I love Batman.  Growing up I had a Batman costume my parents had likely bought me for Halloween, but was worked into my regular clothing rotation.  I once staged a climactic battle between my Batman and Riddler toys on the deck of our third story apartment that led to the Riddler dropping the rock bed below and losing an arm.  I stood in line for hours to get the best seats in the theater for The Dark Knight. I have Batman t-shirt that is basically falling apart, but I refuse to get rid of because I think of it as a good luck charm.  I had the toys, I’ve played the video games, I’ve read the comics.  I love Batman – or at least I used to.

Ever since Christopher Nolan ended his Dark Knight Trilogy in 2012, I’ve found myself growing more and more detached from the Caped Crusader.  I still watch the trilogy every year, I still swear by the Bruce Timm animated series, and I still think Arkham Asylum holds up pretty well (the same can’t be said for the rest of the Arkham Series, but we’ll get into that in a bit) but there’s large elements of Batman that don’t work for me anymore.  My biggest problem with Batman is that he’s often an empty shell of a character, a man who is a reflection of whomever he is fighting.  When Batman is faced with chaos, he proves his mental fortitude; when he is faced with greed, he shows charity; when his enemies are conniving, he’s straightforward.  Batman is a morality play costumes purchased at Hot Topic.  See how life has twisted the villain to evil?  Don’t worry, Batman stands as the ultimate beacon of perfection.

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And therein lies the problem with Batman.  He never wavers, he never fears.  His motives are never questioned and his morals are always without equal.  While Batman’s rogue gallery is a rainbow of character defects, his only purpose is to spend his stories grumbling to himself until he tracks down the bad-guy-of-the-month, beats them to a pulp, and throws them back into the revolving door of Arkham Asylum.  The bigger problem is that this formula can become a joke that you’ve heard one too many times.

Recent depictions of Batman haven’t done much to break the mold.  While Arkham Asylum created an interesting idea (what would happen if Batman had to spend a night trapped with every menace he had ever put away) the subsequent games failed to explore anything deeper.  Arkham City’s only question was what if you could fly around an open world beating up people as Batman, and the even more boring Arkham Knight decided to let you just run bad guys over in a giant tank (I’m just gonna pretend that Arkham Origins didn’t happen if that’s alright with you).  So often Batman is reduced down to someone who wanders the streets of Gotham beating the crap out of cookie-cutter thugs, with little to flesh out the circumstance.  It basically comes down to, “See that guy in the ‘henchmen’ uniform?  Kick the crap out of him.”  These actions never have consequences, Batman’s exploits are never questioned.  

But Batman really lost me in Zack Snyder’s bummer of a movie Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Snyder’s take on the character was someone I could no longer like and could no longer care about.  Snyder has Batman tears through Gotham with a plane and tank more appropriately decked out to invade small countries rather than apprehend criminals.  The Dark Knight now has space age super-armor and the ability to weaponize previously unknown materials.  The dude has to be sitting a fortune that would make Warren Buffet jealous.  But instead of doing anything constructive with his money, he seems to have poured into looking like Ben Affleck and making sure he’s outfitted with enough high-tech equipment to fight space aliens.

And through all of these interpretations no one ever bothers to question why Batman does what he does.  The dude is running Haliburton out of his basement and the audience is just supposed to assume this is his grieving process.  Snyder and Rocksteady shrug their shoulders at audiences and say, “I mean, that’s what Batman does, right?”

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So as I started Telltale’s Batman, I wondered if I would this would be another exercise in seeing how many thugs Batman could beat up in a single night.  And then something awesome happened.  Telltale began to ask all of the questions I had in my head, they began to visit Batman in a different way.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of Batman staples here.  In fact, Telltale makes sure they tick off the fan-boy check list, starting their Batman off in pretty standard fashion.  The Dark Knight ninjas through a dark room, terrorizes a bunch of thugs, and beats them senseless before trying to apprehend Catwoman (I did not use the obvious cat-and-mouse pun, so I think I deserve some credit).  She escapes, and quickly Batman is dispensed with and we are introduced to Bruce Wayne – the real hero in this story.

The reason Batman is a blank space as a character is because he is supposed to be.  Batman isn’t a character, he’s the armor Bruce Wayne uses to shield himself from dealing with the death of his parents.  Bruce Wayne is a character – and he’s fucking crazy.  One part playboy, one part part philanthropist, and final part political super PAC; Telltale’s Bruce Wayne proves that even when you dispense with the cape and cowl, the world of Batman doesn’t get boring. In fact you could argue that when all of the wonderful characters in Gotham start bouncing off each other and have time to actually talk to each other instead of fighting, the results are even better.

Bruce engages with his villains outside of costume and here Telltale allows these characters room to breathe.  Instead of exchanging some one-liners before they clobber each other, Bruce and his rogues gallery are forced to actually interact.  The results are electric and Telltale does a great job of pushing Bruce into situations that make you wonder if he really is the hero we would like him to be.  Unlike so many interpretations, this Bruce Wayne might have something to learn.  He might be too trusting, too brutal, too guarded, too proud, too detached.  Depending upon what you make of him with your dialogue choices, Telltale is crafting Bruce Wayne into more than the cardboard cutout that spends his entire screen time brooding and growling (he does some of that too, don’t worry).

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Instead of again tapping Kevin Conroy to do his stoic, one-note performance of Batman, Telltale employs Troy Baker to find a Bruce that is more expressive and morally ambiguous.  Not only that, but they surround Baker with vocal talent that can match him – creating memorable scenes that don’t involve super suits or dark alleys, but that take place in places audiences are far more likely to recognize as real places.

However, Telltale doesn’t simply stop at questioning Bruce’s motivations and temperament.  Batman dives into the Wayne family itself.  Usually the role of Thomas and Martha Wayne is reserved for hero-worship.  It’s never doubted that Bruce’s parents were model citizens because it would call into question the reason Batman is beating people to a pulp and most Batman fiction is terrified of questioning Batman’s actions because they’re too busy glorying the results.  

Telltale isn’t looking to bask in Batman’s heroics, and because of that they make Batman’s world inherently more interesting.  It feels like every element is being questioned and critiqued.  Is it the fault of the villains that Arkham fails them or is the facility perhaps outdated and overpacked?  Is Batman a justified vigilante or does he perhaps engage in brutality and vengeance because it’s an outlet for unresolved issues?  Is Harvey Dent the perfect politician ready to take a tumble down bad guy lane or was he already a two-faced politician?  

Telltale engages us with the ideas of Batman and colors them with a grey morality for which they are well known.  Instead of getting caught up with how cool Batman is and giving us a clear cut good guy and bad guy, the opening episode shows that maybe these characters have more depth than previously explored.  Suddenly, when you strip Batman of his “A+ citizen” mantle, he becomes more interesting.  He becomes human.  And it’s this humanity that makes him even greater.

 

About The Author

The Glorious Predecessor

As I write this, I am listening to Striking Matches and eating a blueberry muffin. The music is good, the muffin is even better. I dance when I drink and have been known to occasionally free-style rap, none of which benefits society.

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