A long year has passed since Batman: Arkham Knight was released on game consoles (and PC, but let’s not bring that up). The explosive finale to the acclaimed Batman: Arkham series, which was known for translating the DC superhero and his skills to the gaming medium like never before, sought to answer the question: Who is the Arkham Knight? That inquiry drove the plot forward (and half its marketing), but is easily the biggest disappointment in an otherwise amazing game, even now.
Batman: Arkham Knight plays like one long, campy Halloween, as the Dark Knight fights to liberate Gotham City from Scarecrow’s grip. Players also square off against a few of Batman’s most recognized foes, like the Penguin, Two-Face, Riddler, Mr. Freeze, Harley Quinn, and small fries like Firefly. But above them all was the Arkham Knight, the militia commander concealed behind a high-tech cowl. While the guy looked badass, when his true identity was revealed later to be (spoilers!) Jason Todd, the ex-second Robin, the game nosedived.
Anyone with a passing familiarity of Batman knows his sidekick Robin, the Boy Wonder. But knowledgeable fans also know there have been several: Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, Carrie Kelly, and even Bruce Wayne’s son Damian have each donned the mask and cape. But there was also Jason Todd.
20 years after Dick retired and became Nightwing, Batman takes in the street orphan Jason, whom he catches jacking tires from the Batmobile. Fans hated Dick and anything resembling the goofiness of the 1966 Batman series, so Jason was meant to be an “edgier” Robin than the happy-go-lucky Dick. He was a hothead who acted out from rage.
And a funny thing happened when Jason became Robin: Fans hated him too. The writers of Batman inadvertently made the “edgy” Robin a whiny, cocky shit that reminded readers of the bullies who bullied them. The editor at DC Comics at the time, Denny O’Neil, said later (recounted in Glen Weldon’s 2016 book The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture):
“They did hate him…I don’t know if it was fan craziness - maybe they saw him as usurping Dick Grayson’s position… I think once writers became aware fans didn’t like Jason Todd, they began to make him bratty. I toned some of it down. If I had to do it again I would tone it down more.”
When head-honchos at DC decided to write off Robin, O’Neil took it a step further inspired by an Eddie Murphy stunt on Saturday Night Live. During an episode, Murphy asked viewers to vote to save or boil a lobster on live TV by calling in. O’Neil liked that, so he implemented it into a cliffhanger ending involving the Joker in Batman #427, Part 2 of the “A Death in the Family” storyline in 1988.
“ROBIN WILL DIE BECAUSE THE JOKER WANTS REVENGE,” the last page declared. “BUT YOU CAN PREVENT IT WITH A TELEPHONE CALL!” There were two numbers, making SNL and Batman comics one of many forerunners to call-in reality shows like American Idol a decade later.
And boy, did people call in. The margin was close: 5,343 to kill, while 5,271 called to save Jason. Devin Faraci of Birth.Movies.Death mused on the ramifications Jason’s death would have in fandom, creating an insular culture that valued fetishized violence as opposed to, you know, decent storytelling.
“In the late 80s the move towards darkness and ‘seriousness’ and ‘realism’ in superhero comics seemed to be the way forward. But when I made that phone call I couldn’t have imagined the dominoes that were falling all around me … I couldn’t imagine that my phone call was going to lead to a major motion picture where a hyper-violent, murderous Batman would have Robin’s suit hanging in his Batcave… and I definitely couldn’t imagine this would be a bad thing.”
After Jason’s “death,” he was resurrected (because that’s how comic books work) and became a vigilante bearing the moniker Red Hood, the previous identity of Joker, the man who killed him. This pathos and poetic use of the very name “Red Hood” turned out better stories with Jason, and fans have grown to appreciate the former Robin in this more aggressive but also poignant persona.
Fans dig Jason’s Red Hood, but Batman: Arkham Knight teased a new character in the titular Arkham Knight. Many fans did speculate if he was Jason Todd, but Rocksteady kept insisting he was their “own character.”
“[W]hen the idea was on the table for us to develop our own character and introduce that into Batman’s world, there was so much energy and excitement around it at Rocksteady,” Rocksteady marketing guy and producer Dax Ginn told VG247 shortly after the game’s reveal. “That’s not an opportunity that comes along very often, and I think we totally nailed it with this guy.”
It should have been obvious who the Arkham Knight was when downloadable content centered on Red Hood was announced. But that was too easy: No way could this new, badass original character mimic the same beats of a familiar story. Arkham Knight is supposed to be a thrilling conclusion to a story started in 2009’s Arkham Asylum, and Jason hadn’t been anywhere near them.
Could it be the Joker, whose death in 2011’s Arkham City was an actually shocking twist? Could it be Harley Quinn, Joker’s girl out for revenge in a new persona? Is it Hush, based on Jeph Loeb’s storyline about a stalker intent to ruin Bruce Wayne? Azrael? Deathstroke? Ra’s Al Ghul? A turncoat Dick Grayson? All of those candidates would have put a relatively new spin on their established characters, making their role as the Arkham Knight refreshing.
But Arkham Knight did nothing to change anyone’s mind. Before the reveal, the game retreads practically all the important stuff from “A Death in the Family” through flashbacks. When the Arkham Knight was finally unmasked to reveal Jason Todd, the internet farted in unison.
“The issue is that Todd fits too well,” said CinemaBlend. “The developers could have done more to make the Arkham Knight’s identity a secret. If you think Jason Todd is the Arkham Knight before you start playing the game, the game does nothing to challenge that assumption. That’s an issue.”
“I think that the Arkham Knight was a flawed concept from the start,” wrote GamesRadar after the game’s release. “[B]y hinging so much of the main story on this one character, and by placing so much emphasis on the reveal of his true identity, Rocksteady sets up a lot of expectation without enough pay off.”
Forbes adds to the frustration: “ It works within the game, but it was more than a little deceptive for Rocksteady to insist his identity would shock and amaze us all.”
Batman: Arkham Knight is still a great, great game. It’s one of the best Batman simulators anyone could ask for, wrapped up in a blockbuster production with no shortage of content to explore in a wide open Gotham City. It’s just disappointing that the main attraction, the title that bears its name, isn’t a new experience at all.
Also, I hated his boss fight in the tunnels. That shit aged me by five years.