I completed Batman: Arkham City (B:AC) recently, including the Catwoman DLC narrative content. There’s been a bit of controversy about the game’s narrative, but I wanted to experience things first hand before commenting on them (which is unusual on the internet, I know, and I promise it won’t become a trend).
There will be SPOILERS below, so don’t read the following unless you want the narrative of the game revealed to you.
She’s A Bitch
There was quite a bit of comment about B:AC’s liberal use of the word “bitch” in reference to its female characters, with a great overview here by Film Crit Hulk. Having played through B:AC, I didn’t encounter that particular issue too much… provided I wasn’t playing as Catwoman. If you are running around as Catwoman, expect to be called “bitch” a lot. I’m 90% sure I heard the phrase “cat bitch” several times, which is completely wrong because it mixes up cat and dog terminology.
Couldn’t Rocksteady come up with some other insulting name for women? There’s a whole barrel to chose from – whore, slut, slapper, bushpig, skank – that would have at least added variety to the experience of being insulted as a woman. However, only focusing on the lazy use of the word “bitch” misses a larger issue: B:AC has a really weird role for its women.
I Don’t Know What Phallocentric Means, But No Girls!
Film Crit Hulk points at this issue in the link above and in his follow-up post, but B:AC is a pretty sexist place to be. I certainly don’t expect prisons to be bastions of political correctness, but a fantasy “walled off section of a major city that houses a huge number of prisoners and contained by a private army” prison that serves as sandbox entertainment is held to a different standard. And raises a different question:
Where are the female prisoners (or even female Tyger guards)?
Looking to some real-world stats, female prisoners make up about 8.5% of the US prison population (although that’s 2003 data, so it may have changed). B:AC states that all prisoners from Blackgate Prison and Arkham Asylum have been moved into Arkham City. So, assuming that Gotham has women committing crimes at about the same rate as the US at large, then about 1 in every 12 prisoners Batman comes across should be female.
Instead, the only female prisoners of Arkham City are Harley Quinn (low cut top, tight leather outfit), Catwoman (low cut top, bodysuit) and Poison Ivy (shirt held in place by the most determined clasp in Gotham, plant-themed panties). And it’s snowing in Arkham City.
The only woman that Batman encounters from a combat viewpoint are ninjas, and these aren’t prisoners. (Said ninjas are Talia’s Elite Guards, with a bio that says they can take on “a hundred men” but Batman takes them out relatively easily because they can’t take as much damage as garden variety male inmates. They do have swords and are quick though.)
So unless they plan to go the whole ‘supervillain in lingerie’ angle, it appears that women in Gotham don’t commit crimes.
Sidenote: I’m In Arkham City For Non-Payment of Parking Fines
This also raises the side point about pretty much every prisoner in Arkham City being a murdering and / or raping psychopath – does Gotham have no white collar criminals? No criminals doing time for drug offences? It made sense for everyone you came across in Batman: Arkham Asylum to take a swing at Batman because the Joker had brought them into for that very purpose, but this isn’t the case in Arkham City – the prisoners are just there because Arkham City is a prison.
Instead, it appears pretty much everyone tries to take on Batman just because it is something to do. I like to imagine that the mere sight of Batman in Arkham City causes men doing 2 years for insurance fraud to pick up a baseball bat due to peer pressure.
The Assassin Princess Is In Another Castle
Not every woman in Gotham is dressed to show as much cleavage as possible. Batman comes across other women wearing more clothes, but they are either emergency staff that require rescuing, journalists who require rescuing or lifelong assassins who are second-in-charge of an assassin organisation … who require rescuing.
(To be fair, Batman does also rescue some men, but there’s generally the impression that they can look after themselves once he’s gone. There is a female cop in B:AC who gets a gun – most other female civilians are tear-streaked and will be dependent on the men protecting them when they get to a safe house.)
Of how the women are treated in B:AC, it is Talia al Ghul’s treatment that is worst. She’s meant to be pretty much Batman’s equal – which is why he’s attracted to her – and top command in an organisation that plans to remake the world, but ends up as pretty much the stupidest character in-game.
SPOILERS In her first appearance in the storyline, she’s manipulated by Batman into letting him try to join the League of Assassins which results in her being held hostage by her own father. Ra’s al Ghul wants Batman to kill him and uses a blade against his daughter’s throat to try to get this to happen. Talia gets a bit bit irritated at that behaviour from the two men in her life at this point, and rightfully so.
Then (long breath) despite having stolen the cure Batman needs off Harley Quinn, Talia ‘trades’ herself as a hostage (along with the cure and promise of immortality in the Lazarus Pit) to the Joker so that he doesn’t kill Batman immediately. When Batman comes to save her, she easily kills the Joker, only to find out that the healthy Joker is actually the shapeshifter Clayface when she is shot in the back by the real, still-needing-the-cure Joker.
Talia has the cure. Batman needs the cure. Talia is an assassin. Instead of walking into the room and loudly proclaiming things to stop the Joker shooting Batman, she is perfectly capable of taking out the (fake) Joker by stealth, giving Batman the cure and then dealing with things from there. Requiring Batman to save her is purely a plot convenience – Batman must save the damsel in distress, the woman he loves, one more time – that undermines Talia as a character.
In short, Talia becomes the least assassin-y assassin she could be within B:AC. Given that the key male characters generally behave in ways that befit their capabilities (including their losses to Batman), it stands out that the single most important woman to B:AC’s narrative has the main role of requiring rescue.
