Batman Arkham Origins: Justice Revised

We’re coming up on five years of the blog, and I’m looking back at some of my older articles. I’m trying to decide whether to delete or re-write some of them – my style has obviously changed over the years, and there are some things that I don’t want available as representative of my thought. I’m also thinking a little about what I’d approach differently. When I first started writing – like right at the start, on the very first day – I released four or five articles at once. I’d written them up as practice, to see if I liked the concept, and – well, here we are nearly five years later. One of those original articles looked at the theme of justice in Batman: Arkham Origins. I’ll rehash the general argument – you can read the original here, if you like – but basically, I was looking at how all of these different characters in Arkham Origins had different approaches to justice. Riddler was leaking information about corrupt government officials, Anarky was trying to tear down capitalism, and the League of Assassins were executing criminals rather than (in their view) wasting time on prison and failed attempts at rehabilitation. Those are three fascinating and conflicting visions of justice. Add Batman and the police into the mix and you’ve got at least five competing philosophies of how a society should work. And I made the point that Arkham Origins never really goes anywhere with that setup. It’s not interested in exploring the nuances and contours of these ideas – it’s just Batman is good, and everybody else is a baddie, and sure they can say what they think about justice, but then Batman beats the shit out of them and puts them in jail. That seems like a bit of a missed opportunity.

So that was the basic argument. I said at the time that it wasn’t really a criticism of the game per se, because – you know, it’s a Batman game, it’s not going to be interested in these different types of justice. It’s not going to give you a serious interrogation of the different ideologies – that’s just not something you can expect from this genre. But I think there’s more to say about why that is. The superhero genre is fantasy escapism built on the empowerment of one individual – in this case, Batman. Typically the genre is built on the assumption that this key character has the exclusive right and ability to solve the world’s problems – and that other characters do not. Other characters have no agency, and no power – or, where they do, that agency is entirely negative. We see this negative agency with the villain characters: they have the power to act, but they can only do bad things. They rob banks and blow things up. Similarly, sometimes good characters will carry out an action independently – and the outcome depends on whether or not the actor is supporting Batman’s agency. For instance, in Arkham Origins, Barbara Gordon hacks into Batman’s radio and starts feeding him tech support. That’s an exercise of agency, but it’s really just supporting Batman’s agency, so it’s permitted. By contrast, about five minutes earlier her father, James Gordon, gets in between Batman and the corrupt SWAT officers trying to catch him. Gordon almost gets himself killed, and Batman has to save his life while fending off the SWAT guys. Gordon tries to do something under his own steam, towards his own goals, and the narrative shows that he’s a bumbling idiot making life difficult for the only legitimately capable person in the story.

The empowerment of Batman, then, is not just about Batman exercising his agency. It’s also about denying agency to other characters, who would use it poorly – through either fault or malice. From that perspective, to return to our initial point, it makes sense that Arkham Origins never investigates these different approaches to justice. The justification for power in this universe doesn’t lie with theories or philosophies about right or wrong. It lies in the individual. Batman is the hero, and therefore his power is justified. Every other actor is a threat, and their power is unjustified, inconvenient, and dangerous. The theories of justice only exist as surface material, as aesthetic wrapping with no integrity or value in themselves. Power can’t be justified in this universe by an appeal to philosophic principle. That’s why Batman never responds with his own theory of how justice should work. He doesn’t out-debate anyone. He ignores the arguments – which, again, are meaningless in the logic of this universe – and instead beats people up. He exercises his agency and his ability to act by taking agency away from others. The true conflict in Arkham Origins is not between differing ideas, but between different actors. The only criteria that matters is whether or not you can assert your agency over somebody else. Might equals right.

Even so, it’s probably valid to wonder if the developers haven’t snuck through some implicit judgements about the proper nature of justice as dispensed by Batman. After all, when all the other theories of justice have their proponents locked up in jail – isn’t that at least saying something about what Arkham Origins thinks justice shouldn’t look like? It’s not blowing up capitalism, because that was Anarky’s plan, and he got arrested for it; and it’s not killing the criminals, because that was Shiva’s plan, and Batman ran her off. I’m still going back and forth on this, to be honest. There’s this scene in The Dark Knight, near the start, where Batman is catching Scarecrow. There are a bunch of copycat Batmen who turn up with guns and such, and Batman ties them up with all the criminals. One of the copycats shouts “What gives you the right? What’s the difference between you and me?” And as he settles back into his multi-million dollar battle tank, Batman quips “I’m not wearing hockey pads.” That’s pretty clearly a comment on Batman’s wealth, or on his professional training and equipment as opposed to the amateur approach of his imitators. It’s presented as an off-the-cuff action movie quip, but it also kinda suggests that Batman’s actions are justified by his wealth. It’d be fair to take a similar approach to Arkham Origins, and suggest that the game implicitly celebrates Batman’s concept of justice even if Batman himself doesn’t spend his time telling you what it is. Again, I wouldn’t complain if someone took that approach, and studied what we might call the implicit ideologies of Batman’s vision of justice. I’m just not convinced that it’s appropriate from a genre perspective. In other superhero stories, such as Daredevil or Spiderman, those heroes aren’t necessarily justified by their wealth or professional training. Spiderman is a random kid, and at the start of Netflix’s Daredevil, Daredevil is running around with a bit of stocking or something that he’s pulled over his face. These are not characters defined by what they have. They’re defined by who they are. They’re heroes.

In this sense, Batman as a character is actually an exception amongst the wider superhero pantheon: namely because he doesn’t have any powers. Spiderman was bitten by a magic spider, and Daredevil saved an old lady from being run over by a radioactive goo truck. They both had formative events that gave them both the right and the ability to act. Again: the authority resides in the character themselves rather than in their philosophies or ideas. We could read Batman as a vision of civic-minded capitalism – and again, I wouldn’t object – but I’m just not sure it gets to the heart of the genre. Being poor doesn’t stop people from being heroes. Neither does shitty gear. Batman’s wealth is part of what empowers him, but it’s a marker or symptom of agency rather than its core and essence, which remains inalienably within the individual. Really, I’d argue, if we want to think about the philosophies and ideas at the heart of Arkham Origins, we have to start with how the genre operates. It’s a genre built around exceptionalism and an inflated sense of the individual. Batman lends himself to a reading that focuses on how those traits relate to capitalism and money, just as Arkham Origins lends itself to discussions about the nature of justice. But the discussion needs to be had in the context of how the superhero genre operates, so that we can distinguish between what’s core to the story and what’s incidental.

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