Batman’s weakness isn’t kryptonite, silver, or some otherworldly thing: it’s his own, very human nature. And that’s part of what makes him so compelling.
Sure, Batman sometimes acts as a savior stand-in. But for the most part, he’s not a Messiah figure. He’s us.
– Paul Asay, God on the Streets of Gotham: What the Big Screen Batman Can Teach Us about God and Ourselves
Sometimes I like to imagine “What If…? Carl Jung Had Survived Into Our Modern Day” and if he did, who would be his favourite superhero?
Maybe he found the secret fountain of youth, the cosmic cube or I don’t know, the Tardis, it doesn’t really matter.
The answer of course to who our man Carl’s (the world famous Swiss psychologist) favourite superhero would be is obvious, it would be Batman.
Wait a minute... who the heck is Carl Jung?
Why he's a world famous Swiss Psychiatrist, an explorer of the human psyche, a boffin, a super deep thinker and an all around genius, whose work has influenced not only psychotherapy but the worlds and studies of religion, art and literature and popular culture - that's who.
Joseph Campbell used some of Jung's ideas in his magnum opus "The Hero's Journey". Joseph Campbell was friends with George Lucas, you know that guy who made Star Wars and used Joseph Campbell's theory of the "Hero's Journey" as the model for the way to tell the story. So yeah, now basically ever Superhero film ever uses the work of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, whether they know it or not. A lot of Hollywood writers have actually read and applied "The Writer's Journey - Mythic Structure for Writers" by Christopher Vogler, which is basically a cliff notes version of Jung and Campbells works as applied to screen writing and popular fiction. Batman Begins used the "Hero's Journey" as a model for the mythic structure of the story, and it is a big part of why the movie was so gosh darn awesome.
Carl Gustav Jung often referred to as C. G. Jung, was a Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist who founded analytical psychology.
His work has been influential not only in psychiatry but also in philosophy, anthropology, archaeology, literature, and religious studies. He was a prolific writer, though many of his works were not published until after his death.
The central concept of analytical psychology is individuation—the psychological process of integrating the opposites, including the conscious with the unconscious, while still maintaining their relative autonomy.
Jung considered individuation to be the central process of human development.
Jung created some of the best known psychological concepts, including the archetype, the collective unconscious, the complex, and extraversion and introversion. - Wikipedia
This article then, explorers the mind / psyche of Batman, one of literature's richest, most well developed, popular and resonant characters. It is very long, so I'll forgive you if you don't have the stamina and endurance of Batman to read it on one sitting. But by the time you get to end, your mind muscles will be well exercised.
Of all the costumed adventurers and dual-identity characters, Batman has the most psychological depth to him. Plus, he’s the coolest character in town. He embodies the kind of effortlessly cool and heroic bad boy attitude epitomised by the likes of James Dean and Bruce Lee. Batman exists in the upper echelons of timeless iconic pop-culture figures, and seems destined to remain there. I can see Carl Jung spending five minutes with Superman, then getting rather bored and hanging out for the day with Batman.
Carl Jung put forth many ideas in his numerous volumes of work. One of the more popular ideas was his popularization of concepts such as individuation, a process of healthy integration of the various aspects of one’s psyche, such as the archetypes of the self, which we encounter through the recurring symbolic imagery of archetypal characters, events and motifs. The hero who goes on a quest. The religious figure who goes to hell and heaven, or the underworld and limbo. The mother who raises children and personifies the love of God/Goddess and life energy.
Taken symbolically, rather than literally, Jung’s ideas provide a useful framework for looking at stages of our own life.
Conveniently, those same ideas can be applied to works of popular culture such as novels, films, comic books etc. Anything with a story really -for when we want to explore the depths of a character, the themes in their stories, and see how we relate to them. Not all stories can be viewed in Jungian terms, some stories really just don’t fit that mould. Perhaps Batman doesn’t fit that mould, but Batman is pretty damn cool, and I think I ought to give it a go, for this is not the blog Batman asked for, but the blog that Batman deserves. That is Jung up there on the right and left smoking his pipe and pontificating on the mysteries of the Batman in what I can only imagine would have been a very dull issue of the Brave and the Bold involving too much talk and not enough punching crime in the face.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to Jung’s psychological theories, he was constantly expanding and refining his ideas, adding a bit here, throwing something out there. So there is no sense in being dogmatic about his ideas when discussing and applying them to ourselves and the stories we tell. For the sake of simplicity however, I’ll throw out some basic ideas here, that are generally well known and applied critically to popular film and literature.
But this article is by no means intended to be a definitive explanation of Jung’s ideas on individuation and archetypes nor Batman. It is written as a playful exploration of ideas, and nothing more. Jung's ideas were more of an adaptable framework that has continued to grow and evolve beyond his death, with other writers, theorists and thinkers expanding his ideas and apply them to new fields.
When we talk about the “Hero’s Journey”, then we are are talking about the work of Joseph Campbell, who was a friend and commentator on Jung’s work and theories, so it is only natural that the ideas of the two friends blended together as they are applied in today’s world towards film criticism and theory. Jung specialised in the mind or psyche, and motivations for human behavior, formulating ideas about archetypes or predictable culture free specific patterns that humanity followed in its development through stages of life.
Campbell specialiased in the journey in life that a person, or hero takes, rich with all of life’s symbolic meanings and parallels told through myth and story across many cultures throughout history. That journey or monomyth Campbell described typically involved several stages in a cycle. I’m not going to cover every aspect of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, but just give a brief outline, a further exploration of his ideas will be a topic for another article.
