If you’re a Bat-fan, there has almost never been a better time. To say nothing of the million comics, cartoons, and upcoming Gotham Knights video game, 2022 will see no fewer than three different Batmans on the big screen. Yes, in addition to Robert Pattinson in The Batman we’ll also get both Ben Affleck’s version and Michael Keaton’s version in November’s The Flash movie. But while Batman has always been popular, a lot of what we now take for granted, especially in the movies, owes its success to the Arkham series of video games between 2009 and 2015.
Beginning with Batman: Arkham Asylum, the games revolutionized action-adventure titles, inventing a free-flow combat that tons of other games emulated, or flat-out stole. The games are the prototype for what superhero games ought to be. But more than that, they provided a new blueprint for what the Batman universe meant, taking what worked about comics, cartoons, and past movies and put it all in ever-growing cityscapes where villains of all levels coexisted with their own plans and schemes.
For our money, the games gave us three important elements the movies have already started to take for their own.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight movie in 2008 spent a lot of shoe leather explaining how (go figure) Batman might want to turn his head when fighting people. This obviously allowed for a lot more sweeping movements in combat. The following year in Arkham Asylum, however, this kind of movement is just part of who Batman is. The games created this entire new style of play wherein, through the input of specific buttons in a specific order at a specific rhythm, Batman could take down an entire room full of enemies in a matter of moments. Gadgetry, fists, elbows, kicks, and cape became mere beats in a gorgeously fluid beatdown.
Reviewers and players have spoken about how this free-flow combat allows you to “feel” like Batman. It became the new standard for how Batman was meant to fight. Easily the best scene in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice finds Batman taking out an entire warehouse of villains without ever breaking stride. It’s a supremely brutal scene, and was the first to employ the Arkham-style of combat. Batman should be able to take out a bunch of guys all by himself, but showing it on screen effectively only came about after the games. The Batman follows this trend.
A City Full of (Low) Life
Gotham City has never been a particularly welcoming place. Crime lurks around every corner. But as we know, criminals are a cowardly, superstitious lot. Still, in the movies, we’ve never really gotten a sense that there are other super villains elsewhere. Beginning in Batman (1989), the city seems only to have one villain at a time. Mostly because the baddies always died. But it’s not like we saw Jim Carrey’s Riddler in Arkham when Mr. Freeze goes there in Batman & Robin. The movies just never felt lived in. The lone exception is Scarecrow popping up for ten seconds in both of the Dark Knight sequels.
The maps of the Arkham games grow exponentially as they go along. The first game is just the Asylum and its grounds; Arkham City is a walled-off section of Gotham specifically to keep criminals. By the time of Arkham Knight, Batman could traverse the entirety of the city. Regardless of size, however, the games show us an entire menagerie of members of Batman’s rogues gallery.
In this way, the games have influenced The Batman mightily. Early on in Arkham City, Batman saves Catwoman from Two-Face only for the Joker to get the drop on them all. The Joker infects Batman with a toxin and he needs Mr. Freeze’s help to find a cure. However, Penguin has kidnapped Mr. Freeze and holds him captive deep in the Iceberg Lounge. And that’s all in the first hour of the game!
The sense that Gotham City isn’t just home to the rogues gallery but positively teeming with them is what permeates each of the Arkham games. This translates, to a much lesser degree, to The Batman, where Riddler, Penguin, and Catwoman all operate independently and simply pass through the hero’s orbit in the course of his duties. The Matt Reeves version of Gotham City could have a Mr. Freeze or Mad Hatter somewhere and just haven’t appeared yet.
The Horror! The Horror!
The final big thing the movies, and specifically The Batman, have taken from the Arkham games is how tied they are to horror. It isn’t simply that Batman uses fear as a weapon, but the games themselves are scary. Despite the player controlling the most capable character in modern comics, the setting and villains all reinforce an almost supernatural level of evil monsters.
The inaugural game, Arkham Asylum, takes place entirely in the Gothic architecture of the mental hospital for the criminally insane. Jump scares are plentiful, from monstrous enemies like Killer Croc and psychological torture from Scarecrow. Even random thug enemies will rush at the player from around a blind corner, which is always scary if you don’t expect it. This focus on the more terrifying elements of Batman’s mythos continues in Arkham City but really hits its apex in Arkham Knight.
Arkham Knight‘s main antagonist is Scarecrow, who uses a fear toxin on Batman and the entire city. From the very first scene, the player has to deal with disturbing hallucinations of monsters and the like. A vision of the Joker inside Batman’s brain will pop up completely out of nowhere. And in perhaps the most infamous moment, at a certain point in the game, after you Bat-grapple up a building—something you do countless times in the game—instead of an empty rooftop, you find Man-Bat who proceeds to scream in Batman’s (and your) face.
The games are not just about Batman’s fear, but about the inherent horror of Gotham City’s whole visage. Matt Reeves seems to have translated this perfectly to the new movie. Gotham in Reeves’ movie isn’t an art deco asylum, but a crumbling metropolis where evil can thrive. The Riddler and his Zodiac Killer influences outdo the Dark Knight himself in terms of fear. Sure, there aren’t any toxin-powered zombies, but the shadows hold more than simply the threat of a mugging.
The Batman mythos, perhaps more than just about any other comic book mythology, has changed and adapted over time depending on who holds the pen, shoots the film, or programs the game. But there are definite sea changes across time which set the standard going forward. The Arkham game series solidified much of what was always in the background of Batman’s story and codified it into a cohesive, sprawling saga. The tone and breadth of those games found their way into pop culture as a whole, and especially in the Dark Knight’s cinematic outings thereafter.
Long may Arkham hold sway over Gotham because they make for some fantastic and rich storytelling.