Saturday, January 30, 2010


The Sign of the Bat

This entire article contains spoilers about the storylines in various versions of Batman in comic, film television and video game published in the last few years.

Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius stories were deliberate experiments in deconstructive meta-fiction. One was a scene for scene, line for line reconstruction of an Elric fantasy story re-written as a near future story of byzantine family plotting and murder, others took place in slightly or extremely different worlds, the multiple universe variations of a guy named Jerry. They were reasonably entertaining for metaphysical/existential literary experiments and extended jokes.

Batman seems to have evolved into the same kind of hyper-adaptable mytho-form by accident that Moorecock was creating on purpose with the Cornelius and Eternal Champion cycles. Batman is a meme now, with multiple changes of detail or history permissible in any version but certain highly charged symbolic historical imagery that has to be lurking under even the most innocuous interpretations. A young boy in an alley watches his parents get murdered before his eyes, the same boy swears an oath of vengeance against crime and the fearsome appearance of a bat or swarm of bats giving this traumatized obsessive his method of terrorizing his criminal targets.

It doesn't matter exactly how idealistic District Attorney Harvey Dent gets half his face scarred, goes insane and becomes a duality obsessed super-criminal, just that he does. Neil Gaiman's recent Batman story 'Whatever happened to the Caped Crusader?' explores this theme directly in an elegiac tale of the ghost of Batman attending his own funeral.

In the last couple years the Batman has reached creative peaks in all its interpretations. Batman Begins and of course The Dark Knight were monster hits, saved the movie franchise and rebooted the character in a hyper-realistic take. Fans were ecstatic.

In the comics, Grant Morrison has been writing an extended and stylish heightened reality version that tries to reconcile all of Batman's comic book history into one eventful life. Bathound, Batmite, alien monsters and otherworldly Batman analogues included. Morrison has written Batman before, in JLA Batman was a hyper-competent professional superhero of the first rank. The guy who could take out the insanely powerful menace with ruthless efficiency after the Justice League members with the power to crack planets were taken out easily. In his most recent run Morrison posits a Batman so obsessively super-competent and disciplined that he deliberately creates a back up personality that can take over if an enemy ever attacks him psychologically.

At the moment, the comic book version of Batman is believed dead and Dick Greyson the first Robin later known as Nightwing has taken on the Batman's cowl while Batman's secret son with a super-villain has become the new Robin. Hints have already appeared about the real Batman's impending return.

The third animated interpretation of Batman in just the last few years made the smart decision to do something different from what anybody else was doing but still grounded in the Batman tradition, history and mythos. The Brave and the Bold is in the tradition of the Super Friends Batman, the Adam West Batman, an avuncular Batman who lives in a colorful world crowded with other heroes and villains who spouts note perfect pulpy "You'll never succeed in your diabolical scheme" dialogue with a straight faced growl by the goofy guy from the Drew Carey show.

Its the lightest interpretation in years but just as valid as the gritty realism of the movies and heightened darkness of the comics.

The version that most perfectly encapsulated every characteristic and reference possible into one spectacularly immersive experience is Batman: Arkham Asylum. Taking inspiration from a fifteen year old graphic novel by the same Grant Morrison but expanding on it massively, the game that got some of the most glowing reviews of the year puts you through the longest night of Batman's life. The Joker has taken over Arkham with hundreds of violent thugs and set loose dozens of Batman's most dangerous and insane foes. In every category imagery, detail, voice acting, music and gameplay the game is Batman.

Gameplay is the most impressive way this is so uniquely a Batman experience. It consists of investigation, combat and sneaky combat. You can experience the world in two visual modes, normal which is a dark and lushly beautiful experience of a dank and eerie game world built to increase tension and suspense or the shadowy Detective mode that gives you a heads up display of clues, DNA trails, fingerprints secret passageways and usefully, bad guys through walls and around corners. In a room full of unarmed thugs you can wade into them. The combat system is simple enough for mashing the x key while running at the bad guys to work quite well at first to give you confidence and help you develop a bit more combat subtlety.

Alternatively in a room full of armed guards you can swing about in the rafters or scuttle behind ledges and in and out of grates and sneak up on the bad guys one by one and choke them into unconsciousness from behind. Then you can booby-trap their bodies with explosives and trigger them from a distance when their friends bend over to check on them. This is more fun than it probably should be.

As well as the primary mission of sweeping through the asylum in Jokers wake clearing rooms and slowly discovering the Joker's hidden ultimate scheme, scattered throughout the game are Riddler puzzles punctuated with mocking radio messages from the Riddler himself, as well as hidden Arkham history and scattered therapy interview tapes with the Asylum's inmates. The sense of urgency created by the game's story and always stellar voice acting from most of the voice cast from the 90's animated version, had me finish it and then wander through the empty halls of Arkham for a few more hours completing the job of finding all the hidden trophies, visual reference tricks and audio rewards. I could listen to Mark Hamill's note perfect mix of mirth and menace as the Joker for hours.

Even after completing the story all of the various combat and stealth predation set pieces from the game are available as challenge modes both individually and comparable through online scoreboards with other players all over the world.

You might be able to tell I'm looking forward to the sequel.

Of all the console games I've ever played this one has kept my interest the longest.

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