Bitching About Odd Narrative Things In Batman: Arkham City

I completed Batman: Arkham City (B:AC) recently, including the Catwoman DLC narrative content. There’s been a bit of controversy about the game’s narrative, but I wanted to experience things first hand before commenting on them (which is unusual on the internet, I know, and I promise it won’t become a trend).

There will be SPOILERS below, so don’t read the following unless you want the narrative of the game revealed to you.

She’s A Bitch

Catwoman from Batman: Arkham City

Batman gets to be fully armoured and run around in combat boots. Catwoman's suit doesn't protect her chest and she does everything in high heels. And the names she gets called are worse. She's very much the Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire.

There was quite a bit of comment about B:AC’s liberal use of the word “bitch” in reference to its female characters, with a great overview here by Film Crit Hulk. Having played through B:AC, I didn’t encounter that particular issue too much… provided I wasn’t playing as Catwoman. If you are running around as Catwoman, expect to be called “bitch” a lot. I’m 90% sure I heard the phrase “cat bitch” several times, which is completely wrong because it mixes up cat and dog terminology.

Couldn’t Rocksteady come up with some other insulting name for women? There’s a whole barrel to chose from – whore, slut, slapper, bushpig, skank – that would have at least added variety to the experience of being insulted as a woman. However, only focusing on the lazy use of the word “bitch” misses a larger issue: B:AC has a really weird role for its women.

I Don’t Know What Phallocentric Means, But No Girls!

Film Crit Hulk points at this issue in the link above and in his follow-up post, but B:AC is a pretty sexist place to be. I certainly don’t expect prisons to be bastions of political correctness, but a fantasy “walled off section of a major city that houses a huge number of prisoners and contained by a private army” prison that serves as sandbox entertainment is held to a different standard. And raises a different question:

Where are the female prisoners (or even female Tyger guards)?

Looking to some real-world stats, female prisoners make up about 8.5% of the US prison population (although that’s 2003 data, so it may have changed). B:AC states that all prisoners from Blackgate Prison and Arkham Asylum have been moved into Arkham City. So, assuming that Gotham has women committing crimes at about the same rate as the US at large, then about 1 in every 12 prisoners Batman comes across should be female.

Instead, the only female prisoners of Arkham City are Harley Quinn (low cut top, tight leather outfit), Catwoman (low cut top, bodysuit) and Poison Ivy (shirt held in place by the most determined clasp in Gotham, plant-themed panties). And it’s snowing in Arkham City.

Batman versus three ninjas in Batman: Arkham City

All secret assassins have giant, easily identifiable tattoos that cover their completely exposed backs. For secrecy.

The only woman that Batman encounters from a combat viewpoint are ninjas, and these aren’t prisoners. (Said ninjas are Talia’s Elite Guards, with a bio that says they can take on “a hundred men” but Batman takes them out relatively easily because they can’t take as much damage as garden variety male inmates. They do have swords and are quick though.)

So unless they plan to go the whole  ‘supervillain in lingerie’ angle, it appears that women in Gotham don’t commit crimes.

Sidenote: I’m In Arkham City For Non-Payment of Parking Fines

This also raises the side point about pretty much every prisoner in Arkham City being a murdering and / or raping psychopath – does Gotham have no white collar criminals? No criminals doing time for drug offences? It made sense for everyone you came across in Batman: Arkham Asylum to take a swing at Batman because the Joker had brought them into for that very purpose, but this isn’t the case in Arkham City – the prisoners are just there because Arkham City is a prison.

Instead, it appears pretty much everyone tries to take on Batman just because it is something to do. I like to imagine that the mere sight of Batman in Arkham City causes men doing 2 years for insurance fraud to pick up a baseball bat due to peer pressure.

The Assassin Princess Is In Another Castle

Poison Ivy from Batman: Arkham City

If not for the heroic work of The Clasp, none in Gotham would be free from the terrible villainy of Poison Ivy's breasts.

