I have some lingering thoughts on violence I didn’t discuss in my previous two posts on the subject (“Everything Looks like a Nail… / …When All you Have is a Hammer.” bigtallwords. Aug 13 2014.). About two days ago my partner finished a completionist run of both Batman games, Arkham Asylum and Arkham City (she skipped Arkham Origins because, seriously, fuck Arkham Origins). There are certain games the two of us revisit regularly (both individually and in one another’s company) because they speak to us somehow. Anyway, the first two games in the Arkham series speak to us somehow. I sat with her through many of the major segments adding encouragement or advice when it was needed, restraining needy cats when the game demanded her concentration or just picking away at my phone or 3DS. But watching her work through those games again with violence on my mind helped me recognize a gap in the last two articles I posted here. Sure, players expect to use violence as a tool to solve problems and they expect violence to be just, but they also expect that their victims to be a kind of criminal that doesn’t just deserve violent treatment but exists to vindicate the aggressor’s power.
I offer a reading of Arkham City—my reading, in fact.
Dr. Strange sets up Arkham City, a cordoned district of Gotham City populated by former inmates of Blackgate maximum security prison and Arkham asylum for the criminally insane. Now, there is no such thing as the criminally insane and it’s deeply false, hurtful and insulting that videogames/comics continue to treat the mentally ill as “criminally insane” to justify punching them (Lindsey, Patrick. “Gaming’s favorite villain is mental illness, and this needs to stop.” Polygon. July 21 2014.). Here I offer a caveat that I depend on to uphold this reading: videogames, comic books and videogames about comic books explode ideas and imagery to ridiculous proportions so that their flaws appear more visible; just as speculative fiction attempts to push modern life to an extreme where it can be evaluated with greater scrutiny. There is a cultural stigma against the mentally ill that they are “criminally insane” and deserve punching. So that the Batman games take this as a truism speaks to a cultural assumption of the mentally ill (I will discuss problems with this in a minute).
Dr. Strange, a psychologist, builds Arkham City and drops every violent supervillain he can find into it: his private security company oversees the outdoor prison from armed helicopters, cameras and concrete walls protected by fixed machine guns. Dr. Strange encourages the gang war between Two-Face, the Penguin and the Joker, supplying each of them with weapons and intelligence to ensure that the war will escalate equally between each faction so no one of them emerges on top. When the gang war between them becomes a bloodbath, Gotham City permits Dr. Strange to enact protocol 10: firebombing Arkham City.
When Batman squares of with Strange, Strange tells Batman he’s perfectly justified because crime in Gotham has gotten so bad that the only way to rid the city of it is to kill all the criminals. Dr. Strange, who is named Dr. Strange, reasons that if it weren’t for flamboyant but ineffectual crime fighters like Batman, flamboyant and brutal figures like the Joker wouldn’t exist. That’s a point that is often raised against Batman as a character by real-world readers and critics (“Why Batman Is Secretly Terrible for Gotham.” After Hours. Video. Cracked. Jun 27 2011.). Batman only temporarily strings up criminals to be locked up in a criminal system with an established history of ineptitude and corruption, therefore insuring violent criminals will recover and commit more violent crimes. Furthermore, Batman’s enemies are almost universally motivated by their relationship to Batman; they either want revenge against Batman, they want to unmask him or they want to defeat him to prove their superior skill. Strange adopts the real-world criticism that without Batman, Gotham would be safe.
However, I don’t view crime in the Arkham games to be Batman’s fault even though I don’t think he’s a solution to it. Batman is a symptom of crime, he’s just a part of the system, not an agent outside it. Crime escalates and Batman punches it; elected authorities write laws, police enforce their laws and quarantine crime in Arkham asylum/city. Supervillains exploit the chaos of the city’s crime for their own goals and Batman punches them. Dr. Strange or Ra’s al Ghul or Warden Sharp become apathetic or spiteful to crime and apply tyrannical force against it until Batman punches them. Batman is a neutralizing element. When a criminal crimes, Batman punches him to an institute where the criminal is folded into a more efficient criminal organization headed by a charismatic leader devoid of empathy in a weird outfit. The greater crime organizations rise in power until institutional forces violently shut them down; when those institutions overstep their bounds Batman punches the legislative powers back to status quo. At each stage, Batman is merely returning things back to normal. Normal just happens to be broken and nobody suffers this more than the low-level criminals Batman punches most often. My reading is that Arkham games reflect this.
Inmates in either game complain about being cold, about being forced to stand around waiting to be beaten up by either Batman or a rival gang member. They know one another’s names and they exchange loyalties from one gang to the next because it’s the only protection they can have from the “freaks that run this town.” They want to leave but they’re trapped not just by Arkham, but by Gotham. Nobody cares about them, nobody gives them food or coats, they watch the helicopters circling them like predators and they beg not to be killed. Batman listens to them from the shadows but he never learns their names; he’ll break their bones and give them brain damage but he won’t lift them out of a social position where gang warfare or vulnerability are the only options. Batman won’t kill, but he won’t offer anyone a living either; he’ll lock the Joker up but he won’t rehabilitate him. As Bruce Wayne, he opens Arkham City with a press conference denouncing the outdoor prison’s threat to public safety against “ordinary” citizens of Gotham, Wayne has no problem with the human rights abuses or the prison’s use as a crime lord’s recruitment pool. Nobody cares about the inmates, the danger they’re in or the lives they’re forced into and at its cleverest Arkham Asylum and Arkham City remind the player that as much fun as it is to punch these people, they’re stuck in their lives and there is no escaping them: there’s always another supercriminal offering them clothes, food and guns and there’s always a warden Sharp or a Dr. Strange waiting for an excuse to kill them all. Batman just hits reset on the same process over and over again. Inmates are taken to Arkham Asylum/City for minor drug charges, traffic violations, theft, downloading media illegally, criminal negligence, immigration and outstated but unclear “political imprisonment” but the only way these minor criminals can survive their conditions is by becoming violent killers. Batman doesn’t help or hurt the system, he’s just a part of it.
