What Makes Batman Timeless?
Even after decades in the spotlight, we still can’t get enough of the Caped Crusader
Do you have an alter ego? Where does it hide? Can this alter ego be acted out safely and experimentally through video games? I contemplated this very thought as I looked through some of my old PS4 games. I was looking for something to spark my interest.
I chose to revisit the Batman games for PS4. The gritty, dark textures mixed with a combat system perfectly molded to the Caped Crusader’s style reminded me why I loved those games and why I loved Batman. Both Arkham City and Arkham Asylum perfectly embodied the experience of fighting crime as the Dark Knight.
Revisiting these classics put Batman on my brain, and his mythology dominated my thoughts until well after dinner. I looked for the perfect opportunity to interject Batman into the conversation.
Around 11:30 pm, I found my opening. I sat around my living room having tea with my family when an interesting question arose from the silence:
Why are we so obsessed with Batman?
Yes, we’ve spent the last fifteen years exploring the Avengers, Fantastic Four, and the X-Men, but Batman continues to resurface at the forefront of our minds.
My house guests and family readily engaged in the conversation. There was a gentle excitement that hung in the air.
My wife made the first two points, “He is a human with no superpowers, and he has cool gadgets.”
I thought these were excellent points. In recent history, we went through a phase of Iron Man. The brilliant performance of Robert Downey Jr., mixed with the reasons listed above, contributed to that fascination. Iron Man was also an ordinary guy who was self-made that created some fantastic gadgets. Yet, I think Iron Man’s time is coming to an end in our minds. The success of Iron Man didn’t convince me that the “normal guy” argument held enough ground.
There must be something more.
The conversation continued.
Another member of the family chimed in, “ Batman has the most memorable villains.”
I felt like we were getting closer to the truth.
What made the villains special?
Everyone cracked out their phones simultaneously as we dug for precious nuggets of information about the most famous adversaries.
I almost immediately came across the perfect article.
There is a beautiful book written by Travis Langley about the entire psychology of Batman fittingly called “Batman and Psychology” (I already bought it on Amazon).
Travis wrote an interesting article about this very subject on August 12th, 2012, in Psychology Today. You can read the whole article here, but for the sake of brevity, his observations about villains were profound and can be summarized as “most of Gotham City’s supervillains are human beings defined by their personalities instead of superpowers.”
Humanizing villains and rooting for them in a real-world back story makes them more relatable. We’ve seen trends of this same strategy with recent films like Venom and X-Men First Class. By adding a deep and relatable back story to Magneto's characters, our emotions only become more complex as the narrative unfolds.
I still felt the answer was not complete because not only was Batman and iconic hero, but Joker was one of, if not the most, iconic villains of all time.
Forty minutes into the conversation, I made my contribution to the analysis.
I believe that the story of Batman and the Joker speaks to the truth of what it means to be a human being. Batman and the Joker are the same. They are on opposite sides of the same coin. In my mind, Batman is about transcendence.
Both characters faced severe trauma in their life. While the Joker's backstory is a bit vaguer, we can reasonably assume that the Joker has had a rough experience. The lack of a stable backstory only adds to the chaos of Joker’s character.
Both Joker and Batman experienced the harshest reality possible, with nothing held back.
The only difference between the two is Batman’s willingness to face his painful experiences over and over again. He then channels this trauma into energy that he uses to try to manifest a safer world. He is complex and not without emotional scars, but at the core of his being, Batman is a force for good.
Joker also channels his trauma into energy, but follows an opposite path, using this energy to disrupt and breakdown every entity around him, a real force for chaos. The following result brings nothing but pain and suffering, as everyone he interacts with contends with his constant chaotic nature.
Batman’s unwillingness to kill the Joker creates a pendulum that swings back and forth forever between order and chaos in Gotham City.
This purposeful channeling and redistribution of energy (whether positive or negative) speaks to the heart of the human experience. What we do with the energy we have affects the world around us, whether we see the results or not.
Both the Joker and Batman live within us. They are us. They are the subtle choices we make every day, and every day the pendulum swings ever so slightly back and forth.
What path will we choose, and more importantly, what will we do with our energy?