Batman is a character that has been with us for nearly eighty years. He has appeared in every format of media possible, from comic books, to novels, to TV series, to video games and movies, he is one of pop culture’s most enduring creations. Versatile doesn’t even begin to describe the vast array of stories you can tell with Batman. He is a crime-fighter, he has fought the supernatural, been involved in stopping extraterrestrial invasions, and battled a group of immortal assassins. In short: Batman can be anything. Not bad for a superhero who has no superpowers and as self-described his superpower is: ‘I’m rich.’
In recent years the takes on Batman have diversified. Once upon a time he was just a comic book character, and it would be the comics that would dictate how a character is portrayed in other media, but when we look at the recent Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it is without a doubt that this version of Batman has not only come from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, but also brims with the DNA of Rocksteady’s Arkham series (see https://glenfandango.wordpress.com/2017/05/31/arkham-a-retrospect/) the game that was inspired by the comic book source material is now inspiring other media itself. Often with the new media interpretations of Batman, the makers will take from the source material, they will borrow story elements from one to mix with another, or will take the aesthetics of one particular artist’s take on Batman to bring him to life. For Telltale’s Batman, the game creators have been inspired by the Batman from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy. In this, Batman is a man wearing an advanced suit of armour crafted by Lucius Fox at Wayne Enterprises, and this is what we are presented with in Telltale’s game. There is no doubt that Batman is a man fuelled by gadgets, and even this iteration’s Bruce Wayne resembles Christian Bale.
When Telltale were given the licence for Batman there was mixed reactions. Some felt that Telltale would focus on Batman’s nature as a detective, whilst others feared his prowess as a martial artist and action star would be lost; this is the beauty of Batman, he can be anything to anyone, but Telltale did not compromise and presented their own unique take on the character. In the opening episode, Realm of Shadows, we are presented with a Bruce Wayne backing Harvey Dent who is running for Mayor of Gotham. The story is a political one. A take many Bat-fans may sneer at, but it’s a side of Batman and Bruce that has not been explored before. On top of this we have a swaggering Oswald Cobblepot (not the rotund arms dealer, but a stick-thin vicious career criminal) as the antagonist. Coupled with a potential love triangle with Selina Kyle (AKA Catwoman) and Harvey, the writing wouldn’t look out of place on HBO. But where Telltale were really not afraid to push this story in a new direction was the revelation that Bruce Wayne’s parents were gangsters, not just gangsters, but one of the controlling families of Gotham, making Bruce’s war on crime all the more bittersweet as everything he has ever worked for and believed in has been pulled from under him and has been a lie. A lie protected by his butler, Alfred, the keeper of young Master Wayne and as it turns out steward of the secret life of Thomas and Martha Wayne.
Traditionally how this story would run is the evidence would seem overwhelming, but through dues ex machine the Waynes would be vindicated and the victims of being framed for something they did not do. Telltale did not do this. Telltale were not afraid to keep the Waynes as gangsters and torture poor Bruce with the knowledge that he is the son of criminals. Not only does he have this extra burden to carry, but he is indirectly responsible for the psychological breakdown that causes Harvey to become Two-Face. And we are not done there, Batman must also investigate Lady Arkham, leader of the Children of Arkham, eventually revealed to be none other than Vicki Vale whose mission of vengeance has been fuelled by a life of child abuse at the hands of her adoptive parents. To make this even more personal, Vale is revealed to be an Arkham, her natural parents murdered at the hands of Thomas Wayne. Telltale have not been afraid to get their hands dirty and throw some dirt on Gotham shining knight.
Telltale’s Batman exists in its own universe. Separate from the comics and movies, it is a playground where they have not been given any fences. It is s completely independent product that does not answer to the traditional rules of Batman storytelling. Why should they do this? Telltale have a reputation for wallowing in the gutter with the choices we must make in their games, and to not give Batman the same treatment then this would be a crime against storytelling itself.
Telltale’s Batman exists in its own universe. Separate from the comics and movies, it is a playground where they have not been given any fences
Whilst a traditional Batman story would set him a challenge and he would eventually overcome the challenge and triumph, there is no great reward for Batman at the end of this tale. He is left with loss on all sides. Selina has left him, the memory of his father is in tatters, knowing his father’s actions have caused what is happening to the city now, and his most-trusted aide and friend, Alfred, has been lying to him for all these years. On top of this he loses his business to Oswald Cobblepot and is also sectioned into Arkham Asylum where he meets a chalk-skinned inmate by the name of John Doe. Telltale have not been kind.
But why would I consider this a modern great Batman story? I think it comes down to one element: they are not afraid to break the character. They are not worried about picking up everything we know that has been established in Batman lore and throwing it all on the floor and leaving it there. The thought that Bruce Wayne, defender of the helpless and scourge of criminals everywhere was the son of one himself is truly shocking. The moment you wait for the big reveal that it was all lies never comes. We are left with a very human Batman, another important element to this Batman story – Bruce Wayne. You are given multiple options to solve puzzles and cases as either Bruce or Batman, with the ability to alter the outcomes depending on your approach. Would many fans be so willing to read a comic about the life of Bruce Wayne and Bruce Wayne only? Doubtful. But it begs the idea that is the appeal of Batman the fact he dresses up as a bat and fights crime? Or is it in the tragedy of the character himself? Would any parent wish that life upon their child? I think not. It’s not a life you would want for anyone. A crusade against crime to stop whatever happened to you from happening to anyone else, only Telltale are not afraid to make sure we understand that Bruce has wasted his life avenging his parents’ deaths when they were as bad as the criminals he hunts. I would place Telltale’s take on Batman right up alongside Scott Snyder’s breakthrough run on the New 52’s Batman. Both have taken Batman and made them their own. This is what makes a comic character so special.
I would place Telltale’s take on Batman right up alongside Scott Snyder’s breakthrough run on the New 52’s Batman.
What do I mean by special? Well take any literary character and place them in the hands of another writer and a purist will sneer at the idea of an author’s creation being handled by another author. A literary character is a combination of a writer’s conscious or unconscious psyche manifesting itself as a fictional character. However, a comic book character is treated differently. Batman, as imagined by Bob Kane and Bill Finger is not the character we recognise today. Of course he is the orphaned son of murdered millionaires, but over his seventy-five year career Batman has changed drastically. Except every time a writer takes on the a character a reboot of sorts is occurring. Every writer has their own version of Batman. There are milestones in his past that are adhered to. The murdered parents, the training from experts across the world in different disciplines, the epiphany of a bat, all are the ingredients that make up Batman. Yet can we say what type of a character Batman is? If you were to be asked to describe his personality you would run into a multiple choice from which writer’s take on Batman you would choose. He has no defined personality, his psychological makeup is constructed from how the writer interprets the facts of his past.
Telltale gave us a very special gift with their Batman. They not only gave us a Batman that we had narrative choice and influence in how our Batman would be, they also were not afraid to alter his past and weave this in as part of their narrative. It’s a great stroke from a company that are kings of narrative, and it belongs in the DC Hall of Fame alongside every other Batman story.