The Batman: Arkham Knight Prequel Series Is a Terrible Mess
As the title suggests, this is the official Batman: Arkham Knight prequel series. However, before we begin, let’s establish some ground rules:
- These are not canon novels
- They are not written by any of the main creative teams from Batman: Arkham Knight
- They are not based on any of the game’s story arcs
- They are not written in sequence
- This is a review of the first novel, Batman: Knightfall
- It is not a review of the entire prequel series
- The author alternates between third and first person narrative
The Disappointment Of Knightfall
The disappointment of Knightfall comes from two places. First, the writing is abysmal. If you’ve ever read a Christopher Nolan Batman movie, you’ll probably struggle to find a single, coherent scene in Knightfall. Second, the story is incredibly thin. We’re basically told that the Joker has escaped from prison, the cops are looking for him, and Batman has to stop them all. Yet, despite how basic this plot is, it still feels very formulaic and uninspired. Even for a Batman story.
The book opens with Bruce Wayne getting shot in the back and apparently dying. From here, the story takes a sharp turn for the worse. The writing becomes increasingly atrocious, as if a ghostwriter had taken a quick peek at a Christopher Nolan script and tried to channel some of that magic. The sentences literally drag on for eternity, and you’ll often find yourself skimming over long stretches of text just to get to the next bit of description. Then there are the constant pop culture references, which are completely unnecessary for a work of fiction. This book could have been penned by anyone and certainly doesn’t deserve the accolades that have been heaped upon it (e.g. “Best Novel” and “Best Comedy”).
More Of The Same
After a slow start, Batman: Knightfall gets progressively worse, as the story arcs of the other Arkham Knight prequels are similarly uninspiring to read. For example, the second book, Batman: Fearless, seems to lift liberally from the Joker’s grand stand-alone story from the 2015 movie, The Joker. Yet, even in that instance, the book struggles to entertain, mainly because Knightfall already thoroughly spoiled the origin of the Joker’s persona. The third book, Batman: Armored, directly copies the narrative structure and characterizations of the movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. This isn’t a unique occurrence; many of the stories in this series seem to be shameless rip-offs of either the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice or Justice League movies.
Batman: Knightfall ends on a relatively happy note, as the Joker is ultimately defeated and the young vigilante starts to take Gotham by storm. These were the good parts of the book, though, as mentioned, the narrative structure and characterization are almost completely stolen from elsewhere. The most disappointing thing about Knightfall, however, is that it isn’t even close to being the worst novel in the series. It certainly isn’t the best, and that’s a compliment, but come on – the worst? That would be The Sleeper, which will be reviewed shortly.
Let’s take a step back for a moment and consider what happened in the lead-up to the events of Batman: Arkham Knight. Over the course of 2014 and 2015, there were several high profile murders that shook Gotham to its core. These weren’t run of the mill crimes either; they were some of the most notorious murders in the city’s history. These were the dark days. It was an ugly time for the Caped Crusader.
Obviously, the most famous of these incidents was, of course, the Joker’s takeover of Gotham. However, aside from this incident, the murders perpetrated by the infamous “Batman Beater” gang became the stuff of legend, as did the multiple murders that were committed by the “Jersey Shore” killer, a deranged, drug-addled mass murderer.
This is the context in which Batman: Arkham Knight was created, as Rocksteady (the game’s developer and one of the main antagonists) purposefully set out to defile the memory of the Dark Knight’s adventures by dragging his heroic reputation through the mud. They did this by associating him with every heinous act committed in Gotham over the past two years. This included, but was not limited to, the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, and the rest of the Rogues Gallery.
The story begins six months after the events of Batman: Arkham Knight, as the city is still reeling from the fallout of the Joker’s rampage. The Penguin is now the supreme ruler of Gotham, and he’s made the cityscape a hellish place, replete with night terrors, mutated animals, and brutal violence. Naturally, Batman is drawn to this new world of uncertainty and danger, and he soon finds himself knee-deep in a brutal turf war. Yet, even in the midst of all this carnage, there is still room for petty criminals, as well as the downtrodden and oppressed. It’s a war of good versus evil, and Batman is on the front lines, using all his resources and all his cunning to fight back against The Penguin and his minions. The question is, will he be able to cleanse Gotham of its evil, or will it be too late?
The Master Plan
Even if you’re not familiar with Rocksteady’s game, Batman: Arkham Knight, you might recognise the voice of the game’s intro narrator. This is Paul McGinnis, and he’s also the narrator of the novel series that shares its name with the game. In fact, McGinnis provides most of the narrative voice in the entire prequel series.
This is because, effectively, Rocksteady wrote a novel in which they narrated all of Batman: Arkham Knight’s story from the perspective of the Joker. Now, it’s not unusual for video game companies to steal content from other industries. However, it’s usually the other way around – video games often lift content from other mediums, such as literature or film. Yet, in this case, it’s almost as if Rocksteady had deliberately set out to destroy the legacy of their most famous character by rewriting the entire history of Batman in a way that suited their needs.
This is why, if you want to know the origin of the Joker, you’ve pretty much already read it in some other form. What’s more, as mentioned, many elements of the narrative – especially the characterizations – are ripped directly from Nolan-verse Batman movies. As a result, even people who’ve never played a video game may feel more connected to this story than they do to, say, Batman: Arkham City or Batman: Arkham Asylum. This is a tragedy, as the stories McGinnis weaves are incredibly compelling.
This is especially true in the second book, Batman: Fearless, in which we’re introduced to a terrifying new villain called the “Killer Croc”. This one-of-a-kind creature was created by Harley Quinn (again, from the game) and is fully equipped to murder you with his vicious hooks. Even if you don’t play a video game, it’s easy to see how this one could make you shiver in fright. Yet, the most amazing thing about Fearless is how it weaves the entire history of the Joker into its narrative. This is because, quite frankly, it would be impossible for the average reader to keep track of all these disparate plot points, if Rocksteady hadn’t made them relevant to one another.
We’re not quite sure how the writers managed to accomplish this feat, as the sheer volume of exposition in the book manages to overshadow any narrative coherence. However, while the writing in Fearless is quite terrible, the concept is quite compelling, as it raises all sorts of existential questions about good and evil, as well as the line that separates the two.
Not Your Typical Batman Tale
Let’s get one thing straight right away – this is not your typical Batman tale. Normally, we expect great things from Batman books, seeing as how the character is such a well-known literary figure. However, while the stories contained within these books will be familiar to most readers, that doesn’t mean that they’ll be great.
To begin with, the pacing is all over the place, as McGinnis tries to pack as much story as he can into each chapter. This is, in part, a product of the compressed timeline within which these events take place, but it also shows how little care the author took into establishing a realistic atmosphere within the book.