The opening montage of Telltale’s Batman is a flurry of comic panels, highlighting the caped crusader’s legacy and the many ways artists have interpreted the character. Telltale is quick to disassociate itself from that legacy, though; opening the episode with a literal bang, the studio establishes a darker take on Batman. And in an age where saying “dark, gritty reboot” invites groans and sighs, Telltale demonstrates a comprehensive understanding of what makes Batman work better than others have in much greater time spans.
The world’s greatest detective hasn’t had the strongest year; between a muddy live-action movie and a confused, flailing attempt at adapting a classic book, writers and producers have struggled to convey Batman in an interesting way.
Telltale flips this on its head with its new series by focusing not on the cowl, but on the man behind it. In the first episode of the new Batman series, titled “Realm of Shadows,” Bruce takes center spotlight over Bats. You spend more time tackling issues as the billionaire, seeing life through Bruce’s eyes, and it’s a wholly refreshing take.
It recognizes that Bruce and Bats are two sides of the same coin. In the recent Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Bruce appeared to be Batman’s civilian disguise. There was little personality in the character, and most of his character revolved around being an alter ego for his crime-fighting. The Killing Joke and other DC animated features take it a step further, rarely ever showing the caped crusader sans-cowl.
There is no shortage of standard Batman fare in Telltale’s new story. Selina Kyle and her hot-cold relationship with Batman, Harvey Dent’s campaign for mayor, Vicki Vale hunting the next scoop – there’s even a reference to nerve gas that drives victims violently insane. It’s hard to tell a Batman story without invoking pieces of the long history that precedes it.
But Telltale doesn’t lean on these in the same way that other stories do. It doesn’t rely on fandom and nostalgic appeals to sell its Bruce-centric Batman. It lets moments breathe, allows characters to conflict with each other outside of brawls and dark alleyways. Most of your fights are with words, not fists. Many scenes are purely dialogue, letting tension build between two characters in broad daylight, rather than forcing Bruce to don the cowl to have any degree of dramatism.
Batman: A Telltale Series puts you in Bruce Wayne’s shoes, and understands that to tell a compelling Batman story, you need to have balance. There’s burnout in the Batman story, with every movie or feature re-telling Bruce’s tragic origin, re-living a series of greatest hits from decades-old comics. Telltale chose to do something original, and it pays off in spades.
For example, you have to attend a fundraiser for Harvey Dent. The golden D.A. is running for mayor, and Wayne is his biggest supporter, putting on a gala at Wayne Manor to promote Dent’s plans for a brighter future for Gotham. As Bruce, you have to negotiate deals, carry conversations and at times, brush off notions of what you do with so much free time. An early conversation has Vicki Vale, a reporter, noticing some blood on your collar, and you have to give an excuse as to why a billionaire is walking around in a bloody shirt.
Of course, there’s still Batman segments. Infiltrating a building, sneaking around at night, prowling rooftops. Bruce’s nocturnal activities are still portrayed, but even in the suit, Telltale’s take on Batman is much more reserved. There’s less brawling and more planning, and it lets the Batman exist in a manner that isn’t all fistfights and broken bones.
For all the credit that Batman stories get, the story still comes back to the same beats over and over. An alleyway and a gunman, a Clown Prince of Crime and a city in need of a hero. Even Nolan’s films, which were good modern representations of the Batman, didn’t take many chances. Telltale goes a whole episode without introducing a main villain, building tension without putting Scarecrow or Riddler front-and-center, and it’s so much better for it.
Batman: A Telltale Series invokes the best of Telltale’s adaptations in its first episode, reminding me a little of Batman: The Animated Series. It’s dark, but not brooding; violent, without reveling in it; a story of two sides of a single person, without diminishing either persona. It’s the Batman we need, rather than the one we’ve been getting for years.
Eric Van Allen is a Texas-based writer. You can follow his e-sports and games rumblings @seamoosi on Twitter.