Possessed by a desire to finish out the Batman video game trilogy, I decided to play the release of Batman: Arkham Knight released for free for a limited time on the Epic Store. I heard that there were problems, mostly involving the batmobile and performance issues, but within a few hours the game had me coming face to face with a question about my favorite childhood comic book hero: Is Batman fascist?
Or rather, let me reframe that as is Batman as portrayed in Arkham Knight fascist? Like many comic book characters, Batman is part of a long, complex history and there are many interpretations and versions of the character. In fact, I used to co-run a site where we wrote about Batman and there are lots and lots of different takes. Some of them I have a deep affection for, others I find problematic, but Arkham Knight had me facing this in a different way because all of a sudden I was playing the character and it felt…gross.
This struck me as particularly weird since I enjoyed Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, the first two video games in the series. As I teased out this game in particular, I think I began to understand what made it different and in terms of the creative team, I noticed that Paul Dini was no longer writing, the man who is responsible for a good chunk of my favorite Batman stories.
Before I get too deep into analyzing Arkham Knight, I want to look at what I mean by fascist. I’d say the three main attributes I’m looking at for the purposes of determining whether or not Batman is Fascist is the use of force to suppress opposition, the centralization of power into a dictatorship, and the fascist aesthetic of appealing to positive uses of violence and masculinity.
I’m cribbing this definition from Stanley G. Payne’s definition of Fascism but setting aside some of the bigger political contexts as Batman is not a figure that functions within a system of government, but outside it. That is the biggest problem when tackling this idea as Batman explicitly exists outside the role of government. However, this is not to say that he does not employ his own tactics for how he thinks people should behave and be treated in society. In fact, his nature as a vigilante is in many ways a critique of a society that proves to be ineffective at dealing with certain societal issues.
Getting that out of the way, let me dive into how Arkham Knight deals in those three categories.
The Use of Force
Batman is a violent character in the Arkham games. It’s an element of the game that gets harder and harder to move past with each title as Batman gains more and more ways to violently subdue the many criminals that inhabit the world of Gotham. The game always frames it as Batman not killing people, but he has no qualms about breaking bones and deeply injuring people who he deems on the wrong side of the law. In Arkham Asylum, Batman is essentially quelling a prison riot and Arkham City quarantines of a section of the city where it throws in all its criminals, making it a bit more justifiable for Batman to run around punching everyone.
Arkham Knight escalates this to a whole new level by having Batman use a military-grade Batmobile in Gotham City proper. The game on many occasions refers to the Batmobile as a tank liberally talking about its weapons and missile systems. It tries to justify this by setting up that all law-abiding citizens have left the city, meaning only criminals are left. In other words, only Batman’s opposition exists in the city and therefore any use of force is inherently justified by the rhetoric that only guilty people stayed behind, even though that conceit is paper thin as time and time again real life has proven that plenty of innocent people stay behind in the wake of imminent danger.
Due process and restraining from using excessive force are not in Batman’s plans and he never has to go about getting a search warrant or any such other means of approval to do any of his actions. And unlike some depictions of Batman, the law gladly works alongside Batman in these games and often praises his work even though he goes against many of the practices and procedures of actual police work.
Then there’s the fact that Batman is not above torturing people to get what he wants. At one point he throws a criminal to the ground and then backs the Batmobile up to the criminal’s face and then revs the engine, threatening to crush his skull. Another time he breaks the bones of a criminal and threatens to break even more. His use of excessive force is excessive even by the standards of most Batman interpretations.
One City Under Batman
Batman is not a government figure. He officially holds no political power. He operates outside the system. And yet, he’s the closest Arkham Knight has to a political leader for the city of Gotham. The mayor isn’t in the picture, police commissioner Jim Gordon often is at the mercy of Batman, and everyone that is on the “good” side looks to him for what to do.
And even as Batman leads his own small Batfamily, he’s essentially a dictator. Robin on many occasions tries to offer help and support but Batman spends all his time bossing him around, possibly even to his own detriment. A sidequest with Nightwing still has him playing second fiddle to Batman because Gotham is his city even though Nightwing is following up his own case. Voices of conscious such as Lucius Fox and Alfred are ignored as Batman becomes more and more consumed with his desire to lead on his own terms.
