Telltale Games makes some of my favorite video games. I loved The Wolf Among Us and Minecraft: Story Mode (the two I’ve played myself), and I’ve adored every Telltale game I’ve watched anyone else play. They make great games.
Their most recent game is Batman. Jim and I watched the video above – a playthrough of Batman with no commentary, and we agree: It’s the best Batman movie we’ve ever seen.
Batman first debuted back in 1939. He’s been around for a long time, and been through a lot of iterations. He’s been scary and campy, both fallible and unbeatable. He’s been the ace in the hole, the legendary hero, the crazy asshole. He’s faced everything the DCU can throw at him. He’s defeated everyone, some way or another. He’s been the star of some of DC’s most epic stories.
One of the most compelling things about this character is the fact that he’s just a dude. He doesn’t have superpowers. Well, he does have money, and there’s an argument to be made that money is a superpower, but there’s been plenty of times in the comics where Batman didn’t have access to his money, and he still kicked the entire ass of everything that looked at him crosswise.
The thing is, he’s not an alien. He doesn’t have a magic lasso or a space ring. He’s not a cyborg or a clone or a ghost or I don’t know. Whatever else DC has running around these days.
At the end of the day, Batman is just one guy with a specialized education and the reason that makes him so compelling is because that means any of us could be Batman. That’s what grabs people’s imaginations about this character. It makes him relatable on a level that very few of DC’s other heroes can touch.
Because Batman is so wildly popular, he’s been in everything. The comics, of course, but also the video games and the cartoons and the Lego movies and the blockbuster movies and the lunchboxes and all the related merchandise. Even more so than Superman – Batman is DC’s go-to guy when they need to make some money.
And for all that, for all the fact that he’s been starring in literally everything for over 75 years, there are still relatively few good Batman stories.
Especially when it comes to movies.
There are quite a few live-action Batman movies. There were a couple of serials back in the 40’s, and the 1966 movie starring Adam West (which was its own special, campy joy). Then we got Batman and Batman Returns, with Michael Keaton playing the role, Batman Forever with Val Kilmer, and Batman & Robin, with George Clooney. (Those were all supposedly the same character in the same universe, despite the different actors.) Then came the Nolan films with Christian Bale: Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. And finally, we got Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, with Ben Affleck.
The old serials and the ’66 movie were different critters, made well before Batman had established himself as the ultimate frightening badass we know him as today.
The Burton/Schumacher films were… hm. Yeah. Well, the first Burton film was pretty good for the time, and of all the movie portrayals of the Batman, this one probably came closest to the mark. Keaton’s Batman was physical, but more importantly, he was smart. He actively attempted to detect things. Keaton’s version of Bruce Wayne was less than stellar, but it was a serviceable attempt. The movie had a comic-booky, grim visual style, and Jack Nicholson’s Joker – and his plot – would not have been out of place in the comics.
It’s dated and goofy these days, but at the time, we were all pretty happy with it.
The three sequels that followed were not awesome. They suffered from focusing too much on the villains and not enough on the Batman. The run finally culminated in the objectively awful Batman & Robin, although that movie is notable for the tremendous amount of fun Arnold Schwarzenegger was clearly having while hamming it up onscreen as Mr. Freeze.
Seriously. Arnold was having the time of his life up there. It was the only good bit of the movie.
The Nolan movies desperately wanted to be the definitive movie Batman. They re-introduced us to the grim n’ gritty, realistic Batman. They were dark and brutal and – I’m sorry, but this is true – not particularly good. The first one was okay, and the second one had Heath Ledger’s Joker, a portrayal so creepily insane that it redefined the Joker in the comics and carried an otherwise lackluster movie. The third one was a turd and it was pretty obvious that no one even wanted to be there.
The Nolan movies were physically brutal. They introduced us to a Batman who pummeled his way through every problem. Anything he couldn’t beat up he brute-forced his way through with heavy-handed uses of technology.
Nolan’s Batman was a thug who thought with his fists.
And, okay, let’s address this. Batman is physical. One of the defining traits of the character is his fighting expertise. Barring the villain being actual Darkseid, you can expect Batman to win pretty much any fight he gets into, eventually.
Batman can also be expected to win most any Darkseid-level fights he gets into, too, though, and that’s because he’s smart. He’s freakishly good at tactics and strategy, and not only that, he builds and maintains a multitude of alliances.
