Published on July 27th, 2012 | by Mike Thomas0
Should WB Games be thrown in Arkham for taking Batman back to the Silver Age?
Lately, the web has been abuzz with rumours that Rocksteady’s next Batman game wouldn’t be a sequel to Arkham City as expected, but a ‘prequel’ focussing on the Dark Knight’s early encounters with the Joker.
Now if that was it, there might have been a few raised eyebrows, some might have labelled Rocksteady and Warner Bros as lazy for going back to the Joker after taking the brave creative decision to kill him in Arkham City and/or argue that the character wouldn’t work without Mark Hamill as voice actor, but it wouldn’t be seen as a massively controversial move. The fact is, if that had been the full extent of the rumour, I wouldn’t be writing this piece, I’d be telling myself to ‘wait and see,’ taking comfort in the thought that a prequel could still move the overall story arc of the game series forward despite taking place in the past.
But that wasn’t the whole story. According to Variety, the next Batman game will be a “high stylised” title based on DC’s Silver Age comics and will see the Dark Knight team up with members if the Justice League as part of an attempt to make audiences more familiar with the group as part of their efforts to eventually produce a JLA movie (presumably to coincide with the big holiday that will mark the Second Coming).
Frankly, I couldn’t be less excited.
Okay, I’ll hold my hands up, when it comes to superhero comics I’ve always been a True Believer rather than…whatever the DC equivalent of a True Believer is. For some reason the wider DC Universe has never much appealed to me and I’ve always written Superman off as an overgrown boy scout with no discernible personality…yet at the same time, I’ve always loved the Dark Knight, and that’s why talk of the Silver Age and JLA leaves me both cold and perhaps a little nervous.
Take a look at this photo:
That photo is the reason for this whole article. During the 1950s, DC made the conscious decision to lighten up their master detective. The results were more than a little damaging. Instead of fighting ruthless gangsters, Batman found himself battling aliens and hanging out with a strange little inter-dimensional imp named ‘The Bat Mite’ who dressed up in a little Batman costume of his own…this revamped Caped Crusader was bold rather than brooding and apparently liked to take happy smiling photos with the rest of the ‘Bat Family’ Batman had always been a superhero with something of a silent ‘super’ when compared to Green Lantern, The Flash etc. So the decision was made to bring him a little more in line with his contemporaries.
It’s also fair to say that it was a commercial failure. By the late 1960s Batman was set for cancellation until writer Dennis O’Neil returned to the character to his darker roots in the early 70s introducing characters such as Ra’s Al Ghul and transforming the Joker from a figure of fun back into a homicidal monster. Now, if this new game takes its cues from this period of the Silver Age then maybe the news wouldn’t be quite so jarring. O’Neil toughened Batman up and ultimately laid the groundwork for the modern version that most of us are familiar with, so perhaps it wouldn’t be too hard to imagine that a Silver Age inspired version of Batman could eventually become the character seen in the previous ‘Arkham’ games if you’ve some appreciation of comic book history and an game took the later part of the period as it’s inspiration.
Unfortunately though, if you’re the type of fan who only really follows Batman through video games, movies and the odd trade paperback none of this will really mean much.
Aside from delivering top-notch gameplay, one of the biggest strengths of Rocksteady’s Bat-games to date has been the fact that they aren’t really tied to any comic books or movies etc. The games exist in their own continuity separate from the mainstream DC Universe. From a gamer’s perspective this means that you don’t need an encyclopaedic knowledge of comic books to enjoy them, and from Rocksteady’s side of things it means that they can tell new stories and come up with new takes on established character’s without worrying about contradicting established canon. Arkham City’s Penguin is a prime example of this: in Rocksteady’s world, Oswald Cobblepot came of age in the criminal underworld of London’s East End before arriving in Gotham, he’s a cockney for Christ’s sake! In place of the familiar monocle he has part of a broken bottle that’s been smashed into his eye! It’s a reinvention that’s as radical as Tim Burton’s deformed circus freak yet it never feels jarring because it’s hard to imagine him being anything less than a gangster in the game’s version of Gotham
It’s a dark, violent place, ruled by organised crime yet also populated by stranger figures like Mister Freeze or Clayface, while the Batman who watches over it, is a brooding, ultimately scarred hero forever struggling to avenge his dead parents. He is a hardened warrior clad in hard body armour; night after night, his gauntlets are stained red with the blood of battered thugs as he wages war on the criminal underworld.
To put it bluntly, the previous two games work because they offer a mature, contemporary vision of Batman that appeals to hardcore gamers as much as it appeals to hardcore comic book fans. They’ve followed their own path that’s paid homage to the character’s history without being bound to it. The games appeal to the mainstream.
