“Batman is the hero any of us could be, given determination, exercise, and deep psychological trauma.” - Chris Jarocha-Ernst
The Classic Model of Batman
Batman first appeared in 1939 in Detective Comics #27, and has remained an enduring cultural icon through his many incarnations since then. Created by Bob Kane Batman was a dark counterpart to the first superhero, Superman.
A dark, sinister vigilante who used the symbolism of evil as a psychological weapon to fight crime, the look and feel of Batman was influenced by the drawings of Da Vinci, the personality of Zorro, an obscure mystery film called “The Bat,” and the pulp hero The Shadow.
I will examine the classic model of Batman from a Freudian and Jungian perspective, and will also demonstrate how, unlike any other hero, the mythos of Batman is steeped in different psychological theories.
When I say “classic model” I am referring to the original comic book character that forms the core of many of his subsequent interpretations. The reader may be reminded of the campy 1960’s television show, or the series of increasingly inane feature films based on Batman. These are interpretations of the core character and are not reflective of the classic model.
In order to understand the subject matter, a brief overview of the character is required. Batman is Bruce Wayne, a wealthy industrialist who lives in the crime ridden Gotham City. The son of wealthy socialites Thomas and Martha Wayne, Bruce lived a pampered and sheltered life in his early childhood. His father was a respected doctor, philanthropist, and founder of the Wayne Industries corporation.
One night Bruce’s parents took him to see a movie (The Mark of Zorro) downtown, and on the way out of the movie they were mugged. Young Bruce watched in horror as the faceless, anonymous criminal gunned his parents down, leaving him an orphan. Driven by a need to avenge their deaths, Bruce trained himself to become a world-class crimefighter and, inspired by a bat, created the persona of Batman to strike fear into criminals.
Assisted by his loyal butler Alfred, Bruce Wayne operated out of a secret subterranean base under his family estate, The Batcave. During the day he played the part of bored playboy Bruce Wayne, but at night he prowled the streets of Gotham in his Batmobile or swung through the urban jungle on his Batline. Eventually he recruited allies in the form of Police Commissioner Gordon and his sidekick Robin, who was also orphaned by a senseless act of crime. He used his incredible physical prowess, keen intellect, and exotic gadgets to fight criminals ranging from mob goons to grotesque villains. Significantly, Batman shuns firearms and does not use lethal force.
This is the classic model of Batman, the departure point for all subsequent interpretations of the character in media ranging from radio serials to cartoons to novels to feature films – and of course, comic books. This is the character that we shall examine through the lens of Freud, Jung, and others.
Freud and Batman –Superego / Superhero
Bruce Wayne’s normal psychological development is impaired when, at approximately six years of age he witnesses the murder of his parents by a mugger. The killing occurs at a critical stage of psychological development, when Bruce is resolving his oedipal crisis by repressing his hostility towards his father and his sexual desires towards his mother. Bruce was increasingly identifying with his father, an accomplished and wealthy doctor and philanthropist, at the time of the murder and as he was internalizing the superego and adopting his parents’ moral restraints. Because his oedipal complex at the time of the murder was not completely resolved and his rivalrous and incestuous feelings were not yet buried in his unconscious, Bruce felt a tremendous sense of guilt about the death of his parents, particularly his father, who he had viewed as a rival and had harbored hostile wishes against. In the young boy’s mind his unacceptable wishes were manifested on the night of the murder – the death wish against his father was fulfilled by a faceless criminal. Bruce’s superego, his conscience, developed abnormally as a result of the trauma. The character of Bruce’s father lives on in his superego, which dominates his ego with an acute sense of guilt, heightened by the knowledge that he will inherit all of his father’s property and wealth as a result of the murder.
Bruce spends his childhood and adolescence in various boarding schools, where he adopts the twin strategies of asceticism and intellectualism in order to deal with his dangerous resurgence of oedipal emotions. In an attempt to defend against the unacceptable oedipal feelings he harbors towards his dead parents, Bruce attempts to deny physical pleasure and impulses by adopting a punishing physical training regimen and mastering physical pursuits such as martial arts and sports. At the same time, Bruce protects himself from the problems of sex and aggression by transferring these impulses onto the intellectual plane through academic achievement and study. Bruce, who has a genius level IQ and an incredibly dominant superego, does not find school work challenging, and surreptitiously studies a wide variety of subjects both mundane and esoteric without the knowledge of his peers or faculty.
At the end of his adolescence, Bruce travels overseas in pursuit of his twin goals of asceticism and intellectualism, seeking guidance from experts in various fields such as art history, biology, martial arts, criminology, survival, espionage, Eastern philosophy, etc. During this period Bruce struggles against the return of his repressed oedipal feelings, particularly his aggressive desires. His unacceptable aggression finds fulfillment in the form of symptoms, behavioral abnormalities that are a direct result of that repression. In Bruce’s case, his symptoms manifest itself as a desire for revenge against the faceless crime that took his parents. Such is the power of Bruce’s dominant superego that his quest for revenge is held in check by his conscience -the punitive, critical aspect of his superego -- which will not allow his desire for revenge to become lethal.
Thus, Bruce’s lifelong personal prohibition against lethal force is created by his superego as a way of moderating his abnormal revenge behavior.
