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Batman Begins Again

Steve Watts | 25 Oct 2013 12:00
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Black Mask's hired rogues' gallery is mostly composed of Gotham's C-list villains. As opposed to Year One and Batman Begins, which had villainy immediately give rise to supervillainy, Arkham Origins seems to be aiming for a smoother transition between the two. Each assassin sports his or her own unique science-fiction gimmick. That makes characters like Electrocutioner and Deadshot more than mere hoodlums, but something less than the super-powered threats Batman will have to overcome by the time we see him in Arkham Asylum.

As players defeat these villains, we'll be taking an active part in Batman's transformation. Any Batman origin story features a less experienced crime-fighter, more rough around the edges and vulnerable than later iterations of the character. By putting us into that role, Warner Bros has an opportunity to make us feel more connected to the myth of his creation. Rather than seeing him invent gadgets, we'll see their necessity to his current tasks. Instead of the hyper-competent superhero he becomes, he'll actually feel threatened by standard crime.

Batman himself is the catalyst for supercrime.

But clearly, Batman won't cut his teeth entirely on mundane thugs and mob bosses. Joker is present in the background, representing a much more serious shift in tone. As in Year One and the Nolan trilogy, Joker in the Arkhamverse is a force of nature: uncontrollable, unyielding chaos to counter Batman's stony efficiency. Warner Bros Games hasn't given much indication of the Clown Prince's role in Arkham Origins, but his presence in this formative stage of Batman's creation seems to indicate that same theme of transformation. Many comics have implied that Batman himself is the catalyst for supercrime. One episode of the lauded cartoon Batman: The Animated Series even has the villains taking Batman to their own kangaroo court for his role in their creation. An earlier glimpse into his career, as gimmick-based villains are starting to come into their own, could reinforce that narrative.

Zero Year, a currently-running series, has hinted at elements of later stories always waiting for Batman, just under the surface. The retroactive continuity has added a much more personal background to villains like Edward Nygma (The Riddler) and Oswald Cobblepot (Penguin). These characters are not only present earlier in Bruce's life, but serve as key players in the business politics and family drama that surrounds Batman's first encounters with organized crime. Inasmuch as Arkham Origins promises cameos from characters like the Joker, it could also offer groundwork for villains that will pay off much later.

Arkham Origins seems utterly uninterested in building villains with detailed backstories of their own.

On the other hand, Arkham Origins seems utterly uninterested in building villains with detailed backstories of their own. All of the villains we've seen simply are as they always were: Black Mask is a crime boss, and his hired guns were always assassins as far as Bruce is concerned. This is a marked change from many comics, which have gone to great lengths to explore the villains' backgrounds in detail.

Joker, in particular, has received conflicting origin accounts, both as the leader of a gang called Red Hood and later rewritten in The Killing Joke as patsy strong-armed by Red Hood into cooperating. Recently, Zero Year partially resolved the conflict by painting a scenario in which Batman was left unsure which possibility may be the truth. We've seen no indication that Red Hood appears in Arkham Origins, so it seems unlikely that WB is keen on navigating that canonical minefield. It is named "Origins," but that word appears to apply strictly to the Bat himself.

And maybe that's for the best. The Arkham series has been hailed as one of the best superhero video game franchises, largely for its uncanny understanding of how to put players into Batman's black boots. Rocksteady understood that the appeal of a Batman game lies mostly in feeling like the Bat. At the same time, we've always been playing toward an objective. We know what Batman is supposed to be, and so anything we've done is a reflection of that image. If this one hits the correct tone, it has an opportunity to be less reactive to Batman's mythos, and more proactive in crafting our own. The video game medium could allow for something that hasn't been possible in the myriad retellings: the ability to not just inhabit the character, but to make him.

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