Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sanding the edges: Arkham City

Batman: Arkham City came out for PC a couple days ago.  This is a momentous occasion for me because I love Batman.  He's my favorite superhero, and I'm the kind of person who doesn't really have a favorite anything.  Ask me what my favorite band is and it's going to oscillate between a number of groups or artists, as it would if you asked me about my favorite book or author.  But superheroes?  Batman is number one.  (The number two slot is up for grabs, naturally.)

My favorite part of the game so far is nearly everything about it.  My least favorite part is the brutal, unrelenting misogyny.

The game came out for consoles about a month ago, so this is a topic that's been hashed and re-hashed, and I realize I'm kind of picking over the ashes here, but it really is too much to ignore and as someone who was primed to love this game it's incredibly disappointing how accurate a lot of the criticism is.  There have been apologists for the game and I can definitely sympathize with them; when something you love comes under attack you want to defend it, and nerds are especially predisposed to that, since for many of them that's basically all high school was.  But we're no longer in high school and the kind of shit Arkham City is trying to pull off is, frankly, unacceptable and lazy.

This shit is fucking embarrassing.
Let's start with Catwoman.  Now, going in, I realize that she's a problematic character.  She's a sexy femme fatale dressed in leather frequently posited as a love interest, and not much else, for Batman, posited as an equal only up to the point where Batman wins and either takes her to jail or has sex with her (or a deep, rooftop kiss before his personal angst takes over and he declares he can never have anyone in his life because blah blah blah dead parents tortured soul etc).  It's a tough needle to thread, and perhaps AC knows this, because it just drops the thread and pokes you with the needle.  Except in this metaphor the needle is tits.  As you can see from the picture on the left, this is what we're dealing with.  The argument has been made that her top is unzipped that far because she's trying to distract her assailants with her feminine wiles, an argument that is incredibly persuasive to anyone who has never been in an actual fucking fight.  Also, no successful sneak thief in the history of the world has worn knee-high heels.  I have no particular knowledge to back up this point except common fucking sense.

I realize I'm using the word 'fucking' a lot for emphasis, and it's going to happen a lot from this point, so strap on in.  Even if you don't like the word, try to look at that picture and not have it be one of the first things you think of.  I am not the world's biggest fan of the 'realism' argument against things like boobplate (the phenomenon of fantasy armor for females wherein the breastplate is made less structurally sound and more prone to actually causing opposing blows to do more damage by the addition of giant breasts on the titular, no pun-intended, plate) and other awful clothing that happens when male nerds design female costuming.  'Realism' is kind of a meaningless word when it comes to creative fiction, even non-genre, because it's all filtered through some kind of lens and that lens is inherently selective and thus non-reflective of reality.  Even notwithstanding that, we're talking about comic books here, specifically comic books where a young boy's response to brutal childhood trauma and loss is to dress up like a giant bat, and specifically a game where, in trying to find Mr. Freeze in order to help find a cure for the blood-based ailment that is slowly killing him, Batman has to enter the museum controlled by the Penguin, who has kidnapped Freeze, and take on, among other things, a room with a giant shark.  Even if the game didn't also feature an Alice in Wonderland-based villain named the Mad Hatter I would still use the phrase 'we are through the looking glass.'  But regardless of all of this, if you are one of the world's premier non-powered thieves you don't dress up like a goddamn stripper and run around with your tits out, especially not in the titular (yeah, I'm doing it on purpose now) Arkham City.

The premise of the game is that Warden Sharp, of the previous Arkham Asylum, has run for mayor and won.  One of the first things he does is wall off a section of Gotham City and send all of the city's criminals there.  Obviously this is not the world's greatest idea (and the game actually addresses the fact that it's somewhat ludicrous by exploring the idea that there was some behind-the-scenes manipulation of the proceedings) but, all other concerns aside, if you are a woman in an environment containing every criminal in the greater Gotham area, one would think you would cover your chest and not wear heels.

"But Jake," you might say, "if I can't see her tits and she's not wearing tight leather and heels how will I know she's a sexy lady?"  For one thing, check out exhibit A to the left.  That woman looks like she has some personality.  Yeah, her chest is probably a little enormous and it's kind of a cheesecakey pose, but it still looks like a more functional outfit that still gets across the idea that this is supposed to be some kind of a Cat Woman.  But beyond that, sexiness is not the primary thing we should be demanding from our female protagonists, any more so than it's what I demand from my male one.  For those of you who scoff at the idea of patriarchy, think about the fact that our male heroes can be all sorts of things beyond or in addition to their appearance, as can villains.  Women, of all stripes and characters, must be hot, unless they are mothers.  They are defined by their looks, and this shouldn't be the case.

