If you wish to know absolutely nothing about the Arkham Knight’s story, or if you haven’t played Arkham Asylum or Arkham City, then read no further. This piece has several major spoilers for all Rocksteady Arkham games.
Although Arkham Knight did a lot of things well, one component that I thought was great was the implementation of the Joker. For those of you who have played the game but don’t quite remember how the Joker came about within the story of Arkham Knight, let me give a brief overview.
Although Joker was killed in the end of Arkham City, he previously sent vials of his infected blood to several medical facilities in Gotham in an attempt to infect others. It is revealed that, despite Batman’s best efforts, five people became infected with Joker’s blood, including Batman. The result is anyone infected is effectively a ticking time-bomb at risk of losing their mind and essentially becoming a living embodiment of the Joker at any point. Although the details of this are not specified, it appears as though the infected individual’s mind is nearly completely impacted and subsequently their looks also somewhat resemble the Joker’s aesthetics. Although Batman was initially able to handle the infection well, Scarecrow’s Fear Toxin appears to make the effects worse as it becomes harder for Batman to refuse the virus within him.
Throughout Arkham Knight, Joker is not a real character in the game but a fabricated cognitive representation of the Joker that exists within Batman’s mind. He serves as the side of Batman’s consciousness that we rarely see. It quickly becomes reminiscent of an “enemy within” trope or a storyline that is typically reserved for a “twist” ending in which a character is a revealed to be imaginary. Through one lens, one could say that the cocktail including Joker’s infected blood and Scarecrow’s Fear Toxin serves as a means to initiate drug induced visual and auditory hallucinations for Batman and on another hand, Joker could be viewed as Hyde to Batman’s Jekyll. Any way you look at it, the Joker that exists in Arkham Knight is not actually Joker himself but a creation of Batman’s mind. As this is the case, the concept of the Joker’s relationship with Batman has much more depth than your typical video game relationship.
Joker’s depiction largely acts as a window into Batman’s psyche that we, as audience members, are not often invited and Rocksteady understood this. Within the first few minutes Joker appears onscreen in Arkham Knight, he tells Batman, “Together we are going to give this city what it deserves. A new Batman. A better Batman. A darker, more- Well, we can come back to this later.” This could be interpreted as foreshadowing to inform the audience they will get to know Batman in a unique way within the story of the game.
Arkham Knight’s Joker is a great use of a plot device to dissect Batman’s thoughts and emotions and one that allows for the player to enjoy the game’s story further, particularly if the player understands that the Joker exists as an extension of Batman. This is the primary facet of Joker that varies him from past versions of the character in the Arkham series. We’re not just seeing Joker as he exists within the world, we’re seeing parts of Batman’s subconscious being projected through an artificial Joker.
Within Arkham Knight, Joker is also heavily used as a means of self-reflection for Batman. This is not something that is outright explained in the game but Rocksteady dropped countless hints of this concept throughout. Joker is constantly reminding Batman of his past “failures” or tells him that he cannot save everyone. When considering this, it is easy to see how Scarecrow’s Fear Toxin works as intended and has created the Joker in Batman’s mind as a cognitive representation of Batman’s greatest fears. Although Batman is often a speechless protagonist and rarely expresses his emotions, the Joker is used to showcase Batman’s doubts, regrets, disappointments, guilt, and remorse. It places Batman’s deepest trepidations on display for both Batman and the audience to witness through reenacted events and deviously delivered dialogue from the Clown Prince of Crime.
The script shows that, although Batman often appears as an unmovable force and typically acts with confidence, there is a side of him that doubts himself and his own capabilities. It also serves as a form of humility for Batman to remind him of his past failures, such as when Batman’s psyche visualizes a recreation of the event in which Oracle was paralyzed; the humility is magnified by Joker’s crude humor, nonchalant attitude, and directed laughter at Oracle during such a grim situation. The Joker frequently informs Batman of the way in which he has negatively impacted the lives of those that he admires most indicating to the audience that these must be thoughts that eat at Batman constantly.
