Let’s talk about the ending of Batman: Arkham Knight
(Author’s note: Spencer’s Soapbox is a weekly column here on SHH where yours truly tries to spur a conversation on specific topics. Dive in to the latest installment below and check out the previous ones by clicking here.)
If you’re like me, you’ve spent all of your free time over the last week and a half playing as much of Batman: Arkham Knight as you can. An interesting tactic that developer Rocksteady chose to employ for this “final chapter” is that the ending has three tiers to it. The first is seen at the conclusion of the primary story, the second can be watched after closing out most of the side missions, and the final piece isn’t available until the player hits 100% completion. It’s a fun tactic, but with each tier in the ending I found myself more frustrated with the game and its finality, so I want to talk about it. It should go without saying, but I’ll put it out there anyway, SPOILER WARNING for Batman: Arkham Knight.
The first part of Arkham Knight’s finale sees the final showdown between Scarecrow and Batman, where in order to save the lives of his friends, he takes off his mask and reveals to the world that Bruce Wayne is The Batman. There’s also a battle waging itself inside Bruce’s mind between his dark side (manifesting itself as The Joker) and himself. Eventually he locks the Joker away to be forgotten in the recesses of his own main. He emerges a fear-free Bruce, who gives Scarecrow some of his own medicine (literally) and forces him to see the world through the eyes of fear. Knowing fully that the world knows his secret, Bruce asks Commissioner Gordon to look after all of his allies (who he has spent the entire narrative essentially alienating and saying goodbye to). He takes Scarecrow to GCPD lock up and carries on to clean up the city.
That’s ending #1, and it’s kind of perfect. It fits the dower tone of the entire franchise, which tries to make the darkest possible version of one of the most downer comic book characters of all time. Even better though, despite being forcefully given a dose of toxin and being arrested again, Scarecrow accomplished what he set out to do: beat Batman. He won, something that not many Batman villains can actually say they did. This also leaves the stage open for someone else to come in and mop it up, to figure out how you can make another giant Batman game where his secret is out.
Stage two of the ending is where things start to get messy. Batman stands by the Bat-signal at GCPD, takes off his mask and leaves it there. He flies back to Wayne Manor and parks the Batmobile and Batwing on the lawn as reporters scramble to the gates to get a shot of him entering his home in full Batman gear. After entering the house, Alfred asks Bruce if he’s sure and he says yes. Following this, Wayne Manor explodes and the flaming Bat-logo appears on the screen and Commissioner Gordon says “This is how the Batman died.” It’s possible to see this without the final part of the ending attached to it, which makes it even that much more maddening. I get what Bruce’s plan is here. He wants to make the world think that someone retaliated against him for his years as Batman by blowing up his home. It’s a good plan, but by itself with no P.S., it’s garbage.
Once you do the tedious task of gaining 100% completion in the game you can see the final chapter of the ending set a few months later. Gordon is now the Mayor of Gotham and Tim Drake is getting married to Barbara Gordon. Jim makes mention that there were hundreds of suspects, but they still don’t know “who killed Bruce Wayne,” presumably an implication that he doesn’t know Bruce faked his death. As he leaves to attend his daughter’s wedding, we witness an all too familiar scene – a wealthy aristocratic father, his wife, and their young son taking a detour through an alley. They’re stopped by a pair of thugs, who begin the process of robbing them. In the middle of the robbery though, they look up and see Batman standing on a roof above them. They tell him they’re not afraid anymore because Batman is dead. As soon as the thug say this, Batman begins to leap down but then erupts into a massive, terrifying figure not unlike what characters see when under the effects of Scarecrow’s fear toxin. They scream and the game cuts to black.
Thematically these closing minutes make sense. Even though Batman became a person to the citizens of Gotham, his legend has endured and keeps the city safe as a symbol of fear. It seems to me like more a symbolic ending than something that actually services the narrative, because it makes no sense as the closure of this story. Is Bruce actually still operating as Batman, having now fully shed the Bruce Wayne persona? If so, why would Tim, Barbara, Dick, and Jim not know about it or want to help? And why is he using Crane’s fear toxin as part of his arsenal or is it just a side effect of Crane having released the toxin across the city?
Gordon has a line as the game ends where he asks, “Who will protect Gotham now that the Batman is dead?” Is this an allusion that the Batman we see is a person other than Bruce or simply a manifestation of the criminals’ minds? Gordon also says, “Criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot,” so even though Batman might not actually be around, they’ll still be afraid of him, which is the reading I choose to believe. There’s also Batman’s final scene with Catwoman in the game where he says that “Gotham needs something more, something worse…. to defend her. She needs a new myth, more powerful than I can be right now.” Is he being facetious? That he’ll take on this more extreme persona that uses Scarecrow’s fear toxin in his arsenal? Or does he mean a replacement?
When the final section of the ending begins, Gordon says: “As his world grew darker, so did ours. When his war ended, our lives could begin again. He set us free.” This is some heavy dialogue, and for a “last” Batman story it’s on point. Bruce can never stop his mission. It’s not about whether Gotham needs him, it’s about a drive with himself that he continues to do this, for that reason it was never going to end with him saying “I think I’ll tend to my garden, I’m kinda over this.” Bruce will not give up even in the face of everyone knowing his secret.
Which is part of why I’m not entirely crazy about this ending. If Bruce really did die in a suicide explosion, it is perhaps the weakest way he could have died short of slipping on a banana peel. Tack onto that the implication that he took Alfred with him and it’s even more ludicrous. That’s why I can’t believe that Bruce is dead at the end of the game, nor simply enjoying a quiet life somewhere else. To take it a step further, even though the entire game is spent having Bruce sever his connections with his allies, the consequences of his unmasking should not start and stop with him. By having a world with this extensive Bat-Family, the population would expect them all to answer for what he did, especially when he can’t. Yet everyone that has an association with Batman seems to be doing just fine without him, their lives are great actually.
This is why part of me does like the ending, since there is no straightforward answer and it’s more open-ended. It allows the opportunity for discussion and dissection. Everyone can have a take on what it means and what happens. Here’s the bad news though, when Rocksteady revealed the season pass for “Arkham Knight” two months ago, it came with the footnote that some of the story packs would take place AFTER the events of Batman: Arkham Knight. So despite crafting this very special ending to a franchise they built from the ground up, Rocksteady is prepared to add epilogues and alterations. I understand that we live in a world now that DLC is the new norm for video games, but why go to the trouble of crafting this finale if they just wanted to add more later? Admittedly though, I get why Rocksteady is doing it (beyond the paycheck). This is one of the most successful game franchises running right now and Warner Bros. Interactive isn’t going to let it die even though Rocksteady says this is “the end,” so if someone is going to come along and change the ending to make room for more, why not them?
A lot of people have done final Batman stories before, and I’d wager that most of them are better than the ending we get with “Arkham Knight.” I’m not entirely opposed to it though. I think what we see is a perfect thematic encapsulation of the entire franchise and it even gets down to the bones of the character. From the narrative perspective though, it’s a little cringe worthy, especially with so many questions hanging in the air. Not necessarily questions I need answered in order to sleep, but questions that do not fit the world or the character presented. Maybe we’ll get those answers in the DLC, though I can’t say I’m willing to shell out an additional $40 just to learn them.