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September 8, 2009

Filed under: gaming»software»arkham

Intensive Treatment

Some three hours into Batman: Arkham Asylum, we are introduced to the Lunatic after someone opens all the cell doors on the island. The Lunatic is a shambling, almost-skeletal enemy dressed in a straitjacket. His attack entirely consists of leaping onto Batman's back and thrashing wildly until thrown to the ground and knocked out with a blow to the head. Because that's therapy, superhero-style: brutally beating the mentally-ill senseless with your heavy, armored fists.

I'm not the only person who has found this a little unsettling: Justin Keverne calls it "the intellectual and social equivalent of bumfighting," and Travis Megill follows up with a post discussing the stigmatization of mental illness perpetuated by the game, and recommends using it as a consciousness-raising opportunity. Both make some great points.

One of the things that I like about Batman as a character is how plainly ambiguous he has become. Other superheroes may be able to perpetuate the myth of vigilante justice, but after The Dark Knight Returns (a barely-disguised John Bircher fantasy styled after Red Dawn), The Dark Knight (the film, which bears little plot-wise resemblance to the comic but touches on many of the same themes), and (most importantly) Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, it's difficult to imagine an interpretation of the character that isn't a damaged, near-fascist personality locked in a feedback cycle with equally-psychotic "supervillains." Calling the modern Batman a hero is hilarious.

So while his treatment of the "Lunatic" enemy is unsettling, I could almost believe that it's purposefully so. Likewise the depiction of the asylum itself: while the game never explicitly comes out to say so, this is clearly not an enlightened institution (and never was, as the hidden story items make clear). The inmates are locked into tiny, solitary cells and effectively left to rot. The guards are vicious, unpleasant people, and the doctors are using their patients as experimental subjects. In Killer Croc's case, they've just dumped him into the sewers, dropping rotten meat to feed him. The warden is a political animal more concerned for his career than for those under his care. It's like something out of Nellie Bly's undercover reporting on the Blackwell's Island asylum. No doubt anyone sentenced to Arkham would emerge more damaged than when they entered, and many are sent there as much from a desire to remove the undesirables as to rehabilitate them.

Indeed, one thing I found interesting, particularly while listening to the "interview tapes" scattered through out the game, is the degree to which several of the inmates are not insane at all. Killer Croc, for example, is violent and dangerous, but he shows no signs of being disconnected from reality: the outside world really does see him as a monster, and Croc merely reacts accordingly. Poison Ivy has entirely valid reasons to identify more with plants than humans--she's half-plant herself. And the Joker, as voiced by Mark Hamill, has never seemed crazy to me--sociopathic, perhaps, but no more so than many mobsters and criminals. It did not surprise me to find out that Paul Dini, the writer for both The Animated Series and Arkham Asylum, has written a story titled "Case Study" that frames the Joker as an entirely sane criminal using a deranged persona to pursue a vendetta against Batman.

Regardless, I have two reactions to the Lunatic. First, as Megill points out, focusing on the individual inmates (such as the Lunatic) or the institution is to overlook the overarching message of the game's view on mental illness, which is firmly rooted in unsubtle stereotypes. In its universe, disorders aren't a continuum of mental function, but a strict sane/insane dichotomy. This isn't necessarily Arkham Asylum's fault--it's derived directly from the comics themselves, which have always treated insanity as a shortcut directly to wearing tights and planning crimes centered on random concepts. ("Calendar Man?" Really?) As counted among the offenses perpetuated in our pop cultural psyches by Marvel and DC, I rank this relatively low on the list, but it's good to see it noticed when it pops up.

Second, the game's unsympathetic portrayal of the asylum itself doesn't really excuse its dehumanized view of the patients themselves, or Batman's enforcement of the status quo (he beats the inmates, but frees the crooked administrators to return to their jobs). It's one thing to say that Bruce Wayne is an anti-hero at best, but another to watch him blithely ignore the conditions around him. This is where Batman sends people, remember, after he's caught them. And it's not like he doesn't know about Arkham's policies: he's on the island enough to have built a fully-equipped Batcave there. Talk about your bad neighborhoods. If that's not indicative of the unhealthy relationship the "Caped Crusader" has with his foes, I don't know what is.

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