An equally powerful aspect of Bruce’s superego is his ego ideal, his positive aspirations and desire for perfection. Freud says the super-ego is "the vehicle of the ego ideal by which the ego measures itself, which it emulates, and whose demand for ever greater perfection it strives to fulfill.” ( Freud, "New Introductory Lectures") On one level Bruce’s ego ideal is based on his idealized childhood view of his parents as perfect beings, while on another level it is based on a more abstract notion of justice. His unusually strong ego ideal motivates Bruce to intellectual and academic achievements well beyond that of ordinary individuals.
Like everyone, Bruce’s id is governed by the pleasure-principle and is oriented towards his impulses and passions. However, Bruce’s early childhood trauma has taught him to deny and sublimate his impulses, so his ego has focused on a strategy of delayed gratification -- the reality principle – in order for him to fulfill the goals of his ego ideal and obey the dictates of his guilty, controlling conscience. When he creates the mask of Batman later in his life, he sublimates his impulses into a quest for justice and embraces the reality principle wholeheartedly. His entire life becomes an exercise in delayed gratification. He cannot pursue the pleasure-principle until his desire for revenge is fulfilled and his impossible mission – the eradication of crime – is complete.
Bruce’s ego is taxed by powerful demands from the id, the restrictive tenets of his superego, and the very real dangers of the physical world.
We now have an overview of the psychoanalytic factors at play in Bruce Wayne as he grew up in the aftermath of his terrible childhood tragedy. But our understanding is incomplete because we have not factored in the presence of The Bat in Bruce’s psyche. For a greater understanding of the role of The Bat, we must turn to Carl Jung.
Jung and Batman – Mask and Shadow
As a young adult Bruce Wayne returns from his long sojourn overseas to Gotham City and his ancestral home, Wayne Manor. Bruce’s body has been crafted into a living weapon, his mind is razor sharp and encyclopedic, and he is powerfully motivated by inner forces to pursue justice – yet the dark purpose of his life has not coalesced.
When Bruce is brooding alone in his study one night, a large bat crashes through the window. He takes this as an omen and, reasoning that “criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot” Bruce decides to use the symbolism of the bat as a disguise and psychological weapon – he becomes The Bat.
When Bruce Wayne dons the distinctive dark cape and cowl of Batman, he adopts a new persona, a new social mask specifically tailored for his nocturnal pursuits. During the daytime Bruce’s ego presents the Bruce Wayne persona to the world, the mask of a spoiled playboy. At night, Bruce presents the Batman persona to the world, the mask of the supernatural avenger. As Bruce’s vigilante career progresses, he spends less time in the Bruce Wayne persona, which he views as a superficial front, and more time in costume as Batman, which he feels is more reflective of his ego. The Batman persona is cultivated to the detriment of the hollow Bruce Wayne persona.
The Batman persona is pure animus, “the man within.” When wearing the Batman mask, Bruce embodies the masculine principle of logic, independence, aggression, the conquest of nature, and heroic action. There is no room for the anima, “the woman within” in the Batman persona. The feminine qualities of nurturance, feeling, and relatedness to others are dangerous liabilities on the mean streets of Gotham City, but in truth Bruce has repressed the feminine all of his life and has scarce use for it in either persona. Bruce’s anima resides almost exclusively in his personal unconscious, neglected.
The Jungian shadow plays an important role in Bruce’s life. The opposite of his self-image of a controlled, just protector, Bruce’s shadow is an amalgam of the traits and impulses that he cannot see in himself. His shadow is wrathful, predatory, and violent – the exact traits he despises and projects on to the criminals he hunts. In a sense, the Batman persona is the physical embodiment of his shadow.
The Batman mask is also a manifestation of a dark universal archetype that dwells in the collective unconscious that Jung believed all humans shared. Theses archetypes are innate forces and organizing urges that exist within us all, given shape and form in art, myths, and dreams. The Batman is a death archetype fused with a dark animal totem which strikes a primal note of fear in the unconscious of criminals and innocent alike. Bruce deliberately cultivates this vampiric image and rarely attempts to soften it or mitigate its effects, even with the victims of criminals that he nominally protects.
Will Bruce Wayne ever reach the Self, the balanced archetype all humans strive for? No. The Self is the ultimate unconscious goal, a sense of balance, wholeness, and meaning, an inner urge to balance and reconcile the opposing aspects of our personalities. The Self is an unattainable ideal, but even were it within our reach, it would be impossible for Bruce. Bruce’s personal unconscious is all animus with very little anima. His personality is full of opposing tendencies such as his shadow’s destructive nature vs. his ego-ideal’s drive for justice.
Freudian and Jungian theory offer useful frameworks for understanding the psychologically rich and enduring character of Batman/Bruce Wayne, who has become such an iconic fixture in the American and worldwide pop cultural landscape. Comic books are often dismissed as simplistic, juvenile fare, and to be honest, that is usually an accurate assessment. But comics are sequential art, a hybrid of words and pictures, a media that is just as valid as any other and just as capable of telling stories and introducing characters of great depth and resonance. The majority of Batman comics fall short of this potential, but the character is profound and resonant enough to inspire a few truly powerful works.
We all bear with us scars from childhood and past trauma, we all construct personas to help deal with the world and internal processes to deal with pain and fear. Certainly one of the reasons for Batman’s enduring popularity is that, at its core the character is a wounded Gothic hero fighting both external and internal demons in a grim fairytale landscape one step removed from our own.
Another reason would be him jumping around and beating the shit out of people.