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Batman: Portrait of a Psychopath

Unlike most superheroes, Batman does not have any superpowers. No super-strength, no magic, no mutation and his body armor (nipples or no nipples) provides the bare minimum protection from impact and bullets. Everything he has, everything he is, is a human brain and body. Perfectly conditioned and proficient in skills of martial arts, cognition, deduction, and anything that can’t fit inside a utility belt. This extreme level of humanity comes at a cost. Every scar on the psyche takes its toll, pushing the limits of what the body and mind can handle, sometimes going (Batman) beyond.

A two-panel excerpt of Batman referencing his costume and personality as a lunatic.

Often misunderstood, psychopathy and sociopathy are not medical illnesses but rather a pattern of behavior. Batman displays a barrage of psychopathic tendencies, but his genuine need to save the citizens of Gotham keeps him from having an outright case of antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), the diagnosable condition most associated with sociopathy.

Batman’s Personas

Batman psychopath

When looking at the Caped Crusader, three distinct personalities emerge. This is an artificially constructed case of dissociative identity disorder, designed to keep his identity and emotional wellbeing safe.

The Dark Knight

Batman is an inhuman figure with the mission to end all crime in Gotham. Psychopaths often hide behind a mask, but the one Batman dons excuses him from reality and any social obligations. This literal and figurative mask allows him to act in any way he deems necessary to accomplish his objective.

Bruce Wayne, the Billionaire-Playboy-Philanthropist

recent study found that over one-fifth of US CEOs had clinically significant levels of psychopathic traits. The billionaire-playboy-philanthropist persona of Bruce Wayne positions himself in that magical 20 percent quite nicely. Bruce’s role is to provide a moral contrast to Batman’s deeds, redirecting any suspicions that these two men are connected. Wayne is often portrayed with all the typical characteristics of a spoiled rich socialite. His superficial charm and a shallow outlook are all learned behaviors crafted to hide genuine empathy and care for the people around him.

Little Bruce

Young Bruce Wane encounters his mother in a vision.

Lastly, “Little Bruce” is the one personality that is not artificially constructed. Heavily guarded by the other two, this personality is only revealed with occasional glimpses as Bruce interacts with Alfred or one of his protégés. We only witness this in the safe space of Wayne manor or during hallucinations involving Bruce’s parents. These are rare moments of a very emotional being as all guards and facades fall.

Unlike similar characters, like his Marvel counterpart, Iron Man, Batman cannot afford to have his identity become public knowledge. Bruce Wayne and Batman must remain separate, and in their own way, distant and cold to anyone else around them. All the others are there to protect Little Bruce – a broken boy, who could never truly get over witnessing his parents’ murder, too afraid of loss to ever let himself love again.

The Serial Killer Who Doesn’t Kill

Obsessed with being strong and beating down evil with extreme prejudice, the dominant personality – Batman – is essentially a serial killer who doesn’t kill. He embodies and exhibits all the traits of a predator. By putting on his suit, Batman becomes more than human. An all-mighty, almost godly figure, the Caped Crusader now yields supreme power over the street scum he attacks. When faced with an arch-villain with an alter ego, he dehumanizes, or more precisely, re-humanizes them by referring to them by their given name. Villains like The Penguin and The Riddler, are common criminals in the eyes of the Dark Knight, underservant of the same respect and status an alter-ego provides. Instead, they are simply Cobblepot and Nigma, just another street thug about to get a face-full of bat.

Once the Caped Crusader has defeated his newest foe, he takes a trophy. Serial killers often collect mementos from their victims as it reminds them of the thrill of the kill and gives them a similar level of euphoria. The Batcave features such memorable trophies as a large mechanical dinosaur, a giant penny, and the original weapons of most iconic supervillains including Joker’s playing card.

He Loves You. He Hates You

Batman clenches his fists in psychopathic rage, surrounded by images of the Joker.

Despite being the world’s greatest detective, Batman has never pieced together the identity of the Clown Prince of Crime. Perhaps this is because he sees so much of himself in his rival and has a genuine level of respect for him. Neither have superpowers, both dress up as things people fear, and both have a compulsive need to square off against each other, to a point where it has become an addiction. “I don’t want to kill you, what would I do without you?” The Joker says to Batman in The Dark Knight. Themed weapons and obsessive attention to detail, the pair are twisted geniuses playing a sick game of chess.

Similarly, we can find parallels with Victor Zsasz, a villain whose name is a result of someone mashing their head against the keyboard. This wealthy businessman turned serial killer’s own “righteous work” is to “liberate” the city of Gotham, one victim at a time. His trophies are the tally-mark scars he carves on his body, one for each life he takes.

No Guns, No Killing

All Star Batman four panel comic illustration featuring Batman as a psychopath crashing his Batmobile.
Batman plowing through police in All Star Batman and Robin by Frank Miller and Jim Lee, 2005.

What keeps Batman in check is his moral code and catchphrase candidate, “No guns, no killing”. Batman’s rule, however, much like his ‘60s costume, is gray and a little loose around the butt. This notion is made even more terrifying when he is given a shotgun, a military-grade Batmobile, or Frank Miller as a writer. Batman does not kill in one-on-one combat, but lives have been lost around him through inaction. He “accidentally” uses baddies as human shields. He inevitably shortens life spans as a result of his interrogation methods – internal bleedings, collapsed lungs, the dreaded bat-burn. All of this plus, let’s face it, most likely vehicular manslaughter. That batmask must really make pedestrians hard to see.

Batman Doesn’t Play Well With Others

Using others and finding it hard to relate and connect on an emotional level – those are psychopathic traits. Learned behavior or not, the Dark Knight certainly embodies them.

Batman, a large black figure lurking in the shadows, is most iconically joined by an athletic youngster. Dressed in a loud green and red onesie, his main purpose is to distract baddies while the Bat takes them out from behind. As a result “Robin” is a position often left vacant as the protégés leave to become full-fledged heroes. Or they are killed, come back as villains, and possibly become a hero again. It is hard to get that warm, fuzzy, family feeling when you are Batman’s bright, bouncing, bullseye of a side-kick.

Whether unable to put his faith in other superheroes or simply because he has ideas of grandeur and a compulsive need to one-up everyone, Batman famously keeps a supply of Kryptonite on hand, among other goodies. This is “just in case”. He has “contingency plans” designed to stop all members of the Justice League. Ra’s al Ghul and the Legion of Doom have used these plans to great effect. Batman eventually defeats the villains, but that does little to mend the rift in those continuities. Batman has fought teammates in different iterations and is often victorious.

In this one-panel scene from a Batman comic, Batman sits nonchalantly at the bar while the Green Lantern yells angrily at him for being a psychopath.

Batman just doesn’t play well with others. When the Green Lantern confronts him over his extremely violent tendencies and lack of remorse, the Dark Knight simply proves his dominance. He disables the intergalactic cop’s powers by painting himself, the whole Batcave, and the Boy Wonder yellow.

We Understand, Batman

It takes a very specific type of human to be willing to do the things needed to clean up a place as dark as Gotham. Bruce Wayne is a product of his environment and his need to disconnect from it. In becoming Batman, he finds a sense of purpose and a way to fight his inner demons. While his mask separates him from social norms and emotions, the Caped Crusader is forever locked in a battle to save his city without losing himself in the process.

“All it takes is one bad day to reduce a man to lunacy”.

Should We Feel Sorry For Batman Anymore?


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