#BatmanDay 2016: Villainous Male Desire and the Batman ‘Arkham’ Games

Rocksteady Games and Warner Bros. Games, in their Batman Arkham series, have taken iconic characters and translated them into a rich, playable universe. Drawing on the graphic novels The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum, the game designers took a snapshot of the long-standing and multifaceted characters as inspiration for their in-game traits and stories.

Yet this framing of the characters in dated stories leaves something to be desired. Specifically, the presentation of desire.

The games focus primarily on the relationship between Joker and Batman, specifically their nemesis dynamic. Each of the games engages with that tension, while other villains struggle to gain Batman’s attention. The Joker views Batman as both adversary and romantic interest. The games cue this dynamic in many ways: the Joker’s language of fixation in Arkham Asylum; the voice-mails of Arkham City ending in the singing of “Only You” over the closing credits; the Joker’s psychologically revealing interview in Arkham Origins; the multilayered “Under my Skin” playing over the opening of Arkham Knight; the Joker’s very direct euphemisms throughout Arkham Knight. The Joker’s obsession with Batman, and the resulting focus which Batman places on Joker, are the underlying current throughout all four games. The player is positioned as Batman: facing seemingly unwanted or unreciprocated romantic attention. In Arkham Origins, the player can experience the other side of that relationship; playing as the Joker in the moments after meeting Batman allows the player to experience his falling into love with the suit and the concept of Batman.

Arkham Origins is the first chronologically of the game narratives, telling the story of Batman meeting the Joker and setting the landscape for the later games. While it was the third of the four games released, it backtracks to examine how Batman’s relationships to the different villains were established. In a central scene, Batman leaps off a building to rescue the Joker from a fatal fall; following his capture, a policeman asks the Joker where his partner, “The Bat,” is.  This suggestion seems to resonate with the Joker, as when he is asked, “Who else would jump off a building to save your sorry ass?” he muses, “I was wondering the same thing myself” (Origins).  This cut scene moves to show the Joker in Blackgate; he is undergoing examination by a psychologist, who we discover after is Harleen Quinzel. She prompts the Joker to talk about his feelings, which, at that moment, are almost wholly centered on Batman.

You of all people should know – there’s nothing so cruel as memory. The pointy, bitey little THUNDERBOLTS. Unwanted party-crashers, SCREAMERS through your synapses. Inescapable, unrelenting...not at all friendly. You can’t even escape into MADNESS. And then you meet someone who changes your life – And you feel that you don’t even know who you are any more. Isn’t it funny how one little encounter can CLEAVE off little pieces of your past, DEFORM your memories and persona until you rethink your whole identity – and as you realize how foolish it all is – your LAUGHTER reverberates off the walls of your own emptiness.  (Origins)

His monologue reflects on his suffering, his mental state and the trauma of memory, while the visuals are the Joker in a comedy club battling the same sort of thugs Batman has faced throughout the game. The pairing of that speech with that instance of combat gives both aspects additional complexity. He fights and struggles the same way Batman does: the mechanics, the visual cues for combat are the same; the only change is the combatant.

Further pushing from Dr. Quinzel brings them to a discussion of fate, and the Joker reflects on the events and choices that have resulted in his life at this point. His language stays quite broad, speaking about the power of a chance meeting to change a life. His focus is on the negative aspects of life and the power of loneliness, until a moment of change: a revelation of a kindred spirit.

You want to know something funny? I used to think of Fate as EVIL – predetermined – not by some higher power, but by the rules of human NATURE. But tonight, that’s all changed. [...] Have you ever had the feeling that your entire life has been building towards this one moment? [...] Now I realize that all the BATTLES, the BAD DAYS, the BRUTALITIES – it was all the hand of Fate at work. [...] Now I understand. There are no chance encounters. It was all meant to be. Everything leading up to who I’ve met tonight!  [...] I mean, do you realize what a vile world we live in? How lonely it is to wade through all the wretch and filth on your own? [...] Even in a crowd of other screwballs, you’re so along that you can kick, claw, yell, scream at the top your lungs – and no one cares. It’s like you don’t even exist. [...] I feel adrift – floating – like someone’s pulled the stopper on my reality and I’m SUCKED down the drain into something new. It’s all very exciting really.  [...] It’s like meeting someone I can actually relate to – which, believe me, dear, I’ve NEVER felt before. You understand. You’re someone who’s not afraid to let go – and fall. Free falling. And I didn’t pack a chute. (Origins)

