Remember that for simplicity I’m just talking about Arkham videogame Batman. Also, when I say things like “Batman is all about…” I’m not trying to make a definitive statement about what THE BATMAN means to all people, in some final and authoritative way. I’m not saying you’re enjoying Batman wrong if you like it for other reasons. Don’t make me cover this in footnotes and disclaimers. You know how this works. I’m just talking about my personal perception of Batman, under the assumption that if I feel this way, there’s a good chance a lot of you do too.
The World of Gotham
Assuming that you’re like me, then you want your Batman stories to deliver your escapist fiction on a very particular wavelength. Twilight is contrived and engineered for a particular type of gratification, and Batman is aimed at another.
Yes, it’s a power fantasy. But power fantasies come in many forms. Some power fantasies are about saving one person, or about a super-being that has the power to stop natural disasters. Or a spy that can unravel plans that threaten the world. Or the galaxy. This particular work is a power fantasy about bringing criminals to justice.
The Batman power fantasy has silly costumes, absurdly on-the-nose character names, and a hero in a rubber suit with pointy ears. It’s outlandish and fun, but it’s also grounded in some very pedestrian fears and frustrations. It has a lot of appeal for the sort of person that might watch the news, hear about some horrible monster that committed a crime, and wish there was someone out there who could bring them to justice – preferably in a way that lets us vicariously enjoy smashing them in the face. His foes aren’t so much criminals as the embodiment of crime itself, a punching bag with the face of today’s horrendous criminal-of-the-week taped to it.
So we want a hero that can bring down the bad guys that – in the real world – get away with it. Maybe they cover their tracks too well. Maybe they bought off the cops. Or they’re hard to apprehend. Or they’re just really slippery in court. Whatever.
Our Punching Bags
Batman’s rogue’s gallery does a really good job of giving us a large collection of criminal effigies to punch.
Penguin represents organized crime: The Al Capone and John Gotti types of the world. Guys who want to “rule the city” in a practical sense, oversee large criminal enterprises, and are difficult for the police to catch because they do everything through intermediaries. In the real world these guys are frustrating because “everyone knows they’re guilty” but it takes so long for their crimes to catch up with them. And even when they do end up in jail, it’s frustrating to know this guy who killed so many people is spending his time in a soft, low-security prison for “wire fraud” or somesuch. (And probably still running his empire while he’s at it.) We’d really love it if some costumed badass could show up and give this guy a dose of the pain and terror he’s dished out.
Zsasz represents your garden-variety serial killer. He kills because of some gross compulsion that none of us can understand.
Riddler represents the kind of guy who is trying to pull a crime just to prove he can. Maybe he wants attention, or maybe he just wants to make a move big enough that it shows up on the news and gets people talking on the internet. He’s willing to do harm to further his goals, but doesn’t see the harm as an end in itself. He enjoys the chase more than the crime. Frank Abagnale and LulzSec are good examples of this sort of criminal.
Scarecrow and Poison Ivy are always trying to terrify or control the populace with chemical / biological attacks, which makes them a really good analogue for terrorist-style attacks without the story needing to explore the complex politics behind real, ideology-driven terrorism.
Joker is the wildcardEr. You know what I mean.. He can work in any of the roles above, or work in multiple roles at once. He can be a serial killer, a crime boss, a trickster, or a terrorist.
I’m not saying all of Batman’s foes can map to real-world criminals. (I have no idea how you’d classify Mr. Freeze, for example.) And I’m certainly not saying that these characters were designed with these specific classifications in mind. These guys were cooked up by writers who needed to sell comic books and wanted colorful villains to put on the cover. But over the years they’ve slipped into these rolesAgain, particularly in the videogames. I have no idea what the comics are doing these days., and I think it’s part of why they work so well as foils for today’s gritty “Dark Knight” Batman storiesIn a way that (say) Mad Hatter and Calendar Man don’t..
The Bent Knight
Like Twilight, Batman stories have a few parameters that make them more satisfying while at the same time bending the world into this awkward position where things don’t always make sense:
1) Our hero is a master detective, master infiltrator, and a master at non-lethal takedowns. He can’t be bought, can’t be frightened, and never takes a day off. He’s always competent and the bad guys can’t evade him forever.
2) Now that we’ve created this avatar of vigilante justice, we want him to oppose a foe worthy of his skills, so we’re not interested in taking down pickpockets and purse snatchers. We want villains that are vibrant, interesting, and represent powerful criminal forces that terrify common folk. We’re here to deliver a beat-down on cruel brutes who enjoy hurting innocent people. We want Batman to be as terrifying and daunting to them as those thugs are to us.
3) Because of the way that stories usually work, we need to establish our villain as a threat by showing them doing Bad Stuff. But we don’t want Batman to just go around mopping up after atrocities, so he needs to thwart something Even Worse. So our villains need to kill N people, and then Batman stops them before they kill N×10 people.
4) Crime never goes away, so the demand for crime-fighting stories never goes away. We need our hero to keep fighting crime. ForeverAssuming I live a full life, I will eventually see Batman turn 100..
So Batman is a way to enjoy the cathartic release of seeing criminals get their due. And maybe – if you’re feeling a little vindictive – a little more than their due, in the hopes that others will think twice before launching their own campaigns of terror.