Not every woman in Gotham is dressed to show as much cleavage as possible. Batman comes across other women wearing more clothes, but they are either emergency staff that require rescuing, journalists who require rescuing or lifelong assassins who are second-in-charge of an assassin organisation … who require rescuing.

(To be fair, Batman does also rescue some men, but there’s generally the impression that they can look after themselves once he’s gone. There is a female cop in B:AC who gets a gun – most other female civilians are tear-streaked and will be dependent on the men protecting them when they get to a safe house.)

Of how the women are treated in B:AC, it is Talia al Ghul’s treatment that is worst. She’s meant to be pretty much Batman’s equal – which is why he’s attracted to her – and top command in an organisation that plans to remake the world, but ends up as pretty much the stupidest character in-game.

SPOILERS In her first appearance in the storyline, she’s manipulated by Batman into letting him try to join the League of Assassins which results in her being held hostage by her own father. Ra’s al Ghul wants Batman to kill him and uses a blade against his daughter’s throat to try to get this to happen. Talia gets a bit bit irritated at that behaviour from the two men in her life at this point, and rightfully so.

Talia al Ghul from Batman: Arkham City

I'm not sure that the League of Assassins has much of a future given Talia's demonstrated future planning ability. Maybe that's why Ra's wants Batman to sign on so badly.

Then (long breath) despite having stolen the cure Batman needs off Harley Quinn, Talia ‘trades’ herself as a hostage (along with the cure and promise of immortality in the Lazarus Pit) to the Joker so that he doesn’t kill Batman immediately. When Batman comes to save her, she easily kills the Joker, only to find out that the healthy Joker is actually the shapeshifter Clayface when she is shot in the back by the real, still-needing-the-cure Joker.

What?

Talia has the cure. Batman needs the cure. Talia is an assassin. Instead of walking into the room and loudly proclaiming things to stop the Joker shooting Batman, she is perfectly capable of taking out the (fake) Joker by stealth, giving Batman the cure and then dealing with things from there. Requiring Batman to save her is purely a plot convenience – Batman must save the damsel in distress, the woman he loves, one more time – that undermines Talia as a character.

END SPOILERS

In short, Talia becomes the least assassin-y assassin she could be within B:AC. Given that the key male characters generally behave in ways that befit their capabilities (including their losses to Batman), it stands out that the single most important woman to B:AC’s narrative has the main role of requiring rescue.

Twice.

(Catwoman is rescued by Batman from Two-Face and does return to help Batman, but arguably Catwoman’s narrative is largely divorced from the main B:AC narrative. Oracle gets to say a few things, but she’s arguably the nagging voice in Batman’s ear that he generally ignores.)

Contains: Sadism, Torture, Cruelty, Teddy Bears

That’s enough about the role of women in B:AC, although it is a rich vein that could be mined further (such as the ability to ungag and gag a tied-up Harley Quinn – I’m sure I could get a few hundred words out of that). Let’s move on to look at the odd, dark streak of cruelty through the game, along with a character that best typifies this shift: the Penguin.

In general Batman continuity, the Penguin is a bird-obsessed underworld figure who basically resembles a human penguin who wears a monocle. He uses specialised umbrellas that might let him fly, or shoot bullets or something necessary to the story at hand. As owner of the Iceberg Lounge, he often serves as a fence or fixer who gets other criminals what they want. He’s a bit of an odd villain in that he doesn’t have to be a Batman bad guy – with a change in clothes and he’d be an odd looking night club owner (and if you’ve seen any night club owners, you’ll know that being odd-looking almost seems to be a contractual requirement).

Penguin from Batman: Arkham City. That's not a monocle over his eye; it's a broken bottle.

To be honest, I've thought that the Pengin needed toughening up for him to run in the top group of Batman's villains. But this was a bit over-the-top.

To some extent B:AC raises a similar question in asking “Who’d follow a deformed midget?” and answers that question with, “Because those who stand against him risk being tortured to death slowly”. B:AC’s Penguin is an out-and-out sadist with a bad temper and a huge chip on his shoulder. He isn’t wearing a monocle anymore – that’s a bottle that’s been pushed into his head and could kill him if removed. That injury occurred in a fight at the Iceberg lounge, which saw the Penguin retaliate by cutting out both of his attacker’s eyes and sending him across a busy road in Gotham at peak hour.