That was my reading. But I don’t know if I buy that after watching the major story beats of those games again.
During the “Harley Quinn’s Revenge” downloadable chapter, a group of police officer’s are taken hostage by Harley Quinn’s new gang. As the player approaches a gang of hoodlums and a kdnapped officer of the law, they overhear hoodlum-prime coaxing our noble protector of the peace: “you’re the good guy, and I’m the bad guy” says the ne’er-do-well. That single line of dialogue summarizes Arkham‘s relationship to criminality. Throughout the series henchmen will threaten shrieking nurses with a hammer in a dialect ripped from the poetry of my teen goth phase or they’ll casually drop veiled threats against off-screen women to one another (Film Crit Hulk. “GODDAMMIT VIDEO GAMES: THE FIRST FEW HOURS OF ARKHAM CITY IS LOTS OF FUN, BUT SUPER-DUPER SEXIST;
HULK VS. ARKHAM CITY – ROUND 2: BITCHES BE TRIPPIN’!” FILM CRIT HULK! HULK BLOG! Oct 19 2011; Oct 21 2011.). In accordance with my reading above I tried to interpret this as macho posturing: a way of illustrating how the criminals are trapped in their lives and to survive must push themselves deeper into the violent culture around them, a culture which sustains toxic masculinity. But really, these are just short and easy ways to establish their villainy. The goons in the Arkham games are cheap vessels of evil that must be regularly purged with punches.
The Arkham games don’t prop up a funhouse mirror of real-world anxieties so we can better understand them—at least it doesn’t do so clearly enough to uphold a close-playing—it buys into the myth of the “criminally insane” and it buys into the myth of criminality. I tweeted to Stephen Beirne a little while ago that there’s a tendency to give games credit for having ideas—even accidental ideas—without ever considering how they work out and while I believe that a reader is allowed to read and argue their own interpretation of a text, I’m guilty of giving games more credit than they deserve because they almost make a statement. Batman, a character who began as a children’s fantasy, has steadily turned into a figure of romanticized fascism. Frank Miller, Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan have had a lot to with that transformation, but here we are nonetheless. Looking at Arkham as a hyperstylized extreme of real world attitudes to crime and mental illness almost makes the game feel like a commentary on those issues. But really, it’s just regurgitating the status quo.
Those last two articles I wrote on this blog discussed violence as the player’s asset, as a tool to be applied to a problem. When it isn’t just disquieting and uncritical, it’s a colonizer’s entitlement to power, criticized for its misuse not for its existence. That big 2-part essay doesn’t acknowledge how violence frames the victims. Videogame violence treats the victim as nebulously “criminal” more easily understood as a punching bag than a human being. There’s an episode of the cartoon The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (S1.ep22.) that opens with The Avengers punching crime in the face. Ant-Man, however, punches less efficiently and tries to reason with crime before crime punches him and runs off. His teammates berate him for his poor crime punching (“You let them get away!” Wasp whines). Ant-Man walks out of frame and when the camera cuts to him leaving the room he sighs and mutters “I quit.” The following scenes frame his departure as a betrayal but it’s one of my favourite things I’ve seen in children’s media. Ant-Man sticks up for his enemies against his friends, which I think takes tremendous courage. Furthermore, Ant-Man fails: the bad guys get away and they mock him but he still remains committed to helping them instead of punching them. Later in the episode he explains “I joined the Avengers to help people, including the supervillains.” The show goes on to prove Ant-Man’s pacifism ineffectual and he doesn’t return to the team until he adopts the hyper-masculine douchey persona of Yellow Jacket. That’s the view of criminality I see growing in popular culture and in the Arkham games. Where one is a hero or a villain and any attempt to see crime as something other than something for heroes to punch is a betrayal.
I’ve got this working fan-fiction in my head for the final Arkham game where Batman faces his greatest possible challenge: a crime-free Gotham. A city where crime and corruption are reduced until Batman is no longer needed. The Mad-Hatter, Scarecrow, Penguin, Two-Face and the Riddler reform; Clayface, Grundy and Bane are cured and those villains incapable of reintegrating into society enrol in an institute that humanely keeps them and the public safe from one another. Is there a writer on Earth who knows what to do with Batman in that kind of situation without falling back on more violence? Is there a version of Batman that retires happily in a system devoted to equity and due process?
I consider the way that victims of violence are portrayed. They don’t just deserve to be assaulted, they exist to prove the moral and violent power of the hero. There is only crime to prove the vigilante’s sense of justice. After a generation of repetition that narrative has been normalized. I know that there are games that aren’t interested in power and I know that there are games that express empowerment without a victim but I’m still troubled at how the larger culture treats violence as a salve to apply on a dehumanized interpretation of crime.
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Further reading: Cordeiro, Fernando. “BATMAN: ARKHAM CITY and the douchebag in all of us.” Nightmare Mode. Mar 24 2012.
Tremblay, Kaitlin. “Cleavage, Claws and Catwoman.” Thatmonster. Jun 26 2012.
Gach, Ethan. “At the Intersection of Police Brutality and Vigilante Tourism in Games.” Nightmare Mode. Nov 26 2012.
Grosskopf, Paul. “The Religion of the Dark Knight.” PopMatters. Aug 14 2014.