Arkham City Fights to Make Robin Relevant Again

One of my favorite things to ponder when it comes to the realistic or quasi-realistic treatment of superheroes is the treatment of Robin, The Boy Wonder. For years it has been a struggle to reconcile the brightly colored teen sidekick with the dark, washed out tones of the modern Batman mythos. Now, with the highly-anticipated upcoming release of Batman: Arkham City, it seems that Rocksteady Studios is the latest creator to try and take a stab at making Robin cool and relevant outside of the comic book environment, but it won’t be an easy task.

Originally conceived as a point of entry or touchstone for little kids picking up Batman comics (including me), Robin would later go on to work against the dark knight by serving as evidence to certain critics that comic books contained pro-pedophilia subtext. Eventually comics would recover from the bad PR brought on by such baseless claims, but teen sidekicks such as the boy wonder never really would, always remaining to some degree as a joke or an anachronism.

In the 1980s and ‘90s DC took several steps to keep Robin relevant in the increasingly dark and dismal world of the modern superhero. They first allowed Dick Grayson, the first Robin, to outgrow his red tunic and green pixie boots and create his own mature superhero identity, that of Nightwing. The guise of Robin was then passed on to Jason Todd, a red-headed version of Dick Grayson that was soon retconned after the Crisis on Infinite Earths into a dark-haired street thug that was jacking the wheels off of the Batmobile in crime alley one night when Batman found him and took him under his wing (writer Grant Morrison later wrote in that the Jason Todd of the noughties, The Red Hood, regularly colored his ginger hair black).

The new Robin was a jerk, and when the Joker later beat him silly with a crowbar and had him and his mother blown up, no one batted an eye. Except, perhaps Batman, who swore that he was done taking in teen sidekicks. Until the next one that came along.

Tim Drake was a boy who was smart enough to deduce Batman and the original Robin’s secret identities at a very young age, and after the second Robin died he went to Batman to remind him of why he needs a Robin and urged him to reconsider his decision to not take on anymore sidekicks. The debate ultimately lead to Tim Drake taking on the mantle of the Boy Wonder. Drake brought a freshness to the Robin costume when he redesigned the outfit into a more modern uniform (complete with pants and the color black) that could stand next to the image of Batman without looking silly. He was also a pretty studious dude, who was serious about one day taking on the role of world’s greatest detective.

This is the version of Robin that we see in Batman: Arkham City, although some drastic changes have been made. For starters, he looks to be in his mid-twenties, with a lot more muscle mass than usual and a shaved head reminiscent of modern video game anti-hero protagonists.

Tim’s knack for keeping the Robin costume on the cutting edge sees this version of the red and green duds losing the tunic-style “laces” from the chest piece and the green or black circle behind the R-logo. The costume is mostly armor and padding, similar to Rocksteady’s Batman design, with a shorter cape that now descends from an Assassin’s Creed-style hood that hides his domino mask. His sleeves have now been changed to red with gold trimming and his pants are now black with a thick red stripe going down the side (I wish that they were completely red, or that his top was black with a red stripe, as it looks like he borrowed another superheroes pants to wear to work, but that’s besides the point).

According to Kan Muftic, an artist at Rocksteady, Robin’s look in the game is meant to reflect an introverted, troubled young person who spends his off-time training as a cage fighter to stay on his toes. While I suppose I could see where someone might interpret Tim Drake as being the more introverted Robin out of the original three, the details of him as a troubled MMA brawler are quite a departure. I’ve seen where a lot of fans think that this concept doesn’t really suit the character, and that they’ve made him too much of an anti-hero, which perhaps might have worked better with the second Robin, Jason Todd.

Additionally, concept art for the game’s version of Dick Grayson/Nightwing has also been released, revealing a much more straight-up adaptation of the traditional Nightwing black and blue outfit, only with more padding and armor. In fact, complete with his long, wispy hair, Dick very much resembles the character of Raiden from the game Metal Gear Solid: Sons of Liberty. Perhaps just as Rocksteady is looking for other games to borrow silent assassin iconography for their Robin design, they’ve also co-opted the neo-ninja design from MGS to better translate Nightwing into the gaming world.

The conclusion that I’ve come to is that while it’s easy to accept that a man could dress up as a Bat-Man to venture into the underworld and fight the battles that the police can’t, it takes a lot more imagination and suspension of disbelief to understand why he’d bring along these other people. The best explanation that non-comic book creators seem to be able to offer is that Nightwing is a ninja and Robin is a cage fighter. They’re just extra muscle that tag along while Batman puts in the actual detective work. While this explanation might be perfectly sufficient for a street-brawling video game, I’m not sure it adequately conveys the character behind the mask.

Perhaps that answer is found somewhere in the middle. With the cage fighting assassin monk angle, Rocksteady has justified why Batman keeps this kid around. But we still need to understand why a grown man would go into battle alongside a darkly-clad Bat-like figure dressed in bright colors and naming himself after a little bird. The question of why he’s a superhero, and why he (and Dick Grayson before him) is this particular superhero, hasn’t been answered.

It could be a pre-occupation with Robin Hood that they could be lending to Batman’s fascination with the character of Zorro as though together they are breathing new life into old symbols. Maybe Batman offers the Robin position, as DC editors have recently posited, as a sort of internship program for young, talented, non-powered individuals who are looking to get into the superhero game. Or, as many fans have speculated in response to rumors that Robin could appear in the next Bat-film, it could be that Robin originally appeared as his own superhero and that Batman sort of acquired him like a big corporation acquiring a small business. Either way, these questions have to be answered if Robin is to be reborn into the same grim and gritty pseudo-reality that Batman now exists in outside of comics.