During the game, Penguin threatens his men with not only their death, but the torture-oriented death of their families as well, if they can’t stop Batman. You get to hear him freeze the hand of an undercover cop using Mr Freeze’s weapon, then smash the hand with a hammer. His Museum contains a big section called The Torture Room and he has cases that display his ‘attractions’, including warnings to others (such as the henchman he cooked in an oven – corpse not shown, but Penguin vocalises it). A black market competitor in the Ratcatcher was dragged screaming into Penguin’s lair, with the insinuation that he was tortured to death there, probably involving his own rats. B:AC’s Penguin is a nasty, nasty piece of work.

Of course, he isn’t the only one. The Joker is using the industrial output of his factory base to burn the skin off victims until they die (and henchmen chatter indicate that some take a while) while Two-Face used a large saw to cut one of his henchmen in two, with other henchmen then required to clean up the mess. The Riddler’s puzzles seen one hostage cooked alive if you fail while another sees the hostage tortured by relative shocks of electricity while you try to reach them.

Batman fighting henchmen in Batman: Arkham City

Position (constantly) vacant: henchman. Must be willing to wear specific costumes and commit specificly-themed crimes at the behest of their employer on short notice. Will be expected to fight highly trained combat expert at any time of day or night. May be fired and / or set on fire by employer at any time. Work from home for good money!

(Sidenote: who’d be a henchman in Gotham City? Your options are awful: your boss will likely have little hesitation into sending you to face off against someone who has beaten down more minions than the population of a small US city and / or have no problems with murdering you when you mistakenly say or do something that offends them, which may include “being in my line of sight”. You’d think there would only be a small group of people nuts enough to want to be the Joker’s (or Riddler’s or Two-Face’s etc) henchmen, but given the small armies that have lined up against Batman in his recent history, I guess people think very differently in Gotham.)

In other words, B:AC is a very black world, filled with the worst of the worst. Although Batman’s rogues gallery has always contained some very twisted individuals, they haven’t generally transitioned into tortuous sadists. In many ways I think that B:AC went too dark – these characters are so unremittingly evil that Batman’s code to only punch them a few times (unlike henchmen, who get their bones broken) seems quaint and ineffective. I’m not calling for Batman to start killing his enemies, but when all you do SPOILER after defeating the Penguin is lock him in one of his own display cases END SPOILER, it seems that Batman is leaving those at the head of the villain food chain relatively unscathed so that they can get back to keeping him busy in short order.

There are a few characters who don’t seem to go all the way to black, such as Bane or Mr Freeze, but both of those characters are SPOILER just waiting to do a heel turn to remain on the opponents list for at least part of the game END SPOILER. Bane does get access to teddy bears which may mitigate his mood… even if the teddy bears are creepy looking.

Is There A Point To All This?

The Batman TV show villains - Catwoman, Riddler, Joker and Penguin

I'm certainly not asking Rocksteady to turn their Batman games into this either, but surely there is a happy middle point.

Yes. B:AC is an excellent Batman game that, although less story focused then Batman: Arkham Asylum, manages to provide a superb gaming experience. It is an experience that is marred however by how the title treats women and by how in going for gritty villain characters, Rocksteady have pushed them too far into the black (or alternatively haven’t pushed Batman far enough and he’s left fighting a forest fire of human cruelty with a garden hose).

Rocksteady’s Batman games have played as a broad mix of different Batman mythos – the comics, the movies, the animated series – plus a dash of Rocksteady’s own narrative plans. This mix feels weird in B:AC, and is enough to distance me from the game. Yes, B:AA was dark and gothic, but didn’t feel so relentlessly hopeless for Batman, even at the end of the game. B:AC goes too dark and leaves the player (or at least me) with an odd sense of defeat – not because of what happens at the end of the game, but because even as Batman / Bruce Wayne (or Selina Kyle / Catwoman) you were pretty much completely ineffective in fighting back against a wave of darkness. And that darkness is just waiting there for the next Rocksteady Batman game.