This gives us a world where we can enjoy watching our hero punch crime in the face, but it also gives us a bent setting. Yes, it would be totally understandable for Batman to just LET Joker die at some point, and I think Batman could easily do it without worrying that he’d crossed some line into open villainy. Once someone is guilty of thousands of counts of premeditated murder, the expectations of due process begin to look like a luxury.
And yes, even if we accept that Batman doesn’t kill, it makes no sense that a guy with a bodycount like Joker’s wouldn’t come down with a case of “Shot fifty times at point-blank range while trying To escape” as soon as Batman dropped him off at jail.
A Batman Who Kills
The problem is that if Batman – or anyone else – hauled off and killed the Joker, it would just move the problem from one part of the story to another. We’d need to cook up a replacement character. If the replacement is less dangerous, then we have a story where the stakes have gone down and there’s less crime for him to fight. If the new guy is just as bad, then Batman would need to kill him, and so on.
This is how the Punisher works, and I think it’s one of the reasons the Punisher is overall a less satisfying story, even for people looking to see criminals punished, vigilante-style. Frank Castle has to monologue to explain who the current bad guy is and why we’re after him. Then he kills the bad guy. Then we need to build up a new bad guy. It’s still bent: How many untouchable crime bosses can one city possibly have? Instead of “Why doesn’t he kill these guys” the problem becomes, “Where do these guys keep coming from?” And as a matter of simple storytelling, it’s probably more exciting and interesting to see Batman face off against a villain we know and understand than to watch Frank Castle brutally murder a generic bad guy we met 10 pages ago. Proper villains take time and skill to construct, and writers aren’t going to be able to create new ones fast enough to feed the Punisher’s tireless engine of vengeance.
The Bad Guys need to kill people in order to seem like a credible threat and justify the extreme measures Batman is taking to stop them. We can’t kill them off without turning this into a Punisher-style “Mob Boss of the week snuff film”. The bad guys have to keep escaping so Batman has crime to stop. The bad guys have to be too much for the police to handle to show why this problem needs a vigilante. The bad guys have to kill some people to affirm that they’re a genuine threat and Batman isn’t just beating up harmless delusional nutjobs. You need all of these things for a Batman story to work, but once you have these things you have a world where Batman stupidly allows mass murderers to kill again because [insert current in-world justification for not killing or maiming supervillains].
But it doesn’t make sense!
Why doesn’t Batman kill these guys? How do they keep escaping? Since the Gotham Police Department apparently has a survival rate worse than D-Day on the beaches of Normandy, why would normal men and women continue to work there? And given the attrition they experience, why don’t any of the police haul off and kill Joker once he’s captured? Given the sheer frequency and severity of terroristic attacks on the populace, why would anyone live in Gotham? Shouldn’t this entire city have collapsed by now? Why doesn’t Bruce Wayne use his billions to fight the poverty, lack of education, corruption, or whatever else we might assume is at the root of this prolonged, intense, and far-reaching crime spree?
These are all valid questions, but they can’t be answered because they stem from our inherently bent world: We need a hero to punch famously dangerous and unrepentant criminals in the face, and we need him to do it basically forever.
What’s interesting is that a lot of people just refuse to “go with it”. I can sympathize. While the bent nature of Batman doesn’t bug me, I‘ve got a few stories in my nerd diet that drive me crazy because I can’t resolve or make peace with their internal contradictions.
But what’s most interesting to me is how people continually try to impose order on the chaos. There are two ways you can look at the bent nature of Batman:
- This is stupid. I’m done.
- This doesn’t make total sense, but I’m on board because I really dig this detective-and-brawling stuff.
But some people try to forge a third way: They try to say the inherent nonsense is saying something. They look for a message in the madness. A reason for the eternal struggle.
“This is a story about one man staying true to his principles.”
“Did you notice that crime went UP in Gotham when Joker was temporarily dead? Batman understands that killing would only make things worse, which is way he’s trying to save everybody.”
“You notice that no matter how long Batman fights, Gotham never gets any better? Batman’s own story shows that his methods don’t work, and that he creates the problem he’s trying to solve!”
“You notice how often Batman is always getting saved by his allies? That’s because Batman is all about how he can’t actually do it on his own.”
“Poison Ivy. Catwoman. Talia. Batman stories are about how this sex-starved nutjob who goes around beating people up because he needs to get laid.”
“Batman is a story where there are no good guys. Ever notice how Batman breaks just as many laws and is just as crazy as the guys he’s fighting?”
But the funny thing is that some of these people end up becoming writers of Batman stories, and so all of these ideas become true at various times in Bat-lore. I realize this point strays away from the videogames, but I like the idea that we create Batman out of a hunger for justice. Then his stories fall apart because they don’t end. So then we try to impose meaning on the story, looking for a message that wasn’t there originally. But then that message ends up in the story, added by frustrated writers who are looking for deeper meaning in a story about a guy who dresses like a bat to fight crime.
That search for understanding and applicability might not explain why the Dark Knight doesn’t kill people, but I think it does explain why his stories have endured for so long.
 Er. You know what I mean.
 Again, particularly in the videogames. I have no idea what the comics are doing these days.
 In a way that (say) Mad Hatter and Calendar Man don’t.
 Assuming I live a full life, I will eventually see Batman turn 100.
A screencap comic that poked fun at videogames and the industry. The comic has ended, but there's plenty of archives for you to binge on.
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