Note: This is another new segment that ye old Codex Admin is implementing. It’s just a fun comparison of film and game properties that just happen to come from the same franchise – partially because interesting and readily-available news can be hard to come by, but also because this takes less time than finding and reviewing games.
I’ve been promising a resolution to my “Nolan vs. Rocksteady” internal debate for quite some time, and to be honest, I was caught up with work as both a journalist and a student. However, I’m not putting it off any longer! Which take on the franchise proved its worth in representing the Dark Knight? Which string of media was better casted, crafted and produced? Who was the better Caped Crusader? Let’s load up our utility belts and find out…
The Storytelling & Writing
Tricky to say – Nolan has the advantage of tackling heavier and more social relevant themes, but Rocksteady knows how to appeal to comic book fans by representing the kinds of convoluted, action-heavy storylines that would make Frank Miller proud. The Arkham games stand out from the pack of comic-book stories, though, for several reasons: there are signs of higher-level narrative design (such as the hallucination scenes from Arkham Asylum) that really play with the audience’s expectations, as well as scenes of such memorably mixed emotional results that they become legendary (the ending to Arkham City – enough said).
Overall, though, I have to give credit where credit is due – Christopher Nolan’s grand trend of going deep and hard into true moral conundrums, most notably in The Dark Knight with the pure-hearted Harvey Dent, the chaotic Joker, and the harsh yet morally incorruptable Batman, really drives home the impact of this franchise’s storytelling.
The Lead Actor
As important as story and script are to both these efforts, finding the right man for the role is an equal priority. The actor needs to capture the tragedy and restrained destructive force of Batman, his desire for justice in an unjust society, and his carefully balance between order and chaos. To that effect, both Kevin Conroy and Christian Bale give their very best, though their own focuses distinguish one from the other.
For instance, Christian Bale plays more into the lonely, self-doubting Bruce Wayne side of the character, exploring his interactions with, and impact on, other characters and Gotham City as a whole. On the flip side, Conroy rarely deals with Bruce Wayne’s life, turning instead to highlight the intense, minute-to-minute life that the Caped Crusader is best known for. Rocksteady may not delve into every aspect of Bruce Wayne, but their attention to detail when it comes to portraying the Dark Knight is worth the sacrifice.
The Side Characters
The Batman franchise, like virtually every other comic book franchise, has an enormous wealth of side characters who support, hinder, oppose or merely revere Batman. This range of individuals has been explored in every medium Batman has cropped up in – film, television, and now video games. While the efforts of both are admirable, it’s Rocksteady who emerges with an early start.
That’s simply because they are working with the entire continuity, bar none. Any member of Batman’s rogues gallery, any ally or associate of Wayne’s, anyone even vaguely associated with Batman has the potential to appear in the Arkham games, and they are quite well-portrayed even if they don’t all get equal screen time. Nolan, meanwhile, has to work with the relatively realistic story arcs and characters, limiting his options to a handful of key villains and supporters – generally the characters one would expect, like Alfred, Commissioner Gordon & The Joker, with some less familiar faces like Ra’s al Ghul and Lucius Fox. What the characters in Nolan’s films lack in sheer numbers, they make up for with truly sublime performances that match what the most professional voice actors could accomplish (just try and tell me that Heath Ledger, god rest his soul, couldn’t compete with Mark Hamill).
So, minor conundrum: do you go for the wide, if less fleshed out, range of the Arkham games, or the overly streamlined but emotionally satisfying substance of Nolan’s creations? Since a large part of Batman’s appeal is seeing him interact with his closest friends and foes, watching as they provide his stories with much needed dramatic depth, I have to ultimately give Nolan the point (even if it technically defies the original intent of this article).
The Action & Pacing
Spending time with a borderline psychotic vigilante dealing with issues of loss and personal injustice could be tiring, if that time wasn’t spent fixing Gotham’s problems and keeping society from deteriorating any further. As luck would have it, both mediums provide interesting opportunities to show just how intense and thrilling that kind of law-bringing experience can be, while also taking time to emphasize the dramatic significance of the characters and their relationship to the Batman mythos.
The thing is, perhaps Nolan takes his “put big dramatic ideas and deep characters first, action second” a bit too far in some aspects. The exposition between the key cast in the Nolan trilogy takes up large stretches of the films’ run time, and while it can certainly draw in the audience, at some points (particularly in the flawed Dark Knight Rises) it feels somewhat tedious. However, his generally well-choreographed action sequences (particularly the freeway scene and the climactic sequence from The Dark Knight) serve as a reward for proceeding through the mess of middling morals and emotional dilemmas.
With Rocksteady, we get all Batman, all the time, and it works largely because of the pacing. When Batman is chasing down a criminal, events move quickly, with frequent fight sequences constantly showing off the patented Freeflow combat system (which improves in Arkham City and is leagues better than Bale’s haymakers and hooks). When he needs to slow down and look over evidence, the game presents players with opportunities to examine areas carefully using the Dark Knight’s trusty utility belt (stripped down for the films). If exposition comes into play, it is less complex and arguably less meaningful than the films’, but it also serves the purpose of symbolizing Batman’s odd relations with the world around him. Basically, the game knows its limits and it knows how to control itself while showing off its greatest parts just enough, so the decision seems simple enough.
The Style & Atmosphere
This is the point that will make or break the argument – which rendition of the Batman series nailed the visual style and tense undertones of the comic books? Again, it’s a tough call, as both technically fit the agenda: the Arkham games fit the more cartoon-ish style of the mainstream comic book line, while the Nolan films are closer to the more mature and realistic Dark Knight comics.
With Rocksteady’s duology, particularly Arkham Asylum, the entire experience feels over-the-top and detached from reality, yet some elements of the games resonate enough with players that it feels believable in a weird sort of a way. The world that Rocksteady crafted matches up with a lot of the designs from the classic series, and even manages to retain an underlying tension and, dare I say it, maturity to proceedings. As silly and unbelievable as some of their characters/places/situations can be, the Arkham games pay tribute to the franchise in a likable fashion.
Nolan, going for the “realistic” approach for most of the trilogy, only releases his grip to stark realism in The Dark Knight Rises and the result is…somewhat disappointing. While his interpretation of Gotham was more grit and filth than campy crime and suffering, the sheer amount of intensity and importance present in every scene was insurmountable. The city truly felt like it existed in our realm, and it was shocking to watch it fall into chaos time and again. When the surprisingly believable and engaging drama of surviving in a city overrun by criminals was replaced by a terrorist plot to wipe out Gotham whilst complaining about social inequality, I feel a large portion of the audience was driven away by the jarring shift in tone.
As such, the final point goes to…
Final Score: Rocksteady 3, Nolan 2
As the final score indicates, we have reached the end of this article with the knowledge that one more Internet reviewer believes Rocksteady was more successful in adapting the Caped Crusader than Christopher Nolan. Though both are highly likeable and ultimately worth seeing through to the end, it is the intended ridiculousness and consistent experiential quality of the Arkham games that raises Rocksteady just slightly higher.
However, for anyone seeking further closure, here are some morals to take from all of this:
- Duologies tend to be higher in quality than trilogies, simply because the second installment raises the stakes to a point where another sequel would water down the experience by being somewhat inferior
- Video games can afford to have slower pacing than films, as repetitious activities come with the territory and must be overcome to reach the greatest moments
- No adaptation is perfect, and everyone is entitled to their own opinions…but mine rules supreme! MUA-HA-HA! (In all seriousness, please respect the opinions and ideals of others)
This is the Codex Admin saying, “If you pass by Christian Bale, please don’t send him my way. I really don’t want to swear anything to him – it’s not in the job description.”