The hero is typically called to adventure, refuses the quest, meets a mentor, and travels beyond the ordinary world into the unknown. This may involve actual travel or not, symbolically the hero journeys into their own mind, to confront death and their greatest fears. Having conquered their fears, they gain some type of power, sometimes a special artifact such as a magical sword or talisman, which symbolises self-knowledge.
The hero returns to the ordinary world to be of service to their community or nation. Heroes who never accept the quest, fail the quest, or complete the quest but do not render service and serve only themselves can be called failed or fallen heroes. Characters such as Darth Vader or Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington’s character in Training Day) are examples of failed heroes, who have failed or abandoned their quest at various stages and given in to their own darkness, refusing to reach full maturity, choosing to serve their own needs, rather than the needs of others.
Carl Jung talked about individuation as being the integration of the various elements of one’s psyche, which include the Ego (surface personality), Persona (the mask we present to the world, our false face of conformity and social obligation) the Shadow (our dark side, all our hidden, naughty or traumatic repressed secrets, feelings and primal life instincts, sex, death, birth). The Self, unified whole that connects consciousness and unconsciousness, it is the light that shines in darkness until it becomes so bright that there is no more darkness, nothing more hidden from awareness. Then there is the Anima and Animus, the aspects of the unconscious mind or true self in males and females.
The Anima is the female part of the male psyche. The Animus is the male part of the female psyche. Ignoring these or any other aspects of ourselves means seeing the opposite sex as objects, or opposites, rather than complementary to one another. The integrated psyche in Jung’s theories is a healthy mind that represses no part of itself, and is fully aware of its various elements, whether literally or symbolically. A mind or person that is at peace with their higher mind or intellect, embraces intuition and heart feelings, feels their emotions deeply, is empowered by their sex and animal instincts. Nothing is hidden or repressed.
Now let us take a look at [Jung’s ] ideas about the individual, as they may apply to a popular fictional character we all know and love who wears a black cape.
Let’s start with the fun stuff. Hands up who remembers Darth Vader? Okay, of course you do, we’re going to talk about him for a bit, hope you don’t mind, we’ll get back to Batman soon enough. Darth Vader provides a good contrast and parallel to Batman of a character who has embraced darkness, but uses it for evil rather than good. What was it that Vader gave into? Too easy, his dark side of course.
The Shadow self in Jung’s theories is the unknown that the hero journeys into when confronting their own subconscious mind. When Luke fought himself in the cave on Dagobah – you know the cave with the fifty dollar smoke machine that somebody left on overnight – he literally was facing his own dark impulses and the part of him that might become like his father. This was one of his greatest fears “I will never become like you Father” or whatever the heck young Skywalker said, it was something along those lines.
Visually, we see Luke fighting Vader in the smoke machine cave, but of course he is fighting his own dark impulses, which he is afraid of. Entering the cave is a metaphor for Luke going into his own subconscious mind. Seems like a waste of time if you ask me, he could have been ridding the galaxy of those annoying Ewoks as Skywalker Pest Control one light-sabre swipe at a time instead of “discovering” himself like a whiny self-indulgent teenager, but let us move on.
Now, this Vader guy of course never completed the hero’s journey, which meant returning from the Shadow and integrating its power into his whole self. If you imagine Vader fighting himself in a dark and cheesy smoke machine cave, well then he lost that battle to his Shadow. Vader never literally fought himself in any of the Star Wars movies of course, I only use that idea here as an example of how Vader gave in to his negative Shadow.
Darth Vader’s Shadow self was all his core values (good and bad) pain, trauma, evil thoughts and intentions, ambitions, and impulses. He gave in to those impulses and let the negative aspect of the Shadow self take over.
Just because Vader was a total bad ass, does not mean that our Shadow is bad or evil. The Shadow is a necessary part of our psyche that represents our individual subconscious mind in the collective unconscious of humanity. The Shadow is neutral like fire or water, you can swim in water and have a great time, or you can drown in it, or be burned by fire instead of cooking a tasty meal for dinner. The Shadow self represents not just the aspects of ourselves we don't like, but unlived life, the things we ought to be doing, the broken dreams we refuse to own and realise. The trick is to know how to harness these natural forces for our own use, rather than get consumed by them or obsessed with the power of our Shadow for its own sake.
While in the case of Vader going over to the dark side meant giving in to the negative side of his Shadow and subconscious mind, it doesn’t have to be that way. Our personal subconscious is also the place of sex, survival and life instincts. Without the primal forces that shape us, life would cease to have meaning. However if we were ruled entirely by these primal forces then we would live as animals, rather than living as free thinking and feeling human beings.
In classic folk tales and psychoanalytic theory, the subconscious mind has been something to be afraid of, a dark depository of everything bad and wrong about us, or at the very least strange, unusual and unpredictable. Take for example Alice in Wonderland, which was originally titled “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground” in the first short version, before the full length story was written. Wonderland was a synonym for “Underland”, meaning the place beneath, or the subconscious mind. The place where dreams and the intuitive spontaneous self have been wrongfully imprisoned out of fear, rather than integrated into a whole healthy individual. Whatever we deny or repress we give power to, and when it erupts like a Volcano into our lives, we are rightly afraid of this torrent of mental “stuff” that seems so unwelcome in one hit, but is better digested in small bite size chunks.
Like playing with fire, if we go messing around in our own mind, we may get burned by the memory of old pains and trauma, reliving it, or at least some would suggest that this is so. It is fair to say that if someone has been through massive trauma – war, poverty, starvation, loss of a family member etc, that the last thing they want to do is go stirring up all the dirt in their mind.