The visuals in this long segment, which are punctuated by questions by Dr. Quinzel, are of the Joker as Red Hood (Joker’s suggested back-story from The Killing Joke) walking along a dark passage, eventually reaching a pool in which he sees his reflection as Batman, and then a replay of the Joker’s memory of the fall in which Batman saved him. The language stays wholly generic, allowing Harley to misread the situation and presume the Joker is speaking of the other person he’s met tonight: her. The visuals tell the player that the Joker’s words are wholly about Batman, and the violent rescue earlier that night. The game narrative has already focused on the Joker sending out assassins to kill Batman, so this moment is not an instant of revelation or discovery. The Joker knew who Batman was, and Batman has already been researching the dangerous new threat, the Joker. Instead, the jump Batman makes shows his impetuous, reckless nature, which is what speaks to the Joker. In his imagining of Batman as his reflection, the Joker is missing a key part of the image: the face. He sees the suit. His fascination is not with Bruce Wayne, but with the powerful, violent, dangerous character of Batman.  The language shows his building interest in this strange figure, with a focus on the sudden, visceral nature of the experience.

This dynamic fascination between enemies is not new; it is long established in the graphic novels and comics of the Batman universe. What is notable about the games is the presentation of the Joker’s love as abhorrent. The games frame his love as one-sided and meriting a violent response. Batman’s answer to the Joker’s suggestive statements and crass jokes is either silence or violence. He strikes out, or says nothing. The idea of male-male attraction in the game is entirely framed as villainous: Batman’s relationship to the men around him is terse and distant, even with Robin, Nightwing, and Alfred. The conversations are primarily about him pushing people away, as he focuses on his crime-fighting pursuits.  The only warmth Batman shows is to the women in the game: Barbara Gordon/Oracle, Talia, Catwoman, and Poison Ivy. While the latter two are villains, Batman’s dialogue is personal and flirtatious. He engages with women in ways that he refuses to with men; even confidants like Alfred are kept at a distance in the dialogue.

The Joker, however, is wholly expressive about his feelings for Batman. He demonstrates his focus on our titular hero throughout each of the games, even getting into his head in the fourth. In Arkham Asylum, the Joker’s interest in Batman is more nemesis, though there are suggestive moments. Joker’s sense of the bodily is prevalent in the opening sequence, as he complains that he misses the cavity search, which was “much more personal,” (Asylum 3:40-3:50) and when getting a medical check up, he responds: “Need to take my temperature? I’d be happy to drop my pants.” (Asylum 5:44-5:48). He is immediately identified as a degenerate in the opening sequence before the player takes control of the game, as Warden Sharp dismisses his character and morality. Yet, most of his obsession with Batman through the game is focused on their conflict.

In Arkham City, the Joker’s passion for Batman is much clearer. He taps into Batman’s communications system and begins to leave him messages. He has poisoned Batman with his own tainted blood as a way to focus them on the same goal. His messages vary between playful and desperate, pushing Batman to find their cure. Aside from the subtext of AIDS and the sharing of tainted blood, the Joker has joined himself to his nemesis. His language presumes a level of relationship that Batman visibly rejects in each of their meetings.

I can’t believe I didn’t think of this earlier. A hotline straight to my bestest friend in the world. Just think, I can call you up whenever I get bored. I think our relationship is really maturing here: the next thing you know, we’ll be exchanging emails or meeting up for romantic dinners. (City; Voicemail 1)

The fourth message left is actually a series of calls, and the Joker plays to the stereotype of the jealous or suspicious girlfriend:

“Hey. Been missing you. Get back to me. Laters.”

“Hello. I’m not sure that you got my call earlier. I’m just dying to speak     to you. Call me, Bats.”

“Bats. Seriously. You’re making me paranoid. Why aren’t you answering my calls? You haven’t gone and died on me, have you?”

“Look. I know you’re not dead. I’m missing a group of my guys down under the tower. Guess that means you know about the guns already. OK, I admit it, They’re mine. Strange gives them to me, okay. Can we be BFFs again?” (City; Voicemail 4)

The playful language and light tone of “Laters” suggests a familiarity that the Joker sees in their interactions. This tone is in contrast to the seriousness of the situation. The metaphor of “dying to speak to you” is quite literal in this case: the Joker is dying, and is playing the irony of the impatient partner and dying nemesis all in one. The fifth voicemail continues the Joker unpacking his soul about his relationship to Batman, as he explains, “I don’t really think I can sit back and watch you die.  It’s selfish really, but we need each other. Life would be so boring without you. Who would I talk to? Who would really understand me?” (City; Voicemail 5). The personal investment that the Joker sees in his relationship with Batman is clear in that simple statement. The Joker sees Batman as someone who understands him completely.

