batman

Putting the Hurt on: How Telltale broke Batman

Telltale games are no more.

Telltale was originally formed in 2004 by former disgruntled LucasArts employees to revive the flagging adventure genre. Over the next few years Telltale earned a reputation as the gold standard for excellent writing in computer games (excellence in how they treated their employees, not so much). But I don’t want to talk about how Telltale made great games or how they ground their employees into a fine snortable powder.  I want to talk about Batman, because I will never not find a way to talk about Batman, which you should keep in mind if you ever ask me to give a eulogy.

Telltale’s modus operandi was to take licenced properties (which is very common in the computer games industry) and to do genuinely interesting and original things with them (which, in the computer game industry, is as rare as catching a unicorn using a swear word). So when it was announced that Telltale were doing a Batman game? People. Were. Pumped.

Having been gifted a Nintendo Switch by my family last birthday I’ve finally played through both Batman games and I have feelings people. I have feelings that need to be expressed. So from here on in, spoilers abound.

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Justice League: New Frontier (2008)

Comic Book historians divide the history of superhero comics into “ages”. The Golden Age lasted from the late thirties to the end of the second world war. It began with the creation of Superman and saw the births of Batman, Wonder Woman, Captains America and Marvel, the original incarnations of the Green Lantern and the Flash as well as a host of others. Owing to the ongoing unpleasantness at the time, many of these characters were patriotic, Japanazi fighting do-gooders like the greatest superhero for all time, the Original Human Torch.
“Mouse, stop showing that panel of the Original Human torch calling Hitler a liar while burning him a…” “NEVER!”

“Mouse, stop showing that panel of the Original Human torch calling Hitler a liar while burning him a…”
“NEVER!”

Also, owing to the fact that this was a brand new genre and folks were still figuring out the rules these comics tended to be absolutely batshit insane.
In the forties we had a superhero who was a giant flying eyeball. How’s that for diversity?

In the forties we had a superhero who was a giant flying eyeball. How’s that for diversity?

And then, with the war over, the superhero fad died about as quickly as it had ignited and superheroes pretty much vanished from the shelves with the exception of a few stubborn holdouts like Superman.
Now, I want you to imagine that you wake up tomorrow and everyone is playing POGs. Like, POGS are suddenly huge again. Kids are playing POGs, college students are playing POGs,  journalists are writing long earnest think pieces about the cultural ramifications of the POGsurgance instead of doing actual work. This weird fad from fifteen or twenty years back suddenly comes roaring to prominence again and never leaves and before you know it movie studios are making massive-budget spectacle movies with inter-connected continuity and people are lining down the street to watch Pog versus Pog: Dawn of Pog.  That’s kind of what happened with the dawn of the Silver Age of comics in the late fifties/early sixties. So what happened?
“Two words. Sput! Nik!”

“Two words. Sput! Nik!”

With the dawn of the space race, America became obsessed with science and its wild, stoner little sister science fiction. Whereas Golden Age heroes tended to have magical or mythical based powers, the new crop of superheroes belonged firmly in the realm of science fiction. Instead of getting his powers from an old magic lantern, the new Green Lantern was a space cop gifted with fabulous technology by a race of all powerful aliens. The new Flash was police scientist Barry Allen who eschewed the Roman mythology inspired look of his predecessor, Jay Garrick. Even the few surviving Golden Age heroes adapted to the times; I mean look at what poor Batman had to deal with for chrissakes:
“I AM THE NIGHT!”

“I AM THE NIGHT!”

Over at Marvel, the hottest new properties were Spider-man, a science student turned superhero, and the Fantastic Four, a quartet of astronauts who literally got their powers as a result of the space race.
Much like “the sixties” doesn’t simply mean the years between 1960 and 1969 but refers to an entire cultural…thing, “silver age” has come to represent a specific attitude and aesthetic in comics. The comics of this period tended to be bright, optimistic, occasionally goofy as hell and suffused with a spirit of Moon Shot era can-do. New Frontier, Darwyn Cooke’s classic  2004 love letter to that whole era, simultaneously interrogates the period in which those stories were written while simultaneously celebrating what made them great. In 2008, Cooke teamed up with his old partner Bruce Timm (Batman the Animated Series) to adapt this story as part of Warner’s line of direct to to DVD animations. Did Cooke’s work make the transition unscathed? Let’s take a look.
Blucatt ad

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Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)

 

(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material. New to the blog? Start at the start with Snow White.)
There’s a little game I like to play called The Mark Hamill Game. It goes like this, you spend your entire life waiting for someone to say something like “Tch. Mark Hamill, what a has-been” or “Wow. Bet he thought Star Wars was going to be a career maker for him, more like a career breaker amirite?” and then, get this, you punch that person repeatedly in the face. It’s a fun game, and also it provides a useful service to society. Mark Hamill is not a has-been. Mark Hamill is one of the most talented, respected and lauded voice actors currently working in the industry, an actor who combines astonishing versatility and a real flair for mimicry with a wonderfully energetic and intense performance style. And by far his greatest role was his absolutely revolutionary turn as Batman’s arch nemesis the Joker in the seminal Batman: The Animated Series. Now…millenials like myself tend to gush about this show to the point that if you sat down to watch it based on our recommendation you might be expecting something like Saturday morning Miyazaki. And, at the risk of a storm of screeching Batfans descending from the stalactite studded cave roof of the internet…it wasn’t perfect. It was, no question, a very, very good cartoon. Possibly the best cartoon series until that point. But the quality varied wildly in terms of animation and writing. Partially this was because the animation was done by more than one animation studio, some vastly more adept than others. And also, the show took its time to decide whether it was just a cartoon for kids or something more mature. It’s great, I’m not disputing that, but…not every episode was Heart of Ice. Some of them were Batman’s in my Basement. You know what was perfect though? Mark Hamill’s Joker. Hilarious, crazed and utterly terrifying. To fans in the know, the greatest Joker was not Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson or even Heath Ledger. It was Mark Hamill.
He’s not in Batman: Under the Red Hood.
As well as Hamill, BTAS also had one of the all time great Batman/Bruce Wayne performances (admittedly that’s a slightly lower bar to clear). Kevin Conroy’s Batman for many fans (including me) was the absolute sweet spot for this character that has had an incredibly broad spectrum of portrayals over his nearly 75 year history.
Same guy. Really.

Same guy. Really.

Conroy’s Batman is grim but compassionate. Hyper competent but not infallible. Intimidating but not a monster. Often brutal but not a cop-killing, kidnapping, ableist, potty-mouthed psychopath.
No. No you are not.

No. No you are not.

Conroy’s not in this either.
So understand, when Warner Bros announced that they would be releasing a straight to DVD animated Batman film that would not star either Conroy or Hamill, long considered irreplaceable, expectations were not high. I remember reading one commenter who essentially said “What ever they want? Pay them. If they’re not free? Wait. And if they just don’t want to do it? Don’t make the movie.” You could say that the very positive response Under the Red Hood would finally receive was partially due to low expectations but I don’t think so. This, to me, personally, is the best Batman movie ever made. I don’t mean that it’s the best movie to feature Batman in it.
Nope.

Nope.

There ya go.

There ya go.

No, you know what? I can't even joke about that.

No, you know what? I can’t even joke about that.

Logically I know that Dark Knight is an absolute masterpiece. But as a Batman story, as a story that actually tells us something new and interesting about Bruce Wayne, as a story that actually makes him the focus I think URH has the edge. Why is it so good? Let’s take a look.  To the Mousemobile!