Is Batman Crazy?

Over at Alyssa Rosenberg’s blog, a post about the class differences between heroes and villains has become a thread over Batman and his methods. In particular, the commenters are working through one particular question: Is Batman crazy?

As the argument goes, it’s not that Batman is insane, per say, but that he has a monomaniacal focus on justice that manifests itself as a sort of pathology, in which his life derives it’s only meaning from the pursuit of criminals.

The evidence for this is clear enough: after witnessing his parent’s murder by a common thief, Bruce Wayne pledges to avenge their life by complete devotion to fighting crime through personal methods, eventually donning a Bat costume and using his family wealth to bankroll a career of vigilantism. For the last 30 years, this has been one of the most popular depictions of Batman – a paranoid, distrustful man with a tenuous grasp on reality.

Insofar that there have been alternative takes, they come by way of the 1990s animated series – which depicts Bruce Wayne/Batman as straitlaced and fairly well-adjusted – and the Christopher Nolan films, with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. In Nolan’s depiction, Bruce Wayne is driven but not pathological – he doesn’t fight criminals because it brings him pleasure or absolution; he does it out of a particular view of Gotham and a particular diagnosis of its problem.

Nolan’s Gotham is ruled by fear and corruption, and the only way to change the situation is deep structural change. But that change can’t come by philanthropy or the actions of well-meaning rich people – as Nolan shows in Begins, those efforts are doomed to failure. Genuine change requires ordinary people to reject their fear, and Batman is there to offer an assist. For Nolan’s Bruce Wayne, Batman is a tool to inspire Gotham’s populace to better things, not an identity. The story of The Dark Knight, in particular, revolves around Bruce Wayne’s attempt to bolster a legitimate crusader – Harvey Dent – and relinquish his role as Batman.

Obviously, with so much history behind the character, there is no “right” depiction of Batman. But for my part, I think Nolan has it best. The “crazy” view of Batman is interesting, but it misses the point. At base, Batman wants to save Gotham from its worst qualities, and that’s only possible if he has purpose beyond simple retribution – an insane or pathological Batman becomes a vigilante in the truest sense, more akin to violent figures like The Punisher or Rorschach than a traditional superhero. The best Batman stories involve a certain degree of idealism and humanity, and you can’t have that by sticking to the lazy view that he’s just a crazy man.

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