The darkest knight yet

Travis Langley, professor of Psychology and Batman expert, with his take on the new movie.

Since his debut in 1939’s Detective Comics #27, Batman has remained one of the most popular superheroes and, frankly, one of the most famous fictional characters of any kind. This bat-themed hero is defined not by superhuman abilities such as outrunning locomotives or leaping tall buildings in a single bound, but instead by his humanity, symbolism, and purpose – by the psychology of his character. As both light-hearted Caped Crusader and brooding Dark Knight, his appeal reaches across generations and throughout the world. He can fit into tales of almost any type from comedy to horror, thoughtful detective mystery to action-packed adventure, children’s stories to more adult fare. Everyone needs a hero.

Directed by Matt Reeves and starring Robert Pattinson as the eponymous hero, the 2022 motion picture The Batman presents the darkest version of Batman seen on screen yet. Unlike previous depictions, The Batman does not show him juggling dual public lives that alternate between careful playboy Bruce Wayne and masked avenger Batman. Bruce is so reclusive that he has neglected to develop any public persona for the Wayne alter ego. In his few outings, once at a memorial and once in a club, he barely interacts with others. He doesn't seems to know how. His obsessive focus on the crime-fighting campaign has impaired his development of social skills and has blinded him to emotional needs, not only the needs of others such as Alfred (Andy Serkis) but also of his own.  

In the book Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight (Langley, 2012, 2022), I outlined ways in which Batman, as usually written, shows certain symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but normally not enough to qualify for the condition by DSM or ICD criteria (American Psychiatric Association, 2013; World Health Organization, 2022). For example, he does not avoid crime, dark alleys, or other reminders of the traumatic event that claimed his parents and rerouted his life. He seeks them out. Furthermore, he functions well by his own standards and priorities: when it comes to fighting crime, he is the best. The Batman motion picture, however, does not show Batman as usually written. As Bruce Wayne, he hardly functions at all. As Batman, though he is skilled and capable as both fighter and detective, he is not sure what he has accomplished so far. In the two years he has been Batman, the crime rate has gotten worse. Fear of failure weighs upon him. 

Perhaps instead of strictly suffering PTSD, though, this may be Bruce Wayne at his most depressed. As indicated by his intense sadness, misery, dysphoria, and pervasive guilt, he suffers ongoing depressivity. Although he says that he does not actively want to die, he pairs that with explicit indifference to his own survival. This is one version of the character who never smiles, not even at his own successes, and may exhibit anhedonia, inability to feel joy. Selina Kyle (Catwoman, though she is never called that in the film, played by Zoe Kravitz) intrigues him and their sexual chemistry is clear, and yet he never fully responds to her advances.

Anger drives the three main movers of this film’s plot. Three orphans carrying grudges from their childhoods grow up to don masks and assume identities as the bat, the cat, and the master of riddles. Each feels cheated and wants to lash out. Unlike billionaire Bruce, the other two grew up poor, without a butler as caretaker and confidant. Unlike Selina, who can develop close connections to others such as her friend Annika, the boys keep to themselves. And unlike Edward (the Riddler, played by Paul Dano), who remains mired in his aggression, unwilling and maybe unable to advance, both Bruce and Selina grow. 

As the most violent version of the Riddler ever seen on screen, the supervillain challenges Batman as detective and is thematically fitting while the hero struggles with his own violence. The insecure Riddler may demonstrate a pattern of identity disturbance, affective volatility, preoccupation with abandonment, and other instability suggestive of borderline personality disorder (BPD). He tries to fill a void in himself by making a big mark in the world and by identifying with someone else. The Riddler and Batman have incomplete lives, but Batman at least seems to learn that he can expand his life’s roles. Both Edward and Selina helped him see that. 

The Riddler shows a feature often associated with BPD by splitting, starkly and childishly dichotomizing everyone into categories such as good or bad, often vacillating between these extremes regarding specific individuals (Kramer et al., 2013; Kreisman & Straus, 2021). When his long-desired meeting with Batman finally takes place but does not fulfill his fantasies, he becomes dismayed and distraught. Although most borderline individuals do not become stalkers, a disproportionate number of stalkers in forensic populations may have BPD, perhaps nearly half (Sansone & Sansone, 2010). BPD is such a chaotic condition that its manifestations vary more than expressions of many other disorders, so please approach this idea with caution and be careful not to extrapolate this fictional character’s qualities when forming expectations about real people with BPD. 

The film’s gangster characters such as the Penguin (a nearly-unrecognizable Colin Farrell) and Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) show little motivation beyond irritation, self-preservation, and lust for power. Those are their roles in this story, the ways in which their efforts impact the three plot-movers’ lives, particularly Bruce Wayne’s. They are not complicated – perhaps because Bruce, Selina, and Edward do not have complicated views of them. Batman’s particular perspective colours every scene, which may be why most of the story takes place at night and amid so much rain.

The Batman shows greater psychological complexity than any previous Batman film, and does so despite how little Batman talks. Considering how quiet this version of the character tends to be, Pattinson’s ability to convey an array of emotions and thought through body language, especially with his eyes, is impressive. Though this is the darkest depiction of the Dark Knight yet, its exploration of his violence and his need to start inspiring hope actually makes this film more optimistic about his future than many of these films have tended to be. 

Travis Langley, PhD, distinguished professor of psychology at Henderson State University, is best-known as author of the book Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight. He has been editor and lead writer on a dozen other books about popular culture psychology, most recently The Joker Psychology: Evil Clowns and the Women Who Love Them

Find more Batman in our archive and over on the Research Digest.

References 

American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.) [DSM-5]. Author. 

Kramer, J., de Roten, Y., Perry, J. C., & Despland, J. (2013). Beyond splitting: Observer-rated defense mechanisms in borderline personality disorder. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 30(1), 3-15. 

Kreisman, J. J., & Straus, H. (2021). I hate you—don’t leave me: Understanding the borderline personality disorder (3rd ed.). TarcherPerigee.

Langley, T. (2012). Batman and psychology: A dark and stormy knight. Wiley. 

Langley, T. (2022). Batman and psychology: A dark and stormy knight (2nd ed.). Wiley.

Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A. (2010). Fatal attraction syndrome: Stalking behavior and borderline personality. Psychiatry MMC, 7(5), 42-46. 

World Health Organization (2022). International classification of diseases and related health problems (11th ed.) [ICD-11]. Author.

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