It’s hard to remember a time when Batman wasn’t on top of the world. DC’s most intimidating crime fighter is more popular than ever. The bat signal shines across the world, enthralling millions in the latest adventures of the Caped Crusader. Batman has become DC and Warner Bros’s only sure thing in the war against the growing Disney/Marvel empire. Marvel has done a better job of stacking their box offices successes and they’ve created a movie universe that until very recently showed no signs of slowing. Warner Bros is counting on Batman and Zack Snyder to help usher in their film universe, but success is all but certain. The Caped Crusader wasn’t always this dependable. He once was lost, exiled from mainstream culture, and reduced to Bat Nipple memes and children’s toys. His reputation was tainted by greedy executives and misguided creatives who saw the IP as nothing but a means to more wealth. The Batman was in desperate need of a revival.
An unlikely hero stepped up to take on the challenge. Christopher Nolan, fresh off his under-appreciated murder mystery Insomnia —a film that features a rare (and incredible) villain performance from the late Robin Williams— injected Batman with the shot of adrenaline and enthusiasm that the hero needed. His grounded take on the material wasn’t new, but it was fresh for cinema. Chris and Bale’s Batman breathed the same air as Frank Miller’s, he was large, menacing, and seemed to enjoy punishing his foes. Chris went on to make two more Bat films and over $2 billion at the box office, but as integral as Nolan was to Batman’s resurgence, he isn’t the sole source behind it.
An even more unlikely gang of heroes entered the fray in 2009. Rocksteady — a team who’s only prior credit was a solid, but dismissible, FPS named Urban Chaos: Riot Response — launched Batman: Arkham Asylum on August 25th, 2009 and surprised us all. The game struck the industry like a comet, shattering all preconceived notions of what a superhero game was supposed to be. It was beautiful, well acted, and featured some of the best combat in gaming history. Like Nolan’s take on Batman, Rocksteady’s was fresh, but familiar to fans of the Caped Crusader. It borrowed from a different highly regarded part of Batman’s history. Arkham Asylum was the long anticipated return of Batman: The Animated Series.
Back from the Dead
Batman: The Animated Series (will refer to as B:TAS going forward) was a groundbreaking animated television show. It wasn’t beautiful to look at — the Art Deco design style was unique and gave the universe a timeless feel — it was also incredibly well written. B:TAS wasn’t constantly apologizing for being a show about superheroes and zany villains and it didn’t talk down to its audience. In it’s glory days, B:TAS navigated the high-wire act of being approachable and safe for children and layered and subversive enough for adults to enjoy. B:TAS was pulling off the kind of depth we now praise Pixar for back in 92'. It was exceptional.
Stories like “A Heart of Ice” transformed a joke villain like Mr. Freeze into a character with emotional depth often missing from TV-based animated material. The show featured an all star cast of voice talent, many of whom delivered performances widely considered as the defining interpretations of these characters. Kevin Conroy, aided by brilliant character design, nailed the Bruce Wayne/Batman dynamic in a way some of the best actors of our time haven’t. His Batman was tough yet vulnerable and intimidated his foes without the need of a voice gimmick. Mark Hamil’s Joker was a massive improvement over Nicholson and Romero’s renditions. Nicholson’s Joker was Nicholson playing a goon in funny makeup, it was perfectly serviceable, but it could have been more. Hamil’s Joker blended the playfulness of Romero’s with the jagged edges of Nicholson’s performance. He was intoxicating, tremendously unpredictable, and had audiences rooting for him to succeed every episode he appeared in. Hamil’s Joker was regarded as the best until Heath Ledger came onto the scene and stunned the haters silent with his wildly unique approach to the character. Bob Hastings and Arleen Sorkin also did tremendous work as Commissioner Gordon and Harley Quinn.
The Arkham series recruited most of the voice talent from the television series and it’s lead writer, Paul Dini. B:TAS made Dini a legend and he brought his wide breadth of Bat-knowledge to the Arkham series. The story of Asylum and City were delightfully pulpy. They didn’t take themselves as seriously as the films were, but they didn’t invite snarky snickering either. Nolan’s films started a wave that DC and Warner Bros can’t quite escape from underneath. A tide of despair, filled with frowns and broken bones, have engulfed the DC slate of superhero films. The Arkham series brought back the fun. Sure the Joker was trying to kill thousands of people, but you know, he’s always trying to do that, no need to mope about it. Rocksteady’s version of Gotham didn’t share the timeless, Art Deco aesthetic of the animated series — this series was darker and featured Gothic inspired architecture — but fans were able to rediscover all the great character dynamics they remembered. The voice cast reassembled and conversed like they never stopped recording.
New Medium, New Tricks
A lot of the Arkham series’s benefits stem from the medium it’s produced for. Movies and television adhere to a stricter format, their structural rigidity is there to keep the narrative focused given the time constraints opposed on them. Video games, particularly open-world games like Arkham City and Knight, allow creators to have their cake and eat it too. Arkham Knight features a main narrative, several side narratives, and a bunch of challenges and mini missions to keep players occupied. This benefits an IP like Batman, which is filled with tons of interesting villains. A movie has to choose which villains it includes, many believe (and rightfully so) that anything over two villains is too much for one film. The Arkham series has featured nearly every villain in Batman’s rogue’s gallery with each outing. By plucking some of these villains out of the main quest and placing them in their own side section, Rocksteady is able to preserve the integrity of their main story and allow those side stories room to breathe.
The other key advantage has been the heart of Arkham Knight’s marketing campaign: BE THE BATMAN. No more sitting around watching Hollywood big wigs have all the fun, now you can don the cape and cowl and terrorize criminals to your heart’s content. By providing players with a plethora of gadgets, Predator-style capabilities, and finally, the Batmobile in Arkham Knight, Rocksteady has made playing Gotham’s Knight more fun than ever. Rocksteady does a phenomenal job at designing combat scenarios and letting players choose their method of attack. Players spend almost as much time perched above on a gargoyle bust studying enemy patrol patterns and weapon caches as they do knocking heads in. Players have to study crime scenes, collect evidence, tag and tail enemy vehicles, and utilize their intelligence to succeed. This is the most complete realization of Batman available and it’s made all the more special by the interactive element.
Rocksteady is joining Christopher Nolan in Bat-retirement, but you can rest assured there are more video game Bat-adventures to come. Warner Bros wasted no time passing along control of the ship to Zack Snyder — who has teamed up with Ben Affleck to bring Batman back to cinemas in 2016 — and have already made a Batman game without Rocksteady’s involvement (they had the nerve to sneak it in between Rocksteady’s 2nd and 3rd titles). We’ve been spoiled for the last 10 years and all good things must come to an end. Snyder isn’t cinemas anti-christ, but he’s no Christopher Nolan, I don’t believe he’s made a great film yet, but I believe every director, especially one with an eye as sharp as his, is capable of making one. Snyder gets better with every shot he takes, Sucker Punch being the exception to the rule. I still don’t know what the fuck happened there. On the games front things are a bit uncertain. Arkham Knight has only been out a week so it’s a bit early to start talking about Rocksteady’s successor, but I pity the developers that have to fill their shoes. Arkham Knight is a massive success (Bat -Tank combat be damned) and realizes the fantasy of being Batman better than anything that’s come before it.