Holy Lack of Strong Female Characters, Batman!

So, I told myself I would never do video game reviews beyond the goofy lists of retro games I plan to do from time to time.

However, this fundamentally bothered me.
(Warning: Long Post)

Now, two early warnings here:
First, SPOILERS, obviously. I will be discussing fairly big plot points in the game Batman: Arkham Knight. If you don’t want the fates of certain characters ruined, don’t read until you’ve played.
Second, elements of this review will dip into an argument of feminism. I know the stigma this type of critical view has taken on the internet. Know this is less of a all-encompassing philosophical dogma for me and more just a critical scope with which to present this argument and observe media. Not that I don’t support feminism, but I feel it, as with any and all “isms,” has its merits, its uses, and its validity based on context.

Anywho, let’s dive in head first.

For the uninitiated, Batman: Arkham Knight is the final entry in the Arkham series of games given to us by Rocksteady Games and, of course, the kind folks at WB. I enjoyed the crap out of all three of these games. They have their own gameplay hang ups, and the PC version of this most recent entry is a bit of a notorious disaster currently, but then games have problems. I’m not here to review that part. I personally am not driven into a rage over things like glitchy or incomplete games. I can recognize that it isn’t the fault of the developer but more a lingering malady of the entire industry itself.

As for the games in this title, I loved them. The stories were beautifully dark, the voice acting was cuh-razy, and the settings were at equal times eerie and threatening. Plus, I got to play as the M-Fing Batman.

However, a major hang up of the first game was a lack of hero diversity, in that you got play as Batman. That’s all. Just Brucey boy rolling around and “not killing” baddies as he breaks both their legs and knocks them unconscious in waist high sewage. However, this worked for the story (locked in an asylum with crazies running free, cramped spaces, etc). We had no reason to want anyone else popping up to shine heinies combat boot style.

Then rolls in Arkham City, game number two, which promised a darker story and much larger scope. It provided both in spades, but also gave us a new playable character: Catwoman. Though minimal, Selena Kyle’s gameplay sections were a fun and refreshing break from the heavy handed dick-punchery of Mr. Wayne. Also, her character felt very independent: Helping Bats for her personal gains just as much as her general need to Pfeiffer herself all over his tight black skivvies. Add in the return of villains like Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, both of whom act appropriately villainous in there time on screen (however brief it may be considering the vastness of villains in this particular entry). We also get some interaction with Talia Al Ghul, drawing in the weird kiss-and-headlock romance that her and bats tend to share. Ultimately, the variety of female characters felt great in this game. The female villains shared as much limelight and ability as the male villains. Ultimately, it just felt like a large group of villains throughout the game. There was never a feeling of “here’s what the men are doing and here’s the ladies.”

Then approaches the third game, Arkham Knight. Promising an even larger scope and the addition of team fights, where bats joins forces with one of the bat family to fight large groups of enemies and players are given the chance to take the helm of some of their favorite batty badasses.

So who can we play as? Nightwing? Robin? Batgirl? Batwoman?

Well, half right.

Nightwing and Robin both get a significant appearance throughout the game as they fly around the stage helping bat beat the memories and motor skills out of a myriad of thugs and family men.

No girls allowed.

Okay, okay, that isn’t entirely true. Catwoman returns in this game as a playable character throughout a mission based around that weird Alton-Brown-with-more-death-traps, The Riddler. However, let’s discuss her presence real quick. Bats finds her captured and has to travel around the city and solve “riddles” (typically batmobile races… He should really think about changing his name… but then I guess “The Racist” doesn’t really command respect…) so that Catwoman can access keys and remove the exploding collar from her neck.

The Riddler.

Captured Catwoman.

And placed an exploding collar around her neck…

So the one playable female character we have in this game is a helpless victim to a guy who probably gets off every time the solitaire cards do that cool bouncey thing when he wins.

I know what you’re thinking, “Chris, everyone gets off to that. It’s awesome. Also, so what? So Catwoman got ruined and turned into a professional victim to force players to interact with some dork in a question mark Hawaiian shirt, what’s the big deal?”

Well, let’s inspect the other female characters in the game:

-Harley Quinn is so depressed at losing the joker that she attacks a police station and then the Batman’s lair. Her reasoning for the latter? He is housing people who have been infected with Joker’s blood and are in turn BECOMING the joker. She wants to free them to honor her beloved. Or so she says. In reality, she needs the green-haired psychopath in her life to give herself meaning. This is shown when a wrinkly old nerd reveals he is also becoming the joker and Harley immediately jumps to his side and drapes herself over him.

  • One slightly nit-picky directorial thing: In the main game, Tara Strong voices Harley (as always) but for some reason they have her voicing the character at a noticeably higher pitch than in many other iterations, including cartoons and other games, even other Arkham games. It just makes her feel very whiney and… odd. It is even significantly different than how she sounds in the Harley Quinn DLC for this EXACT game (see below for reference videos). Maybe I’m just hearing it weird, but it seriously bothered me.

