The Bat & The Cat, or, Gotham City & Arkham City

One of my long-term pet projects is an analysis of Batman as a fundamental myth or legend of US culture. This piece can be seen as a sort of aside in the course of that project.

In a year long period, there were two prominent products starring the Batman: the final film in Christopher Nolan’s film trilogy, namely The Dark Knight Rises (summer 2012), and the video game Batman: Arkham City (fall 2011), sequel to Batman: Arkham Asylum from 2009. The two share many interesting themes, or perhaps better, both utilize common themes in the Batman mythos: Catwoman as perhaps the love interest within the mythology, Ra’s al Ghul (or his followers in the case of Rises) as the ultimate anti-Batman (as opposed to the Joker as Batman’s Nemesis) in the sense of being “more Batman than Batman,” and what a certain strain of anarchist thought calls the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ). Ra’s al Ghul, a relatively late Batman villain, a creation of Dennis O’Neill and Neal Adams in the 70’s during the beginnings of the environmentalist movement, has risen to prominence in Batman stories as the major figure of, to put it simply, what Batman would be like without his baseline heroic principle, the rule that “Batman does not kill.” In addition, both address this tension between Batman and anti-Batman within the context of a TAZ: in Rises, Gotham as a whole once Bane has separated it from the rest of the world and “given it to the people,” and in Arkham City, eponymous setting of the game is an area of Gotham City that has been walled off and turned into an open-air prison. While the two take radically different forms (the TAZ of Rises is, at its core, perhaps most comparable to the Paris Commune, while Arkham City is of course a giant gulag), they ultimately end up in the same place, namely the villain’s attempt at mass extermination: Bane attempts to kill everyone with a nuclear bomb, and Hugo Strange (who is, as gamers might put it, Ganondorfed by Ra’s, i.e. revealed at the last moment to be Ra’s’ patsy) attempts to exterminate the criminals in Arkham City.

That whole dynamic I will now abandon, to return to at a later date, most likely in a more detailed analysis of The Dark Knight Rises itself. We’ll say here that both scenarios, unsurprisingly, end up being utilized to reinforce Batman as the typical superhero, the rejuvenator of the status quo, to one degree or another (in Arkham City the game does not end with Arkham City itself being destroyed, mainly to allow the player to free-roam).

What’s particularly interesting about the two media examined in tandem is that Catwoman plays pretty much exactly the same role in both. Of course she is ultimately the love interest. In Rises this is much more stereotypical because the films are autonomous, and so can result in the happy ending of the two living and loving together. Arkham City, being more directly based in the comic book universe (though, since, spoilers, the Joker dies at the end, there is a limit to this), leaves their relationship more ambiguous as is the norm in Batman stories. To use a framework I will develop more fully in a later post, we can consider the Legend of Batman to have three stages, the first being the origin, the second being the typical Batman story that, so it goes, ends with everything returning to normal (Joker goes back to Arkham, etc.), the third being a mythological ending, first famously explored by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a major touchstone for Rises. In this framework, Joker’s death notwithstanding, Arkham City is more in the middle category while Rises is of course squarely in the third. (We could conceive of Joker’s death in AC as a “return of the repressed” of the Joker’s essentially off-screen death when Heath Ledger died.)

Another function Catwoman serves in both is as a sort of inciting incident. Once Batman is actually in Arkham City, rescuing Catwoman from Two-Face is his first job. In a weird reversal, in Rises Catwoman essentially saves Batman from Bruce Wayne, accidentally stirring him from his self-imposed exile. But the interesting role she serves in both works is to save Batman at the last minute, instead of leaving Gotham/Arkham City to save her own skin. In Arkham City this is done rather interestingly: the game has three segments where you play as Catwoman, the beginning of the game, a second segment not too long after that ends with her being captured (again), this time by Poison Ivy, and finally a segment where she raids a vault of Hugo Strange’s. This sequence ends with Catwoman deciding to leave Arkham City… and then the credits role, because by this point Batman has been buried in rubble as Hugo Strange initiates his plan to exterminate the criminals housed in Arkham City, and without her help he will die there and Strange will succeed. This is followed by a rewind of her leaving, and then rushing off to save him. In Rises, Catwoman is directly presented by Batman with the choice of leaving Gotham after securing a possible exit route should the plan to disable the nuke fail, and ends up deciding, off screen, to return to help him–quite fortuitously, since her doing so prevents Bane from killing him.

So what are we to make of this recurring structure? Firstly, it seems to be an example of that cliche that “behind every great man is a great woman,” a pseudo-feminist notion if ever there was one, since its implication is that great women can only be recognized as the supportive shadow of a great man. Second, it should be noted that Catwoman in both cases plays the role of the “good woman,” in contrast to, in both cases, Talia al Ghul as the “bad woman.” Talia’s motivations in the two media, due to their different relations to the source material, is different: in Rises her ultimate goal all along is to kill Batman and “fulfill Ra’s al Ghul’s destiny” of annihilating Gotham in order to balance human civilization, while in Arkham City her motivation is more in line with the comics, being torn between her love for Batman and her devotion to “Ra’s al Ghul’s destiny”, which resolves itself in her attempts to make Batman Ra’s’ successor as the head of the League of Assassins. In both she is a sort of femme fatale, in the former enticing him to be more trusting of humanity, to bequeath their new nuclear technology to the world and solve the energy crisis, while secretly both knowing he won’t and planning to turn it against him (and Gotham) either way, and in the latter, in her exhortations to lead the League of Shadows, being a direct representation of “crossing the line”, of turning from a heroic vigilante (who does not kill) into a criminal one.

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