“Batman: Arkham Knight,” has been out for a week.
If you’re an avid player, you’ve probably gotten through a good chunk of the game. You may have even beaten the game, and are itching to discuss the story. That’s good. Let’s talk about the story, because there are some huge plot twists there.
The plot of “Batman: Arkham Knight” mostly deals with the machinations of Scarecrow, who threatens to blanket Gotham City in fear toxin a la “Batman Begins.” There’s also a strong undercurrent beneath that, revolving around one big mystery: Who is the titular Arkham Knight?
But the game had another huge twist, one that was remarkably well-guarded for how early it occurs in the plot. We’re going to talk about both.
This means nothing but spoilers all the way down. You’ve been warned.
So, first: How about the game’s intro?
In a bit of a surprise, the opening moments of “Arkham Knight” don’t put you in control of Batman or Bruce Wayne — rather, you’re a Gotham City cop, and a very special one at that.
You’re the guy who cremates the Joker.
Some background: The Joker dies at the end of the previous game in the “Arkham” chronology, 2011’s “Batman: Arkham City.” It’s not entirely obvious from the story cutscenes in either game, but there are a large number of people who believe Batman killed him (he did not).
This is meant to hammer home one detail the developers at Rocksteady Games wanted to really get across to the public: The Joker is really, truly, dead and is not coming back. In a video interview with Game Informer, “Arkham Knight” creative director Sefton Hill stresses this, making it clear that the Rocksteady team wanted to explore a Gotham without Joker. It sounded like Rocksteady really wanted to make a Batman game that didn’t rely on the Clown Prince of Crime.
That’s a laudable goal — the Joker is something of a crutch in Batman stories, overused to the point where having him show up isn’t nearly as unsettling as it should be. You get used to things the more you see them, and it’s harder to have the Joker scare you when you see him all the time.
Except it’s all a fake-out. Mark Hamill’s iconic Joker is in the entire game.
“Fight Club,” Batman-style
Rocksteady, however didn’t really lie. In “Arkham Knight,” the Joker is actually dead. The evil clown you encounter is in fact a hallucination, a consequence carrying over from the conclusion of “Arkham City,” where Joker infected Batman with a toxic sample of his own blood. In “Arkham Knight,” Batman discovers that there are four other people Joker exposed to his blood, and they all begin to exhibit aspects of the madman’s personality — and it’s finally happening to him, too.
Essentially, Rocksteady gave us the Joker as Tyler Durden, Brad Pitt’s character in “Fight Club” who is suddenly revealed to be Edward Norton’s repressed split personality. He taunts and makes fun of Batman throughout the entire game, eager to have full control over The Dark Knight. In a way, the game’s actual struggle isn’t the external war against Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight, but the internal one between Bruce Wayne and the Joker.
It’s certainly the only truly satisfying arc of the game — Hamill’s performance is as fantastic as we’ve come to expect (Kevin Conroy returns as Batman, but sounds strangely wooden this time around. It’s disappointing.). It builds to a dramatic, resounding climax that you actually get to play through instead of watch via in-game movie. It just has the unfortunate effect of negating every other conflict in the game.
Scarecrow himself isn’t really a psychological threat, his gas just makes it easier for Joker to take over (Scarecrow, meanwhile, has no idea what’s going on in Batman’s mind). Scarecrow isn’t really a physical threat either — that comes from the army he enlisted via the Arkham Knight. His character isn’t so much a villain as he is a leash, unwittingly giving slack to the Joker and deliberately holding the revenge-hungry Arkham Knight back from killing Batman.
As for the Arkham Knight — how well the big reveal of his identity works for you will likely depend on how familiar you are with the Batman mythos. If you fancy yourself a Batman expert, you can probably see it coming a mile away. If all you know about Batman comes from the movies, it would be a nice surprise — if the game didn’t have to do the necessary work of laying the groundwork for why it’s a big deal beforehand, since the character hasn’t been introduced in the “Arkham” games before.
A second fake-out
From the outset, all you know about the Arkham Knight is that he’s working for Scarecrow for some reason, and he’s out to kill Batman for revenge. What makes him deadly is that he seems to know everything there is to know about Batman, and is prepared for just about everything the hero has to throw at him.
In the leadup to the game’s release, Rocksteady made a point of not saying anything about the Arkham Knight other than calling him a completely original character designed by Rocksteady in conjunction with DC Entertainment. But that’s another fake-out.
Similar to their statements about the Joker, Rocksteady isn’t really lying. There is no character in Batman’s 75-year history named the Arkham Knight. But the character underneath the mask isn’t original at all — in fact, he’s a huge part of Batman history.
He’s Jason Todd, the second Robin.
Most people know that Batman has a sidekick named Robin, but it’s not quite common knowledge that several people have taken on that role. The first Robin, Dick Grayson, grows up to become Nightwing and operate independently of Batman in another city (You even get to meet him in “Arkham Knight”). There’s also a Robin in this game that occasionally fights alongside and assists Batman — but he’s Tim Drake, the third Robin.
What happened to the second Robin is gradually revealed to the player throughout the game.
Just like in the comics, he appears to be tortured and killed by the Joker. Just like in the comics, this is revealed to be untrue, and he comes back with a mysterious new identity in order to take revenge on Batman for his failure to save him. In the comics, he comes back as The Red Hood. In the game, he returns as The Arkham Knight, and later adopts the identity of The Red Hood.
This particular fake-out makes more sense than the Joker one, but it also highlights one of the narrative failures of “Arkham Knight.” Jason Todd is a great character to have when you’re trying to tell a Batman story like the one “Arkham Knight” tells, about what happens to people when they’re drawn into Batman’s world — and giving him another alter ego is a good strategy when countless Bat-fans already know your big twist.
Why the game’s biggest reveal just doesn’t work
Unfortunately, the “Arkham” games don’t really have the established history to make the reveal have the necessary impact. This comes from the “Arkham” trilogy’s reluctance to use any of Batman’s costumed allies — Robin is barely mentioned in “Arkham Asylum” and makes the briefest of appearances in “Arkham City.”
Even in “Arkham Knight,” a game that is at least partly about Batman’s relationship with his allies, those allies barely even show up. Because of all this, the story of “Arkham Knight” comes to the entirely wrong conclusion about Batman and his allies — which is they’re better off without him.
This, of course, is nonsense — Batman needs his friends, and they also function as living proof that his mission is working, that it means something. Choosing to leave them all behind just proves the Joker right.
Once again, “Arkham Knight” is all about the Joker.
That’s not to say the Joker is poorly handled in the game — it’s just that everything else suffers in comparison. Like “Arkham City,” “Arkham Knight” is an exhilarating story to play through and a confounding one to think about, making very little sense at times and kind of appalling in how dark it is. I don’t wish that the Joker wasn’t in this game, but it would have been nice to see Rocksteady stick to their guns and really make a Batman game without Joker.
That would require a game quite different than the one we have now, though. As it stands, “Arkham Knight” would be pretty dull without him.
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