-Poison Ivy again appears but in a more benevolent capacity. She uses her plants to help combat the fear toxin… and dies in the process. A noble sacrifice, that helps remind Batman of the stakes and motivate him to succeed. A decent plot device, especially if it is the first and only time it is used in the story…

…Except….

-Barbara Gordon, who we see as the paralytic Alan Moore abortion known as Oracle, shoots herself in the head in front of Batman while under the influence of fear toxin. A character that has already been victimized decades ago now gets a fresh dose of the helpless-victimies just to again advance a plot and remind Batman of the stakes. This is only exacerbated by an earlier hallucination Batman has where he WATCHES Babs get shot in the spine (the scene from killing joke, though without the creepy Joker rape possibilities).

So, we have four main female characters in the game, all of which are victim to some sort of Supervillain (Harley perceives Bats as a villain) and need a man to save them. This professional victim status even extends to characters not seen on screen. Example: Kirk Langstrom, aka ManBat, freaks out and is super sad after an experiment goes wrong and turns him into a (wait for it) half man, half bat. What is the aspect of this creepy little side story used to instill a sense of dread and sympathy in the player? When Kirk turned, he went berserk and murdered his wife.

Dead woman = sad. That’s the ongoing formula in this game.

And meanwhile Nightwing and Robin get to roll around kicking butts and eating nuts.

Granted, Robin does get kidnapped by Scarecrow (because Batman villains apparently have no other crimes to commit), but this happens at the END of the game, and is less of a motivator to the plot as it is a chance to beat home a point we have already gotten (Batman puts his friends in danger blah blah blah). Also, Babs’ death was somehow manufactured by the Scarecrow through fear toxin and a writer somewhere going “Jesus, should we really kill Barbara, for God’s sake?” So she ended up being okay.

It would have been an easy thing to repair. Replace Nightwing with Batwoman. Sure, she isn’t as popular of a character, but people are already going to buy your damn game. If you are at game three and think Nightwing is your only hope to sway people over, then you done fudged up. Plus, it would free us from the awkward giggles when Kevin Conroy rattles out lines like “Thanks, Dick.” Or “it’s too dangerous, Dick.”

Or don’t replace him. Just give us a separate Most-Wanted side quest where we can team up with a bat lady who isn’t a victim of literally the most boring Saw-ripoff ever. Maybe Batwoman can help take out Two-Face. Or she can help us track down the sicko serial killer Professor Pyg. Batwoman in general would have been PERFECT for the Arkham games. Her solo title as part of the New 52 series of titles is extraordinarily dark (and very much worth the read). She is often having to deal with the concept of fear and the difficulty overcoming it and this is AN ENTIRE GAME ABOUT FEAR. Seriously? It just makes sense. How did you not get that.

But fine. Maybe somebody just really wasn’t feeling Batwoman. So how about Spoiler? Or Huntress? Or someone completely random like Hawkfire or Bluebird? Or a female Robin a la Dark Knight Returns? Or, just maybe…

GIVE US FREAKING BATGIRL NOT IN A DAMN MONEY GRABBING DLC.

Seriously? All we knew of Babs up to that point is that she was Oracle. It would have been easy as BALLLLLLLLS to just make her an integral part of this game. Barbara is an amazing, fun, tough, likeable character that creators just can’t seem to give the importance and shine that she deserves (Thank the Bat Gods for Gail Simone).

Okay, fine. You really want Babs to be paralyzed to push part of the plot, fine. I guess Batgirl is out. Oh hold on, what’s this? Multiple ladies once donned the Batgirl mantle and could have easily been used in place of Nightwing? Who’d have thunk?

I get that the inclusion of Nightwing could have been a poignant reflection on three generations of Robins (with Tim Drake and Jason Todd both having much more vital roles in the game). However, Nightwing is purely used in a side-quest capacity, and he and the man-o-bats never have any sort of “I used to be Robin” heart to heart talk. His role as an extension of the Bat Family could have easily been replaced with one of the females. In addition, this would have made Barbara NOT the sole female member that isn’t and has not banged Brucey in some leathery way.

If you didn’t want to provide us with a female ally, easy fixes were had elsewhere. What about a Harley that lost the joker and became stronger, a la Injustice or the Harley’s Revenge DLC? What about another butt-kicking, out-for-herself Catwoman?

In the end, I feel like opportunities were missed to give the Batman Universe women the respect they’re due. They are great characters with many possibilities for intriguing and powerful storylines.

Finally, to reiterate, the game itself was pretty good. Voice acting phenomenal, side quests were fantastic (minus the firefighter one). Story itself was a little lacking, but not an awful game. I just can’t get past a plot that has no female characters that aren’t being completely victimized. Also, I am not one of those people that believes any use of a female character in a traumatic way to push a plot is inherently bad. It depends a lot of the use of the device and the context. Death is a strong motivator, male or female. But when you have one plot wherein EVERY female is used as a victim for some reason or another, then it’s hard to get past.

Anyway, let me know what you think, and I’m sorry for the long post. Did you play this game and catch the same trend? Were there any redeeming female appearances I missed? Do you think I’m way off base? Let me know!

~C

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