Batman and mental illness
Some of the greatest directors have tackled the issue of depicting mental illness on screen and have achieved critical acclaim for it: dissociative disorder in Fight Club by David Fincher (1999), schizophrenia in A Beautiful Mind by Ron Howard (2001), psychosis in Black Swan by Darren Aronofsky (2010), severe depression in Melancholia by Lars Von Trier (2011) and bipolar disorder in Silver Linings Playbook by David O. Russell (2012). Mental illness is a national health issue and these films explore it head-on in a raw, unfiltered way with provocative stories and unforgettable characters. On the other end, superhero films have been considered pop junk food, escapist and superficial entertainment, both reductive and binary. However, we must look again because superhero films may be more relevant to the discussion on mental illness in cinema than we think.
When discussing mental illness in superhero films, what instantly comes to mind are the villains: the Joker, Two-Face, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Bane. It is obvious that they need a psychiatric diagnosis and belong to the Arkham Asylum. However, the goal of this paper is to turn the psychiatric lens on Batman, the superhero, and demonstrate that he suffers from mental illness. By taking a look at Batman Begins (2005), we will see how diagnosing Bruce Wayne/Batman has the effect of destigmatizing mental illness, allowing popular cinema to reinvent and reimagine it.
Diagnosis: Batman under the psychiatric lens
What does it take to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome and does Bruce Wayne qualify? In her paper “Holy PTSD, Batman!:” An Analysis of the Psychiatric Symptoms of Bruce Wayne, Dr. S. Taylor Williams offers a set of four criterias to diagnose PTSD: traumatic event, re-experiencing, avoidance, and increased arousal (253). For Bruce, the traumatic event happens when his parents are murdered by a robber in the back alley of Gotham’s opera house. Bruce had asked his parents to leave the opera before the end because the bats in the show were distressing young Bruce. What if they had stayed the entire length of the show? Would his parents have lived? Does that make him responsible for his parents’ murder? Terrifying questions that will haunt Bruce his entire life.
Bruce Wayne also qualifies for the second criteria, re-experiencing of the traumatic event. As an adult, after the hearing of his parents’ murderer, adult Bruce Wayne looks at the gun he premeditatively took to shoot at his parents’ murderer and is transported back to the alley, seeing the gun pointed at him and his parents. Here, the filmmakers create a cyclical effect, as if Bruce with a gun and the intention to use it, is no better than prey and becomes a violent predator himself. On a clinical level, this scene exemplifies the kind of connections the brain makes for people who suffer from PTSD. These connections cause vivid and debilitating sensory flashbacks. Bruce Wayne definitely qualifies.
And even as Batman, after his first encounter with Dr. Crane, he experiences flashbacks of the bats and of himself as a child on the murder scene because of Dr. Crane’s poisonous, nightmare-inducing gas spray — a direct highway to the PTSD experience. Much like PTSD victims, adrenaline-high moments are triggers that transport Bruce Wayne back to his earliest traumas. The last criteria involves symptoms of increased arousal, including outbursts of anger and hypervigilance. These “symptoms” are at the core of the character of Batman who is a vigilante in Gotham, Bruce Wayne during the day, Batman at night. In the beginning of Batman Begins, the issue of anger is central to Bruce Wayne’s training in Bhutan. It is much discussed with Henri Ducard who analyzes Bruce at the beginning of their training, “You have learned to bury your guilt with anger, I will teach you to confront it now to face the truth.” Additionally, throughout the film anger is always externalized through fighting, which is foolhardy at first and more controlled by the end. Still, the foundational anger of the character is channeled to combat the villains, from corrupt cops to gangsters like Falcone, and sociopathic villains like Dr. Crane.
Interestingly, our hero miserably fails to qualify for the third criteria — the avoidance of triggers. If Bruce Wayne was a typical case of PTSD, he would tend to stay away from criminals and dangerous situations. But instead, he seeks them recklessly as Henri Ducard observes, “Are you so desperate to fight criminals that you lock yourself in to take them on one at a time?” Bruce fails to keep away from potential triggers and actually appears to be trying to completely desensitize himself from them. Symbolically, it is shown when he goes in the cave and stands still and powerful while the bats are flying around him. It is worth noting that while Dr. Williams limits herself to the diagnosis of PTSD, clinical psychologist Dr. Robin S. Rosenberg, Ph.D. evaluates Bruce Wayne with additional psychiatric disorders: dissociative identity disorder and depression (Rosenberg). In response to that, we can quote Williams who writes: “Whereas the creation of alternate personalities, as is seen in dissociative disorder, is often the result of a severe trauma, this does not seem to be the case with Bruce Wayne, because the creation of Batman is a conscious, planned act” (253). Needless to say, the psychiatric diagnosis of the superhero is much debated.
In the journal article entitled “What’s Diagnosis Got to to Do With it?: Psychiatry, Comics and Batman: The Killing Joke”, Valentino L. Zullo critiques the idea that clinicians and psychiatrists put too much emphasis on diagnosing superheroes rather than seeking understanding through studying the comic books more deeply (197). A mere diagnosis becomes reductionist unless it is paired with a good look at what’s behind it — the origin story. Origin stories hold the key to the questions “Why?”, “Why does Bruce Wayne suffer from PTSD?”, “Why did Bruce Wayne become Batman?”. In Zullo’s words, “the origin story reminds us that we must appreciate the history of the individual to understand his or her current mental state” (210). In the case of Bruce Wayne, the origin story behind his PTSD is a traumatic event in childhood — witnessing and the belief of causing the death of his parents. As a side note, it is worth noting that for many superheroes, the origin story is triggered by an unwanted genetic mutation. The idea here is that the mental illness finds its cause in the origin story. Would Batman experience symptoms of PTSD without the brutal experience of seeing his parents murdered? The answer is clear. Understanding the root cause of a mental illness helps to de-stigmatize. The illness ceases to be a label and the individual is allowed to transcend the box of a stereotype and cliché of the mentally ill.