In all likelihood there will be another Rocksteady Batman title (I’m guessing it will be called Batman: Gotham City, given the kind of escalation we’ve seen in the first two games). Let’s hope they can balance out the grimdark better in the next one… and give female characters a bit more heft at the same time.

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5 thoughts on “Bitching About Odd Narrative Things In Batman: Arkham City

  1. very stupid article. the game is good because it is great. you must be very constipated and may require braces. Try to meditate and brush your teeth.

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  3. I admire your attention to detail, but I think you are very wrong on several points. So wrong that I felt like writing a blog-sized post about it as well.

    1) Blackgate prison is a high security prison that only houses the MOST dangerous of Gotham’s criminals (greatly reduces the already low chance [1-12, 8.5%] of a female criminal’s presence if you are considering our realistic standards). All the inmates other than the political prisoners were poured in from there. The females are supervillians. The function of Arkham City is the same as Blackgate’s was: to contain the more extreme dangers and cast them out from Gotham… and these three women are extremely dangerous. Even if Arkham City is intended be an all-male prison, it would not be surprising if officials chose not to discriminate because of this simple fact. They would either have to create a new asylum or entirely new female prison for just three people. Also do not forget that the entire construction and maintenance of the city is founded on corruption and brainwashing. No real rules would have to apply. The warden/mayor had an extreme dislike for Poison Ivy and Catwoman and may have simply wanted to stick it to them. Harley Quinn got there on her own.
    1.5) Showing Batman beating up women who are neither well trained fighters
    nor ninjas will look bad on the game creators, on the Batman franchise and
    on the Batman character himself. Real-life women themselves help
    perpetuate the double-standard that is wrong to hit women. As you
    mentioned, so few of the female population are incarcerated criminals. Even
    less workout the same ways men do. Even female prisoners are unlikely
    candidates for truly potential dangers because most women have adopted
    societal roles that compel them not to be bulky, muscular, violent, rowdy or
    boisterous. I haven’t even seen a female with more muscle than me in my
    entire life and I haven’t met a women who I felt could beat me in a fight.

    2)Bitch, slut, ho, and skank are each terms with separate meanings and that refer to select female character traits. The word “bitch” however is most easily used as a catch-all-term and is generally used against women you simply deem unfavorable. It is a term that is very commonly used and I find it realistic that it is so often used against the most untamed and problem-causing woman in the game. Most inmates did not know her personally had very little to go by if they wanted to call her a skank, slut, or whore–other than maybe her outfit and a single scandalous fighting move [which were only presented to those she beat up].
    2.5) Calling catwoman a “cat-bitch” does not seem out of character for likely
    uneducated criminals–or almost anybody who’s prone call someone a bitch
    and I doubt the slang term refers to female dog in a literal sense. I know you
    just trying to note what you believed an minor slip, but I felt it was unusual to
    even point this out.
    2.6) Catwoman was given an unusually dominant role despite all the training
    she never received. She was a powerful female presence who was never truly
    saved by Batman and she ultimately ends up saving Batman herself. She, like
    Batman handles several opponents with ease. She is however presented
    almost as a succubus (a trait that followed her since her character’s
    conception), but that could be perceived in a number of ways. Some women
    consider that to be an empowering trait rather than an ignoble one.

    3)You are right in wondering why the female outfits are unusually skimpy (especially in such a cold environment). We both know that it sells, but I do agree that this is no reason to lose integrity (especially when you have a cast of already reputable and successful game producers). This does however come from the comics and it could be construed as the consequence of natural character traits. Catwoman is a wholly seductive entity, Quinn is driven by insecurity and a strong desire to captivate the Joker, and Poison Ivy is almost literally a succubus. It still seems a bit wrong to dress the females in this way and it was enough to get me to google for some answers, but you must realize that even outfits assist with characterization.

