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.