At the start of the story it was established that Batman was willing to let Joker die, even if he died too. He was only motivated to pursue the toxin cure when he learned that the people of Gotham had also been poisoned.
Then later it was revealed that he wanted to abandon his efforts to save people in order to save Talia. Alfred even had to tell him, “You have to decide if one life is worth more than a thousand.” Alfred followed that up with, “Batman must save Gotham.” In the end of that conversation, it’s not even clear that Batman agreed with this idea. He didn’t go through some kind of moment of clarity. He didn’t admit Alfred was right. He left Talia and went after Protocol 10 because Alfred didn’t leave him any other choice.
So Talia is worth more to him than Gotham, and Gotham is worth more to him than Joker. That’s a bit of a compromise for him, but I’m okay with this so far. “Love” does all kinds of things to sexually repressed dudes.
But here at the end of the story, Batman scoops up the dead Joker and somberly carries him out of Arkham City, leaving his possibly dead girlfriend on the floor of the theater without even bothering to check to see if she somehow pulled through.
So now he cares more about Joker than about Talia, and more about Talia than about Gotham. At this point the Bat-Morality Compass is exactly backwards.
We get a shot of Batman carrying the Joker in his arms. This creates a callback to the opening shot of the game, a painting of Cain & Abel:
Cain and Abel
In terms of symbolism, this is about as wrong and backwards as you can get. This is the writer trying very hard to say something profound and instead spewing out absurd gibberish. I know they probably felt the need to imbue the death of Joker with some capital-M Meaning, but this just doesn’t work. Batman’s never really been big on Biblical symbolism and I’m not sure it fits with the tone of his world. (Greek Mythology seems a better fit.) But there’s nothing inherently wrong with going with an unusual source if you’ve got a really good image. The problem is that this contrast makes absolutely no sense.
For the record: The Biblical story of Cain and Abel is that Cain killed his brother Abel and became the first murderer. This painting shows evil Cain carrying righteous Abel’s body.
In what way can this possibly be a meaningful reference? Joker is a mass-murdering psychopath, so he can’t work as a mirror of righteous Abel. Batman’s defining rule is that he won’t kill people, so he can’t work as a mirror for Cain.
“But Shamus, maybe it’s reversed? Maybe Batman is supposed to be Righteous Abel carrying the murderer Cain. Like, an inversion of the story?”
The metaphor still falls apart because Batman didn’t kill Joker. Joker effectively killed himself in his attempt to torment Batman and gain immortality for himself. I don’t care how you flip the original story, this doesn’t connect to it in any way. The only thing connecting these two images is that they both show someone carrying a dead body.
If this was just some gag, hidden reference, or nod to the fans then that would be one thing. But this is the death of the Joker. You don’t need to draw from ancient works to give the moment heft and Meaning, but if you do you can’t half-ass it. Anything you say here needs to click into place. Otherwise it’s best to just let the events speak for themselves.
This wouldn’t be a big deal if everything else in the story was right. But after a night of Batman being clueless, incompetent, and out of character, this feels like one more wrong note in a symphony of wrongness. It’s one more thing the writer doesn’t seem to get.
The Death of Joker
Batman exits Arkham City and gingerly lays Joker on the hood of a police car.
Commissioner Gordon is there, along with numerous police. When they see Joker dead they don’t cheer. Or smile. Or even express some slight bit of relief. Instead they look shocked and saddened. Countless non-supervillains are dead in the rubble inside Arkham City, along with many wrongfully incarcerated political prisoners, several dead police officers, and a handful of kidnapped medical professionals. But the police are going to pause for a moment of quiet over Joker’s dead body?
Gordon asks Batman what happened, but Batman walks away without saying a word. Is he going to go cry? He doesn’t seem interested in guiding any rescue efforts for the prisoners who were just literally bombed. He doesn’t think to ask about how things turned out for all those poor poisoned people in Gotham’s hospitals. He doesn’t even seem motivated to go and check on Talia, and he’s the only one who knows where she is right now.
“But Shamus, she could use the Lazarus pit…”
You mean the Lazarus pit Batman just blew up?
“Well, in the comics that actually isn’t the only Laz-“
No, we can’t rely on extra-textual plot elements to justify such visually absurd behavior. Particularly not at the finale when everything should be coming together. Particularly not after his feelings for her were part of his supposed turning point.