Even the very labels of subconscious or unconscious mind (interchangeable terms, although for this article Jung’s Universal Unconscious implies a vast network of non-physical minds or quantum information that make up the collective potential and knowledge of humanity) implies that is it something unknowable, or below our every day awareness. This is really a fallacy, as any part of our mind is open to us, should we bother looking. The very term unconscious mind creates false beliefs in people that lead them to feel cut off from the very deepest parts of themselves.
Talking to a professional therapist is one valid way to let go and process our emotions in a healthy way, in a safe context free of judgement and fear of reprisal. However, this is rather costly and impractical for most people. Many individuals find their own way to process their own trauma, through meditation, yoga, alternative therapies, encounter groups and numerous other methods with varying results.
The association of the subconscious mind as the storehouse of past trauma, leads us to believe that it is too dangerous to go messing around in by ourselves, hence this is why in mythic tales the hero must follow a mentor or guide so they do not get lost in their journey or burned by the flame of Gnosis or knowledge. However, trauma is not the only reason to explore our own minds.
If we never explore our inner selves, then we are no more human beings than mindless automatons, full of reactions and pre-conceived ideas about life. If we rely only on guides however, if we passively wait for someone to guide us or fix us, we never become mature self-reliant adults. We must become our own hero and explorer of our own minds, if we are to be healthy, sane mature adults.
The subconscious mind is not something to be feared, but embraced, this is a key defining point in Bruce Wayne’s journey to becoming Batman. Bruce learns to make friends of pain, fear and uncertainty. In short he makes the unknown known through the light of introspection and facing ones fear and primal urges and instincts. He joins his most base impulses with wisdom and discipline, becoming a master of his own mind and body. He transforms his own pain and uses it as fuel for awakening to his own greater potential and his quest in life, to become the Batman, and war on crime.
In the example of Darth Vader, he never completed his journey. He stopped at the Shadow self, and embraced that as his new Persona – the face he presented to the world. But he also gave in to the wild energy of the Shadow not just in the outer physical world, but in his heart. Vader was no longer human. He underwent his transformation from a human Jedi warrior into an unthinking and unfeeling cyborg, more man than machine, but this happened first in his own heart, and then his body followed his inner most impulses and desires, to be inhuman, to give up his emotions and feelings.
Vader giving into his Shadow self is symbolic of modern man’s over emphasis on intellect, logic and rational thought, at the expense of all else. The mechanical modern man is a creature of thought and the head, who has cut himself off from the female aspect of heart, emotion, intuition, love and devotion to and respect for all life.
Only when the forces of head and heart combine, are we fully human. Otherwise, like Darth Vader we are denying an essential part of ourselves.
Fear disowned is a destructive choice, both emotionally and spiritually. It leads to all-too-happy spiritualities with beings who seek only the light. Fear starts to drive their being unconsciously. We end up seeking only goodness and pleasantness in order to avoid pain and fear. But this is not the way. The truth is:
“To conquer fear, you must become fear”
Fear owned and embodied is a form of awakening. Batman is therefore a Realizer of Awakening through the form of Fear – Chris Dierkes beamsandstruts.com/
In the comic book story Batman: Ego, writer/artist Darwyn Cooke explores Batman’s Shadow and Egoic self. Bruce has a dialogue with a demonic primal shadow entity that has the face of Batman, minus anything human.
The entity tells hims that he is the very heart of Bruce, not just a persona or costume that he can just take off or walk away from. Bruce refuses the claims and when the Batman entity demands that Bruce give himself over to him, to let him have free reign and kill the Joker, Bruce refuses. The entity then says that he will drive Bruce insane, or alternatively Bruce can kill himself, as the wraith like Bat entity refuses to let go of its hold on Bruce Wayne’s mind.
Bruce begrudgingly realises that the Batman entity is an inescapable part of himself, that cannot be denied or suppressed. However he will not give himself over completely, he will not become a killer and a maniac like the super-villains he hunts. Instead Bruce makes a bargain with the Batman entity (his Subconscious mind, his Shadow) that each will live their part of the life of Bruce Wayne and The Batman. When Bruce puts the mask on he gives himself over to The Batman, the dark primal figure who terrorises criminals in the night. It is basically the same scene where Luke sees Vader (his own fears) in the cave on Dagobah.
In Cooke’s story, Bruce encounters his very real fears symbolically through his Shadow. Realising the undeniable power of his Shadow Bruce Wayne moves through stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance.
He knows his Shadow cannot be denied and instead comes to an acceptance of this part of his psyche. Bruce integrates the aspects of the subconscious that he may have otherwise suppressed and denied or given himself over to and become a killer. He strikes a balance. Without the integration of his Shadow self, Bruce would always be living a lie, torn between two worlds – his desire to be the dutiful son of philanthropists Thomas and Martha Wayne, and his burning desire for vengeance, justice and righting wrongs as Batman. How does Bruce accomplish this integration of his psyche? Through allowing, non-resistance, through willing submission to his own Shadow self, but only on the terms that work for him, thus integrating his Shadow in a positive way, rather than giving in to the negative demands of his Shadow self like Darth Vader did.
Some parts of the tale Ego are a little clumsy, and Cooke is rather critical of his own story in the introduction to the collected edition of Batman: Ego. However, the story is unique, and addresses something that other Batman stories really only hint at by tackling it head on.
Did Bruce Wayne really choose to be Batman, or was he incapable of NOT being Batman?
