Batman – The Telltale Series is coming out with its second episode, “Children of Arkham,” on September 20th. The first episode, “Realm of Shadows,” has already been a huge hit with fans of the comics and fans of other Telltale games.
The most interesting thing about the series so far is that it’s been giving us another side of Batman. The Arkhamverse games were revolutionary because they finally let us play a Batman who was more than just a punchy action hero. Arkham Asylum gave us Batman as a detective and a man who has to rely more on stealth than sheer physical strength. Telltale is delving a step further into the character and looking behind the mask at Bruce Wayne’s personal struggles.
I’m in love with this concept, because it addresses a huge problem I’ve always had with the public perception of Batman: the difference between Batman as a sort of ultimate wish-fulfillment character, and the flawed reality that is Bruce Wayne.
I want to start off by talking about the importance of recognizing Bruce Wayne as the hero of the franchise. Batman has this weird position in pop culture because we seem to collectively view him as the most “attainable” hero. Superman has incredible powers, but Batman is just a normal guy in a suit with cool gadgets! I’ve heard this line of logic a million times in playground arguments, usually combined with the complaint that “he’s not a real super-hero.”
The thing people don’t understand about Batman is that it’s never been the suit or the gadgets that make Bruce Wayne a super-hero. They certainly help, but there’s a reason not every millionaire in the DCU is out there bursting through skylights (okay, like 50% of them are, but still).
The real fantasy aspect of Batman that makes us admire him is his perseverance and drive. Bruce Wayne is a man so sure of his purpose and so committed to his personal goals (mostly punching the abstract concept of crime in the face) that he has been able to dedicate his life to the perfect pursuit of one path. I don’t want to say that Batman is humanity at the peak of perfection (dude’s got problems), but he built himself into a perfect streamlined engine to live life according to his principles.
By comparison, if you take away Clark Kent’s powers and leave him naked in a cave, you have a very kind reporter with glasses. If you take away Bruce Wayne’s gadgets and leave him naked in a cave, he is still the most dangerous man on the planet.
In general, people seem to ignore the human elements when talking about Batman. I run the DC Database, so I’ve had a lot of people ask me how awesome it would be to “be Batman,” because this is apparently the question you ask a comic book scholar. But the idea that anybody would want to actually be Batman has always seemed sort of insane to me.
I mean, yes, on the surface it seems extremely cool. Batman’s got an awesome car, cool gadgets, and he can punch anyone in the face with almost no legal repercussions (don’t lie, you’ve dreamed about it). He lives in a mansion, his butler is a gourmet chef, and on top of that, he’s a billionaire playboy who can spend all day drinking and sleeping with supermodels. Who wouldn’t want that? Batman seems fun in theory because we imagine ourselves as Batman without any responsibility.
Of course, that’s not how Batman works. Batman is only sustainable because Bruce Wayne lives under a constant strain of internal pressure that won’t allow him to be happy. It’s the drive that pushes him out to risk certain death against costumed madmen every night. It’s the drive that prevents him from really having a meaningful relationship with someone. I don’t want to imply that Batman can’t be happy (I could write an entirely separate article about that), but he has to live knowing that any time he takes to work on his personal happiness is very possibly condemning others to die.
Telltale does a great job of showing us the constant pressures Bruce Wayne is under in every different aspect of his life. It’s not just getting shot at that he has to worry about. He has to worry about managing a multi-billion dollar company, maintaining the legacy of his family so he can continue to help people using their influence, and keeping up complicated relationships with the most powerful figures in Gotham. If he really wants to make a difference in society, he has to worry about effectively managing multiple high-profile charities, navigating the complex world of corruption and profiteering in modern elections, and making sure the police have everything they need to do their job when that job often includes shooting him in the chest.
This base level of Batman’s responsibilities is absurdly complicated before you even get to the wider universe stuff, like his responsibilities with the Justice League, the Outsiders, and especially the diverse group of vigilantes inspired by and trained underneath him — and of course, his highly traumatic past. Let’s run through a quick recap of just a few of the tragedies Bruce Wayne has personally experienced.
- The death of Bruce Wayne’s parents is practically a meme at this point, a joke about how Batman can’t get over them when any reasonable person would have. I would argue that Batman could let go of his parents if he wanted to, but he knows the world needs a Batman and Batman needs that drive. That’s beside the point, though. This is barely the tip of the iceberg of personal tragedy.
- He took in a child with anger problems named Jason Todd from the street, knowing that Jason would let his anger consume him and get him killed if he didn’t provide him with guidance. Then the Joker beat him to death with a crowbar. Bruce eventually learned that he couldn’t let the tragedy cut him off from people who cared about him, but it would never truly stop haunting him.
- Then there was the time the Joker shot and crippled Batgirl.
- Identity Crisis revealed that Batman’s most trusted friends and colleagues had tampered with his memories to avoid exposing something wrong they had done. Eventually, Batman discovers this, isolating him even more as he realized he could not even trust his own mind.
- More recently, Batman learned that he had been assaulted by ex-girlfriend Talia al Ghul and she conceived a child named Damian Wayne that she never told him about. Despite the child being raised as one of the world’s most evil terrorists/assassins, Bruce took Damian in and worked hard to help rehabilitate him into a good person. This culminated in Damian becoming the fifth Robin and sacrificing himself to save innocents in a battle against the Heretic.
I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point.
My favorite single Batman story of all time is “What the Butler Saw” in Batman #683, written by Grant Morrison. It’s a companion piece to Final Crisis and Batman R.I.P. that deals with a lot of themes and showcases the ultimate badass defining trait at the core of Bruce Wayne.
The story itself is ridiculously high-concept. Batman has been captured and imprisoned by Darkseid, who believes he is the perfect human warrior and wants to have him cloned for a subservient army. This task is given to Darkseid’s top scientists, the delightfully bizarre Simyan and Mokkari who run something called the “Evil Factory.”
Their job is not just to clone Batman’s body, which would be easy for them, but to clone Batman’s mind and the traumas that shaped him, by going through his memories Eternal Sunshine-style and streaming them through every single one of the clone bodies.
Of course, the flaw in their plan is that not just anyone can be Batman. Bruce Wayne figures out what they’re doing and deliberately relives all of his harshest and most difficult memories in the lifetime of constant nightly pain and trauma he’s experienced. The clones go insane and start tearing themselves apart, unable to handle even a fraction of what Batman has to deal with just to keep going every day. Batman ultimately destroys the entire factory with basically just the sheer force of his own weaponized trauma, and then escapes to go hunt down and destroy the Evil God.
I love this story so much that I get giddy thinking about it. It’s a perfect representation of everything I think we’re supposed to learn from Batman. Batman is about never giving up. Batman is about being your best self at all times. Every villain he meets has a tragedy like watching their parents die in an alley, and they’ve all used that pain as an excuse to be selfish and hurt others.
But every person on the planet goes through personal tragedies. What Batman teaches us that the best thing we can do is turn our pain into a weapon and use it to fight the problems of the world, whether that means literally battling serial killers or just working hard to make your corner of the world a little nicer for people who are struggling.
I love the power fantasy version of Batman, but I just don’t find him that interesting. The Batman I find interesting is the complex and sad man behind the mask, Bruce Wayne — the man who seeks to truly discover how much good one person can do when they’ve set their heart on it. That’s something I think we can all take inspiration from.