Batman: de-stigmatizing mental illness
In Batman Begins, upon seeing Batman on the street in full cape and mask, a cop says, “What the hell was that?”, his colleague responds, “Just some nut,”. This exemplifies the reason why Bruce must kept his identity as Batman secret. No one would understand. This is a metaphor for the condition of the mentally ill who are stigmatized and isolated, forced to secrecy. Stigmas are fear-based negative attitudes, beliefs, stereotypes, and prejudices that are both generated by the self and the public. In “Understanding the impact of stigma on people with mental illness” the authors mention “dangerousness, incompetence, character weakness, anger, fear, exclusion, avoidance” (Corrigan). What this tells us is that people make assumptions about mental illness and the people affected by them who are seen as dangerous, incompetent, weak, to be avoided and excluded. Bruce Wayne is well aware of these stigmas, and to protect Batman he is willing to live two lives.
In the film, once Bruce Wayne is back from his travels and begins creating the symbol of Batman, he lives in complete social isolation, so much so that Alfred tells him he should be a bit more dedicated to his social life. Upon his advice, he goes to a very upscale restaurant as playboy Bruce and disses Batman in front of everyone: “A guy who dresses up as a bat clearly has issues”. As he exits the restaurant with a girl on each arm, he runs into Rachel, his childhood friend and secret love, and tells her: “Rachel, all this, this is not me, inside I am more.” These are great examples of the condition of the mentally ill — the inability to connect and tell the truth about the condition because of the amount of stigma that is attached to it.
This new understanding of Bruce Wayne/Batman make him more human and opens a window for understanding the condition of the mentally ill. Batman’s case teaches us that mental illness emerges within a personal (death of his parents), social (Gotham’s criminality), political (corruption paralyzing the city), and cultural context (Gotham as a whole). If superheroes are reflections of the culture they are born in and films mirrors that give the pulse of our time, the fact that a diagnosis of PTSD is possible with Batman says a lot about our world, reminding us that PTSD is a major health issue among the American veteran population. If we didn’t live in the era of global terrorism and warfare, would Nolan’s Batman exist? Probably not. This is why the scrutinizing work on superheroes done by psychiatrists like Dr. Williams is of crucial importance as it connects the dots between our favorite heroes and the nation’s public health. This kind of attention clearly signals how relevant superhero films like Batman Begins are to the conversation on mental illness.
Superhero films: reinventing and reimagining mental illness
In the words of Williams, “finding a superhero who also meets criteria for the diagnosis could be of comfort to those experiencing the symptoms themselves… to have a hero with a mental illness portrayed in a positive light could provide hope and encouragement, or lessen the feeling of isolation in those fighting mental illness” (254). This “positive light”, “hope” and “encouragement” are possible because superheroes are strong positive figures of power, control, physical, emotional, and mental strength as well as models of heroism: Captain America, Spiderman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Iron Man… We identify with them, not with the Joker. Flawed superheroes who suffer from mental illness are so human that it makes them that much more relatable. This is why superhero movies have been so popular at the box office for the past fifteen years, revealing our obsessive desire to re-explore their journey and struggles: Batman (TV series, 1966–1968), Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Batman Forever (1995), Batman & Robin (1997), Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).
By diagnosing superheroes with mental illnesses (Wonder Woman’s psychotic break, Daredevil’s depression, Jessica Jones’ PTSD…), we are reinventing and reimagining the depiction of mental illness in our culture by changing its face. Superheroes become models on how to overcome adversity, how to overcome a traumatic experience, and how to make meaning and heal from one’s painful origin story and diagnosis. They tell us, “Look, I am living an empowered life despite my condition”.
Superheroes are violent and flawed, especially the ones coming out of the 2000’s and 2010’s. According to the national and worldwide box office, superhero films are the great myths of our day. However, when looking at Bruce Wayne under a psychiatric lens, we see that he suffers from a mental illness. If we popularize a psychiatric reading of these films in scholarly and popular publications, superheroes could help not only destigmatize mental illness but also spark a normalizing trend. Realizing that our favorite heroes suffer from PTSD and depression normalizes PTSD and depression because they are such beloved and positive figures. It is certain that these films advance our understanding of the superhero genre’s capacity to teach us about ourselves, creating new perspectives of hope and understanding in the field of mental health. This paper is an invitation to challenge the way we see superheroes and consume superhero films. These films are more than escapist entertainment, they have the power to heal, a power symbolized at the end of the film when Bruce Wayne finds the stethoscope he used as a child. So let us celebrate the superhero genre and take note. If our heroes are sick, so are we. And if they can overcome, conquer, and heal, so can we.
Corrigan, Patrick W, and Amy C Watson. “Understanding the Impact of Stigma on People withMental Illness.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library ofMedicine, Feb. 2002, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1489832/.
Nolan, Christopher. “Batman Begins.” Warner Bros. 2005.
Rosenberg, Robin S. “Batman’s Mental Health, Part 1.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 4 July 2012, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-superheroes/201207/batmans-mental-health-part-1.
Taylor Williams, S. “‘Holy PTSD, Batman!:’ An Analysis of the Psychiatric Symptoms of Bruce Wayne.” Academic Psychiatry, vol. 36, no. 3, Springer-Verlag, pp. 252–55, doi:10.1176/appi.ap.36.3.252.
Zullo, Valentino L. “What’s Diagnosis Got to Do With It?: Psychiatry, Comics and Batman: The Killing Joke.” Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society, vol. 2, no. 2, 2018, pp.194–214, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/698081.