Were the conditions and forces that drove Bruce Wayne to become Batman too much, was it inevitable that he become Batman. Once Bruce gave himself over to that force, that burning desire to become Batman, could he ever give it up permanently? Was the death of his parents part of some higher order, that orchestrated the creation of Batman as a servant and protector of Gotham. This idea is at the heart of many Batman stories. Some would call it fate, others a calling or simply a mission, Bruce being Batman gives a clear and definite purpose to his life, being Batman makes sense of the chaos his life had become.
Batman means order, structure and routine discipline. Bruce without Batman is a lost soul. This primal conflict makes for suitably dramatic – if not repetitive – stories where Bruce temporarily gives up being Batman, only to return with an almost religious zeal and rejuvenation to continue his war on crime, usually admitting that it was a mistake to walk away from being Batman, or feeling that the city truly needs him, that he is irreplaceable.
In Legends of the Dark Knight #39-40, 1999 by Bryan Talbot in the story "Mask" – Batman is kidnapped by a criminal maniac posing as some type of therapeutic doctor. He drugs Bruce, keeps him in a hospital bed for weeks causing his muscle mass to atrophy. The false Doctor further convinces Bruce that he is an alcoholic homeless man who only imagines that he is a superhero. That Bruce retreats into a fantasy world of his own imagination, having never coped with the death of his parents.
You see the world as meaningless chaos. You feel that you need to impose order. It’s a fundamentally fascist impulse that many people share. When you put on that mask, a different personality takes over. Powerful. Dominant. Able to cope with things. – LOTDK#39
The story is pretty twisted, and really gets into the mind of Bruce Wayne. The two part Mask story has some interesting ideas that give insight into the subjective nature of Batman’s particular brand of madness, or at least possible theories about Batman’s existence. A tormented sedated Bruce Wayne lies helpless in bed while the maniacal manipulating fake doctor tries to convince Bruce even further of his sickness, his fantasy life as Batman.
The doctor torments Bruce with a poor copy of the Batman’s true costume hanging in the corner. A pale Halloween imitation of Batman’s costume that is sad and pathetic, filthy and falling apart at the seams, much like Bruce Wayne’s mind which has gone to pieces in his desperate struggle in the hospital bed. Bruce struggles to find some semblance of self, to make order of the chaos he finds himself in.
The monologue from the fake doctor continues, giving the reader a convenient capsule meta-analysis of Batman as a mythic figure, and making us, the reader question if this really is Batman / Bruce Wayne or someone else altogether. The fake doctor sews seeds of doubt in both Bruce’s mind and the mind of the reader, making for a brief but deliciously demented two-issue tale:
“Did you know that the word “Persona” originally meant “Mask”? According to Jung, this is the personality assumed by an individual in adaptation to the outside world. There’s your mask Bruce, and you didn’t make it just to hide your face. Some masks were used in battle to frighten the enemy. What that your idea with this one?
Some are symbols of deep religious or personal belief systems. They could transform an ordinary person into a supernatural being. In Africa, people saw their fellow tribesmen transformed into spirits, demons, animals. Australian aboriginal “Bush Soul” masks conferred to the wearer the power of the animal or bird they represented.
When you put on your mask, a different personality takes over. Why choose a bat?
Something from your childhood I’ll bet. But it’t not that simple. The bat represents darkness. It’s associated with witchcraft, black magic, vampirism.
In Christian mythology it is “the bird of the Devil”, an incarnation of the prince of darkness. Satan is often depicted with bats’ wings. Do you see what I’m getting at? Batman is your dark side, your negative side.”
Of course, Batman inevitably triumphs in the story, but not without the aid of a nurse (whom he hallucinates is Catwoman) who takes him off the various drugs and sedatives that kept Bruce weakened in a fugue state, and more susceptible to the suggestion of the angry vindictive fake Doctor. The fake doctor/criminal feels that Batman made him a victim and blames Batman for the death of his parents, even though in fact it was the mob who killed his parents after his father became an informant for Batman.
The potential danger of analysis is that the analyzer often makes erroneous assumptions about their patient, they look at little pieces and assume they understand the whole. Another character who tried to analyse and understand Bruce Wayne / Batman was Dr. Hugo Strange, who has popped up infrequently throughout Batman’s history, right from the very earliest stories. Dr. Strange (no relation to Marvel) made various assumptions about Batman, many of them completely wrong.
The problem with another person viewing Batman is that they assume that Batman is like them, but he is not. Rather than viewing our heroes and assuming they are “like us”, instead we can look at Batman and assume that he is not like us, that he is more psychologically together than we might suspect, and lives at a whole other level compared to us average Joe’s. This erroneous assumption proved to be Hugo Strange’s undoing, at least in the early stories, eventually Hugo got his revenge in later stories where he dressed up and tried to become Batman himself.
The two part story in Legends of the Dark Knight #39-40 is a good deconstruction of the various elements of Batman. It breaks him down and builds him up in two brief issues, managing to competently explore Batman/Bruce’s psyche without over staying its welcome nor being too philosophical or preachy for the reader. It was typical of the LOTDK title which aimed to do something different than the usual monthly marathon of punching crime in the face and finding clues that conveniently were there like bread crumbs to be found only by Batman.
Legends of the Dark Knight was a more cerebral, intelligent title, the thinking persons Batman if you will, that often dealt with more mythic elements of the character, with stories that mainly focused on his early years. LOTDK managed to tell tales that were deeply engrossing and thankfully avoided being pretentious. The stories in LOTDK also tend to be more timeless than the regular multi-part monthly books and all too often big event crossovers that are like junk food to readers – exciting at first, but ultimately shallow and unsatisfying, with rare exception.
