Posts Tagged ‘ Batman

Batman and Metaphor

The first movie I streamed from Netflix was the outstanding Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. It has aged well, a perfect example of what the team behind The Animated Series were capable of doing when freed from the half-hour format and content restrictions. A mobster gets killed in the first scene, which absolutely never happens in the TV show, and what follows is increasingly violent and disturbing. Mark Hamill’s Joker was never more hilarious and creepy, striking the right note of whimsical sadism. Couple that with a villain who was a frightening inversion of Batman himself, and some sharp dialogue between Bruce Wayne and his love interest, Andrea Beaumont, and you have the recipe for what remains perhaps the best Batman film yet.

That moved me to revisit The Animated Series that I loved so fiercely growing up. I recently finished the first set and, while it doesn’t hold up nearly as well as Phantasm, there are quite a few episodes that remain standouts. More importantly, within the confines of a children’s show, they employ a surprisingly clever metaphors to draw out parallels between the lives of the show’s young audience and the action on the screen.

Two-Face’s origin story, for instance,is wonderfully told. We meet Harvey Dent at the height of his powers: charismatic and incorruptible, he is coasting to an easy re-election and closing in on Rupert Thorne, a Gotham crime boss. But Harvey starts showing flashes of volcanic, uncontrollable rage. His friend Bruce urges him to get counseling, which he does, but Harvey continues to become more secretive about his problems.

In the counseling session, we learn that Harvey has always had a bad, unpleasant temperament. But rather than deal with that and master it, he suppressed it. He just wouldn’t allow himself to show or feel any anger. He created a persona, Big Bad Harve, who became the recipient of all his negative feelings. And now, with growing pressures and responsibilities, that coping mechanism is breaking-down. His desperation to conceal his weaknesses, as a child and now as an adult, ultimately leads him to the tragic encounter that births Two-Face.

A lot of kids’ shows condescend. They adopt the attitude, common among grown-ups, that there are a multitude of things that children just don’t understand or can’t quite cope with hearing about. They use fairytale dichotomies between good and evil, or they present the world as a place of lighthearted, Tom Sawyer-esque mischief.

Occasionally, Batman: TAS broke through this barrier and started dealing with difficult subjects and complicated feelings that a lot of children might not fully understand, but which would still have been relevant to them. “See No Evil” is one such episode.

“See No Evil” starts with a little girl, asleep in her room, being visited by an invisible friend, “Mojo.” Mojo has a kind voice and the affection between the girl and her friend is obvious, but it’s still unsettling. Mojo is bringing her treasures, like valuable jewelry, and he promises next time he’ll bring her a pearl necklace. The gifts are inappropriate for a girl age, and there is the question of where they are coming from. It goes unanswered. Mojo tucks her in and leaves.

But of course, “Mojo” is actually the girl’s father, a petty criminal who has managed to steal an experimental cloaking device. And the reason he has to visit the girl in secret is because he and his ex-wife are bitterly estranged. At another point in the episode, he runs into her at a store and tries to force a reconciliation. But the entire scene goes horribly wrong, and it ends with her running toward her car, shouting, “Why can’t you just disappear?”

“See No Evil” is really about divorce and custody. An man has been erased from his family, and he finds a plot device that makes that disappearance a literal one. He uses that power to insinuate himself back into his daughter’s life. The daughter, meanwhile, must learn that there are reasons her mother wanted to keep this man out of their lives. The show never suggests this man does not love his daughter. It merely lets him reveal that his love is unhealthy and possessive.

The real standout in the first set is “Beware the Gray Ghost”, which is basically a meta-story about Batman, his creators, and his fans. The Gray Ghost was a Batman-like TV superhero during Bruce Wayne’s childhood. We get an absolutely heart-breaking black-and-white flashback of Bruce, sitting on the floor in front of his father, clutching a Gray Ghost doll while the show plays on TV. The music theme that accompanies The Gray Ghost is brassy and heroic, a Silver Age motif employed in stark contrast to the darker modernism of Shirley Walker’s typical Batman: TAS score.

Gotham is struck by a series of crimes that strongly resemble old episodes of The Gray Ghost, and Batman becomes convinced the show holds the secret. There is only one problem: the show (like many children’s shows from the 50′s and 60′s) was destroyed after it went off the air. No copies of it exist. So Batman must track down the actor made famous by the role:  Simon Trent.

And of course Trent is voiced by none other than Adam West, and we find that Trent has become a washed-up actor. We witness a desperate phone call to his agent as he runs out of rent money, begging for work. His agent is apologetic, but explains that all anyone remembers him for is The Gray Ghost. Trent says, “But I’m an actor. I can play other parts.”

“Beware the Gray Ghost” is a great story about the other side of the dream factory, and how our fictional heroes live in memory long after the cameras stop rolling. Batman: The Animated Series, invited kids to contemplate their own relationship to Batman, and how he would look to them as adults. It invited them to think about the people who make it, and whether there is anything real underneath the illusion. It gave comforting answers and a Hollywood ending, but I can only admire a show that respected children enough to raise the questions.

