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The Joker Is Dead, Long Live the Joker: On the Cerebral Story of ‘Batman: Arkham Knight’

Rocksteady's climax to the Arkham trilogy is all about mind over matter when it comes to its compelling narrative.
June 26, 2015, 8:05pm

The Joker and Batman, as depicted in promotional artwork for 2011's 'Batman: Arkham City.'

This article is part of VICE Gaming's Comic Connections week—find more here. Also: spoilers.

What makes the Batman? Some might answer gadgets, others the struggle to keep Gotham safe. Or there's the possibility that it's actually Bruce Wayne himself, an alter-ego complex wreaking havoc on his sense of identity. Perhaps it's trauma, the lopsided way the Dark Knight sees the world following the death of his parents.

Arguments could be made for any of the above answers. But every argument would be wrong. As more than anything else, it's the Joker that makes Batman, and everything else pales in significance beside his maniacal grin. There's no place here for Generation Wuss ambiguity, so go on, stick your neck out with me. It's the Joker that makes Batman.

Because face it: Batman is an entirely one-dimensional entity when viewed in isolation. Wonderful for many reasons, yes, but shallow, a man playing out the same single act time after time: stop the bad people from doing bad things to good people who just want to get by. Sure, exactly where those law-abiding citizens draw the line on the legend of the Batman varies—to some he's nothing but a force for good, to others a warped manifestation of the selfishness and evil that can consume all men. But how the emotional core of his character is presented, even in the best of comics, movies, and games, is typically predictable.

Until, that is, the Joker arrives. Where Batman is constantly searching for meaning and reasons to see himself and his actions as somehow heightened and superior to those of the rest of the society, Joker reminds us that, ultimately, everything is fleeting and meaningless. In the grand scheme of the world and the universe, you're meaningless, I'm meaningless, Batman is meaningless, and it's silly to think otherwise. Might as well have some fun while we're still around and stop worrying about our legacy and the impact we have on others.

As individuals, then, both the Joker and Batman are equally shallow and vacuous. But as two sides of the same coin they merge to create a quite brilliant whole in which that question of existence—why am I here?—is brought to a head in an earthquake of equal and opposite forces.

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Let's face another truth: video games are not known for their grand history of exemplary storytelling. As far as the mainstream consciousness is concerned, whether true or not, the narrative quality of games ranks somewhere above pornography and below the most base of comic books. To expect a Batman game to provide a classic rendition of the Joker/Batman dichotomy in the face of such wonderful works as Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, Grant Morrison's Batman: Arkham Asylum, or Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight movie is perhaps expecting too much.

However, Rocksteady's newly released (unless you're a PC gamer) Batman: Arkham Knight manages to hit notes of at least equal strength, despite the Joker having died in the developer's previous Arkham series entry, 2011's Arkham City. And if you've not finished Arkham Knight, or at least got a fair way into its main plot, I'd advise you to stop reading now and come back once you're further in. Of course, if you've no interest in playing the game, or don't care about having plot aspects spoiled for you (if you're just in it for the action, or something), read on.

Why so serious?

Let's ignore the questionable plot devices used to create a situation in which a still very much dead Joker is able to impact the mind of Batman in Arkham Knight, manifesting as chattering visions across Gotham, and instead concentrate on the way that cerebral habitation does a wonderful job of exploring the relationship between these two sociopaths.

A dead Joker forces Batman to question his reason for existing in the world. Without the clown's constant badgering, mockery, and undermining, Gotham's self-appointed protector is at a loss to create a platform upon which to stack meaning atop his actions.

Yes, there's the task of stopping Scarecrow and the newly introduced Arkham Knight from taking over Gotham, but the motivations of these two characters don't resonate anywhere near as strongly with Batman's internal struggle. Resultantly, in comparison to the Joker, these villains feel like hollow shells; entities created with the sole purpose of creating conflict, rather than pondering themes of morality, ethics, and personal interpretation.

The real story of Batman: Arkham Knight, then, is the one playing out within Batman's head. By forcing the Joker's ideology inside the mind of our hero, the struggle for dominance is set on what is possibly the most equal ground that this battle has ever enjoyed. Whether it's in comics, films, or previous games, Batman has always had the upper hand when it comes to confronting the Joker in a good, old-fashioned physical fight. Taking away the body, though, and concentrating purely on the mind gives the game's narrative a genuinely mature and wholly engaging edge. And this vision has been in place for some time.

"When we made the first game [2009's Arkham Asylum_], we hoped that there would be a sequel," Rocksteady's Dustin Hulm, the lead engine programmer on _Arkham Knight, told VICE. "We didn't know if there would be, but we did lay some foundations for the future in there.

"When Arkham City was developing well, though, we kind of knew that would be the middle of a trilogy. That game concluded with Joker's death, and we knew after that it was going to be interesting to explore this world, post-Joker. Somewhere halfway through City's development we had fleshed out the story arc [across the trilogy] as a whole."

Generally, this has been a series that has always tried to make you appreciate the power and sense of cool that comes with being Batman. But that is subverted in Arkham Knight by the game's undermining of the very idea of the Batman while, smartly, it doesn't relinquish any of the physical attributes we've gotten used to through controlling his actions.

Although Batman can still pound generic enemies with his fists, there's no way for him to snuff out or silence the Joker's hold on his mind. He can't punch or glide his way out of this one. He can't pull out a fancy gadget or rely on the Batmobile to do the dirty work for him. It's his inner self, his consciousness, versus that of the Joker, a beautiful distillation of a conflict that so many writers have tried to get right—and that the majority of which have failed miserably to do justice to.

"Something that runs through our games is the idea of escalation, with Batman and the villains both enhancing their abilities as they try to stay ahead of one another," Hulm adds. "That isn't unique to us, though, as it runs through a lot of Batman stuff. Scarecrow taunts Batman with that idea in Arkham Knight, suggesting that this escalation is all Batman's fault in the first place."

Scarecrow might kick off that idea, but it's the constant provocation of Joker within Batman's mind that enhances this suggestion and serves to challenge the Caped Crusader's vision of himself as an elite personage destined to play savior. It questions the very fabric of his existence in a way that a brawn-driven approach just couldn't manage. In this sense, killing the Joker in City has martyred his view of the world and forced Batman to perhaps concede that his own ideas are not worth the time of day.

The launch trailer for 'Batman: Arkham Knight'—which we reviewed here

Furthermore, by having the minds of Batman and the Joker inhabit the same space, there are few Batman stories that help you better understand both characters. Having conflicting thoughts within the same grey matter endears you to them, as good as equally, as you see the flaws in both their attitudes. As with many things, perfection is boring and predictable—it's the awkward edges that make us interesting.

Ultimately, Arkham Knight is a quite brilliant example of superheroes being made or broken on the quality of their meaning, not on the circumference of their muscles, the size of the their bank accounts, or their access to technology. And it's one of the best stories ever told in the history of Batman's eternal struggle against his greatest nemesis. After all, a battle of ideologies is always more interesting than one between fists. More comic books, and comic book-inspired output, would benefit from bringing that understanding closer to their creative cores.

Rocksteady killing the Joker made their version of the character more powerful than he ever was in life. He might be dead, but Arkham Knight asks us who's really had the last laugh?

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