Batman: The Psychology of a Superhero, a Case of Mistaken Identity.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I’m telling you right now: I can’t take you seriously in that getup I’m guessing your real face is in that briefcase?
– The Joker, Batman: Cacophony 2009.
It is only fitting that the ultimate villain to Batman, The Joker, frames this psychological debate for the purposes of this discussion. I do not begin to speak for anyone else when I ask the question, which one is the real persona, Batman or Bruce Wayne? Kevin Smith’s “Batman: Cacophony,” stands out mainly because it is one of the more recent graphic novels that I have read. In the quote that I have already referenced, Batman visits the Joker under the guise of his attorney. Upon entering the room, Joker greets him as “Bats,” ultimately declaring that he cannot continue to talk to him without his “real face.” The identity debate is one that cannot be traced to an exact moment because of the inconsistencies in the continuity of the character, changes in the writers and the multiple mediums from which the character can be found other than comics. Although, some would credit the introduction of the identity debate with the original origin story written by Gardner Fox in Detective Comics Number 33, in November of 1939. While some comic book fans would consider the origin of this debate with Frank Miller’s “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.” The discussion is one that permeates Internet bulletin boards, blog sites, journal articles and numerous other forms of publications. Since the publication of Kane’s or Miller’s Batman, the character has undergone several reinventions. Despite the lack of continuity and countless retellings of the Batman story over the years, the question still remains; is Batman the true identity or is Bruce Wayne just a mask so he can hide himself from the world?
Although, Superman will not be discussed at great lengths in this discussion, there is a similar question that emerges regarding the ego and the alter ego of the character. Having been made the subject of similar discourse in films such as Kill Bill: Volume 2; Bill (David Carradine) suggests that it is Superman that is the real identity and Clark Kent is the mask. Similar to this argument made by Carradine’s character, I intend to examine Batman in his different mediums focusing primarily on his incarnations from the mid-eighties to the more recent Christopher Nolan adaptations to determine why Batman is who he is, ultimately arguing that Batman is the ego and Bruce Wayne is the alter ego.
Tom De Haven writes extensively about Superman in his book Superman On Earth. De Haven discusses the controversy that continues to rage on about which persona, “Superman or Clark Kent, is the “real” guy. (38) De Haven continues by asking, “Which is the ego and which is the alter?” (38) In Siegel’s version, De Haven declares that it is without question, “Superman.” Similar to De Haven and his declaration that Superman is the ego. I declare that it is without question, Batman. Bob Kane introduced Bruce Wayne sitting with Commissioner Gordon, when there is suddenly a call for him to report to the scene of a crime, Bruce accompanies him saying, “Oh well, nothing else to do, might as well.” (Chronicles 4) Batman operates on a different level, hiding his face to protect his alter ego. Without the mask, Batman cannot be Bruce, wealthy heir to the Wayne fortune. Bruce dawns the cape and cowl in order to strike fear into the hearts of criminals while inadvertently protecting his sociological mask in the process. Unlike Superman, Batman does not need to pretend to be like the average person because he is human. Batman has no super powers, human to the core, driven by anger and guilt. Regardless of which interpretation one is reading, Batman is the name he gives himself after encountering the image of a bat. Tim Burton is quoted by Philip Orr, expressing this fractured persona in different terms, quoted by Philip Orr as saying, “These characters are all fucked up. They are impurely pure. If Batman got therapy, he probably wouldn’t be putting on this suit, and we wouldn’t have this weird guy running around in a cape. So there is a form of things not being integrated that is quite appealing.” (1) Burton’s interpretation of Bruce Wayne suggests that Wayne is in a constant state of denial. Wayne does not seek help not because he does not need it, but rather because he does not think he needs help. Many people have what is referred to as a coping mechanism. For Bruce Wayne, his coping mechanism is to maintain an identity that seeks to maintain order and justice in the world as Batman.
