Arkham Asylum: Style and Influences

So. Batman. Few characters have been through so many major stylistic changes without leaving the public eye, from the pulp-inspired revenge fantasy of the 1940s to the childish superheroics of the post-Wertham 1950s, leading up to the deadpan campiness of the Adam West’ TV series, which remained the culturally dominant view of the character until Frank Miller turned the focus to the story’s inherent brutality, Tim Burton to its grotesquery, and the writers for Batman: The Animated Series to its melodrama. B:tAS, with its famous voice acting and German-expressionism-inspired visuals, pretty much replaced Adam West in the public consciousness as the default version, the one that young people think of first when the character is mentioned. And it probably still holds that position, despite the popularity of the Christopher Nolan films.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is something of a mixture of these past portrayals, but it’s mainly in the grotesque mold, taking advantage of the power of modern graphics processors to give everybody highly-detailed wrinkles and warts and scars. The characters are a far cry from the polygonal stylization of the last Batman-themed game I played 1Batman: Vengeance, a game based on the later “New Batman Adventures” seasons of Batman: The Animated Series. As such, the extreme stylization was a matter of remaining true to the source, not of technical limitations. , but I can’t call them realistic. They have all the unnatural-looking distortion and exaggeration of a cartoon made flesh. And, of course, they have that CGI sheen. But this is one place where the Uncanny Valley effect works with the fiction.

The setting is a mixture of crumbling gothic architecture and high tech, all glowing electronics and gargoyles, that reminds me the most of the Tim Burton films. The character of Batman himself is of course also a mixture of gothic and high-tech, but his style here, and the style of his equipment, reminds me more of the Nolan films: very sleek and professional without being flashy, the one portrayal that makes him seem almost normal (and, consequently, not very interesting as a character). Despite the weirdness of his premise, he exudes a calm authority; the asylum guards let him more or less take charge because he’s the one person who isn’t panicking. He even punches people with great authority (as Joss Whedon once said about David Boreanaz). Mind you, the comparison to the Nolan films is helped along by the similar music, and also by the way Batman can use his cape to glide, even when not supported by a rope — something that was part of the earliest Batman comics, but which had pretty much vanished from the character’s attributes at some point (possibly due to the difficulty of pulling it off convincingly in the live-action TV show).

Most of the main characters have the same voice-actors as in Batman: the Animated Series. Well, they could hardly do without Mark Hamill as the Joker, could they? He’s the definitive Joker voice these days. And even those with new actors seem to be aiming for the B:tAS versions of the characters — the Riddler, for example, is a man characterized by smug derision, someone who seeems like he genuinely doesn’t want his riddles to be solved (because he takes pleasure in the sense of superiority that comes with stumping you), rather than the giggling mania of prior versions, who always seemed to be barely restraining themselves from blurting out the answers. (A good decision, if you ask me; before B:tAS, the Riddler was little more than a poor man’s Joker.)

The thing is, the voices are rather incongruous for the subject matter. This is a very dark game. B:tAS, as children’s programming, wasn’t allowed to have anything too gruesome. It would never have the Riddler making a disturbing joke about mutilating a baby, the way he does in a psychiatric interview tape you can find in the game. And yet, as I just described, it’s clearly the same version of the Riddler character. It feels a bit like discovering a coworker’s unsavory fetishes. Which may be the point. That particular bit reminds me a lot of a similarly horrifying-rather-than-funny joke involving a baby told by the Joker in Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s surreal and disturbing 1989 graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, which shares the current game’s title, setting, and, very loosely, plot. I wouldn’t say the game is based on the graphic novel, but it’s certainly inspired by it, or at least aware of it. The graphic novel questions Batman’s sanity, something that was popular in the 1980s, but I really don’t think that’s going to happen in the post-Nolan version here. Sure, he’ll face his inner demons — a confrontation with the Scarecrow is never complete without some reliving of unpleasant memories — but only as a step towards reaffirming his position. Still… I’ve found a couple of messages from Amadeus Arkham, the asylum’s founder, hinting at revelations similar to those in the graphic novel, that the place is build on cursed ground, that Batman is an unwitting agent of something occult and malign. We’ll see. For now, let’s just chalk it up as another influence.

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1. Batman: Vengeance, a game based on the later “New Batman Adventures” seasons of Batman: The Animated Series. As such, the extreme stylization was a matter of remaining true to the source, not of technical limitations.

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