Where Vader gave himself over to his negative Shadow self, and became the Persona of Darth Vader, Bruce Wayne gives himself over to the positive Shadow self, he uses the power of dark forces, but remains in his heart, a good moral and sane man. He may not think of himself as a good man, but his actions say otherwise.
He knowingly became a self-invented urban legend and myth, the Caped Crusader, Dark Knight Detective, the Guardian of Gotham, a Sentinel of Justice and virtue. Unlike Vader, Wayne journeys into his Shadow and returns, having mastered the power of the Shadow and integrated this part of his psyche into himself. Whether Hugo Strange, the Scarecrow or the fake doctor/criminal from the Mask story, Batman proves himself time and again to be mentally stronger than his adversaries had anticipated, and it is usually leads to their undoing.
Over the years Batman has worn may costume variants, and specialised suits, he adapts to the task at hand, appearing in different forms in different times. His metamorphosis is ongoing, some say Bruce Wayne wears a mask, others say that Batman is the man, and Bruce Wayne the mask of normality. From time to time that mask of sanity slips, and perhaps even Bruce Wayne does not know whether he is really the Man or the Bat.
Bruce Wayne wears many masks and displays multiple personas. There is the rich irresponsible playboy on display for the public. There is the Batman who punches crime in the face and creates terror in the hearts of criminals. His irresponsible undisciplined Playboy behavior as Bruce discredits the idea that Wayne could ever be Batman.
Batman is sleek and refined, like a jungle cat. Wayne is sloppy and obnoxious, lending further credit to Bruce Wayne’s acting abilities.
Then there is Bruce Wayne behind closed doors, perhaps sans Persona. Bruce Wayne in the Batman costume, with his cowl and mask removed sitting in his Batcave, usually in front of a bank of monitors and screens – neither fully Bruce nor fully Batman, but a third hybrid personality. Is this his true personality? Is this the ‘self’ that he subjectively feels he is, behind closed doors, when nobody else is watching?
In Legends of the Dark Knight #1-5, 1990 by Denny ‘O Neil, the story Shaman, deals literally with the power of masks, personas, transformation and the channeling of unknown mythic powers unto the bearer of a totem mask. In the Shaman story Bruce Wayne is critically injured and near death during his travels, he is taken in and nursed by a Shaman and his grand-daughter.
The Shaman heals Bruce by telling him a story, the story is a magic ritual to access the hidden powers of the universe. Bruce Wayne recovers, but is baffled how he could have survived or how could he be healed by a story. Wayne is a man of Science, and the Shaman state is beyond him. In later Batman stories over the years, we see Batman meditating, or journeying willingly to deaths door via Tibetan death meditations. We also see him practice Yogic disciplines such as the slowing down of all bio-rhythms including the heart to near death to survive in low oxygen environments, a handy trick for Batman’s inevitable escape from the death trap of the week.
But Batman’s Yoga/Meditation derived abilities are of a different order than the Shaman’s healing powers, which leaves him with no frame of reference for how a healing of life ending injuries could be possible. The story later continues in Gotham with some maniac wearing a similar mask to the healing mask causing trouble in Gotham, and some other guy with yet another mask that seems to have a hypnotic power over people. The details don’t matter so much, it is a fun read and one that is certainly under-appreciated, if a little confusing.
A key scene (which takes place during Batman’s early years) takes place when Batman tracks down the medicine man / Shaman years later to see what the connection may be to the maniac running around Gotham in the healing mask. He finds the medicine mas has lost the old ways and become an alcoholic, to the shame of his grand-daughter. He still manages to tell Bruce a piece of timely advice however: “Wear the mask. Become the mask”.
The Shaman hints at the totem/animal connection of Bruce as Batman, and the possibility that his mask has more power than he yet knows. The Shaman also seems to have a sixth sense, how does the Shaman know that Bruce wears any kind of mask, is he just guessing? No matter how the Shaman knows, it is a powerful scene in the story, and adds a little more to Batman’s inspiration than just the bat flying through the window.
While Batman has been involved with various potential female love interests over the decades – Silver St Cloud, Vicki Vale, Julie Madison, Kathy Kane, Nocturna – perhaps the most significant female throughout his masked crime fighting career has been Catwoman. Catwoman may be seen as a representation of Batman’s Anima (the feminine aspect of a male psyche). The various models Bruce Wayne dates are distractions, part of the public mask of Bruce Wayne, and never serious love interests. The models are far too mundane for a man who is equal parts James Bond, Sherlock Holmes and Zorro.
A man who dresses up in a fetish like costume would naturally be more attracted to a female who also dresses up in costume, and is not afraid to fight with Batman, nor to exist in his night time world, the seedy underbelly of Gotham, away from the prissy daytime glamour of Bruce’s false love interests. But Bruce can never fully embrace Catwoman due to his morality, and Catwoman’s immorality. She is a criminal, he lives to end criminals. If Catwoman were to reform and give up her cat burglarly jewel stealing habits, Batman could conceivably have a deeper relationship with her. But Batman would have to give up something to have a relationship with Catwoman also, whether he gave up being Batman altogether, or spent less total time fighting crime would mean compromise. And Batman doesn’t do compromise, it undermines his whole work ethic and values, perhaps if he retired around age 40-50 and one of the various Robins took over as Batman, he may have a chance to fulfill the parts of his life he denies himself.