Is Batman dealing with a magic user? He calls Jason Blood or John Constantine, because Bats knows his limits. Did Darkseid or a pile of White Martians just show up? He calls Superman and/or the rest of the Justice League, because Batman knows better than to punch above his weight class. Did his entire rogue’s gallery just unite under the Penguin or the Riddler to take over Gotham? He calls in the Bat Family, because he knows some jobs are bigger than one guy can handle.
Yes, Batman can kick your ass, but that’s what he does with jobbers. What makes Batman scary is not the part where he kicks your ass. It’s the part where he already out-thought you last week and he’s just going through the motions today while he plans out how to beat someone else next week.
This brings us to the Batman V. Superman version, Ben Affleck’s version of Batman. Affleck’s version of Batman also suffers from thinking with his fists. He tortures bad guys, murders them, levels city blocks with cars on chains dangling from the Batmobile. He’s everything wrong about Nolan’s version of the character, on steroids.
But he’s also the closest to getting the character right since Michael Keaton.
Affleck’s Batman is tracking down an actual, honest-to-god mystery. He’s finding and following clues. He’s finessing marks as Bruce Wayne. He’s detecting shit, people.
Batman is an expert fighter. He’s a master tactician. He excels in the art of terrifying his foes. But the heart and soul of Batman is that he is a detective. And finally, for the first time in a couple of decades, we get to see Batman, in a movie, detecting something.
Okay, okay, not well. I mean, Batman V. Superman was a hot mess. That movie didn’t do anything well, with the possible exception of 45 seconds of Wonder Woman. But Ben Affleck rewrote a bunch of it on set, and he really tried to nail down the best bits of Batman, as much as that crapfest of a movie would let him.
Which brings us back around to Telltale Games’ Batman. Y’all thought I forgot about that, didn’t you? It’s been a thousand words since then, so that’s fair.
Telltale releases their games as chapters, and we’ve only seen the first chapter of their Batman game, so they have plenty of room to screw it up, yet. But so far? Their Batman is easily the best “cinematic” version we’ve seen (outside of DC’s cartoons and animated movies, which are a whole other kettle of fish).
Telltale’s first chapter concentrates on Bruce Wayne. It’s the set-up for an immediately compelling mystery that both introduces us to Batman and centers almost entirely around Wayne. The mystery involves the Wayne family. Bruce is the guy who meets people, talks to people, and finds clues and leads. Batman shows up to do some legwork, but Bruce is the star of this chapter.
It’s interesting because we don’t get this often, and we’ve hardly seen it at all in the movies. “Bruce Wayne” is most often presented as a facade, an identity the Batman keeps up as a cover. He’s hardly a real person at all. The Telltale game gives us Bruce Wayne as a real and integral part of their Batman story, which sets it out as something more original than we’ve seen in awhile.
Batman’s appearances are very limited in this first chapter, but when he shows up, those scenes are arranged like something out of Alien. This Batman is the Thing, stalking bad guys like a horror-movie monster in the shadows.
This Batman is terrifying. And more, the Telltale guys know how to make him terrifying. This is something we haven’t ever seen in film. No other movie Batman has been scary. No other movie maker has thought to lift a page from the horror genre for their Batman. It’s brilliant and once you see it, you’re mad that Hollywood hasn’t been doing that the whole time.
Telltale has an advantage here in that their games are often presented in a far more cinematic way than other games. You often make a few decisions, and then the game steps back and shows you how those decisions play out. That’s something you don’t get a lot of in other games. You get cutscenes, sure, but with a Telltale game, the cutscene blends right into the gameplay, giving the whole thing this kind of “film” feel.
Other games, which usually take a first-person vantage point, would have a very difficult time doing something like this, but the movies? The movies should have been doing this the whole time.
So what Telltale presents to us is a story built around a mystery, being solved by a detective, and shot like a horror movie. Violence is used carefully and judiciously, as is Batman’s access to technology. Our villains are relatively realistic, and the Batman we’re watching is new to this game, still learning, still distrusted by the police, so we don’t expect him to be the nigh-omniscient, infallible monolith we sometimes get in the comics.
I don’t know what else Telltale Games has planned for the Caped Crusader, but I can tell you that if they manage to continue as they’ve begun, this, right here, might be the very best film version of Batman we ever see.