Bruce Wayne walks apprehensively through the gentle fall of autumnal leaves, clutching flowers with the intent of leaving them at his mother's memorial. When he approaches the gravestone, a thick, scarlet liquid seeps through the cracks. A demon, surrounded by bats, crashes through the stone, abruptly waking Bruce from his stupor.
He sits up, a semi-naked and nameless woman is laying next to him. Then he picks up a box of pills, washing them down with a glass of wine — a stark reminder that the man behind Batman, the playboy behind the Caped Crusader, is a tormented soul. But just how tormented is Batman? Is Ben Affleck's DCEU incarnation more damaged than those before him? What lies in the depths of his troubled mind?
Many have picked up on the change of behavior with the DCEU's Batman, a version of the character who brands criminals before putting them in prison and disregards his long standing no-gun rule. This could simply be one way of interpreting the character. Or, there could be a significant and understandable difference that separates this Batman from all of those before him.
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The psychological makeup of the character is intriguing. Unlike many of the comic book world's most beloved superheroes, the Dark Knight has no superpower. He's a genius billionaire, who was orphaned from a young age and used his parents' murder as motivation to fight crime. All the while dressed as a bat. Granted, such actions are unusual, but does the character suffer from a mental disorder? Or is this a rational response within the paradigm of Gotham?
Before trying to understand the DCEU's darker, murderous Batman, first it's important to look at the history of the character's ever-changing psyche. Although he made his debut in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, both early comic strips, initial series and the '60s TV series didn't explicitly explore his mental state, or go out of their way to present any indication there was anything wrong. Instead, the focus will be primarily on the cinema versions of the Caped Crusader, which over time have provided a little more insight.
The Many Masks Of Batman
Following Frank Miller's uncompromising 1986 series, The Dark Knight Returns, the character appeared on the big screen in an similar noir backdrop in Tim Burton's Batman (1989). Here, the distinction between Bruce Wayne and Batman was highlighted, helped in part by Michael Keaton's inspired idea to give the Caped Crusader and deeper, more intimidating voice, and his portrayal of an unassuming and socially awkward Bruce Wayne. Keaton achieved the same again in Batman Returns (1992).
Although generally regarded as a poor instalment, the lighthearted Batman Forever (1995) was the first feature to openly explore the psychology behind Bruce Wayne's behavior, including Nicole Kidman as psychologist and love interest Dr. Chase Meridian. After witnessing the murder of Dick Greyson's family, Bruce becomes haunted by flashbacks of his parents' death, which he had repressed deep into the crevices of his mind.
In his comprehensive book on the character's psyche, Batman and Psychology, psychologist Travis Langley Ph.D explains that originally, the screenplay for Batman Forever included a scene where a Bruce Wayne reads his father's journal and discovers that, had he not insisted, his parents would've stayed in on the fateful night of his death. This leads to Bruce blaming himself for their murder.
The next film to really delve into the psychology of Batman was Christopher Nolan's gritty and grounded Dark Knight trilogy. Starting with Batman Begins (2005), Nolan introduced a new mental component: Fear. Batman has to both face his own fear while attempting to prevent Scarecrow from spreading his fear inducing toxin on Gotham City.
Through The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Christian Bale's Batman struggles with his relationship with altruism, questioning whether he is doing the right thing, and goes into hiding after he takes the blame for Harvey Dent's crimes for the greater good. Nolan's trilogy is deeply grounded in reality, and focuses on the many faces of Bruce.
Langley identifies three separate roles for Bruce, highlighted by the Dark Knight trilogy: "the reckless billionaire playboy," "the symbol who must be more than a man" and the "flesh-and-blood mortal his surrogate father Alfred knows best." He also believes that the Bruce shown with Alfred in the Batcave is the truest form of the character, away from his vigilantism or playboy lifestyle.
Robin S. Rosenberg Ph.D., author of What's the Matter With Batman?, also notes that although Bruce has many different roles, they do generally meld into one. She told Movie Pilot:
"I think it depends on how you see his 'real' persona. He is the serious crimefighter whether he is wearing the cape or not. Just as a parent is always 'mom' or 'dad' even when at work, that central person is always there."
Bruce's Motivation To Fight Crime: The Murder Of His Parents
Although there are many incarnations of the character, there are some elements that remain the same. Most importantly, Bruce Wayne's motivation for fighting crime, which is ignited when he witnesses his parents' murder in front of his very own eyes. Creator Bob Kane deliberately chose this scenario, as there is "nothing more traumatic" than losing ones parents, especially in that situation.
Langley concurs, referencing Holme’s and Rhae’s Social Readjustment Rating Scale, which places the death of a parent at the top of stress inducing life events. He also mentions the "survivor guilt" that Bruce could face, comparing him to Spider-Man, an orphan whose guardian, Uncle Ben, was murdered. Conversely, though he also lost both of his parents, Superman is spared of survivor guilt as he is an infant when they die.
