The Psychological Fascination with Batman

How very different are the world’s of Superman and Batman. Superman inhabits the heavenly realm of Apollo, assuggested by the iconic image of him flying through the sky. He even comes to Earth, from somewhere in the heavens, the planet Krypton. Superman is really a demigod. He is a mythic expression of the hope, that many people have, of a savior who will bring come to the rescue of the weak, in the name of justice.

Batman, on the other hand, doesn’t possess superpowers. Thus, unlike Superman, he is not a demigod, but a mortal being. That is what makes him a hero. Batman inhabits a much different world than Superman. His is not realm of Apollo, but the dark underworld of Pluto. Everything about Batman suggests bats, caves, and the dark depths. The name of the most recent Batman film, Dark Knight (2008), suggests that he inhabits that realm.

On those evenings, when he sees the bat signal flash across the sky — indicating that Gotham City needs his help — Batman returns to those subterranean depths to fight crime. He does so not because he has been condemned to be there, like a denizen of Dante’s Inferno. On the contrary, he returns there, for it is his mission to battle evil in that hellish realm.

It has rightly been said that clothes make the man. Superman’s outfit is an inspiring red, yellow and blue, not far afield from the colors of the American flag. Batman’s bat costume is a lot more somber looking and is intended to be frightening to criminals. In so far as what we wear reflects our inner being, Batman’s garb suggests that there is something dark about him. This theme is hinted at, but not really explored in the Batman comic books and films. Indeed, Batman never becomes the type of antihero that finds expression in the noir detective novels and films of the 1940s and 1950s. The suggestion, in any case, is that to spend one’s life in the underworld, one must become a bit dark oneself.

Interestingly enough, in the recent Batman film Dark Knight, the crime-fighting district attorney, Harvey Dent, does become corrupted, terribly so, expressing the truth of Nietzsche’s maxim “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become one.” Perhaps, then, DA Dent is a foil for Batman, for to not become corrupted one must be not just a man, but a saint.

1939: A Dark Year

It makes sense that the comic book hero Batman was created by Bob Kane in 1939. For that was a time when millions of soldiers were leaving America to fight abroad, in the darker climes of Europe and Asia. And they were fighting very dark, deadly foes, the Nazis and the Japanese. Like those soldiers, Batman was there not because he wanted to be — for America could have avoided entering the war, at least for a time — but out of a sense of moral obligation. If Batman is popular, once again, it is because American forces are “over there,” once again, only this time in Iraq and Afghanistan. And they may soon be in other nations as well.

Soldiers, in uniform, are, to a large degree, anonymous. Their anonymity reflects the ideal of non-egotism. Similarly, Batman is disguised. Few know his true identity. (He is a lot like the Lone Ranger, in that respect.) By day, he is Bruce Wayne, the billionaire industrialist. Mr. Wayne cannot receive credit for Batman’s heroism.

We had stated earlier that Batman is seeking justice, and that is true. But he is also seeking revenge. As a young boy, he witnessed his parents being murdered by criminals. He thus seeks vengeance, but vengeance tempered by justice. His tragic past and his mixed motives makes Batman a more human and a more interesting character than Superman.

Batman as Doppelganger

There are a number of literary characters that represent the doppelganger, or double, theme. Sometimes, the double consists of a person who represents some element of character missing from the protagonist. Examples include Conrad’s short story The Secret Sharer and Dostoevsky’s The Double. In the case of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide, the protagonist has developed a split personality. The evil Mr. Hyde is the good Dr. Jekyll’s dark side.

We see the doppelganger effect in both the Superman and the Batman epics. Superman’s disguise is that of the news reporter Clark Kent. Clark, who is described as “mild-mannered,” is good-natured, but a bit dull. At least his fellow reporter, Lois Lane, feels that way about him. What is missing from Clark’s personality is heroism. In a sense, Clark is everyman who — like Walter Mitty — dreams that his true being is that of a hero.

Batman’s disguise is that of billionaire industrialist, Bruce Wayne. Here, again, it is really the other ways around. We might say that Batman represents the “secret sharer,” the alter ego, of every person who has become a bit bored by his comfortable lifestyle and who feels an inner calling to pursue a greater cause. In the film Casablanca (1942), we see Rick’s transformation from comfortable, but cynically jaded restaurant owner, back to being the hero he once was. Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne need not transform, for they have doubles who actualize their heroic potential.

Afterword: Superhero or Normal Person? Which is the Real Disguise?

Sherlock Holmes is almost always appears wearing his trademark deerstalker hat, cloaked coat, clutching a magnifying glass, except on those rare occasions when he goes undercover. He has no double life, but Superman and Batman do. We have explored this doubling in regard to the doppelganger archetype. There may, though, be more involved here.

When Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne go out in the world to fight crime, they become Superman and Batman. Everyone can tell, by their garb, that they are superheroes. It is often the case, though, that those who have great aspirations must, if they are to succeed in the world, hide their light under a bushel. That means going through the world appearing as a regular person, in a common profession.

Soren Kierkegaard, in one of his diaries, states that if he had not become a philosopher, he would have made a good…


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