Legends of the Dark Knight

14 Jan

Batman was the brainchild of the artist Bob Kane and the writer Bill Finger, who collaborated on a new character for Detective Comics in 1938. Their first sketches were a long way from the Batman image most people are familiar with today: the first drawings gave him wings and red tights. A few drafts later, a Batman who looked more like the movie version was born. He was soon starring in his own self-titled comic. From the start, Batman was unlike other heroes. His rivals, Superman and Spider-Man, are festooned in the primary colours of the American flag, whereas Batman dresses in dark blues and blacks. And no other superhero has a story quite as bleak. When Bruce Wayne was a little boy, he watched his parents’ deaths at the hands of Joe Chill, a heartless mugger, and vowed to dedicate the rest of his life to gaining revenge on the criminal underworld. Superman’s arrival from another planet is more the stuff of myth and fairy tale in comparison. To quote the film director and comics geek Kevin Smith: “Batman is about angst; Superman is about hope.” So why then do we love Batman so much?

Psychiatrists  and psychologists analyze Batman more than any other superhero — the character himself, that is. Looking at Superman psychologically means looking at modern mythology. He’s the modern demigod myth. While there’s something mythic about Batman too, to be sure, he’s more akin to the mortal legends like Robin Hood and pulp heroes like Zorro and the Shadow, extraordinary men but men nonetheless. In bright, shining Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster said they drew inspiration from divine heroes throughout the ages: “like Samson, Hercules, and all the strong men I ever heard of rolled into one — only more so”, to create not only Superman himself but the very concept of the costumed superhero. They made the meme. Where Superman drew his might from the Earth’s sun, Batman found his in a city’s darkness. Jerry and Joe played with the bright and impossible. Bob Kane and Bill Finger, in creating Batman, expanded the meme by adding the coin’s other side, the dark and improbably possible. Carl Jung (1964) and Joseph Campbell (1949) looked at how archetypes, universal themes we inherit as part of our collective unconscious, symbolically shape myths and legends of heroes in similar ways throughout every culture in the world. According to them, the so-called ‘Shadow’ archetype represents your own dark side, not necessarily your evil side but the part of you that is hidden, out of the light, the sum of those characteristics you conceal from both the world and yourself. Bruce Wayne confronts his own darkest nature early in life, chooses to work with it, and uses it to instill fear in others. His bright and dark sides work together to fight evil. From a Jungian perspective, therefore, Batman appeals to our own need to face and manage our own Shadow selves. We want Batman in our shadows.

Regardless of possible mythical or archetypal reasons for the Dark Knight’s appeal, we like him because he’s fully human. Batman’s the superhero with no superpowers. He can walk into a room full of people who fly, read minds, and run faster than light, and yet he’s the one who intimidates them. His personality defines him, not superpowers. His origin defines him as well, so much so that it’s part of his personality. Bruce Wayne doesn’t hail from some alien planet or mythical island, and his abilities don’t come from any magic ring, secret formula, or radioactive mishap. He was — and in many ways is — a little boy whose parents got gunned down in front of him. Spider-Man and Superman are heroes because of their great upbringing, because their adoptive parents taught them through word and deed that with great power comes great responsibility. Bruce Wayne’s altruistic parents similarly taught him to help those who have less than himself. Upbringing helped make heroes of all three, but a radioactive spider and extraterrestrial biology made superheroes of two of them. Batman made himself super. Through years of hard work and sheer determination, he built himself into the person he wanted to become, and that’s inspiring. We know we can’t become Spider-Man or Superman. Maybe we know we can’t become Batman either, but Bruce Wayne nevertheless helps us feel that we can become something great, something of our own choosing.

Duality and obsession, his enemies’ and his own, fill Batman’s stories. His enemies reflect and distort facets of himself. What psychopathologies lurk in the minds of supervillains like the Joker, the Riddler, Two-Face, and Catwoman? Are they really rogues and villains, or simply misunderstood victims of a heartless society? Do Batman and his foes depend on each other? After the arrival of its mysterious hero, Gotham City sees a proliferation of costumed characters, some of them vigilantes but most of them criminals whose theatrics and preoccupations rival the Dark Knight’s. Does Batman inspire their histrionics no less than he inspires new heroes, or does he attract creative crooks to his city? The Riddler and The Dark Knight Rises‘ antagonist Bane, for example, each moved to Gotham City specifically because they thought Batman would offer them each a worthy challenge. Maybe the city itself draws them all. Like the hero who pursues them, most of Gotham City’s supervillains are human beings defined by their personalities instead of superpowers. We describe many of Spider-Man’s enemies first and foremost by referring to abilities like becoming a lizard, turning into sand, or wielding cybernetic tentacles. We define most of Batman’s foes by behaviors like their killer pranks, riddling compulsions, themed obsessions, ruthless environmentalism, or decision making via coin toss to do right or wrong. No other superhero sees an entire mental hospital, Arkham Asylum in this case, become best known for housing his fanciful foes.

When this character’s creators decided what must drive this man to dress like a bat and make his city’s criminals cower at the sight of him, Bob Kane and Bill Finger tapped into our most primal childhood fears. A father, mother, and son, after a night out at the movies, walk together down the street. A gunman demands the wife’s necklace. The husband moves to protect her. Gunshots. A scream. He dies. She dies. Their son stands alone in tears. Within the fictional biography of Bruce Wayne, this page-and-a-half scene from Detective Comics #33 (1939) is where Batman begins. “Bill and I discussed it,” Kane recalled (Daniels, 1999, p. 31), “and we figured there’s nothing more traumatic than having your parents murdered before your eyes.” Losing one’s parent or parents when old enough to know about it ranks as the single most stressful common life event children can experience (e.g., Monaghan, Robinson, & Dodge, 1979). Uncommon traumas like torture or terrorist attacks are not universal experiences, not things most of us can anticipate, but sooner or later we all learn that our parents can and will die.

We want justice. People who believe in a just world suffer less stress and depression, and enjoy life more than people who do not (Lipkus, Dalbert, & Siegler, 1996). Many cultures teach their members from childhood to believe the world operates with natural order and justice — the just-world phenomenon that psychologist Melvin Lerner says comforts us because most of us, even the worst of us, consider outselves basically good and worthy of fair treatmetnt (Lerner, 1980; Lerner & Miller, 1978). Our need to believe justice will prevail even when the system fails, even when criminals evade arrest or avoid conviction, makes us want there to be somebody out there who can get them anyway. Why don’t children fear this hero who dresses like a monster? Because he’s their monster. He’s ours. Even when children learn that magic will not save them nor will a hero in blue fly out of the sky, so they develop more realistic hopes, they can still hope that when they can’t find the strength to stand up to life’s bullies, someone who is strong and capable might do the right thing and help. In Batman, they see the wounded boy who makes himself big and strong enough to turn fear against the fearsome. With both brain and brawn, he’s the part of us that wants to scare life’s bullies away. Why Batman? A child can wish for superpowers. An adult, who may have given up that particular dream, can still wish for strength enough.

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