A relationship where Selina Kyle (Catwoman) would be part of both of Bruce’s worlds. The night time adventures of Batman and Catwoman, and the day time romance of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. The only other significant woman over Batman’s long career who could truly match him is perhaps Tali Al Ghul. Talia, daughter of the relatively insane Ra’s Al Ghul (Batman’s most maniacal Bond-like villain with a plan to wipe out most of the world’s population to save the planet) had a passionate on again/ off again affair with Batman starting in the fan favourite 1970s Denny ‘O Neil / Neal Adams run.
The trouble with Talia is that she is allied with her criminal father, and is a criminal herself, the same basic conflict that prevents Bruce from being with Catwoman also applies to Talia. Batman’s morality is absolute and uncompromising in his modern stories. In the graphic novel Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia Batman hunts a young criminal girl who has murdered several people who abused/harmed her. When he finds the girl has invoked the protection right of Wonder Woman through the pact of Hiketeia, Batman doesn’t care and attacks Wonder Woman and continues his pursuit of the girl, whom he can only see as a criminal.
In some stories Talia al Ghul is less a criminal and more aligned with Bruce Wayne’s values, such as in the Elseworlds tale Batman: League of Batmen. A near future sees Ra’s Al Ghul at least partially successful in killing off most of the worlds population (including Batman, whose corpse Ra’s keeps as a trophy). The son of Batman fights to reclaim the mantle of the Bat from Ra’s Al Ghul, who has turned his league of Assassins into a League of Batmen, trained killers who enforce his will wherever he directs them. Talia in this story fights back against her increasingly insane father with the aid of her and Batman’s son.
Superhero stories where the hero gets married and lives happily ever after mostly don’t work. Those ideas work fine in a self-contained story, but not in ongoing comics stories such as Superman, Spider-Man and Batman. Spider-Man and Superman both have been married, and then eventually separated as the stories suffer when the character is married, and the writer is forced to derail the story to include domestic scenes of sitting on the couch watching television.
Nobody wants to read superhero comics with their action heroes sitting on the couch. Unless there is a market for a Big Brother comic book with a bunch of idiots in a house who have super-powers, I don’t think we will see a demand to marry off more heroes. The same basic idea applies to James Bond. You can have the one true love, or the wedding story, but basically those stories are only there to turn bad and provide motivation to the main character, which is lazy cliched writing at best, and downright sexist at worst.
Batman is a deeply engaging character, the multiple interpretations through film, video-games, animation and other media are a testament to the strength of the basic design and themes of the character. You can run Batman through many different filters, different theories and perspectives that may or may not lead to a deeper understanding of the character. The strength of Batman is that he defies categorisation, but it is still interesting to explore the ideas that make up this popular fictional character.
Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell’s ideas were just theories. However popular they may be, popularity alone does not make them into some unshakable truth. If something such as truth exists, then perhaps it is flowing, living and dynamic, rather than static, fixed and unchanging. One of the few truths we may come to know is that we are alive, we exist and we grow. If life is growth, then how can truth ever be static, fixed and unchanging. If Life is truth, then truth should also be constantly evolving and growing. This is the problem of trying to conceptualise the unknowable in a few words, with limited human perceptions through the medium of language.
Ultimately however we describe reality, we are only using symbols, if we remember that we are using symbols, then we need not get lost in arguments over whose symbol is more important or more true, so we can playfully explore reality through different filters, that some may call beliefs, ideas, values, theories etc. The more different filters we are able to apply to our own lives, the more contrasting perspectives we are able to hold at one time, the larger our mental picture of reality grows, however it is still only symbolic of the whole of reality and not definitive.
Is Batman a kind of truth? I really don’t know if he is, I just know that I experience very real feelings and emotions reading the comics and watching the movies, and I share many of his most sacred values.
Persistence… Determination… an IRON-WILL forged in the heart of self-knowledge
Let us just imagine for a moment for arguments sake that Batman is a kind of truth, if he represents some dark and primal archetypal force that is embedded within the hearts and minds, DNA, cells and ancestral memories of humanity, then I suggest the idea that he is a flowing dynamic constantly changing and evolving truth. I don’t see him as a static figure, even though he may appear on a comic page, he is full of life and motion.
Batman may be a truth that is open to multiple valid simultaneous interpretations. The more he expands as a cultural idea as fiction, fable and myth, the more he is consciously explored, the more we learn about ourselves. How our values en masse and as individuals are reflected in him. How the emphasis of his stories changes with the times, within the multiple competing cultural narratives, while something of the character, some core element… that is almost indefinable… remains.
What does this all this airy-fairy jibber jabber mean? In simple terms we always recognise Batman, no matter what permutations (changes and transformations) he goes through. Whether on the comic book page, the big screen or the little screen, the idea of Batman is so strong that he punches through the comic panels to pull our attention into his world. Somehow when we read the flat two dimensional pages of a comic book, an imaginary character comes to life within our own minds. We care about whether he is victorious in his war on crime, we feel his pain and defeats, we enjoy the vicarious thrill when he escapes a hopelessly desperate situation.
Batman is an idea that refuses to go away, at 75 years young, he only gets stronger and more popular. Let us take a brief look at how the various elements of Batman come together, his character, his values and his journey from man to urban pop-cultural mythic figure.
Batman remains a timeless engaging character, a self-made man who reminds us of our own core values, or lack of values. His bold nature and contrary nature force us to see him in a particular view. To encounter Batman is to encounter our own morality or lack thereof reflected back at us. Unlike Superman who was basically born Superman, Batman became Batman by choice through hard work, persistence, determination and sheer will power.
