared hints greatly in my eyes of how Bruce in the game was losing himself and having his worst enemy taunt him with I believe some of his darkest views down makes you wonder about his whole stick wit the joker. There has always been this homosexual subtext to their feud and Knight takes it to levels that can make one wonder at times. It's like Bruce constantly got something out of fighting joker all those times and it's part of why he could never kill him despite knowing the man would continue to kill. Along with his usual reason of being afraid to cross that line once.

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  2. They should of had a surviving Hugo Strange as the Arkham Knight, since I believe it was The Riddler who mentioned that Strange had a bat suit. It would make more sense with his team up with Scarecrow. The other villains were pretty much completely absent from the plot which is sad since Scarecrow was pretty one note.

    Heck, you know who would make sense as the leader of a PMC? A devenomed and detitaned Bane. The much more dangerous one from Origins.

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