Dark Knight of the Soul

After playing through it, I can confirm firsthand that the latest Batman video game is an amazing experience. Batman: Arkham City is a technically facile, immersive, fantastic voyage into the world of Batman lore, and it gives gamers and third-party onlookers alike the sensation of what it would actually look, sound, and feel like to become the Caped Crusader.

I can understand why millions of fans dive deep into such games, because it’s a powerful simulation of wish fulfillment. Every kid fantasizes about becoming a superhero.

But what I can’t understand is why, after playing through this game, anyone would actually wish to be Batman. Because there’s a lot about being Batman that really sucks.

First of all, there’s the fact that nobody knows your actual identity. Bruce Wayne is they know. So most of the populace either thinks you’re a weakling, or resents you for being wealthy. (Thankfully, Batman doesn’t have to deal with any Occupy Gotham protesters.) Then there are the numerous side missions, initiated by various citizens who need your help, which require you to navigate out of your way to find and assist them.

Plus, there’s the danger lurking around every corner. The plot of Arkham City, the sequel to the 2009 hit Batman: Arkham Asylum, takes place in a district of Gotham populated by violent criminals and walled off from the rest of the city. The Joker may be Batman’s arch nemesis, but he is only one of many super villains you encounter. As circumstances dictate, occasionally you’re required to forge alliances with them, never quite being sure of when they’ll repay your collaborative efforts by trying to kill you.

It’s an exhausting, thankless, tortured life.

Popular speaker and pastor Efrem Smith once preached a message to a group of church workers where he encouraged them to walk in their gifting and in the power of the Holy Spirit. To illustrate, he contrasted the approaches between superheroes Batman and Superman. Superman has actual powers that he was born with, and those powers can save people. He operates from a place of assuredness in his ability. He was born to do it. On the other hand, Batman uses gadgets and combat training to compensate for his lack of actual super powers. And he operates from a place of pain, punishing criminals in his city as a way to vicariously avenge the violent death of his parents, a loss he suffered as a child.

Knowing this about Batman, it’s clearer than ever why his character has endured and become such a fixture in American popular culture. Whether it’s classic superheroes like Batman, renegade agents like Jack Bauer of 24, or even real-life vigilantes like Brian Fodor, (a.k.a. Phoenix Jones of Seattle’s Rain City Superhero Movement), people love to see others fight against the insurmountable tide of evil and corruption. Even if the evil in question simply is in the form of rude passengers or airline bureaucracy, we love to see people stick it to “The Man” and exit on their own terms.

But these are not exactly Christian responses.

Even if we ignore for a moment Jesus’ turn-the-other-cheek doctrine from Matthew 5, there are plenty of places in the Bible where characters take matters into their own hands, and it rarely turns out well afterward. Moses killed an Egyptian because the man was mistreating one of his people. As a result, Moses had to flee the kingdom he grew up in. In Genesis 34, Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped by a Hivite man, and in response her brothers deceitfully murder all of the men of the city, exacerbating an already fractious set of tribal alliances that eventually descend into war.

But these wrong examples don’t mean that the desire for vengeance is wrong. If all sins are illegitimate ways of meeting legitimate needs, then it stands to reason that vengeance is a legitimate need.

The apostle Paul told his charges not to take revenge, not because revenge is wrong, but because it’s counterproductive to Christlike, sacrificial living. In so doing, he quoted a short verse from a longer passage from Deuteronomy where the children of Israel are being prepared to walk into their inheritance, and Moses is trying to give them a broad portrait of the God that has covenanted with them thus far. This God is described as one who is not only omniscient and omnipresent, but omnipotent — a God who relishes visiting his judgments upon the wicked in order to demonstrate his glory and power.

Exacting vengeance shouldn’t be an option for Christians, not because doing so is wrong, but because He’s the only one who’s good enough, righteous enough, and powerful enough to really do it justice.

So for a man to usurp that role, even someone as powerful as Bruce Wayne, is like a 3-year-old trying to make cheesecake. Better to leave that to someone who knows what he’s doing.

That doesn’t mean Christians can’t enjoy good entertainment. It just means we have to know where entertainment ends and responsible moral behavior begins.

As for Batman: Arkham City, the ESRB rating (“T for Teen”) is there for a reason. While the fighting is exhilarating, there is coarse, suggestive language throughout, especially involving the more scantily-clad female characters of the game (Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy). Also, during the third act of the main campaign, the game deviates thematically from its urban origins and delves into the realm of demons and the supernatural. It’s not gory, but it is very intense, and not for the faint of heart.

Assuming you follow the age guidelines, though, Batman: Arkham City can make for great recreation.

And in the theology department, it’s not half bad either.

“Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord.

Well, God, you can have it.

After a few days of being Batman, I’m worn out.