Besides, if he’s unconcerned for her because of the Lazarus pit, then why was he concerned before? He really did seem to think that having her get shot would be A Bad Thing. At the bare minimum, he ought to still think that. Even if he assumes she’ll be alive later, does it really make sense to leave the theater without at least looking at her?
Heck, Joker’s floor-demolishing explosion went off just a few feet from where she fell. Can we at least get a shot to show she wasn’t turned into oatmeal?
The Joker story forgot all about the people of Gotham. It forgot about Robin. And after lavishing so much screen time on Talia, it managed to forget about her too. Instead it finishes off the story with this completely incongruous respect for the guy who caused all of the trouble in the first place.
This Joker toxin plot did not work. Batman’s motivations and moral compass are a complete mess. The original Joker / Clayface scheme had no endgame, and even their second scheme involving Talia lacked a clear punchline. The whole plot revolved around a McGuffin that didn’t make sense, changed hands off-screen in baffling ways, and then wasn’t properly depicted at the finale. The events were often unclear and confusing. It was driven by contrivance and excuses and fell apart right at the most important moment.
During the Joker plot, Batman behaved like any other regular videogame protagonist. He was single-minded and reactionary. His emotions and values were driven by the plot rather than the other way around. He was often reduced to Commander Shepard levels of cutscene incompetence. He never showed any of the skills or made any observations befitting the world’s greatest detective. Sure, he does those things in the side-missions, but the point I’m making here is that the person who wrote the Joker plot managed to whiff on most of the key aspects of this character.
Batman simply isn’t Batman in this game. Sure, they nailed the look of the character. And with Kevin Conroy behind the microphone he certainly sounds like Batman. But he didn’t act like Batman, which is why so many scenes in this game don’t work.
So What Happened?
I think the Joker plot was both created because of and subsequently ruined by the intrusion of the real world into Batman’s.
The first problem stems from the fact that Mark Hamill was retiring from the Joker role. Instead of recasting the role or just taking a break from Joker stories, they decided to kill off the character.
Since you can’t kill off Batman’s main adversary in the B-story, they were obliged to make it the focus. However the entire premise of Arkham City as an open-world prison city depends on Hugo Strange, so they couldn’t just cut the Strange plot entirely. Instead they were forced to do both plots at the same time, and the result is a disjointed mess.
The other problem is that too much of the audience’s viewpoint bled into Batman’s behavior. To the audience, the Joker is the beloved main villain of the series and Talia is a minor side-character. Batman was reacting to these characters the way the audience would, not the way Batman himself would. It’s like Batman was sad about Mark Hamill retiring. Maybe that works for some players in the moment, but it does so by reducing pivotal scenes to cheap fanservice.
This is a videogame, which means it isn’t some alternate world or “What If” exploration of the character. This is a world on which they plan to build more sequels, and this world is now one where the supposedly idealistic Batman literally forgot about two thousand dying civilians in order to save his own life, and then left his possibly-dead girlfriend on the pavement and walked past many more dead and injured people so he could give the body of a mass-murdering psychopath a gentle and respectful escort to safety while the police looked on in sadness. You can’t walk that back. You can’t just go around saying “this part doesn’t count” or “this isn’t supposed to be literal”. Especially when that part is the emotional payload of the entire story.
Since Arkham Origins was developed as a one-off prequel by a different studio, let’s set it aside for the moment and focus on the other three games. Let’s call it the “Arkham Trilogy”.
The Arkham Trilogy has something important in common with the Mass Effect trilogy, which is that it gradually migrated to a new staff of writers to the detriment of its story, while at the same time improving on its core gameplay. At the start we have stiff gameplay but solid writing, and at the end we have inconsistent writing and solid gameplayAlthough Arkham Knight also has the Batmobile, which is a huge minus in terms of gameplay for me. But let’s not have that debate again..
Arkham Asylum was written by legendary Batman writer Paul Dini. Then Arkham City was a transition between new and old, with Dini teaming up with Sefton Hill and Paul Crocker. Arkham Knight left Dini behind and was instead written by Sefton Hill, Ian Ball and Martin Lancaster.