A lot of people, including The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan and current Batman actor Christian Bale, have asserted that Robin doesn’t work in the realistic, gritty setting of the modern interpretation of Gotham City. As Robin is one of my all-time favorite characters and was instrumental in bringing me into the world of the superhero, I’d like to disagree. Whether or not this new video game re-imagining of the character can prove those claims wrong, we’ll just have to wait and see.

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Mike Greear is a journalism graduate from the University of West Florida currently living in New York City. During his time as an undergraduate, he reported on everything from Presidential campaign stops to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, eventually working his way up to being the editor-in-chief of the University of West Florida’s student newspaper, The Voyager. Since graduating, he worked briefly as a reporter for Foster’s Daily Democrat in New Hampshire, reporting on crime and municipal stories in the city of Rochester as well as interviewing Republican primary candidates, before returning to Florida and freelancing for the Pensacola News Journal. He now resides in Long Island City, writing weekly columns for and hoping to break into the comics scene.

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  1. David Balan says:

    The reason Robin (and Alfred, really) always made sense to me in terms of the comic book is that they allowed Batman some measure of joy and connection as Batman.

    As we see time and again, he is unable to make meaningful connections to others as Bruce Wayne, because it’s too dangerous, both to him and them. He consistently avoids it, and whenever he doesn’t, problems arise.

    Therefore, if he must restrain part of his life as Bruce Wayne, that part must necessarily be fulfilled by his job, or rather his obligation, as Batman. He has no family, no relations, and no real friends as Bruce Wayne – therefore he must have some as Batman, else, as Tim Drake posits, he would go insane. Batman is a strong-minded and strong-willed person, but the best of us can still feel that we are alone and no one shares our convictions.

    Robin is Batman’s family – that’s his reason to exist. It’s also why he’s been consistently written poorly, because writing a dysfunctional-yet-not father/son relationship in superhero contexts while maintaining believable motivations is really freaking difficult.

    I loved Arkham Asylum, and while the new Arkham City gameplay has really turned me off (Catwoman design, awful writing, & the combat system seems to lack the same visceral impact) I hope that Rocksteady will remember that important factor about Robin. The first game was basically Knightfall in a video game, except you won – a marathon solo-war by Batman against his enemies. That’s one side to the hero – if Arkham City is to succeed, they’d need to portray convincingly the other side – the family.

    I’m skeptical because that’s where most Batman writers fail. But we’ll see.

  2. I do agree that Robin could be done well, but it’s worth pointing out that his depiction here looks considerably older, and that was part of where Batman Forever and its sequel got heat for their depiction of Robin.

    I’m so out of video games, to be honest, that when I saw so many features about Arkham City, I kept thinking “When did I miss this graphic novel? Is it out? Why is it getting so much buzz?” But that’s because I’m lame and a workaholic.

  3. I only recently ran into Robin in Arkham City and I was very struck by how natural his costume and his relationship with Batman felt. In Arkham City, Robin it seems to me had an air of independence and own self-worth, yet still overt loyalty and submission to the will of Batman. I think that modeling Robin to be more a superhero in his own right, not just some disposable side-kick is one of the best things Batman: Arkham City has done. I completely agree with David, that to me Robin’s connection to Batman is about the sense of joy and family he experiences. Robin grounds Batman in reality. I completely disagree with some of his comments on gameplay, Catwoman, and writing, all of which I found true to the spirit of the comics, animated series, and heavily influenced by Nolan’s Batman Begins. Yet, I do agree, that depicting Batman as a member, the father, of a family, not just the leader of a team, will be the next big challenge. Yet, I think Rock Steady is up to the task.

  4. Sam Reveley says:

    I completely agree with David and Daniel and have a bit more to add. When Robin was originally concieved, it was not only to have a foothold for young readers, but to also give a “Watson” to the great detective. This was quickly over-campified and poorly written, but I think the original concept of having Robin work as a supportive family-type figure as well as someone who disagrees with the Batman at times is the best interpretation.

    Part of the power of the Batman is that he’s human and can make mistakes. It’s possible Robin may notice these mistakes, or make mistakes himself as a young, potentially more reckless individual than an older, more mature Batman. I think Tim Drake fits this role best since he is working towards being the intellectual and physical equal of Batman. I’m not sure if I approve of a “troubled young person” who spends their spare time cage-fighting. That seems more like a pre-Spiderman to me. I think that a put together yet passionate Tim Drake who makes mistakes on the field due to inexperience and a different outlook than the Batman would be far more interesting.

    Moreover, I have another historical fact about Robin. He actually wasn’t intended to be named after “a little bird.” He was named after the notorious fictional hero Robin Hood. In the context of this, I think Robin is meant to have an element of humor, youthfullness, and idealism to him that the older Batman may no longer have due to a longer career in the darkest trenches of Gotham. In this way, Robin is like the extremely skilled Greenhorn just outfitted onto the battlefield.

    The question for Robin becomes: how does someone with the skills and the ideals face the complete and utter insanity of the Gotham underworld? How does this change him and how does this change him in relation to the history of the Dark Knight? To me, this is far more interested story than an introverted and troubled young man who represents a long tradition in recent comics where the conflict is set around the hero’s struggle with themselves.

    I’m ready for something new.

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