Something happens in Arkham Knight that puts it way up in the running for Darkest Batman Story ever.
Massive spoilers follow.
I’m not done playing the latest Batman game yet. Overall, I’m enjoying Arkham Knight a lot. Many of the game’s features – upgraded implementation of existing gadgets, introduction of new ones, stealthy Batmobile sequences — have kept me happy so far. But the main reason I’ve played these latter-day Dark Knight video games has been to see how Rocksteady (and Warner Bros. Montreal for Arkham Origins) re-configures elements in the character’s mythos. Based on decades of reading Batman comics, I have ideas about who the Arkham Knight is. And, for when I finish the game, I’m working on an article about other Bat-stories that may have influenced its narrative. Still, one thing that happens about halfway through the game left me reeling.
Again, massive spoilers follow.
A few chapters into Batman’s quest to stop Scarecrow from raining terror down on Gotham, Barbara Gordon points a gun at her head, pulls the trigger and apparently takes her own life.
The act happens under the influence of the archvillain’s fear gas, as a wounded Batman helplessly stands outside a glass enclosure, unable to reach her in time. The shock delivered by the sequence is incredible. Up until this point, I’d been playing with the expectation that Batman would do what he almost always does, which is save lives, especially those of the people closest to him. But as I kept playing, I was dogged by thoughts of how terrible that plot point made me feel. Mostly because of who it happens to.
Barbara Gordon — who was already pretty unique as far as Bat-family characters go — was a Professional Victim once. Alan Moore used her as a high-profile victim of the Joker in his renowned Killing Joke story, where Batman’s mortal enemy shoots her through the spine and paralyses her below the waist. After writer John Ostrander re-invented the character as super-hacker/information broker Oracle in the Suicide Squad comic, she’d become a symbol of perseverance and an icon for handicapped people everywhere. Her life had changed after losing the use of her legs but, in the character’s best stories, it wasn’t any lesser than it was before.
She became the leader of a strike team in the Birds of Prey series and regularly overcame foes who underestimated her. She wasn’t a victim anymore. Except now, here she is, being dangled as motivation/bait all over again in Arkham Knight. I get that this is Rocksteady’s video game version of Batman, one that’s not necessarily beholden to fan- and creator-attitudes that have shaped these characters’ histories. But this still feels like a step backward for a character that’s currently enjoying a very well-received change of tone in her current comic-book series.
Like I said above, I haven’t finished playing Arkham Knight yet. There may be some big turnabout that changes the way I perceive the controversial scene above. And plot trickery is to be expected in any story where Scarecrow and his psychological manipulations are involved. But going to the “endangered/abused loved one” well again with Barbara Gordon is bullshit.
Wheelchair or no, the character got past being a damsel in distress a long time ago. I can’t feel great about any moment that hobbles her growth past that tired old trope. I hope the upcoming Batgirl DLC doesn’t just show her being a hero before her life-changing encounter with the Joker. I hope we also get to see Oracle saving the day on her own.
Update - 6:40: There’ve been some heated reactions to the piece, and I realize now that I should have been more clear about the fate of Barbara Gordon. I knew—from talking to Kotaku critic-at-large Chris Suellentrop, who has finished the game—that Barbara Gordon is alive at the end of Arkham Knight. The impetus for my writing came from the way that she was used throughout this instance of the game—as a motivation for Batman to react a certain way. That still undermines the best interpretations of Barbara Gordon, which I still feel we’ve yet to see in a video game. To some, all that will matter is whether she lives or dies, but, for me, it’s about how this character has used for decades, in good ways and bad, to tell stories in the fictions of Gotham City.