Batman is one of my favorite protagonists, period. Since I was five and and stumbled onto my parents watching a rented copy of Tim Burton’s Batman, I have been fascinated by the character and his world. My parents soon introduced me to the Adam West movie and TV series, the former of which I assumed was canon to Burton’s first film.
With the Bruce Timm animated series and later Joel Schumacher films, the Batman film franchise was the first time I realized that there could be different interpretations of a single character. Now with the Nolan series long finished and the upcoming Zack Snyder interpretation in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the Dark Knight is one of the most re-interpreted characters in fiction, That doesn’t even consider the countless comic books that include at least five concurrently running series.
Yet with all the different versions of the Caped Crusader, my favorite interpretation is in the Batman: Arkham video game series which sees its fourth entry released June 23 in Batman: Arkham Knight. The series stands above other interpretations of the hero because it combines the best aspects of all those interpretations to make for a uniquely all-encompassing version of the Batman.
One of the most welcome surprises in Batman: Arkham Asylum, the first entry in the series released a year after 2008’s The Dark Knight, was its appreciation for the second- and third-tier characters connected to Gotham City. As someone who didn’t know much about the mythology outside of the movies and animated series, this was huge. With the game expanding my understanding of the Batman world, I researched the game’s characters and sought out their most well-regarded story arcs. All of this allowed me to graduate to Batman 202.
I learned there had been three Robins (four, if you count Carrie Kelley from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, who isn’t part of the Arkham series). I learned about the self-cutting serial killer Victor Zsasz, the date-obsessed Calendar Man and that Oracle was once Barbara Gordon/Batgirl before The Joker shot and paralyzed her below the waist.
While Nolan’s films eventually introduced lesser-known villains like Ra’s and Talia Al Ghul, they couldn’t break their dedication to realism and include the likes of Killer Croc, Clayface and Black Mask. Even with slightly fantastical details, those characters still have realistic qualities within the Arkham games that help bring in the-non hardcore. Penguin’s monocle is literally the bottom of a glass soda bottle, jammed into his face. The Riddler is also just a skinny nerd, obsessed with outsmarting the world’s greatest detective. His puzzles may be full of theatrics but the flamboyancy of Jim Carrey’s portrayal and even the excellent Frank Gorshin performance are muted to create a much more real character.
Like the Nolan films and post-Dark Knight Returns comics, the Arkham series embraces the “dark” aspect of Batman’s universe. Yes, the first three games were rated “T for Teen” by the ESRB but Arkham City, the second in the series, arguably could have been bumped up to the 17+ “Mature” rating. The third game has that rating, likely meaning that Rocksteady was finally granted permission to explore the world in ways it wasn’t previously allowed.
Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that he thought Burton’s sequel Batman Returns deserved an R-rating, while many thought the same of The Dark Knight and the comics have certainly gone there. But the Arkham series is the first in-motion iteration since the animated series to accept the true dark nature of the Batman universe.
Yes, the fantasy element is still present in the series and includes the Titan formula, Lazarus Pit and Clayface, but Batman stays grounded and Rocksteady clearly understands that the villains’ outlandish nature makes them such worthy adversaries. Scarecrow, who is the main villain of Batman: Arkham Asylum, is the perfect example of the series’ balance. He is clearly just a man, as in Nolan’s universe, but uses his fear toxin to a much more grand effect.
I alluded to the Bat-Fans’ appreciation for the 1990s Batman: The Animated Series and until Arkham Asylum, it was the best version of The Dark Knight’s tale. Rocksteady acknowledged the show’s important by casting Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker. Both are considered among the best actors to play the characters and the Arkham games continue that tradition. Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger are excellent, but each of their interpretations could exist solely in the respective worlds of their movies.
I was previously inclined to say that Conroy and Hamill move seamlessly between different Bat-universes because they only lend their voices, but the Arkham games are markedly different from the animated series. Each actor tweaks his performance to fit the aesthetic and mood created for the game series.
So while waiting for the game to unlock on my Xbox One — and for the day one patch to begin downloading — I can’t wait to get back into Rocksteady’s Arkham world after not having a new way to explore it since 2011. I can only compare it to waiting to see The Dark Knight Rises, which is not only a testament to my relationship with the Batman character, but speaks to the value of his surrounding mythology and everything that goes with it. Time to boot it up. I hope you’re as excited as I am.