While it's an old saw that superheroes are America’s mythology, its triteness makes it no less true. Superheroes reflect and refract the world around us, presenting a warped view of our current anxieties and hopes. Or, at least, the successful ones, like Telltale’s Batman, do.
There’s a lot to like about the Dark Knight (and the world he fights for) in Seasons 1 and 2 of Batman: The Telltale Series, the episodic video game. One of the most lauded accomplishments of the series is how it switches up pre-existing Bat-lore, but this experimentation alone isn’t what makes this iteration so gripping. What really sets Telltale’s Gotham apart is the way it has been updated through the lens of this divided, uncertain moment in the American Experiment.
At the same time, the cinematic Batman, portrayed by Ben Affleck, of the DCEU is flailing. Amid director dropouts and changes in the course of the universe, the nagging problem of Batfleck’s aimlessness remains. Much like how Batman in the DCEU has lost his moral compass, the DCEU itself has lost all sense of what makes superheroes vital (with the notable exception of Wonder Woman, which is smartly set during a similar time of technological change and political upheaval).
But Warner Bros.' silver screen problems aren’t insurmountable. The company need only look to Telltale’s ongoing adaptation of the Dark Knight and Gotham to see how to properly update the hero for our own troubled times.
A Modern Gotham
Last season, Batman: The Telltale Series focused on political upheaval within Gotham, as the United States underwent one of the most divisive elections in modern history. The season culminated in the election of a Two-Face with authoritarian tendencies to mayor of Gotham. In all the cinematic or videogame representations of this classic villain, Two-Face has almost never succeeded in becoming mayor. One might even call his election a historically surprising result.
At the same time, an almost unrecognizable Penguin led a populist revolt. From the sidelines, he recruited a gang of members who were tired of being stomped on by the corporate class of Gotham. Sure, he was ultimately defeated partway through, but the spark ignited by Penguin continued on throughout the season.
But while this latest video game adaptation wades into the cultural and political debates of our time, the DCEU remains stubbornly detached from the events of today. The main villain of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was more of less a VFX reel cranked up to 11. Suicide Squad featured a similarly lackluster villain in its version of the Joker, Batman’s greatest foe, who was defined by his tattoos more than any coherent ideology.
An On-Screen Reflection
The tradition of each generation imposing its viewpoints upon the Caped Crusader is long and storied. As Batman leapt from the panels of comic books and onto our screens, his most successful adaptations have always held a mirror up to society.
Tim Burton’s Batman, the first modern on-screen version of the character since Adam West’s historic take, was deeply enmeshed in the “law and order” politics of the late '80s. Jack Nicholson’s Joker was a gangster, gaining from the misfortune of others while using scare tactics and intimidation. Michael Keaton’s Batman responded to him with all the authoritarian measures law enforcement that this period allowed, brutally beating up and even killing those who stood in the way.
The successor to Keaton’s Caped Crusader arrived more than a decade later in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. This series is praised for its many triumphs, from its realistic interpretation of Gotham to the stellar performances of its cast members.
But what made the films so viscerally engrossing to its aughts audience was, in part, its grounding in War on Terrorism politics. In the films, Christian’s Bale’s Batman repeatedly confronts and overcomes acts of domestic terrorism while struggling to retain his humanity and avoid authoritarian overreach. If this doesn’t parallel the struggle of the United States’ interventionist forces of the era in the Middle East, I don’t know what does.
Living Long Enough to Become a Hero
Like the first season, "Batman: The Enemy Within" (Telltale’s title for its second season) continues to plant itself firmly in the trauma of the current day. The first two episodes of this season focus on the struggle between a federally backed paramilitary organization The Agency and the Gotham Police Department. This plot thread’s similarity to escalating tensions between local law enforcement organizations and ICE is unavoidable.
Meanwhile, whether Batfleck will change course in Justice League or remain politically detached is anyone’s guess. The good news is we’ve still seen relatively little of Gotham in previous cinematic installments. This leaves The Batman, the next feature film focused on the Caped Crusader, ripe with possibilities for grounding Gotham in the tension of our times. But whatever happens, those waiting for a Dark Knight to grapple with modern-day issues need look no further than Telltale’s Batman. He is both the hero we need and deserve.