The Id, The Ego And The Superhero: What Makes Batman Tick?

Jul 14, 2012
Originally published on July 15, 2012 10:11 am

When you look at Batman with a coldly analytical eye — and he's hard to avoid these days, with The Dark Knight Rises set to come out Friday — a few things stand out as potential red flags: the secrecy, the lair, the attraction to danger, the blithe self-sacrifice, the ... cape.

It's unusual, all of it, you have to admit. Sure, he's handy to have around in an emergency, and you can't beat a fella who can be summoned with a giant light in the sky in the event you've got no cellphone reception.

But is he entirely ... well?

That's the question explored in What's the Matter With Batman?, a new book from Robin Rosenberg, a psychologist who makes something of a subspecialty out of applying the principles of psychology to pop culture figures in general and superheroes in particular. (She's also the editor of a collaboration called The Psychology of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: Understanding Lisbeth Salander and Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy.)

On Sunday, Rosenberg talks to NPR's David Greene on Weekend Edition about how a boy becomes a superhero and whether there's anything concerning about that. Just how dark is the Dark Knight? Is Batman depressed? Is he antisocial? Does he have post-traumatic stress disorder from seeing his parents murdered?

Perhaps surprisingly, Rosenberg argues that there's nothing really wrong with Batman — or, rather, with the man inside the suit. Her verdict? "Bruce Wayne is a really clever man who has both high intelligence and high EQ, emotional quotient." As for his decision to adopt a persona that's not fully human, that makes a certain amount of sense, too, if he's looking to be "incorruptible," as he's said, and inspiring to the rest of us. "We all respond more powerfully to the symbols of humanity — or superhumanity in this case — and so Batman transcends his humanness."

Furthermore, he's not the only one who wears a particular uniform when he takes on an official protective role. She points out, "The Batsuit is just a uniform he wears when he goes on patrol." It's not entirely unlike a military uniform in that way. "This issue of dual identities highlights what all of us experience, is that we feel like different parts of us come forward when we're in different contexts."

What Bruce Wayne is, though, is a guy with some special talents. "In essence," Rosenberg says, "superheroes are gifted people, so we can probably figure out a lot about them based on what we know from the science of giftedness."

Perhaps the problem, she suggests, doesn't lie in the gifted Bruce Wayne, but in the people who assume something has to be wrong with him in the first place. Perhaps we're just not accustomed to his kind of self-sacrifice. "People who are truly selfless," she says, "who have given so much of themselves, are confusing to most of us. And I think some of us, in cynical moments, say, 'There must be something the matter with someone who would do that.'"

She argues that our confusion at why Bruce Wayne would throw himself in the path of all manner of catastrophes misses the point that there's something in it for him, too. "I think it misses that it's about getting a whole life," she says. "He experienced something that is terrifying as a kid, but his decision to become Batman gave his life meaning and purpose. It found a silver lining in tragedy." And perhaps there's something in it for the rest of us: "The idea of superheroes that we carry around in our heads may help us to actually do good in our own lives."

So next time you see a guy perched on top of a building, wearing a cape, staring down at you, you shouldn't assume there's anything wrong with him. You should, however, get out of the way very very quickly, because something terrible is probably about to happen involving gruesome-faced supervillains who do not have such high emotional quotients.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) You mean you're going to feed those letters to the Bat computer?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as Actor) They're made out of noodles, easy to digest.


Seriously? OK. Batman, you've dedicated your life and your large corporate fortune to fighting poverty and crime in Gotham City as a bat.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as character) Holy haberdashery.

GREENE: I mean, you dress up in costume, you can't keep a girlfriend and sometimes they turn out to be cats.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (as Batman) Why are all the gorgeous ones homicidal maniacs? Is it me?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (as Robin) Holy looking glass.

GREENE: Your healthiest relationship, I mean, it's with your butler. You're fighting the memory of a childhood trauma that would really mess up anybody.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (as Robin) Holy pressure cooker.

GREENE: Seriously, you need a therapist - and we have found you one. Robin...Rosenberg. She's a psychologist who's written a book. It's called "What's the Matter With Batman?" And Batman's not the only superhero that Robin Rosenberg has had on her couch. She actually blogs about superheroes for Psychology Today, and she believes that they offer some clues into the minds of mere mortals. When I spoke to her, she went back to Bruce Wayne's childhood and the harrowing murder of his parents that started it all.

ROBIN ROSENBERG: He decided to make meaning of his parents' deaths by spending his life protecting innocent people from what happened to him.

CHRISTIAN BALE: (as Bruce Wayne) People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can't do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I'm flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed. But it's a symbol. As a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.

GREENE: That's actor Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne in the 2005 film "Batman Begins." And I wonder, Robin Rosenberg, as someone talking about as a man I'm flesh and blood. As a symbol I can be incorruptible. I mean, is this some kind of personality disorder that we're seeing?

ROSENBERG: No. Bruce Wayne is a really clever man who has both a high intelligence and a high EQ, emotional quotient. And he's right. We all respond more powerfully to the symbols of humanity, or super-humanity in this case. And so Batman transcends his humanness. I mean, he is one of the few fully human superheroes. The bat suit is really just a uniform that he wears when he goes on patrol the same way someone in military services will wear a certain uniform for a certain setting.

GREENE: OK. So, that explains the bat suit, but does Batman have trouble keeping track of this double life?

ROSENBERG: Bruce Wayne and the Batman inhabit the same body. They're two different identities. People often refer to them as dual identities. So, what's the deal with that? Sometimes when he's Bruce Wayne, he talks about himself as Batman in the third person. Does he have sort of a - in the old days, it was called multiple personality disorder. You don't have to look very far under the surface to figure out, no, he doesn't, because when people have dissociative identity disorder they have different memories in the different personalities. So, it's not a unified integrated sense of memory. And whether he's Bruce Wayne or Batman, he remembers most everything and he is the same person functioning in uniform and out of uniform.

BALE: (as Batman) It's not who I am underneath or what I do that defines me.

GREENE: You deal with a lot of questions in the book using Batman as a subject. I mean, you ask is he depressed, obsessive compulsive, if he has post-traumatic stress disorder, and the answer's no to a lot of those questions. What's your overall diagnosis of Bruce Wayne?

ROSENBERG: People who are truly selfless, who have given so much of themselves are confusing to most of us. And I think some of us in cynical moments say there must be something the matter with someone who would do that.

BALE: (as Batman) Gotham isn't beyond saving. Give me more time.

ROSENBERG: The question in part of what's the matter with Batman, I think for some people grows out of that cynical aspect of why would someone do that?

GREENE: Give up their whole life for a cause...

ROSENBERG: Basically give up their whole life. I think it misses that it's about getting a whole life.

GREENE: So, we have an explanation - kind of. Bruce Wayne is a sort of gifted but normal really nice billionaire. As for Robin Rosenberg, I was wondering what she actually learns from superheroes.

ROSENBERG: Superheroes in particular are, by their very nature, larger than life. They lend themselves to our saying, wow, how can they do that? What's that like? What is it like to live that experience? What do they give up? What do they get?

MICHAEL CAINE: (as Alfred) But that's the point of Batman - he can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make.

GREENE: Psychologist Robin Rosenberg is the author of "What's the Matter with Batman?" And she also does the superheroes blog for Psychology Today magazine. She's the editor of "Our Superheroes Ourselves," out next year from Oxford University Press. Thanks so much for joining us.

ROSENBERG: Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure.

GREENE: And if you want to peer inside the caped crusader's dark mind, you can catch the next chapter in the Batman story this Friday in Christopher Nolan's new film, "The Dark Knight Rises." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.