Unfortunately the problems don't stop here.  You see, the combined villainry of Arkham City think Catwoman (and really, all women, which we will get to in a minute) is a bitch, and they would like you to know it.  They also would like to fuck her, which they are also not shy about letting you know about.  Now, the latter is pretty understandable, given that you've dressed her up like a horny fetish model on the way to a BDSM party, but there is no other real way that the thugs of AC show their aggression other than sexual or gendered insults.  The same doesn't hold true of their insults against Batman, which is where the misogyny complaints begin; they call him chicken, which I guess is emasculating if you are a) from the fifties or b) Marty McFly, but it's not an equivalent insult to bitch (bastard might do it, but no one says that).  Yes, criminals aren't going to talk nice about the pretty lady who is kicking (or, given my first efforts in the opening battle as I tried to remember how to play the game, trying to kick) their asses, but you could do it without resorting to constant rape threats and gendered insults.  No one tried, which is where the accusations of laziness come in.  Someone should have taken the extra effort to try and add a little variety to the dialogue, and they didn't.  They drank deeply from the well of bitch and called it good.

If this was the extent of it, that's one thing.  But the laziness went a long way to ruining the game's portrayal of my favorite Batman villain, Two-Face (what is it about Batman that draws out my unequivocality?).  Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight kind of gets at what makes the character interesting (although it does a better job with Batman and the Joker), but the connection I made today in the shower when I was writing this post in my head was that Harvey Dent is Obama.  He is that charismatic, that driven to do good things and driven to help people.  Batman's best villains hold mirrors up to his own aspects, and for Harvey that aspect is the limitless potential of Bruce Wayne, misdirected by tragedy and madness.  There's a tendency by bad writers to use Two-Face as just another gangster with a fascination with duality, but Two-Face is more that that, because he possesses a fierce drive and intelligence, formerly focused on the law and now focused on crime.

You wouldn't know this if your only exposure to the character was Arkham City, though, because Two-Face is reduced to a Catwoman-hating caricature of himself, calling her a bitch and spouting bad gangster dialogue about how he's going to get her.  He looks and sounds like a moron, every bit of dialogue and story information painting a portrait of a woman-hating buffoon.  There's no joy in taking him down as Catwoman, except in that it shuts him up.  I realize this might be a product of bad writing instead of outright misogyny, but since the bad writing is so misogynistic I'm comfortable putting that particular glass slipper on that particular princess' foot.

Catwoman, in the course of the game, comes in contact with Poison Ivy, who is another problematic character.  She's also typically portrayed as a femme fatale as well, but her gimmick is plants instead of cats, and she's typically even more scantily-clad.  She's dressed pretty much like she was in Arkham Asylum, that is to say with a button-down shirt with only one button done, conveniently covering her breasts while still firmly emphasizing that she has them, and exposing her midriff for all you midriff lovers out there.  She's also wearing bikini bottoms or something.  Basically if you want to fuck a plant she should be on your list (you shouldn't want to fuck a plant).  It's fine if you are lazy or wanted a redhead in the game, but there is no reason she couldn't have some kind of concealing bark armor/skin-type deal, except then nerds wouldn't know she's sexy.  She doesn't do a whole lot in the game, so there's not a lot to complain about, except in the scene where Catwoman goes to talk to Ivy for...some reason, I guess they needed a cameo, Catwoman is trussed up by vines and menaced by one that looks like something out of Japanese tentacle porn.  In isolation I don't know that I would think anything of it, but with everything else in the game it's hard to give the benefit of the doubt.

Lets move on to Harley Quinn, a character who is even less well-served that Catwoman by the game.  Harley originated in the Bruce Timm/Paul Dini Batman: The Animated Series as the Joker's female sidekick.  She had a distinctive personality and energy made her a fan-favorite and she actually made the transition to the DC Universe proper.  She was also, probably due to appearing in a cartoon that was ostensibly for kids, remarkably non-sexualized for a female character.  This is obviously a horrible mistake that the creators of Arkham City thankfully rectified.  They also made sure to emphasize that Harley is a dumb bitch who is only good for sex with the Joker.  This flies in the face of the characters origins, which oddly enough are more nuanced and positive.  Dr. Harleen Quinzel was a practicing psychologist interested in the Joker who came to Arkham hoping to interview him.  This tracks with the internal reality of the DC Universe in my mind, since if you lived in that world and your specialty was the human mind and the healing thereof you would be fascinated by the Joker, who is the embodiment of elemental crazy.  He's also charming and intelligent, and Quinzel was intrigued enough by him to break him out of Arkham and become his girl Friday.  It's a good, solid origin, and establishes that she's an intelligent woman, but one who is attracted to darkness, and it gives her places to go; she can be drawn into the Joker's darkness, or be repulsed by it, or it can ebb and flow between those poles.  She can be a person, in other words.