The narrative line of the game ends with the Joker’s death, and the credits are haunted by the singing of “Only You,” the final message left by the Joker for Batman. It is noted by the electronic voicemail system that the call was from three hours previous: before events had come to a head; before Batman had faced Strange and Joker had kidnapped Talia. It was an earlier moment in the night when Joker had decided to call Batman and sing to him. The Joker’s voice vacillates between crooning and cruel, encapsulating the love and hate endemic in the Joker/Batman relationship. 

Batman’s response to the Joker’s attentions tend to be violence and aggression, as the player has no ability to shape the actions of Batman other than when prompted to “punch” or “counter” when the Joker strikes. Yet, Batman’s final act of carrying the Joker out of the theatre and out of Arkham City shows a deep affection. He does not just leave him there, but bears his body out of the prison, carrying him in his arms. So, while Batman’s response through the games is to react with fear and violence when faced with male attraction, he shows kindness and gentleness in his final act for the Joker.

In Arkham Knight, the game opens with a rather definitive removal of the Joker: the player must press and hold a button to start the fires in the crematorium. The game focuses on the Joker’s face as he burns away. Yet, a part of him remains: his tainted blood has left Batman with a number of victims who all reflect aspects of the Joker. The first, Christina Bell, possesses malice, violence, and infatuation with Batman – all core components of the Joker’s personality. Though the game points to how the traits of the surrogates are traits of the Joker, the romantic interest in Batman is still allocated to the female victim. This choice returns the desire to the realm of the heteronormative, while highlighting how strongly the Joker felt about Batman by playing out his feelings in a new voice. Johnny Charisma, a performer, takes on the Joker’s showmanship, violence, and fascination with Batman’s intellect. There is a drive in Johnny to best Batman, but is balanced by his need to perform for him. When taking a moment to sing to Batman, the game changes to feature instead the Joker as the singer, giving his Batman a serenade. Lastly, the malicious and violent side of the Joker appears in Albert King. He needs to beat Batman, both metaphorically and literally.

Batman himself carries a part of the Joker with him, as he begins seeing and hearing the Joker throughout his travels across Gotham. This new imaginary friend, of course, has access to his thoughts but seems to maintain Joker’s personality. This balance leads to many suggestive comments and overtly sexual references, as the Joker purrs, “You knew this would happen eventually. Me deep inside you” (Knight).  He points to his access to Bruce’s memories and imagination: “This head of yours, Bruce. So many secrets. So much pain. So much me! So much violent imagery involving me. Oh Bruce. You only had to ask” (Knight).  As the only game without the Joker as a potential punching bag, Arkham Knight goes further in its suggestions and revelations of the Joker’s sexual interest in Batman. Batman cannot fire back; he is powerless in the face of the Joker’s advances. Yet, as these statements are all within Batman’s own mind, they imply his own battles with male desire and his feelings for the Joker that can never be understood or realized.

As a contrast the representation of male-male desire as problematic and answered with violence, the representation of women in the game focuses on their availability to men and their appeal as objects of sexual desire. The tight or low-cut costuming of Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, Talia al Ghul, Shiva, Copperhead, and Catwoman highlight their physical appeal, as does the camera angles. The panning up the back of the women, hinting up a skirt or lingering on the tight clothing pulling over their butts or thighs, reduces them to an object of the gaze. They are there to be looked at and desired, both by Batman and, by extension, the player. Oracle is primarily exempted from this gaze, but Arkham Knight does highlight her relationship with Robin, once again positioning her in the framework of male heteronormative desire.

The construction of the female as focus of objectification is highlighted further in Arkham Knight, when the Riddler wants Batman’s attention. He kidnaps Catwoman, literally using a woman as bait to attract Batman’s gaze. While Catwoman had, in Arkham City, shown agency and influence outside of the shadow of Batman, in Arkham Knight she is brought back under control: locked into a collar rigged with explosives that she must remove one key at a time. Batman completes challenges and then tells Catwoman which keys to use to unlock it. She is wholly at the mercy of two men; she is a means of getting attention, not the actual focus of the conflict.

The Arkham game series from Rocksteady and WB Games has drawn upon classic and complex characters to create a wonderful, playable world. The games build on the stories of Gotham, giving space for the player to examine the motivations and drives of Batman, his allies, and his antagonists. Yet, in an era where Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy are in a canonical relationship, the games’ representation of same-sex desire is a bit outdated. The violent, fearful response of the central protagonist puts the player in the same position: gazing at the female body and fearing the male. Rocksteady’s representation of desire is old-fashioned and firmly heteronormative, fixing the games in dated idea of sexuality.

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