It’s hard to see how a Silver Age game is going to do that. The masses like their Batman to be dark; I just can’t imagine them responding well to the more brightly coloured, ‘The Brave and The Bold’ version of the 1950s. Yes, the recent animated series of the same name proved to be a big hit but aside from the fact that it’s target audience was children, I’d argue it’s success was due to it’s tongue in cheek attitude to the source material and the constant Easter eggs that it offered up to long term comic readers. In some respects it still appeals to a slightly narrower demographic than the ‘Arkham’ games, an audience that understands that the character has been interoperated in a lot of different ways over the years and can appreciate them all. If this new game is intended as an actual prequel, then the contrast in styles might prove to be a little too great for a lot of fans to accept it as another chapter in Rocksteady’s story.
Then there’s the issue of the JLA making an appearance. On paper the idea of a game where Batman fights alongside the likes of Superman, Wonder Woman etc. looks like a brilliant idea, but brilliant ideas do not always make for great video games, especially where superheroes are concerned. The problem is simply that a lot of them are just too powerful to make for a convincing game. Batman works because he’s not a metahuman, he’s just a guy in peak physical shape, with extensive knowledge of criminology and a lot of very cool toys. If some thug on the street gets lucky with a knife or a gun, he’s dead. But if Superman gets shot with anything less than a kryptonite bullet nothing happens, he just keeps on going because he’s practically a demigod; that’s a major issue for a game designer and one that no game featuring the character has really managed to solve.
Speaking as someone who once played a 1980s arcade game from Taito where The Man of Steel could get felled by a single shot from an enemy weak enough for him to kill in the same fashion, it’s hard to see how Rocksteady could have Batman team up with such a character and then treat them in a way that’s faithful to their comics appearances without completely ruining a game’s balance or making Batman himself seem completely irrelevant – The other members of the JLA don’t make things any easier, if the aim is have players controlling these characters in a co-op mode then how do you give them control of The Flash for example, the obvious thing would be to include a gauge that dictates how quickly he can move but wouldn’t that lessen him?
It’s a minefield, and as brilliantly as Rocksteady have handled the ‘Arkham’ games, I’m not entirely sure if they can throw the Justice League into the mix without disappointing hardened DC fans – and if Warner Bros upset that core audience, then the future of the Dark Knight as far as video games are concerned might just be under threat. The sad truth is that the corporate suits, who try to co-ordinate media strategies such as the one Warner Bros are apparently undertaking, tend not to understand video games. If the millions of gamers who bought Arkham City are turned off by a lighter hearted prequel, they’re probably likely to place the blame for any failure on their chosen developer rather than admit that they made a bad call and then who knows what might happen? It’s not entirely unfeasible that those same suits would try to win back fans by announcing a proper sequel to AC but with a new developer at the helm…
Still, all of this might be irrelevant and I could be worrying over nothing. While web sites such as Games Radar have run articles covering what should or shouldn’t be included in a Silver Age Bat-game, I wouldn’t mind betting that Variety got their wires crossed when they broke the news. The history of video games is littered with so many failed superhero titles that it would be commercial suicide to make such a dramatic creative u-turn, especially where a character as well-loved as Batman is concerned. It’s more likely that this Silver Age title will have no connection to any previous games, that while it might share the odd gameplay mechanic, it will stand alone. If you want a precedent then consider the way in which Activison and Treyarch followed up the massively successful Spider-Man 2 tie-in with Ultimate Spider-Man – in terms of gameplay, the games were virtually identical, but their visual styles and tone were completely different.
Should Warner Bros follow this example and the Silver Age game has no connection to Rocksteady’s existing series then I have no problem with it, I still wouldn’t buy it, but I wouldn’t have a problem with it. I like my Dark Knight to live up to that moniker, I don’t like the thought of him having been more carefree and adventurous in the early part of his career, I want him to be mean and moody…that’s the Batman Rocksteady have given me control over and he’s a big reason why I (and no doubt millions of others) want to see a full blown sequel to Arkham City. A Silver Age-themed prequel just wouldn’t ring true…
However, that said I just can’t seem to shake the feeling that the faceless suits are unknowingly sharpening daggers in preparation for some commercial Hari-Kari. Once upon a time Tim Burton’s Batman movies weren’t just wantonly fantastical to the point of being hokey, they were dark, imaginative and, they did well at the box office.
And then one day, executives at Warner Bros decided that the next movie should sell more toys…
That image says it all really.