A Very Thankful Weekend with Joker and Bats

Writing about my slight case of Thanksgiving Blues actually chased them away. By the time we sat down to dinner on Wednesday night, I was filled with holiday cheer and ready for the weekend to come. When work started back up on Sunday night, I had enjoyed a mini-vacation that was everything it could and should have been. Shockingly, it included a lot of gaming.

While my girlfriend proceeded to demolish Braid and The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition in the space of three days, I was hopelessly lost to Arkham Asylum. A lot of people compared it to Bioshock, but I’d have to say Arkham owes a lot more to Beyond Good & Evil. That explains why I never found myself getting bored and why I’ve gone back to the game on a higher difficulty immediately after completing it the first time.

The melee combat and the battle with Poison Ivy stand out in particular as areas where Arkham borrowed wholesale from BG&E, but the way Arkham keeps mixing up the challenges is very much in the same spirit. Before you have a chance to tire of beating thugs, you have a stealth sequence in which you pick them off one by one. Before the stealth sequence can slow down the game, you are working your way through the next section of the map. Then you fight a miniboss and get a new tool.

For the most part, I would say that Rocksteady were very careful about ensuring they never provided too much of a good thing. Although I must say that two encounters with Scarecrow would have been sufficient and I got a little tired of the fights against the super-thugs, since the trick was the same every time and Arkham Asylum goes to that particular well quite often.

Aside from those very slight missteps, Arkham Asylum was a smashing success for me. What I particularly loved was how the game consistently raised the stakes and tension every time I thought it had maxed out. The game opens with Joker seizing control of the Asylum and before you’re a quarter of the way through, you’ve had to rescue Jim Gordon and fight Bane. No sooner have you won that victory, and started thinking that you’re on the way to restoring order, than you discover Joker is planning on creating an army of Banes once he gets hold of some research materials. Even as you parry that attack, Ivy gets loose and starts to destroy the entire island.

Learn about Jokers fantastic retirement benefits!

Learn about Joker's fantastic retirement benefits!

At no point did I feel like the writers or designers were trying to stretch their premise and put some filler into the game. From the start it is clear that the Joker has a plan to keep Batman putting out fires throughout the long night, and it is totally in keeping with Poison Ivy’s character that she causes a completely unforeseen catastrophe midway through the game.

In fact, I was impressed with how right Rocksteady got each of Batman’s enemies. Fighting Scarecrow is a battle against insanity, and we get a deadly cat-and-mouse through Batman’s disintegrating reality. Bane is a knock-down, drag-out fight with a dangerous brute. Croc, as Batman says, is just an animal, and animals get trapped. Ivy uses plants to transform the battlefield until it favors her, and uses seduction to provide herself with cannon fodder.

I’m not certain how I feel about the final battle with Joker, because the thing about Joker is that he’s not difficult to defeat. It’s defeating his labrythine plots that poses the problem for Batman. Joker himself, however, is no great combatant. Rocksteady worked around this, but their solution seemed a bit off to me.

Somehow, this game always looks like a production still from a great movie.

Somehow, this game always looks like a production still from a great movie.

Still, it feels like a proper Batman adventure from top to bottom, and it was wonderful to hear Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprising their roles for this game. And I must thank Crispy Gamer’s Russ Fischer for highlighting one particular sequence that really nails what it means to be the Dark Knight. He writes:

Arguably, the two missing elements are Gotham City and Bruce Wayne. Both of these, however, are almost more useful as things Batman wants and can’t have. Gotham, no matter how corrupt, is a dreamscape compared to Arkham Island. The city’s skyline is bright and tantalizing and unobtainable. Bats has to see the night out; he can’t just run to the city and do an easier gig.

There’s a reason, too, that the big Wayne building dominates that skyline. If Batman wanted to truly retreat from the insanity of Arkham, Bruce Wayne is the shell to hide in, and that building on the horizon is a reminder of his existence. The horror of Wayne’s childhood is all that he is allowed to revisit, and the game’s story is stronger for it. If we’re going to wallow in the madness of the lunatics who burst into existence along with Batman, we should really wallow deep, and Bruce Wayne is the shallow end of the pool.

If he hadn’t pointed this out, I would have missed the resonance of this one particular sequence midway through the game. Just after a truly nightmarish, harrowing encounter with Scarecrow and a tough slog through Croc’s lair, Batman breaks emerges from a tunnel built into one of the island’s cliff-faces.

It is the first clean breath Batman has drawn in what seems like hours, and the oppressive ugliness of the preceding scenes have done an admirable job of making you feel the same revulsion and emotional exhaustion he must feel. You stand on the edge of the cliff, a lovely promontory from which not a yard of Arkham is visible, and stare across the stretch of calm, moonlit water to the Gotham skyline. It is a sublime, peaceful moment.

Then you jump from the cliff and glide in a sweeping arc back toward the island, literally descending back to its madness and turning your back on the only peaceful vision you will see.