Focusing on Bruce, though, leads to some interesting psychological insight on how his traumatic start in life affected him. Langley cites the Kübler-Ross model, a well-known and widely accepted theory on grief in stages — ranging from denial, anger, bargaining, depression then finally acceptance. Interestingly, Bruce displays his resolute nature following his parents' death, jumping straight to the acceptance stage (as well as some understandable anger).
In psychology, this motivated response to trauma is often referred to as meaning-making, whereby survivors of great trauma channel their grief, or sadness, into the greater good. When Bruce witnesses his parents' death, he instantly diverts his attention to the need to fight crime, leading him on to his colorful vigilante lifestyle. So if Bruce appears to have dealt with early trauma in an admirable way, does this mean he isn't suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
Although Batman does show some signs of PTSD — such as recurring nightmares and regularly re-experiencing the traumatic event — Langley doesn't believe he is suffering from PTSD, or any other mental disorder for that matter. Speaking to Movie Pilot, he said:
"As Batman is usually depicted, he shows some symptoms of PTSD, especially re-experiencing the traumatic event more than other people might, but he doesn’t quite show a full set. We have to evaluate him by his own priorities when we judge whether or not his performance is impaired, and when it comes to fighting crime, nobody’s better than Batman."
Furthermore, Rosenberg backs up this view. She said:
"Does Batman have PTSD? It depends on which version of Batman you’re talking about. In general, though, he does not seem to suffer from it."
That's it then, case closed. Batman is a functioning, albeit in eclectic ways, but he's not suffering from PTSD or a mental disorder. But wait a minute, what about the DCEU? Well, here's where things change.
Batman In The DCEU: A Darker Knight
Up until Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and aside from a few comic book series, Langley and Rosenberg both agree that Batman is of healthy mind. Yet Zack Snyder's DCEU offering showed a different side to the character. Ben Affleck's Batman is older, weary and jaded. He brands villains and doesn't hesitate to break his no-kill rule. He drinks alcohol and appears to be facing a losing battle against his inner rage. And one event could've changed everything.
A big influence on Batman's psyche is the death of Jason Todd. His defaced suit hangs in the Batcave, a constant reminder to Bruce of his friend's death. Could this incident, more than his parents' death, have damaged the DCEU Batman's frame of mind? Langley believes this may be the case. He highlights the impact the death of Todd has in the comics:
"He functions poorly right after Jason Todd dies. His anger gets in the way. He gets injured more, sleeps worse than usual, and he’s not doing well until Tim Drake comes along to help him focus."
The same event, playing out on screen, could have the same impact. Langley adds:
"One way to explain his changes in BvS would be to look at how PTSD can change a person. The changes can be drastic. He’s functioning better now than he probably was right after movie-Jason died, but still it changed him."
The events of Batman v Superman would've only damaged Batman's frame of mind even more. He's faced with the supernatural, clashes with Superman, and witnesses the spiralling of events that he struggles to control. It looks like all hope may be lost for Ben Affleck's Batman. But some stories do have a happy ending, and this could be on of them.
The Justice League And Meaning-Making: Does Batman Have Restored Hope?
We've delved into the murky depths of the mind of Batman, but eventually, it becomes apt to look for the light at the end of the tunnel. The DCEU has undoubtedly portrayed a sombre interpretation of the Caped Crusader, but that doesn't mean he has to stay that way. For Bruce, history may be repeating itself in a way that helps him rediscover his motivation to serve the greater good.
As discussed earlier, Langley references the psychological theory of meaning-making when talking about Bruce's response to his parents' murder. A similar situation occurs following the tragic death of Superman in BvS. Bruce is initially saddened, but he again channels his energy into a new project: The Justice League. Considering the lighter tone of the film's trailer, it appears that Bruce is reinvigorated in his quest of forming the superhero team.
Although originally fearful of the supernatural, his team-up with Wonder Woman and Superman has given him renewed faith. He's battle hardened and tired from years of fighting bad guys, but Bruce now realizes he's not alone, and better still, his new companions have superpowers to aid their mission.
The Dark Knight trilogy focused on fear, and Batman's redemption. In its own way, the DCEU will explore Bruce's own personal, psychological journey. Is it too dark? Is Batman a troubled superhero? Or is this a story of a man overcoming his grief, facing his fears, realizing that he's not alone and realizing that their is hope?
After all, it's all about perspective.
Did you enjoy Ben Affleck's darker version of Batman?
(Source: Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight by Travis Langley Ph.d, What's the Matter With Batman? by Robin S. Rosenberg Ph.D)