All good values for people who dare to live the best life they can imagine for themselves. Rather than being impractical, tough minded determination and an iron will combined with an unshakable morality are highly practical qualities to cultivate in a confused world of rapidly changing values. The world needs people of good moral character to be leaders and figures of every day inspiration in their own communities. It already has its share of dictators and people who try to change the world through bending others to their will, rather than co-operation.
Developing a good moral character may seem old fashioned and boring, it sure isn’t sexy or exciting. It means hard work and discipline. It means not giving up when times get tough. It means standing for something in this world and staying the course through this storm and the next. Many people will just go along with the crowd for fear of standing on their own two feet. But not Batman, he stands as a shining example of what one man can accomplish through hard work, an iron will, intelligent training, persistence and determination and service to humanity. He is an inspirational and mythic figure who transcends the boundaries of the comic book pages he was born in.
Batman inhabits a strange and wonderful comic book world where time is more fluid and aging has little effect. Where the laws of physics are perhaps a little different, where a city can reflect the twisted psyche of its criminally insane as well as its flawed Guardian.
A world where a bold adventurer can jump off of roof tops repeatedly without destroying his patella or connective joint tissue and tendons, and where life threatening injuries are conveniently healed by the next chapter in the story. A world where multiple versions of characters exist, characters run into their own evil twins or doppelgangers, time travel is common place and one’s thoughts can be read as thought balloons and speech bubbles by people from another dimension looking down into your world.
The Batman is a fear inspiring figure, he wears horn-like pointed bat ears upon his cowl that in silhouette give him the resemblance of a devil or demonic figure. He dresses primarily in dark colours, to better blend in with the night and shadows. His cape is a clear inversion of the gaudy 4-color superhero archetype, black often being the colour worn by villains in Hollywood movies and popular fiction, he also exists as the counterpoint to Superman’s sunny cheerfulness and bright costume.
The dark cape is perhaps one of the most direct references to Zorro, Dracula and The Shadow. Shadows and the night time have long been often associated with the unknown, and danger. To be in complete darkness IS dangerous, as without a source of light, we can trip, fall and even die from injuries. Thus Batman’s costume itself taps into out very primal, and very real fears, while Superman’s bright primary colours are more reassuring and comforting. Fear can be purely irrational and confusing, and also keep us alive in the face of real physical dangers, a fact Batman knowingly uses against his foes.
The Batman’s eyes also were intentionally made into small white slits (rather than eyeballs) at the suggestion of Bill Finger. To give him even more of an other wordly appearance, he seems to be less than human, and more of a wraith like demon in a cape. The white eyes would become a key visual feature of the character through the decades, giving him an almost instant mythic look. His pointy ears, cape and spiked gloves mean he is always recognisable in silhouette, an important feature when designing iconic characters. Matt Wagner makes good use of the Batman’s iconic face on the cover to Batman/Grendel: Devil’s Bones Book #1.
Character designers in animation and comics typically (though not always) make their characters recognisable in silhouette form, see how many characters you can recognise in the chart below. I got all of them except for that character in the bottom right corner.
While Batman is a character of extreme moral virtue and discipline, his early appearances portray him as a somewhat sloppy avenger with a devil-may-care attitude regarding death (both his own potential death and his enemies) and violence. He would spend all his efforts busting into a villains lair then get caught in a convenient and ridiculous death trap. His powers of concentration so focused on his inevitable escape from the death trap that a presumably fatigued Batman would then clumsily stumble into the path of an oncoming bullet. So much for training and preparation. This was not yet the near invincible Batman that would be encountered over the years.
In his early days Batman had not yet learned how to dodge bullets, a feat he accomplishes at a near superhuman level in the modern comics. Notably, in his earliest appearances, Batman matter of factly killed his adversaries, frequently by shoving them over railings in abandoned factories, or out of second story windows. One of those criminals of course became the Joker. Whoops. If he had gone to prison instead of being shoved carelessly into a chemical vat, we the reader would have no Joker stories to enjoy. Batman’s careless actions in this case unwittingly created not only his greatest villain, but gave us years of memorable stories to enjoy.
In Batman #1, 1939 Batman fights Hugo Strange and his giant monster men, one of the monster men is cruelly hung from the Bat-gyrocopter, yet another machine gunned to death by Batman in an crop duster style plane. Batman coldly commenting that it “was probably for the best”. No mercy is given by this grim avenger. Given that the monster men were mindless beasts, it seems a rather cruel and unusual fate to have been hung by the Batman, an execution method usually reserved for law breakers, not mindless possibly mentally ill monsters genetically engineered by a madman.
The point may be argued whether the monster men were human at all, they had human DNA, large humanoid bodies and were closer to human beings than say Chimpanzees or Gorillas. Killing them may have been cruel, but possibly not murder if they were not truly human.
The changing morality of Batman over the years has muddied how various writers and fans interpret and argue about the character. Two things seemed to have remained though, after that initial year where all bets were off. Batman doesn’t kill (which mainly applies to human beings, but does NOT apply to robots, animals, A.I., viruses, fungi, bacteria, and some alien species) and he doesn’t use or like guns.
However at times Batman has used gun like devices that do other things like shock people for instance, and in a couple of oddly out of place stories years later, he did use guns again several times. The other exceptions of course are Elseworlds stories and imaginary stories, again, where all bets are off. So Batman doesn’t kill, unless he does, and he does not use guns…. except for the times that he did use guns. Confused yet? Good, let’s move on then.
Batman is a self-invented myth, created intentionally by a man who manipulates the psyche of criminals and average Joe’s alike. Being an intentionally manufactured mythic figure however, takes away nothing of the effect he has on Gotham City and its citizens. He does not disrespect the power of myth, so much as tap into myth as another tool in his crusade against crime and injustice. What would Carl Jung think of Batman’s early days as a bit of a maniac who dressed up like a Bat and killed people? His community service and war on crime was not very effective in his early years either.