I was reluctant to point fingers and assign blame to individuals during my Mass Effect series. Games are big, they take hundreds of people to produce, and it’s usually unfair to pin blame for large creative mistakes on just one person. But I am willing to stick my neck out just a little and speculate that all of this non-Batman behavior (and the thematic trainwreck of an ending in particular) was probably not the work of Paul Dini. Given the decades he’s spent with the character – and the fact that his writing has helped shape what we think of as the “true” Batman – I’m betting the Strange plot was his, and this Joker toxin business was the work of other people on the team.
(I’m comfortable pointing fingers this time because we’re not dealing with a huge fan backlash. Nobody’s really outraged over the story of Arkham City.)
The Joker toxin plot created a lot of situations where Batman’s morality was skewed or distorted in ways that (I assume) were unintentional. A lot of those mistakes are repeated in Arkham Knight. Someone (not Paul Dini) is writing individual scenes without thinking about how they impact the whole. They’re losing track of the idea that our character is defined by their actions. You can’t tell us Batman is a good guy and have him forget about thousands of civilians. You can’t tell us Batman counts human life as precious and have him blowing the shit out of fleeing suspects and then ramming their vehicle into a concrete wall, Burnout-style.
But before we throw the other writers under the Bat-tank I should point out that no matter how muddled the Arkham City story got or how nonsensical Batman’s motivation became, the Joker dialog never dipped below “phenomenal”. Even in the scenes where his actions didn’t fit with his goals and events were driven by contrivances, the dialog still crackledThe Batman dialog was good too, but Batman is basically a soundboard with three buttons: 1) I’ll stop you! 2) You won’t get away with this! 3) Don’t worry, I’ll save them!.
I know I’ve spent the last several entries being really negative, but that’s because all the worst parts of the game were packed at the end. I still think this is one of my favorite games. Nothing else hits this wonderful mix of perfectible brawling, fast-moving stealth, light puzzling, and rewarding exploration.
It’s easy to take Batman’s gameplay for granted once you play the game. It seems obvious and easy. But note how other teams have trouble capturing this particular magic. Shadow of Mordor nails the empowerment but whiffs on the depth. The Spider-Man games don’t seem to work for reasons I can’t nail down based on reviewsI should probably get around to playing one of them for myself at some point.. People are trying to copy this formula and failing. Designing Batman gameplay is a lot like writing a Batman story; it’s a lot harder than it looks. It’s easy to nail the superficial stuff but miss out on the fine details that makes the work so satisfying.
It’s a shame Batman: Arkham City stumbled on its themes and characterization, particularly right at the end when it should have been delivering a huge payoff. But ultimately it worked well enough. Sure, Batman’s reaction to the Joker was out-of-character, but it was at least in step with how the audience was probably feeling, which means they’re likely to go along with it. This is in contrast to Mass Effect 3, where Shepard was both out of character AND frustrating the player’s expectations and desires.
Also, as an obviously gameplay-first product, these kinds of missteps don’t hurt the experience they way they might hurt (say) a BioWare or Obsidian title. Mass Effect is the story of Commander Shepard vs. The Reapers as told in the context of a third-person shooter. Arkham City is a brawling game with a serviceable but flawed story stringing the action bits together. It would have been great if the story had stuck the landing. It should have. But it didn’t need to.
So that’s a novella on Arkham City. If you enjoy this kind of long-form analysis, please consider supporting my Patreon. Thanks for reading.
 Although Arkham Knight also has the Batmobile, which is a huge minus in terms of gameplay for me. But let’s not have that debate again.
 The Batman dialog was good too, but Batman is basically a soundboard with three buttons: 1) I’ll stop you! 2) You won’t get away with this! 3) Don’t worry, I’ll save them!
 I should probably get around to playing one of them for myself at some point.
Pixel City Dev Blog
An attempt to make a good looking cityscape with nothing but simple tricks and a few rectangles of light.
Crash Dot Com
Back in 1999, I rode the dot-com bubble. Got rich. Worked hard. Went crazy. Turned poor. It was fun.
The Middle Ages
Would you have survived in the middle ages?
Dear Hollywood: Do a Mash Reboot
Since we're rebooting everything, MASH will probably come up eventually. Here are some casting suggestions.
The Best of 2012
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2012.