Arkham City's Harley, on the other hand, is implied to have slept her way through her degree (this appears in a comic I can't find, and it's no less creepy and insulting there), is called dumb by one of the game's Riddler Challenges (a sidequest where you basically photograph Bat-related paraphernalia), is frequently dismissed by the thugs in the game as just a piece of ass for the Joker, has minimal impact on the plot and, in one bit of dialogue between thugs, completely dismissed as a potential leader should the Joker succumb to the ailment he's suffering from (it's suggested that, rather than follow her orders, said thugs will just kill her).  It completely dismisses the idea that she could be competent or intelligent on her own, or that she has any worthwhile assets beyond what you see on the right.  Also, and I hate to keep harping on this, but she's wearing knee-length heels and a leather outfit.  The leather thing is kind of Catwoman's bag, at least recently, but it's a complete departure from previous depictions of Harley (except for Arkham Asylum's, which was also pretty shitty).  I'm gonna start spoiling the shit out of this game at this point, so you'd better click away if you care.  At the end of City, the Joker dies.  Holy shit, right!  This means that the previous conversation about Harley's suitability as the woman in charge isn't academic going forward in the Batman-video-game-iverse!  It is actually relevant, but what could have been a strong, intelligent, interesting female character with agency was portrayed as more than a stupid joke in high heels where the punchline is titties and there's nowhere to go with that except porno fanfic.

Also, as Catwoman : Harvey Dent, so Harley : Joker, as the implication that Harley is kept around just to be a fuck doll for the Joker actually makes him less interesting and threatening.  The difference is that the writing for Mr. J is actually good, and Mark Hamill is phenomenal in voicing him, as always (Ledger was great, but even posthumously I can't in good conscience call his work anything more than a very close number two because of Hamill's work on the animated series and the Arkham games) and so this misstep is surpassed, but I was waiting for the b-word to come from his mouth (I think the worst he got was silly minx, which is pretty in-keeping with how he talks).  The Joker is almost an elemental force, and it's always an 'oh shit' moment when he shows up.  My favorite treatment of this is the No-Man's Land storyline, where City took some inspiration.  In the storyline Gotham has been decimated by two deadly virus outbreaks and an earthquake, and the US government basically says the city is beyond saving and cuts it off from the rest of the country, leaving the remnants of the GCPD, the inhabitants who couldn't make it out, and most of Batman's rogue's gallery inside.  It's pretty epic and features some good writing, and there's a moment in the story where things are mostly under control, help is on the way and things look like they might return to normal, but everyone is still freaked out because the Joker is still out there.  No one has any way of predicting what he'll do, which is what makes him such a great, scary villain.  The Dark Knight gets this exactly right; there are complaints that the movie is too long, but it has to be that way for the escalation to get to where it gets to and to make you really feel what it would be like to live with someone like the Joker on the loose.  At first it would be scary but maybe a little funny (clowns robbing banks!) but after a while it would become numbing as you live in constant horror of just what the Clown Prince of Crime comes up with.  I don't want to say it's inconceivable that such a character couldn't also be sexual, but the idea of the character in a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship (especially one painted in such banal, blase terms as City does) makes him less horrifying (and if you think about it long enough questions of abuse start to get asked and that's a road that there is no benefit to traveling down).

We're unfortunately not finished.  Talia al Ghul isn't as well-known as the other two characters, given that she's attached to R'as al Ghul, a less-popular villain outside of the comics himself (his appearance in Batman Begins notwithstanding).  She is R'as' daughter, an accomplished assassin and sometime lover of Batman.  She is also another femme fatale, which makes sense, since that's pretty untrodden ground for Batman villains.  The game makes her no more than a cipher, posited as Batman's one true love interest without presenting any evidence that this is actually the case.  I realize the game is its own iteration of Batman universe, existing at some meeting point of the movies, animated series and comics, but the first scene between Batman and Talia, where she gives him a speech about how his true place is at her side, leading the League of Assassins, is one I've seen in just about every story featuring Talia, and they don't go beyond that.  She appears, administers a test for Batman (featuring Batman against the environment and R'as himself, never her, because that would require her to show competence and not her midriff), is used as a hostage by her father, and then later in the game by the Joker, and is seemingly killed in the climax of the story to little fanfare.  The actual League of Assassins assassins are all women, but they're all dressed in a largely inoffensive manner and are skilled in combat (making them annoying for me, since they all use swords and I am bad at Blade Dodging).  Talia, their ostensible leader (given that the game posits R'as as dead before he manifestly isn't), on the other hand, is dressed in (say it with me) leather and knee high leather heels.