To the game’s credit, a good deal of Arkham Knight’s story is Batman/Bruce Wayne facing the consequences of such behavior. His authoritarian streak often comes back to haunt him as choices he makes do not always turn out as intended and as the game progresses more and more characters begin to question his authority. By the end, there’s a sense that eventually Batman will self-correct when enough pushback comes. But the fact he has enough power to get into the dire situations of his own makings suggests he needs checks and balances that he often usurps or neglects as the game progresses.
A Symbol of Fascism
There’s also the symbolic nature of Batman himself, which plays into a fascist aesthetic of violence, masculinity and and authoritarian leadership. Batman often exists in his stories as a symbol of fear to strike terror into the hearts of his enemies, a sort of terrorist for terrorists. And the tool of fear itself often becomes a weapon of violence in these games.
This is particularly true of Arkham Knight where a new mechanic allows Batman to take down multiple enemies at once with a “fear takedown.” It’s the quickest and most brutal way to take out an enemy and explicitly weaponizes the idea of fear into a violent act, representing it as a tangible prompt the player can use to participate in Batman’s positive outlook on violence. The “true” ending of the game also suggests that the next layer of escalation in Batman’s ongoing fight with crime will find a new way to weaponize and represent fear.
The Arkham games are also notable for their hyper-masculinity. Batman is built like a brick house, with a suit that looks like it can barely contain the bulging muscles that demonstrate his masculinity. This becomes all the more apparent when Batman is contrasted with any female character in the game who is often tiny and sexualized by comparison. Batman is not so far away from the idea of the ubermensch, a peak physical specimen.
Not the First Time
Arkham Knight doesn’t exist in a bubble. It originated with comics and the Arkham games build on the history of the comics as well as the movies, TV-shows and more that have come before it. But this particular strand of Batman can all be traced back to one man and his vision of Batman that changed the character, and comics, forever: Frank Miller.
For those not in the know, Frank Miller is a comic book writer and artist with deeply problematic views. He holds extreme right-wing views that have often manifested themselves in his work and this may be no more true than it is in The Dark Knight Returns, considered by many as the quintessential Batman comic and an industry-defining work.
The Dark Knight Returns, alongside Watchmen, is considered the book that helped save comic books by making them more mature and grown up. However, in the process, the politics involved with this transition left a mark on the Batman character that is at best authoritarian and at worst outright fascist.
Matt Rea pens a great article where he talks about the fascist elements and essential breaks down how to make a facist Batman story into three steps: depict the government as inept at dealing with criminals, show that the average person is either dangerous or weak and unable to govern themself, and write villains whose sole motive is only to sow more evil.
The problem is that Miller’s work is a product of the ‘80s, a response to a massive crime wave in NYC and the last days of the Cold War, a time where the fantasy of an authoritarian rule might bring comfort to some people. With 20/20 hindsight, we can see that fascist rule was not the answer and many programs such as criminal reform, better housing and education, and government that isn’t completely inept worked to drive down the crime rates; not some masked hero taking the law into his own hands.
And that’s essentially what Batman does in the second half of The Dark Knight Rises, taking over the panicking city of Gotham with his army of criminals turned vigilantes called The Sons of Batman. And it doesn’t end with Miller having Batman relinquish control back once the city goes back to order, but instead Batman plans to start an underground army to fight against criminals, illegally, of course.
So Do I Have to Give Up Batman?
I hope most of you reading this are not okay with fascists. If you agree that the Batman of Arkham Knight takes inspiration from Miller’s deeply problematic The Dark Knight Returns, it’s hard to not concede that Batman is a bit fascist. And fascists are bad, right? So does this mean you have to give up Batman. Not necessarily.
You see, the great joy of Batman is that there are many interpretations and many stories and plenty of them are able to tell compelling and thoughtful stories that do not crib heavily from Miller’s problematic source material. Some Batman stories look for ways to reform criminals, some Batman stories call out the problematic sides of Batman, some Batman stories are just good old detective tales that sidesteps many of these issues. The problem is that when people talk about the “dark” or “gritty” Batman, sometimes what they unknowingly mean is the fascist Batman and that’s a Batman we don’t need to celebrate.
© James Blake Ewing 2019