According to Robin S. Rosenberg, “psychology suggests that the underlying process of the birth of Batman isn’t farfetched and is, in fact, common: After people have experienced a traumatic event, they often struggle to make meaning of the experience, and one such path is through social action.” (23) If one looks at historical figures as suggested by Christopher Nolan in “Batman Unmasked: The Psychology of the Dark Knight,” Batman parallels the psychology of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. Roosevelt’s father started the Museum Natural History, resembling Thomas Wayne. Roosevelt undergoes similar tragedy, losing his mother and wife on the same day and as a result he reinvents himself becoming the iconic Commissioner of New York City, riding through the streets at night on a bicycle, fighting crime. Child Psychiatrist, Michael Brody suggests similar ideas presented by Rosenberg and Nolan. He suggests that when children undergo a traumatic experience, it shatters “the illusion of invulnerability.” (173) This effect can occur when “children experience a parental death, divorce, are sexually abused, or are very ill. The shield of protective innocence cracks. The child is even more devastated by the helplessness he perceives in his parents. A sense of trust in the world is lost.” (173) Brody explains that unlike “his alien predecessor, Superman, this hero was human and vulnerable.” (171) Bruce Wayne is limited to his physical and mental capacity, all of which are human. However, he pushes and exceeds the boundaries of the normal man developing a disciplined mind and body. Wayne also had an inheritance that allowed him to “equip a crime fighter’s laboratory on a grand scale, while maintaining secrecy. Searching for a symbol both to frighten others and to mask himself.” (Brody 171) Bruce Wayne is given the opportunity to reinvent himself. Wayne is enabled by his fortune, which by most standards can be considered to be never ending. As Brody suggests, Wayne is “a survivor,” ridden with what he refers to as “death guilt,” a condition that he defines as “survivors that blame themselves for having lived while others died.” (173) If one looks at the original comic describing the events that led to Wayne assuming the Batman identity, it was an integration that immediately ensues. He sublimates his rage, anger, and guilt, thereby pursuing his solo fights against crime. This sublimation of rage and anger is seen as recently as Christopher Nolan’s 2005 adaptation of the Dark Knight, in Batman Begins. Wayne is imprisoned and a brief conversation with Ra’s Al Ghul (Portrayed by Liam Neeson) under the guise of Henri Ducard. Ra’s asks him “Are you so desperate to take on criminals that you lock yourself up with them to take them on one at a time?” Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) response surmises in a silent, yes. Unlike its’ predecessors, this retelling of Batman’s first years does not rely on a quick pseudo-like recovery of the hero. Nolan’s Batman embarks on an international crusade. Wayne is more developed in his quest for vengeance. As a result of his experiences, he feels that he cannot understand the criminal without first living among them. In “Batman Begins,” Ra’s Al Ghul introduces the idea that Bruce Wayne has become lost in his quest, but that he can help him become more than just a vigilante, but an idea, a legend. It is evident in every telling of Bruce Wayne’s story and his path to becoming the Batman exhibit slight variations, but all conclude the same way. Each story embraces the idea that Bruce Wayne’s tragedy is a symbolic fall, one that allows him “to get back up” (Batman Begins), thereby allowing him to reinvent himself to become Batman.
Again, it is Wayne’s psychological symptoms and money that enable Batman to exist, Brody continues to argue that as a result of his psychiatric trauma, the Batman plugs into the psychology of the audience because it remains credible. Batman has the symptoms of personality fragmentation and recovery. “As a result, the Batman character, like his alter ego Bruce Wayne, has survived” because of his “traumatized childhood” which “serves to make Batman a true myth.”(Brody 177) Brody suggests that Batman becomes the ego, while Bruce Wayne is the alter ego when he says, “like his alter ego Bruce Wayne.” On the other hand, the alter ego survives because Batman continues to thrive. Together the ego and alter reaffirm the existence of one another. “Dark Batman isn’t any more ‘authentic than crazy, silly Batman,” Jaime Weinman suggests in his article, “Holy Identity Crisis, Batman!” Batman is the primary ego. Another example that reaffirms that Bruce Wayne is the alter ego and Batman is the true persona is in Batman Begins, when Rachel says, “Your real face is the one that criminals now fear, the man who vanished, the man I loved, he never really came back at all.” Rachel tells Bruce that his mask is not Batman, rather the socially acceptable image of Bruce Wayne. His true image as Rachel suggests in the final scenes of Batman Begins, “is the one that criminals now fear.” Nolan’s Batman is what Frank Miller would refer to as, “the goddamn Batman.” In Frank Miller’s adaptation, the Batman persona is introduced as being the real persona, while Bruce Wayne is the human condition that is left for him to inhabit, to become the shell of what he once was when he is too old to continue as Batman. The Miller interpretation can also be seen in the animated series Batman Beyond. Recently, I watched an episode of Batman Beyond, a post Miller archetype Batman that exists in the retirement phase of his life, much older than fifty now, and enlisting Terry McGinnis as a new Batman with a super suit. The only persona left to hold Batman is now the Wayne persona, but he spends the majority of his time in the Bat-Cave watching over Gotham and aiding the new Batman. This ego also supports the argument that Batman is the ego; in the episode entitled “Shriek.” At the end of the episode the following conversation takes place:
Terry: Tell me something, why were you so sure those voices weren’t coming from you?
Bruce: Well first, I know, I’m not psychotic.
Terry: I hope your other reason is more convincing.
Bruce: Second, the voice kept calling me Bruce. In my mind, I don’t call myself Bruce.
Terry: What do you call yourself?
(Bruce shoots Terry a look that suggests that Terry knows the answer to his question. They stare at one another.)
Terry: Hmmm. I suppose you would. But that’s my name now.