Is Batman a schizophrenic? There is a popular seventeen page article on the internet which suggests so, in reference to the 1989 Batman movie. The article is titled “Put on a Happy Face: Batman as Schizophrenic Savior” by Robert E. Terrill and is well worth reading. Batman later reformed of course, and from then on it was no killing, no guns.
Would Carl Jung see this as evidence of a man who was starting to develop his morality as an adult, and move beyond mere reactionary fascist fantasy behavior of trying to control the external world? Or would Jung see Batman as a man-child who had never recovered from his child hood trauma? Who acts out in the only way he knows how, by retreating within himself, creating a Persona that is bold and powerful, while Bruce the man hides his weakness and pain, beneath the mask of the Titan of Gotham.
Batman taps into the vain of the universal unconscious and archetypes that Carl Jung frequently talked about in Jungian Psychology, that primal part of human beings that responds to images, symbols and mythology. The part of us that inherently recognises mythic figures for what they are in a very raw, visceral, immediate and undeniable fashion.
It is one of the reasons Batman works best as a comic book character, and less so in films and other adaptations. Even with no knowledge of the character, to see the comic book art of Batman is to encounter a physically dynamic, kinetic explosive force of living shadow and dream. A dark monster from the corner of your eye, a figment of your imagination given bold and vibrant life on a two dimensional pulp inspired plane. A crusading avenger of extreme morality and ‘goodness’, who fights the good fight and has the courage of his convictions.
But take away the preparation, strategising, gadgets, tech, wealth and resources of Batman, and you just have a guy who never gives up. His iron will is so strong he WILL beat you no matter what you throw at him. No matter how many times you knock Batman down, he just keeps getting up. No matter how impossible the situation Batman refuses to back down or give up hope.
Has Batman completed the Hero’s Journey? I don’t know, perhaps he has not. Perhaps he is a psychologically damaged individual who is deeply flawed but does the best he can. Perhaps we love him for his flaws as much as his strengths. He may not be an ideal role model, but he sure does embody many good qualities, values and morals. Most heroes have some kind of flaw, Batman just has more than his fair share.
I don’t know that anyone can ever have the final word on Batman, as his character is still growing, his stories are still being told. You could argue that he doesn’t fit into Carl Jung’s ideas, because Jung’s ideas in recent decades were basically hijacked and applied to fictional characters, in ways that perhaps he did not intend when he originally conceived them for actual human beings.
With the popular Denny ‘O Neil Batman we get a tortured soul racked with grief and guilt over the events of his life and choices he has made. In the Grant Morrison version of Batman he is more of a Zen-Yogi-Warrior, a being who lives in the present moment and adapts to his every changing environment. In some stories Batman is a globe trotting manly James Bond with no regrets, in others he is a near manic-depressive racked with guilt over the death of his parents.
Is one version of Batman more valid than another? Which is the real Batman, the Batman in the comics or the Batman in live action films? The Batman in the Arkham Asylum video games or the Batman in the various animated cartoons, or the Batman from the old no-budget movie serials? No version of Batman is truly definitive, because Batman is all of these ideas and more, his whole is more than the sum of his parts.
Some writers and artists leave more of an influence on him than others, but each contribute to a greater canvas. A giant constantly evolving multidimensional Batman mosaic that defies categorization, triumphantly blazing through the collective minds of humanity.
Like a freight train at full speed, to encounter the Batman on the comic page is to find a relentless unstoppable force who bursts right off the page and into your mind, and once there, refuses to leave. He is the real life “Inception”, as are all mythic figures who lodge themselves in the very depths of our collective and personal psyches, and stubbornly refuse to leave no matter our emphasis on scientific material progress. Our disbelief in magic and imaginary super powers is strangely at odds with our heart felt desire to possess real magic and powers.
Perhaps the most relatable aspects of Batman are not just his self-realisation through training, the self-made man of hard work and discipline, who, with a bit of hard work and applied effort we could become more like if we chose to. Inspiring a figure as he is, what keeps him grounded and relatable to kids, adults, movie goers, readers, fans, academics, working class stiffs and others is that Batman is deeply flawed. He is a bit of a mess, at times he is confused and conflicted, we see something of ourselves in him. He is not invincible like Superman, a bullet can kill him, but his real wounds are deep psychological wounds over his failures in life.
He makes all sorts of bone headed mistakes, goes back to the drawing board and starts again. He is bull-headed, stubborn and frequently cuts himself off from human contact, to his own detriment. Batman’s character flaws and suffering help make him more sympathetic and human.
He is neither man nor god, but somewhere in between. In training his mind and body, he transcends ordinary human limitations. But unlike Superman to whom the impossible is the every day, Batman shows us the way to be who we truly are. Neither demon nor saint, hero nor villain, but a real person of angst and joy, pain and pleasure, light and dark, with nothing denied, every part of us owned, embraced and welcomed.
Batman is not Superman. Batman is deeply flawed and in his own words “Not a good person”.
Batman fits right in with the rest of us. Sometimes he seems hardly the same superhero. One decade he’s a dark loner, the next he’s a veritable family man, surrounded by batwomen, batgirls, and batpets. In one graphic novel, he’s a wreck, torn asunder by compulsion and neurosis. In another, he’s a rock, a pillar of goodness and virtue. You’re never quite sure what you’re going to get with Batman – just like us
– Paul Asay, author of God on the Streets of Gotham