This representation of Batman’s mind explores the darker subjects and memories within ol’ “Bats.” Some of the darkest moments in Arkham Knight come as a result of commentary provided by the Joker, and these are only compounded when you determine that these statements come from Batman’s conscience. To provide another example, at one point the Joker makes the comment, “If [Robin] gets himself killed out there you won’t have to tell him about Barbara!” This comment is exponentially darker when you consider the fact that it was birthed from Batman’s subconscious. Somewhere within Batman, he doesn’t want to face those that he has hurt and the guilt is having such an impact on him that part of him would rather rid himself of those he loves, one way or another, than face them.
Continuing this darker tone is Joker’s goal as it isn’t simply carnage, it’s for Batman to behave irrationally and uncharacteristically. He’s hoping that Batman will eventually break his moral code. This is a concept that has been presented previously in the Arkham series but the idea is different in Arkham Knight. Joker has always signified everything that Batman has strived to prevent in the city of Gotham but now Joker represents what Batman has attempted to prevent within himself.
In Freudian theory, unconscious thoughts frequently influence conscious feelings and behavior. In Arkham Knight, Joker seems to be a direct projection of Batman’s unconscious mind that has been elevated to the preconscious. If you are to believe this theory, then it seems as though the Fear Toxin allows Batman’s repressed thoughts and desires to surface as Joker. With the passage of time and increased exposure to the Fear Toxin, Batman’s unconscious mental processes become harder to repress and control. As a result, Batman’s moral code is challenged with greater frequency as the story progresses.
In Arkham Knight, it is Batman who is disputing the idea of killing. It seems there is part of Batman that would like to see each “bad guy” perish but his principles and self-control would not allow this to happen. Batman, through his depiction of Joker, is trying to invite himself to break his own moral code and debates murdering those who have committed terrible crimes, particularly those who have hurt the ones he has loved. There’s a sense throughout the game that a part of Batman would like to let go and allow himself to kill. That he believes it would be easier to allow his dark side to surface or consume him no matter the cost. He seems to wonder if letting go and no longer caring about those who he’s hurt or lost would change him and allow him to forget his mistakes. It reveals an understanding that, somewhere deep inside, Batman is far from perfect.
He occasionally thinks of killing and even expresses a desire to do so. This becomes apparent and culminates as Joker speaks the lines, “Go on, Bats. You know you want to.” A line said just before Batman snaps Joker’s neck. Just before the moment in which we get to see Batman finally lose it… Of course, as we now know, Batman doesn’t kill, but it’s worth questioning: if someone had really been in Batman’s grasp at that time, would he have committed murder? This is clearly up for the audience to debate but, in my opinion, I believe he would have. I also believe that Batman knows this and this is the real reason he decides he can no longer be Batman; he simply uses the reveal of his identity as an excuse. He now knows a side of himself exists that he does not believe is worthy of being the Batman he has created and the savior he believes Gotham needs.
Now, there’s something that I feel as though I must bring up regarding the information discussed; a potential hitch in this entire article. That is, how much of the Joker’s presence in Batman’s subconscious is simply supplied by the Joker’s blood that had been previously injected? To look at this component further, we must look at the other individuals infected with Joker’s blood, particularly Henry Adams.
The problem is that things become muddled when looking at Henry. With the passage of time, Henry not only began to look like Joker but also personified him as a result of being contaminated by Joker’s blood. The question is how did Joker’s blood impact Henry? Allow me to explain. If Joker’s blood acted as a means to simply turn Henry into the Joker, then the premise of this entire article is essentially moot. If Batman would have simply turned into the Joker because of the blood, then Batman’s psyche had much less to do with Joker’s appearance in Arkham Knight other than attempting to prevent Joker’s blood from taking over his mind and body. Now, if we are to believe that Joker’s blood brings out the characteristics that most resemble those possessed by The Clown Prince in each infected individual, then this justifies Joker simply as a representation of Batman’s psyche.
This may sound contrived, but there are reasons for this speculation. It seems as though both Henry and Batman have less in common with someone like Joker. They are more positive individuals that do not share such prevalent personality traits with the Joker. I believe this is why it took so long for Joker’s blood to impact both Batman and Henry. In this theory, Joker’s blood impacted the other three individuals much quicker because some of their more prevalent personality traits mimicked those of Joker. These traits were, in turn, highlighted when they became infected. Christina Bell had her “bossiness” and obsession with Batman; Johnny Charisma had his egocentrism and desire to showboat; and Albert King had his excessive, persistent violence.
