Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Holy Ontological Narrative Concepts, Batman (Batman, Batman: Return of the Joker, and Batman Returns)

It is a mistake to treat Batman as if he is a character. Batman, along with Superman, is the apotheosis of the Modernist "machine made out of words" image of writing. Batman is a set of narrative functions - a set of capabilities. He is defined not as Bruce Wayne but as a particular mode of narrative. Ontologically speaking, Batman always wins.

Grant Morrison gets this. That is why his Batman stories strain all limits of credulity in favor of sheer awesomeness. Batman vs. the Devil. Batman reincarnating through history as Cave Man Batman, Witch Hunter Batman, and Pirate Batman. Batman vs. gods. Batman is axiomatically defined as that which wins. And so telling a good Batman story amounts to making that victory something interesting - not something unlikely.

This is also where the whole illusion of virtual reality breaks down. Because seriously, nobody wants to be Batman. Neal Stephenson observes the crux of the problem: "Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad." The joke, of course, is that nobody does. Why? Because nobody wants a fatal disease, to move to a monastery in China, or, as is perhaps most applicable to Batman, to have their entire families wiped out. The price of ontological supremacy is just too high.

Or so one thinks. One can, I suppose, methodically learn a certain measure of superheroing. There is a story I remember from This American Life some time ago of a woman who systematically learned all the skills you would need, basically, to be Batman. Because she was guided by her dreams of being a superhero. The story ends with her failing to get a job at the CIA for unknown reasons. Or perhaps more accurately, the story does not end that way. Ontological supremacy is a treacherous road. Even when you lose out at it, the story stubbornly continues. By the end, we learn she is paralyzingly afraid of nobody liking her. It's a beautiful story.

A lifetime of playing video games and reading comics prepares one somewhat differently for one's ontological fragility. For one thing, it makes you not so ambitious. Fat geek is a very manageable lifestyle. One does not expect triumph. This is the crucial thing about video games - one is prepared for a life of perpetual failure by them.

But a Batman video game remains odd there. Three of them also remain odd. None of them capture Batman in a meaningful sense. The first, a movie adaptation from the basically worthless Sunsoft, a company that basically only made licensed games, is a droll side scroller with generic enemies. It has little to recommend it beyond a reasonably entertaining wall jump, but it's actually reasonably playable, and in a world where I had to buy my video games were I to own it I might actually put the thumb grease into beating it. But as a Batman game, it is fundamentally inadequate. Batman punches people and they burst into flames. OK - that part is actually pretty good. But Batman misses jumps. Batman spends a while trying to figure out how to get to the ledge above him. Batman mistimes a punch and gets run into by an enemy who runs cheerily on and is never caught. Batman falls in combat.

No. Just no.

Batman: Return of the Joker is an essentially unplayable piece of dogshit released for the sole purpose of cashing in one last time for Sunsoft before the Batman license went to Konami. In it, you get Contra style powerups that allow you to machine gun fire Batterangs in increasingly complicated swirly patterns.

But it is Konami's Batman Returns that captures the problem most perfectly. Batman Returns is a perfectly serviceable beat-em-up. But Batman is not a beat-em-up. Batman does not walk calmly through the streets of Gotham in a linear fashion in the hopes that if he takes out enough yard trash he'll eventually fight a super-villain. Batman does not fight crime in levels. He does not restrict his combat to that which can be done with two buttons of a controller. He does not walk the streets. That just isn't what a Batman story is. You can make a blue and... well... blue sprite that has bat ears. But you can't tell a Batman story where Batman's capabilities are finitely definable.

There is no being Batman, because being is itself a circumscription of the essence of the character. To conceive of Batman is to conceive of victory. Over anything. Definition itself, if need be. Batman is not a character in a video game. Nor is he the structure surrounding said character. Batman is the off button. The final teleology. The trump card that can not only win the game, but dismantle it.

And when he punches people, they catch fire.


  1. I love you.

    Do not stop what you are doing, no matter how many times you need to say "ontological."

  2. Hate to say this, but ... that's not Batman's ontological role. At all. Batman loses regularly, in fact constantly.

    The standard pattern for a Batman story throughout the Gold, Silver, and Bronze ages, as well as every television version of the character, has been Batman encounters villain, Batman suffers defeat (and often capture or the kidnapping of Robin), Batman regroups, Batman prevails. Even in modern portrayals, Batman is far from infallible; the entirety of The Dark Knight consists of Batman being defeated by the Joker, eventually winning only a moral victory while the Joker himself gets clean away.

    Yes, Batman always wins eventually. But that is not unique to Batman; that is part of the structure of superhero comics. As I believe you have noted elsewhere, the reader knows Batman will not die or abandon crimefighting or turn to evil because DC wishes to continue selling Batman comics; there must be a next issue. There are exceptions to the pattern, but it applies to the vast majority of superheroes.

    The idea that Batman always wins seems to have originated on the Internet, hence the usual phrase "Batman can beat anyone if he has time to prepare." There is no basis for such in comics.

    Or, at least, there was no basis for it when I was studying the Caped Crusader and read a few hundred issues of his book. My studies stopped at the 1990s, but as Batman for the NES came out in 1989 later depictions of the character don't figure into a psychochronographical reading.

    The goal of the video game is to reflect the character as he was in 1989. It's true Grant Morrison had written five issues of Batman by the time this game came out, but using him (and the Internet) as the sole resources on Batman's character when the overwhelming preponderance of evidence supports the Batman of the time as a man whose primary characteristics are endurance and intelligence, not infallibility.