The LEGO Batman Movie is out now (buy your tickets here), and in celebration, we’re going to spend the week looking at the lighter side of the Dark Knight.
The following contains spoilers for Batman: The Telltale Series.
It pains me to have to say this, but I have really gotten sick of Batman over the last couple of years. In theory, he's still one of my favorite characters in the DC Comics canon, mostly because his intelligence and resourcefulness make him stand out in a world dominated by people more accurately thought of as deities. But that's part of the problem: I prefer the Batman who cares about Gotham rather than the entire world because he's much more interesting as a detective than as a walking checkbook who funds the Justice League's tech and somehow has a contingency plan for every. Conceivable. Event.
But you know what? If you like world-saving Batman, that's fine too. It's apples and oranges as far as I'm concerned, almost an entirely separate character. But I also have had issues with how Batman has been portrayed in smaller scale stories as well. There are essentially two aspects to Batman's character that have nearly always worked in tandem since the character's inception: Bruce Wayne's damaged psyche at the loss of his parents, and his ultimate desire to make Gotham a better place for its citizens. Both of these aspects are vital to making Batman a human character that we're capable of rooting for, but more and more writers like to go introspective on Batman, analyzing his demons and drawing comparisons to the villains he protects Gotham from. This isn't in and of itself a bad thing, but it has saturated the bat-market to the extent that the goal of protecting Gotham is seemingly secondary to Bruce Wayne working out his abandonment issues by beating up Gotham City's poor and mentally ill. The only reason we're supposed to root for him as opposed to The Joker or The Penguin is because he holds to his oath not to kill… unless he's in a Zack Snyder movie, where you're just supposed to like him because he's incredibly jacked, bro.
So I was pretty close to burnt out on ol' Bats, but I recently had the opportunity to play Batman: The Telltale Series, an episodic narratively-driven game from Telltale Games, one of the best in the business when it comes to interactive storytelling. And I fell in love with the character again. Bruce Wayne was once again relatable and I haven't enjoyed the character this much since Batman: The Animated Series.
This is because Bruce Wayne is a character driven more by the love of his city than by the death of his parents, which is absolutely key to making him a heroic figure. At the end of the first episode, Bruce discovers that his father was not nearly the saint that he envisioned him to be. Thomas Wayne collaborated with the corrupt Mayor Hill and the gangster Carmine Falcone to achieve his economic and political goals and had political opponents housed in Arkham Asylum to shut them up and cover his tracks. Now, in many modern incarnations of Batman, this would be a psychologically destructive revelation, as placing the Wayne family on an unassailable pedestal of moral integrity is what justifies Batman's vengeance on the criminal element of Gotham City. But not this Bruce. Telltale's version of Bruce accepts the sins of his father but chooses to continue protecting and serving Gotham because it's what he believes is right. Not only does he want to help the citizens of Gotham, but he wants to eliminate the corruption that rampantly infests his city, even if it means righting the wrongs of his father.
So he backs Harvey Dent in his bid for mayor, and that confidence in Harvey's moral ideals is what drives that support. Now, we all know that Harvey is going to eventually slip into madness and become Two-Face, but before that change occurs Bruce is doing something that we don't often see him do anymore in modern Batman stories: acting as a benevolent philanthropist. Something that always bothers me about the absurd wealth that Bruce Wayne wields in modern Batman stories is that he could just as easily invest those funds in economic infrastructure and social justice projects that are proven to reduce crime and poverty, rather than spend that money on a never-ending supply of gadgets for hypothetical and increasingly specific situations. In The Telltale Series, we're right there with Bruce as he's advocating for Harvey, and Bruce's resources are being allocated toward improving Gotham both through public policy and criminal justice. There's even the implication that Bruce isn't even independently wealthy, and that control of his tech development is rooted entirely in his control over Wayne Enterprises. (Of course, that also implies that he's embezzling from the company, but hey, I'm not his lawyer.)
By placing equal (if not more) emphasis on wealth as a tool for enacting positive political change, The Batman is a tool for when the political and criminal justice systems fall to corruption, and Telltale's Bruce always has the choice to be diplomatic as his billionaire persona rather than as the mythic Batman. When the newly elected mayor Harvey Dent finally does fall to his madness and begins abusing his executive power in favor of broad political control backed up by threats of violence from a group of violent cronies—my, how topical—Batman is the back-up plan for when the social change they were striving for collapsed under the pressure placed on Harvey's shoulders. Even then, however, you can play through the entire game without ever once using the threat of Batman to stop Harvey Dent. Telltale gave players the option to make their Bruce Wayne a man of compassion, and Batman is a blunt instrument better suited to immediate threats of violence than for situations that are better handled through empathy and compassion.
And that compassion is why I like this version of Bruce Wayne so damn much. In the final confrontation of the game, Batman faces off against the overall main antagonist, Lady Arkham, who demands he take off his cowl in order to save the life of a captured Alfred. Players have the option of whether to reveal their identity, and doing so reveals that Bruce cares more about the lives of those around him than he does about preserving his bat persona. This is what heroism is. Bruce can sacrifice something of himself to create positive change or to save a life, and that is more important than living out a perpetual empowerment and revenge fantasy.
Now, of course, there are other options players can choose throughout the course of the narrative that may paint Bruce Wayne as just as ruthless, tortured, and duplicitous as other modern interpretations have made him out to be. I've only played the game once, and the options I chose were more in line with who I wanted the character to be. But maybe that's the point. Telltale created a narrative that allowed for the kind of empathetic protagonist we haven't seen much in Batman since The Animated Series. In being Batman, we get to choose what sort of person we identify with, what cowl we wish to glide a mile in. Telltale Games made me like Batman again. And the sad thing is that I'm not sure we'll see a version who feels quite so human for a long time.