(Catwoman is rescued by Batman from Two-Face and does return to help Batman, but arguably Catwoman’s narrative is largely divorced from the main B:AC narrative. Oracle gets to say a few things, but she’s arguably the nagging voice in Batman’s ear that he generally ignores.)
Contains: Sadism, Torture, Cruelty, Teddy Bears
That’s enough about the role of women in B:AC, although it is a rich vein that could be mined further (such as the ability to ungag and gag a tied-up Harley Quinn – I’m sure I could get a few hundred words out of that). Let’s move on to look at the odd, dark streak of cruelty through the game, along with a character that best typifies this shift: the Penguin.
In general Batman continuity, the Penguin is a bird-obsessed underworld figure who basically resembles a human penguin who wears a monocle. He uses specialised umbrellas that might let him fly, or shoot bullets or something necessary to the story at hand. As owner of the Iceberg Lounge, he often serves as a fence or fixer who gets other criminals what they want. He’s a bit of an odd villain in that he doesn’t have to be a Batman bad guy – with a change in clothes and he’d be an odd looking night club owner (and if you’ve seen any night club owners, you’ll know that being odd-looking almost seems to be a contractual requirement).
To some extent B:AC raises a similar question in asking “Who’d follow a deformed midget?” and answers that question with, “Because those who stand against him risk being tortured to death slowly”. B:AC’s Penguin is an out-and-out sadist with a bad temper and a huge chip on his shoulder. He isn’t wearing a monocle anymore – that’s a bottle that’s been pushed into his head and could kill him if removed. That injury occurred in a fight at the Iceberg lounge, which saw the Penguin retaliate by cutting out both of his attacker’s eyes and sending him across a busy road in Gotham at peak hour.
During the game, Penguin threatens his men with not only their death, but the torture-oriented death of their families as well, if they can’t stop Batman. You get to hear him freeze the hand of an undercover cop using Mr Freeze’s weapon, then smash the hand with a hammer. His Museum contains a big section called The Torture Room and he has cases that display his ‘attractions’, including warnings to others (such as the henchman he cooked in an oven – corpse not shown, but Penguin vocalises it). A black market competitor in the Ratcatcher was dragged screaming into Penguin’s lair, with the insinuation that he was tortured to death there, probably involving his own rats. B:AC’s Penguin is a nasty, nasty piece of work.
Of course, he isn’t the only one. The Joker is using the industrial output of his factory base to burn the skin off victims until they die (and henchmen chatter indicate that some take a while) while Two-Face used a large saw to cut one of his henchmen in two, with other henchmen then required to clean up the mess. The Riddler’s puzzles seen one hostage cooked alive if you fail while another sees the hostage tortured by relative shocks of electricity while you try to reach them.
(Sidenote: who’d be a henchman in Gotham City? Your options are awful: your boss will likely have little hesitation into sending you to face off against someone who has beaten down more minions than the population of a small US city and / or have no problems with murdering you when you mistakenly say or do something that offends them, which may include “being in my line of sight”. You’d think there would only be a small group of people nuts enough to want to be the Joker’s (or Riddler’s or Two-Face’s etc) henchmen, but given the small armies that have lined up against Batman in his recent history, I guess people think very differently in Gotham.)
In other words, B:AC is a very black world, filled with the worst of the worst. Although Batman’s rogues gallery has always contained some very twisted individuals, they haven’t generally transitioned into tortuous sadists. In many ways I think that B:AC went too dark – these characters are so unremittingly evil that Batman’s code to only punch them a few times (unlike henchmen, who get their bones broken) seems quaint and ineffective. I’m not calling for Batman to start killing his enemies, but when all you do SPOILER after defeating the Penguin is lock him in one of his own display cases END SPOILER, it seems that Batman is leaving those at the head of the villain food chain relatively unscathed so that they can get back to keeping him busy in short order.
There are a few characters who don’t seem to go all the way to black, such as Bane or Mr Freeze, but both of those characters are SPOILER just waiting to do a heel turn to remain on the opponents list for at least part of the game END SPOILER. Bane does get access to teddy bears which may mitigate his mood… even if the teddy bears are creepy looking.
Is There A Point To All This?
Yes. B:AC is an excellent Batman game that, although less story focused then Batman: Arkham Asylum, manages to provide a superb gaming experience. It is an experience that is marred however by how the title treats women and by how in going for gritty villain characters, Rocksteady have pushed them too far into the black (or alternatively haven’t pushed Batman far enough and he’s left fighting a forest fire of human cruelty with a garden hose).
Rocksteady’s Batman games have played as a broad mix of different Batman mythos – the comics, the movies, the animated series – plus a dash of Rocksteady’s own narrative plans. This mix feels weird in B:AC, and is enough to distance me from the game. Yes, B:AA was dark and gothic, but didn’t feel so relentlessly hopeless for Batman, even at the end of the game. B:AC goes too dark and leaves the player (or at least me) with an odd sense of defeat – not because of what happens at the end of the game, but because even as Batman / Bruce Wayne (or Selina Kyle / Catwoman) you were pretty much completely ineffective in fighting back against a wave of darkness. And that darkness is just waiting there for the next Rocksteady Batman game.
In all likelihood there will be another Rocksteady Batman title (I’m guessing it will be called Batman: Gotham City, given the kind of escalation we’ve seen in the first two games). Let’s hope they can balance out the grimdark better in the next one… and give female characters a bit more heft at the same time.