I am going to make a request of the character designer for Arkham City.  The next time you have to design a costume for a female character, masturbate first.  Then wash your hands and start your drawing.  And if you ever find yourself giving a woman who is ostensibly good at fighting a pair of heels, go masturbate again.  You have a problem, and a clear preference, and you need to get your head clear before you sour another game.

There's not much else to say about Talia, and so I now turn to the other, incidental female characters, because they get a similar treatment.  Vicki Vale, who is to Gotham as Lois Lane is to Metropolis, is in a news helicopter that is shot down over Arkham City and rescued by Batman.  She's mostly serviceable, but her stockings are torn just enough to be sexy by the crash.  There's also an inmate conversation about her that goes something like, "Hey, did you hear Vicki Vale got shot down over the city?" "Good, I never liked the bitch."  Really?  That was the choice you made?  Why not have the guy like her?  It's more interesting and doesn't make me think the writers for the game didn't get enough hugs from their mommy when they were young.

Finally there are a couple of female doctors or interns that are kidnapped and held hostage by the Joker's goons.  One of them is thrown into the midst of Joker's thugs in a way that was pretty suggestive of an imminent gang-rape before having a guy wielding a giant hammer come out and almost smash her.  He was stopped at the last minute, but they made sure to call her a bitch first!  The other one is held at gunpoint and menaced by thugs and, yes, called a bitch.

I realize that these are all bad people saying these things, and that the creators might just be giving me more reasons to hate them.  But you know what?  I know they're bad people.  You know why?  Because they always try to kick my ass, and I'm playing the motherfucking Batman.  I do not need any other textual reasons to pound their faces with my fists.  I do not need to know that they are without question the worst people in the world.  That's actually less interesting than the alternative, which is that some of the guys in this massive prison might just have fallen in with the wrong crowd for survival.  That would add a hint of nuance to the proceedings, creating a feeling that there's no best option for Batman, that it's a struggle for survival.  Some people are bad and some less so, but in the end, they're all on the other side and one man has to be left standing.  As it is it paints a view of humanity that is almost impossibly dark, which goes against what Batman is to me.  Yes, he was born out of a dark act, and he lives his lives in shadow, but Batman is ultimately an optimist.  He has to be; his whole existence is predicated on the belief that one man can change the world.  His refusal to kill the Joker (as he says at the end of the game, "Even after everything, I would have saved you,") indicates not, as is sometimes implied, rank foolishness, but a hope that even the worst among us can somehow be saved.  There's a reason that, for all its darkness, the last shot of The Dark Knight is of Bruce riding into a blinding white light.

If I were a professional game reviewer I'd give AC an 8.5/10, or a B+, or four stars out of five.  Without the misogyny it's a perfect ten, an A+, a five-star title, which is what makes it all the more heartbreaking and disturbing.  I want to love it without shame, but instead I'm always going to have reservations.

If you're an amateur craftsman you can build a bookshelf and it will do its job.  It will be some wood that you can pile your books on and put in the corner of your room.  But if you're a craftsman, doing what you do for love, a bookshelf becomes a work of art just based on how you sand the edges.  In many ways, those edges become what you notice about the bookshelf; those personal touches are what turn it into a work of art.  Most of us can tell a story, be it about Batman or whatever else.  What separates the good for the bad are the edges, the grace notes, the details.  Every detail we include in what we create matters and creates the meaning of that piece.  In this case the creators of Arkham City sanded each shelf so that it looks like a pair of boobs and then drew a big old ass on the back, and so instead of being something I would give to my kids and hope they'd pass on to theirs, it's the boobshelf I joke about with my friends that doesn't come with me to the next apartment or house.  Here's hoping Rocksteady learns from the backlash.  It's hard to imagine it could get any worse, but there were enough interesting things set up in this game to make me look forward to the next, even with the reservations I have, and I'm hoping the next game is something I can love without shame.  These people get Batman like few do.  They just don't get women.

1 comment:

  1. Fun fact: the Catwoman gameplay reveal trailer for Arkham City uses "Get Some" by Lykke Li, which contains the lines "I'm a prostitute/you gon' get some."

    They cut out the "I'm a prostitute" bit, skipping straight to the "get some," but I think the intent was fairly clear.

    I haven't played the game yet (I've yet to even begin Asylum), but I'm not so sure now whether I want to.

    Anyway, thanks for the great commentary on an unfortunate issue.