Bruce: Tell that to my subconscious.
Wayne acknowledges that his subconscious operates as Batman. There is no declaration of names within this conversation. However, the body language illustrates the sentiments being conveyed in the motions of the characters. Also, Terry’s response stating, “But that’s my name now,” demonstrates that he knows that Wayne is telling him that he refers to himself as Batman in his mind. Bruce Wayne’s reply, “Tell that to my subconscious,” suggests that Wayne is saying, you have the title now, but declares that his mind will always acknowledge him as Batman.
Batman’s identity is not only an acknowledged by his self image, but it can also be found in his costumed adversaries as Philip Orr notes, “William Uricchio and Roberta Pearson” argue that “Batman’s costumed adversaries, “…they steal not because they want the jewels (the money, the gold, etc.) but because the challenge of grappling with the Batman reaffirms their identity” (Orr 170) Orr suggests that by confronting the villains in his world, Batman simultaneously reaffirms his own identity. By engaging his enemies Batman is forced to confront his own rationalization for continuing his fight against evil. Orr unfortunately neglects to define Batman’s need for this similar reaffirmation of his own identity. Without the villains, Batman would not have to dawn the cape and cowl. Batman has other ways demonstrates other ways of reaffirming his identity when he revisits the death site of his parents and fights crime as suggested in the images depicted in Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns.”
Grant Morrison’s, “Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne,” illustrates evidence that Bruce Wayne is the alter ego. Morrison’s story arc has been emerging since he killed off the Dark Knight. As he has continued in the same fashion, the Dark Knight has been re-imagined once again. Batman’s storyline has integrated science fiction elements, allowing for the storyline to project Batman through time. During Batman’s jump through time, he engages people under the guise of Bruce Wayne, always maintaining his one true persona, Batman. During the first issue of “Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne,” Batman has no recollection of his alter ego, Bruce Wayne. He does have remnant memories of his ego Batman, as well as the “bat” symbols remaining to guide him in his journey through time. Most recently this image of Batman has gone from a local ideology to a globalized market with the introduction of Grant Morrison’s “Batman Incorporated,” selling the ego’s ideology as a world market, using the alter ego Bruce Wayne as the benefactor for these future endeavors. While it is clear through the different storylines that Batman has been the ego for the characterization of Bruce Wayne persona, the question lingers, could this persona exist without the wealth that he inherited as a result of his parent’s death? It would have been easy to suggest that Batman and Bruce Wayne are in a symbiotic relationship, requiring the other to survive. As I have declared Batman to be the true ego, I have noticed that other writers have also declared Batman to be the true identity, suggesting that people are more interested in story where the dynamic characteristic of the hero is one that is the iconic un-fractured image, the Batman. These ideas ultimately suggest that the story loses its attractive quality if its character is damaged, flawed to the point where he is simply trying to escape the haunting images he had as a young boy, but if he is something more than just the traumatized boy, he is much more interesting.
Batman Beyond. “Episode Seven, Shriek.” Dir. Curt Geda. Writ. Berkowitz, Stan. Per. Warner Bros. Animated; DC Comics. 1999.
Batman Begins. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Christian Bale; Michael Caine; Katie Holmes; Warner Bros. Pictures.; DC Comics. 2005.
Batman Unmasked: The Psychology of The Dark Knight. Writ. Steven Smith. Prometheus Entertainment. 2008.
Brody, Michael. “Batman: Psychic Trauma and Its Solution.” The Journal of Popular Culture; Vol. 28, Issue 4. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 1995.
Daniels, Bradley J. The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration. “ Arkham Asylum.” Ed. Robin S. Rosenberg, PhD. Benbella Books, Inc. Dallas, Texas. 2008.
Dark Knight, The. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Christian Bale; Michael Caine; Maggie Gyllenhaal; Warner Bros.; DC Comics. 2008.
De Haven, Tom. Our Hero Superman on Earth. Yale University Press; New Haven & London. 2010.
Fox, Gardner. The Batman Chronicles. “Detective Comics No. 33, The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom.” 1939. New York, DC Comics. 2005.
Miller, Frank. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. 1986. New York, DC Comics. 2002.
Morrison, Grant. Batman Inc. First Issue: “Mr. Unknown is Dead.” New York, DC Comics 2010.
Morrison, Grant. Batman: The Return. First Issue: “Planet Gotham.” New York, DC Comics, 2010.
Morrison, Grant. Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne. First Issue: “Shadow on Stone.” New York, DC Comics, 2010.
Smith, Kevin. Batman: Cacophony. New York, DC Comics. 2009.
Tate, Chuck. The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration. “ An Appetite for Destruction.” Ed. Robin S. Rosenberg, PhD. Benbella Books, Inc. Dallas, Texas. 2008.