So here’s the thing. Before we get any further, let me disclaim that I LOVED Batman as a kid. The Batman animated series was one of the best cartoons on television when I was growing up, and I watched a ton of it! I’ve also seen all of the Batman movies – yes even the George Clooney one with the weird nipple armor.) I also very much enjoy video games that are violent. I own no less than three Mass Effect hoodies, have played every Final Fantasy game released by Sony (even Lightning Returns), and have been known to conquer civilizations because they annoyed in Civilization.
Never the less, because of what I’m about to say, I’m sure some people will try to paint me as Jack Thompson-esque reactionary who hates Batman. Which, you know. Whatever. Nothing I say will stop that, so let’s kick some internet beehives, shall we?
Batman has gotten boring
The older I get, the less interesting Batman becomes. Kid-Me loved Batman and his awesome jet and cool techno toys! But Adult Me? Well Adult Me thinks that Batman is nothing more than a weird, traumatized sociopath with too much money and anger, who spends much of his time and effort punishing the people (street-level criminals) least responsible for actually creating the social problems plaguing Gotham City.
I get that in a lot of ways he’s intended as a sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy. He’s a kid who gets to grow up super rich, inherit billions that he doesn’t have to work for, use lots of cool techno toys to beat up people who piss him off, and sleep with lots of women in the guise of needing “cover” for his crime-fighting activities. But Batman is also a goddamn paragon of toxic masculinity.
Recently, my husband wanted to try watching Gotham – since several friends had been saying good things about it. But I can tell you the exact moment when I stopped giving a shit about the show. It came about eleven or so minutes in, when Alfred shows up to take Bruce home after his parents have just been murdered in front of him. And the VERY FIRST THING he says to young Bruce is to MAN UP SON. Of course, he doesn’t use those words, but he does tell young Bruce to stop crying. You know, stiff upper lip and all that. And for the rest of the episode, whenever young Bruce shows up, young Bruce struggles to choke back his feelings while Alfred hovers, scowling, in the background, the embodiment of the “proper” masculine reaction to grief. (Which is to say, to display no emotions other than looking grumpy or sort of constipated.)
…yeah. No. I get enough toxic masculinity hurled at me here on the internet. I don’t need to spend my free time watching a drama that’s basically TOXIC MASCULINITY: THE ORIGIN STORY.
The thing is, pop culture is increasingly starting to shift when it comes to portrayals of Batman. Finally, finally there is a recognition that Grimdark Batman is an inherently ridiculous character. From the Lego Movie’s take on Batman (which in my head has become the canonical Batman), to the meme that spawned a thousand spin-off memes:
Unfortunately, when it comes to video games, it seems like Grimdark Batman is here to stay, simply because AAA game studios really aren’t any good at making games that AREN’T violence simulators – which necessitates a portrayal of the hyper-violent, emotionless, bastion of toxic masculinity version of Batman that has become so familiar from the movies and television series like Gotham.
Take, for example, the Arkham City games, in which you play Batman beating the ever-living snot out of… okay, out of really a pretty astonishing number of people:
When “find the thing” and “kill the dudes” is the only sort of story that most game studios know how to produce, is it any wonder that Grimdark Batman is the only Batman we get in games made for adults? (I’m not including Lego Batman here.) The AAA game studios have put a lot of brainpower into innovating improvements in the area of graphics, UI design, and accessibility of gameplay – while putting pretty much no brainpower into innovating ways of telling stories that don’t center on violence.
How to make Batman actually interesting
The thing is, I think it would honestly take very little modification to make Batman an emotionally rich and compelling character. What if instead of telling young Bruce to MAN UP SON, Alfred instead teaches Bruce that it’s okay to express your feelings and be emotionally vulnerable? And what if, after that, Alfred became a real father figure to Bruce instead of being an emotionally distant butler/nanny? A Bruce Wayne capable of expressing a damn emotion, who dons the cape despite also knowing that systemic injustice is the real cause of the crime that he fights? Shit, that’s way more interesting than Grimdark “I growl all my dialogue” Batman.
…stupid jokes about Catman aside, honestly the Batman game I would love to play would be one in which Batman struggles to balance the philanthropic work needed to heal the damage caused by deep systemic injustice with his work as a hero who keeps ordinary citizens safe from violent crime. One where the social work of building community is actually part of the game and something that’s not glossed over in cutscenes.
It would be totally doable! One of my favorite RPGs for the PS2 was Dark Chronicle – a game in which there is a huge cataclysm, after which the two heroes have to go through dungeons and fight monsters to defeat The Big Evil while also helping various communities rebuild after their homes were destroyed:
Modeling something like that and applying it to the Batman story would honestly not be too huge a task. This is a game design problem that I’m fully confident that game studios could solve… if they could be bothered to care. But the AAA game industry is hugely male-dominated, and largely guided by the pervasive (and inaccurate) myth that women don’t play video games in any significant numbers. So until the landscape of AAA game development changes significantly, which I don’t expect any time soon, I imagine that I won’t be playing any Batman games any time soon. I’ve got many more interesting games to catch up on.