    4) Let’s face it, it is unlikely for women to lead a squad of fighters or survivors as they rarely take on the role of fighters in real life. It MAY have something to do with their capabilities (they are generally less predisposed to have or build dominant physical strength), but it is also something heavily associated with gender roles. As I said earlier, real women are just as guilty as we are for perpetuating such seeming stereotypes and the double standards that come with it.
    4.5)Besides, despite FEW occasionally needing some help or guidance, ALL the women in the game are given independent and strong character traits. I really don’t know what you were going on about here.They are rescued less times than men are and Batman does not cradle them after he helps them survive. Catwoman and Poison Ivy infiltrate Hugo Strange’s vault with ease, Poison Ivy manipulates a good portion the male inmates through mind-control, Catwoman strikes fear into the hearts of potentially many men (including Two-Face and a caged-up Penguin), Harley Quinn maintains and controls an entire Joker army after the events of the main story, Talia expresses no fear and does as she wishes whenever she wishes, Vicki Vale came to the site of the dangerous Arkham City for a news report and she handled both the ensuing helicopter crash and sniper persecution unusually well and then still did her best to get her story, the tortured female guard that Batman saves makes an immediate physical and mental recovery before trekking back to the Church on her own, and a rescued female doctor (who I suppose you expected to save herself…) stayed WITHIN extremely dangerous Subway territory to help Batman inspect the surroundings.

    5) The sadism, cruelty, and torture helped made the game. This is a dark universe. The supervillians were implied to have been made psychotic through abuse, unfortunate luck, bad living arrangements, extreme trauma and/or the negative effects of the entire city’s gene pool made to occur through exposure of adverse chemicals emanating from the Lazarus pit in the now closed Wonder City and in my opinion it was all fairly well explained.

    6) The inmates are predominantly members of Blackgate prison! This prison was mentioned in Batman: Arkham Asylum as having held only the worst of Gotham’s criminals (not anyone on insurance fraud or relatively petty stuff). The rest are political prisoners put in there by Strange. There is an unusually high amount of prisoners, but that works for the sake of the game. The prisoners often imply that choosing sides ensures at least some sense of survival. You noted the fate of the Ratcatcher (a man who was not affiliated with either side)… and the Political prisoners are often the only few you find getting killed or injured in the streets. Don’t forget what happened to Calendar man. Unless you are a powerhouse like Bane (who was negatively affected by Joker anway) or Killer Croc, it is implied that you were in significant danger. Supervillians were given good explanation as to why they had so much influence. Two Face was one of the first inmates and was capable of making ground because of it. Joker was known as a highly successful villian who already formed relations with Blackgate prisoners at an earlier time and he owned what was perhaps the hugest portion of the property available. The Penguin was a huge black market arms dealer who had owned property before even making it to the scene. All three men were wealthy enough to purchase great deals from the Broker and all three men were already recognized as crime bosses. All three men gave their loyal inmates protection through the proliferation and distribution or artillery and all three men were possibly even the source of simple conveniences and even needs (food). It seems strength, however came from the amount of property you owned in the city. Szasz, for example, seemed only successful in operating on his own due to the building he acquired in the Industrial District. The inmates sought membership under the safest of the crime bosses. This helps my argument that choice of leadership was likely determined by the size of property a leader would own and by the infamy the leader was already recognized for having.

    7) Batman was not only harsh to the bone structure of the thugs and he had extreme ways of incapacitating even totally defenseless supervillians. There is a single move that explicitly has Batman breaking bones in the game and it makes sense for anyone to use it when he is pushed to quickly rid himself of little armies of men. But it seemed simple survival wasn’t the Batman only cause. He pulverizes Mr. Freeze’s face an unnecessary amount of times after breaking through his visor, he strikes a defenseless Penguin an unusual amount of times before attempting to snap his back, he allows Two Face to dangle over a vat of acid after issuing a beatdown, he battles the Joker in a way no different from the way he fought others, etc.

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