This concept became even more apparent after Henry’s suicide. Before Henry kills himself, one of his last quotes was, “Goodbye. It’s been… educational.” Henry’s line was uncharacteristic of Joker as indicated by Joker’s reaction. Henry chose to use the word “educational” within this quote because of his history in academia. Henry’s job was Headmaster at a local academy. To me, this proved that we were still witnessing Henry Adams pointing the gun, not Joker. Joker’s blood had simply highlighted personality traits within Henry and made him act immoral and bizarre. The blood had not completely transformed him. This is why I believe Joker’s blood wasn’t actually turning Batman into Joker but was instead bringing certain, negative personality traits to the surface.
The ultimate question for this implementation of Joker is whether or not the concept works. Does the game establish a Batman varied from his previous versions in the Arkham series by introducing this look into his psychological side? In my opinion, I say it works on a presentation level but largely fails as intended. This is because Batman doesn’t really change in the eyes of the audience. By choosing to use the Joker as a portrayal of Batman’s inner fears, we do in fact get to know Batman on a more personal level, so, yes, in that respect, the intention is accomplished.
The information is certainly presented to the player. Where it falls short has to do with the depiction of this information; within the delivery rather than the information itself. To clarify, the use of Joker within the game is incredibly well implemented; it’s the fact that Batman has almost no reaction to any of Joker’s lines where the game fumbles. Through this portrayal of Joker, the writers have been allowed to add depth to the largely shallow personality of Batman.
Rocksteady acknowledged that Batman is largely uninteresting by labeling him as an individual “masquerading as Gotham’s least interesting socialite.” They recognize that Batman is a relatively dull character but they appear afraid to deviate from his typical demeanor. Instead, they use Joker as a means to showcase Batman’s personality by using someone that actually possesses personality. By using Joker to project Batman’s emotions and meaningful thoughts, it softens the impact of the information.
The delivery of these details would have been more potent for the audience if they were to see Batman experience the emotions rather than remaining completely passive as Joker made his remarks. Hell, if a person did not pick up on the fact that many things Joker stated within the game were a demonstration of Batman’s thoughts and feelings, then that player would have absolutely no insight into Batman’s mind and, in that respect, the purpose of using the Joker for this concept would be completely lost.
This concept reminds me of an analysis I previously wrote after watching the (2009) film Where the Wild Things Are. In that analysis, I explored the idea that the Wild Things within the film weren’t simply the monsters as they existed; they were projections from the mind of a 10 year old. I noted that this was significant for me as I viewed the movie. It completely changed my perception of the film, especially the actions performed by the monsters in the movie and the relationships between Max and the Wild Things. When viewing the creatures’ motivations, actions, personalities, responses to Max, and relatively irrational behaviors, they can initially be seen as illogical or unreasonable. This can ultimately negatively skew an audience member’s views and create a negative perception at times, particularly for those who do not understand or consider this concept.
This idea is similar to the one used for Joker in Arkham Knight as the Joker that is displayed to the player is only Joker as he exists from Batman’s perspective. Although he exists in that state with one big difference: the audience is already familiar with the Joker. In some cases, when a creative work attempts to illustrate a character through the representation of another character, it can add depth to the depiction. It provides an opportunity for the writer to manipulate various aspects of a character and display internal reflection through a visual interpretation.
It’s also worth noting the risk involved as an audience member may not understand this concept because they simply see (or only wish to see) the imaginary character as they existed before, through only their own perception. In other words, the audience may have trouble identifying that Joker is actually Batman’s subconscious because they simply see the Joker. This is the risk associated with attempting to manifest a well-known character as a figment of another’s imagination. Although, as we all know, along with risk comes potential reward.
In the end, Rocksteady’s use of Joker is a great concept and plot device. By creating a Joker that exists as a figment of Batman’s imagination, the Joker surpasses his previous incarnations within the Arkham series. He was able to show audiences a truly tormented Batman full of emotions that are not typically exposed. Arkham Knight benefits from this risk despite the fact that they did so in a relatively safe way by having Batman largely ignore the vision of Joker that he has created. In the end, I wish we would have been allowed to see actual human emotion visually represented by Batman himself.