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NOCC: Psychology of Batman

Company: Wizard World
Product: New Orleans Comic Con 2013 Coverage

There’s a meme on the loose in the wilds of the Internet that say, "Always be yourself, unless you can be Batman, always be Batman."

Sure, he gets all the cool toys, gets to slap people around with near impunity, has a "Plan B" for his own "Plan B," and has more money than Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates combined… but is there a deeper reason we all want to be, or at least relate to Batman? Dr. Travis Langley, the author of Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight seems to think so.

Aside from meeting Greg Capullo – another Batman-related panelist – Dr. Langley’s panel "Batman and Psychology" was one of the more fascinating and interesting panels I attended at Wizard World New Orleans Comic-Con 2012. For Dr. Langley, the core of every interpretation of Batman, from the campy Adam West version right down to Christopher Nolan’s grittier version, has inspiration.

Batman isn’t someone out for simple revenge. In fact, revenge isn’t his gig – it has been, and has always been about avenging his parent’s death, and the victims of all crime, everywhere. But, his quest goes deeper than just putting on a mask and punching bad guys in the face. In every story, Batman is trying to inspire people, either by giving them hope, or instilling fear in those who would do harm to others.

As an example, Dr. Langley pointed to the most recent Christopher Nolan trilogy. According to Dr. Langley, the first movie is all about fear; how it is caused, how do you instill it, and how do you overcome it. If you look at the development of the Batman persona, Bruce Wayne states, he is using his fear to instill fear in others. His entire crusade, on some fundamental level, is driven by childhood fears.

This concept of childhood fears is, in Dr. Langley’s view, one of the touchstones that make Batman relatable. When Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Batman’s oft-forgotten co-creator, originally devised the concept, they decided nothing is more traumatic than seeing your parents murdered before your eyes. This is the most primal fear of all human beings – our parents will die.

To quote Dr. Langley, "We all know we’re not going to discover we were rocketed to Earth as a tiny baby. You probably know you will not get bitten by a radioactive spider and gain powers. Or, at least most of you won’t. We all know our parents can, and will die." This is basic human nature. Even people who don’t have a great relationship with their parents can still, on some level or another, relate to the fear, even if it is in our interactions with others. We "get" Batman.

Turning back to the theme of inspiration, the second movie delves into the concept even further. While the first movie is about inspiring fear, the second deals with inspiring hope. As Batman, Bruce Wayne is trying to give the people of Gotham a bright beacon of hope. "Gotham’s White Knight," as he later refers to Harvey Dent as. However, at the same time, he needs to continue to inspire fear, so for Bruce, the entire movie is about finding the balance between the two. Ultimately, he decides that he can’t achieve both. The entire point is summed up by Eric Robert’s character, "They’re not going to be afraid of him when they know he has limits." In the end, he decides he can do more good by inspiring fear than inspiring hope, allowing other people to take up that mantle.

His choices lead to escalation, bringing us to the Dark Knight Rises. Here, the theme isn’t so much about inspiration – though he does inspire the people of Gotham to rise up against Bane – but dealing with the consequences of Batman’s decisions.

Looking at the third film, Dr. Langley touched on the subject of whether or not Bruce would give up being Batman for 7 – 8 years. In the films he does just that, but in the comics, he probably wouldn’t, at least not without finding a better way. He would be willing to let Batman "die," as long as it could serve some greater purpose. This is touched on in the third film, though it still doesn’t "fit" with Bruce’s mindset. For example, the Golden Age Batman retired and married Catwoman, but he also became Gotham’s Police Commissioner. This career move allowed him to continue the fight.

In the end, Batman is about the symbol. As Michael Uslan states in his book, The Boy Who Loved Batman, Bruce Wayne died the night his parents died. Bruce Wayne doesn’t exist; Batman was the one who walked away from Crime Alley the night his parent’s were shot. This brought Langley to another common question, "Who is the real character, Bruce Wayne or Batman?"

Langley calls the question a "false dichotomy." There really is not delineation between the two; Bruce Wayne is Batman – he always is Batman. Both the playboy millionaire Bruce Wayne and the symbol of Batman are an act; two sides of the same coin designed to meet different needs. The tie that bonds the two sides is his humanity.

We also see pieces of Batman reflected in his rogue’s gallery. The trait that separates Batman’s villains from other hero’s villains is they are usually defined more by their psychology than their powers. By comparison, Spider-Man’s villains are described more by their powers. There’s the guy with the tentacles; another turns into sand; and another throws bombs that look like Jack ‘o Lanterns and dresses like a goblin. Each has some interesting psychology at play, though the mental aspect is usually secondary.

Batman’s enemies are a clown or a guy with a compulsion to send riddles. Another is an extreme narcissist with an extreme case of "Little Man’s Syndrome." Even if Penguin could lose weight, he wouldn’t. The extra "space" he takes up makes him a "bigger person." The same goes for his top hat. It makes him a bigger person – at least in terms of the space he takes up – and fulfills his psychological desire to be a bigger man. We even see this echoed in his weapon of choice, umbrellas, objects that can be expanded.

We also have someone who loves plants more than people. Probably the more interesting is Harley Quinn, a social chameleon, who redefines herself to match the people around her. She’s more heroic when hanging out with Catwoman or, in the New 52, The Suicide Squad. At the same time, when she’s with the Joker, she recreates herself to fit into that social circle.

Each of these villains has their own psychological traits, but these also distort or reflect aspects of Batman himself. The bright, grinning and laughing of the Joker are opposite Batman’s grim, dark personality. Scarecrow is an amped up version of Batman’s ability to inspire fear. Two Face is both the Playboy and the Monster at the same time. All are connected, weaving a deeper, more humanity laced tapestry which, in the end, is why we connect with Batman.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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