Arkham Knight: The Hierarchy of Villains

We’re familiar with the idea that the different major villains in the Batman universe reflect different aspects of Batman’s personality. Two-Face shows how the quest for justice can become a quest for vengeance; the Penguin reflects a twisted version of Bruce Wayne’s wealth; Mr Freeze his research and scientific skills. The Joker, depending on the incarnation, can represent a few different things. He can be the chaos to Batman’s lawfulness, the instinct to destroy in place of Batman’s drive to protect. He can embody the city itself, the random disordered nightmare of a decaying, post-industrial urban landscape, where things just seem to happen, with no overarching direction or plan – just disassociated, jumbled, careless noise.

So you can read much of the Batman mythos in this very psychological way, as a story of one man’s fragmented self, and of the policing work he has to do to maintain his identity in the face of conflicting pressures that threaten to pull him apart. Each facet of his personality carries its own self-destructive pattern, which needs to be overcome to ensure the integrity of the higher self. Thus Mr Freeze represents the danger of scientific inquiry – pardon the pun, but there’s always something a little Cold War about that guy. He carries connotations of the atomic bomb, of nuclear winter, of a world inhospitable to human life. Again, pardoning the pun, the imagery of cold-heartedness is also relevant as a critique of the excesses of scientific inquiry. It elicits knowledge pursued without regard for the humane. I actually think much of this stuff is less bad puns and more just the basic function of the metaphor – the associations that we bring to Freeze are what make him resonate as a character. That’s what makes this psychological lens really work.

Within this psychological frame, there are always going to be villains framed as more or less important. We don’t find ourselves equally split between all facets of our own lives – some are always more important than others. In the Arkham games, where there’s a real spread of villains, it’s the same thing – a given enemy will occupy a portion of the game, corresponding to their relative importance, and then they’ll drop out of sight. Sometimes they exist in optional side missions, as for example with Man-Bat in Arkham Knight, and sometimes they sit as part of the core narrative. And you can trace how different villains respond to their ranking. Riddler very frequently overestimates his importance to the narrative. He goes on and on about how he’s Batman’s arch nemesis, and really he’s just a bit of a nuisance. He’s trivial. He has a poor understanding of his place within the broader ecosystem, as he represents the dark reflection of intelligence – that is, arrogance and bad social skills. Beside how individual villains interpret their own status, this framework also gives the developers opportunity to explore some interesting narrative structures. It’s possible to disconnect the psychological importance of a villain from their structural position in the narrative, throwing out the balance of the story. Let’s talk about Scarecrow.

Scarecrow is putatively the main antagonist in Batman: Arkham Knight. He is the instigator of the drama, the key bad guy with the major evil plan. Most of the game’s other villains work for him in some sort of supporting role. The Arkham Knight himself is Scarecrow’s lieutenant, I suppose, and minor villains like Firefly are invited in to capitalize on the chaos of Scarecrow’s plan. Even villains who reject Scarecrow’s plan, like Poison Ivy, still relate to the story in terms of their relationship to Scarecrow as the central figure. And yet from a psychological perspective, Scarecrow doesn’t really matter. He is at most a backdrop, a distraction from Batman’s internal struggle against the Joker. This pattern is repeated in both Arkham City and Arkham Knight – in City, the main villain from a structural perspective is Hugo Strange, the architect of the Arkham City prison. But from a psychological perspective, the main villain is Joker. Joker causes the most emotional damage, killing Batman’s lover in the game’s climactic scene. By this point in the game Joker is extremely poisoned, and he subsequently attacks Batman, accidentally destroying the last vial of antidote and sealing his own fate. From a psychological perspective, Arkham City is thus a game about Batman failing to police his own psyche. Joker completes an arc of self-destruction, and Batman loses something of himself in the process. Hugo Strange is really incidental in all of this. He’s the main villain from a structural point of view, but emotionally and psychologically the game skews towards Joker.

The same basic process is repeated in Arkham Knight. Scarecrow has an evil plan, but it’s really just the backdrop against which Batman struggles to contain his inner Joker. Although Joker died in the previous game, he also infected Batman with some of his blood, and Batman is now slowly mutating into another Joker. It’s – just go with it, okay. Batman failed to police this part of his psyche, and now it’s trying to take over his brain. That’s the emotional core of Arkham Knight. Some of Scarecrow’s actions serve as accelerant for that struggle, and the theme of fear I guess is relevant, as Batman is obviously afraid of what he might turn into – but Scarecrow never really understands or exploits the struggle in Batman’s brain. He’s not masterminding Batman’s mental breakdown, and he’s not even staying that far ahead. Batman catches him several times before the end of the game. Scarecrow’s original plan is to flood the whole eastern seaboard with fear gas at Ace Chemicals – but Batman stops him. Scarecrow then tries to steal the Cloudburst from Stagg’s airship, and Batman catches him bang to rights – Scarecrow only escapes because Joker makes a play to take over Batman’s brain. There’s this whole hallucination sequence, and at the end of it, Scarecrow, who’s standing off to the side like a dolt, goes ‘uhh you’re in a weird mood batman haha’. He has no fucking idea what’s going on. Again, although Scarecrow is structurally the main villain, he’s not really that important psychologically. He doesn’t control or orchestrate the threat to Batman’s identity. He is at most a nuisance that under other circumstances could have been handled relatively easily.

So what’s the narrative impact, then? We have this lopsided game – two games, really – where the villain who poses the greatest psychological threat is distinct from the villain driving the plot. What does that do to the story? Really it emphasises the gap between Batman’s day to day labour and the actual emotional core of his character. It gives you a sense of Batman’s power by showing how emotionally aloof he is from the work he’s doing. We’ve talked previously about how this game empowers the player – how you can sneak up on thugs who are talking smack about you and throw them across the room (Arkham Knight: How to Write Dialogue). The relative unimportance of the main villains I think operates similarly. In Arkham City, Hugo Strange thinks that he’s the main character. He thinks that he’s really strong and powerful, and that he can beat Batman, but really he’s just a dumbass. He doesn’t genuinely threaten Batman in any meaningful way. He doesn’t cut to the core of his being. He’s just some guy. He’s another day at the office. In Arkham City, Batman has to work to defeat Strange, but his emotional energy is elsewhere. Beating Strange is something he does almost absent-mindedly, as a matter of habit rather than a specific force of will. The same can be said of Scarecrow in Arkham Knight. Of course, Scarecrow gets further than all the other villains, unmasking Batman and revealing his identity as Bruce Wayne – but in a sense that’s really Joker’s achievement. As Batman loses the fight to contain the Joker part of his personality, he is overwhelmed by a character who otherwise wouldn’t have given him that much trouble. The mundane, day-to-day work of beating someone like Scarecrow gets on top of him. The strict hierarchy of villains allows us to see that breakdown in real time. We know that Batman is miles ahead of someone like Scarecrow – the fact that Scarecrow does so well indicates the extent to which Joker has sapped the Dark Knight’s energy. It does make for lopsided storytelling, in the strictest sense, but it’s lopsided in a really proficient, capable way. It portrays the contours of Batman’s identity in this really sophisticated manner, and tells a genuinely compelling story about what it looks like to ultimately lose the battle for your own psychic integrity.

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