Beyond Heroes and Villains

Investigating the nature of good guys and bad guys in fiction and real life

Are Batman's Enemies Insane? Unsound Minds—Part 2

Which, if Any, of the Dark Knight's Foes Really Belong in Arkham Asylum?
Travis Langley, Ph.D.
This post is a response to Are Batman's Enemies Insane? Sounder Minds—Part 1 by Travis Langley, Ph.D.

Gotham City, Wonderland... Sometimes there's no visible difference. ("Joker's New Year" by Gabe Rose)

 

Are supervillains insane?

With some exceptions, no, most comic book heroes’ nemeses know what they’re doing. As discussed in part 1, "Are Batman's Enemies Insane? Sounder Minds," they know what they're doing, they know they hurt people, and they know it’s wrong. That's sane. Insanity is a legal term meaning that due to a severe mental health problem, frequently psychosis, a defendant could not recognize the rightness or wrongness of that person’s own actions and therefore is not legally culpable for them. Despite which, Batman's enemies fill their own mental hospital, the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane.

Madness defines no set of supervillains more distinctly than Batman's rogue's gallery. As traditionally depicted and regardless of all their quirks, however, Catwoman, Ra's al Ghul, the Penguin, Mr. Freeze, the Riddler, and Poison Ivy all recognize the reality around them and understand the real world consequences of their actions. On a scale of 0-10 for mental illness, they rank in the 0-5 range as being mentally healthier than Batman's more outrageous rogues. Which of Gotham's colorful crooks, then, are the least sound of mind?

6.         Harley Quinn. Donning a harlequin costume and discarding her professional achievements, Dr. Harleen Quinzel helps the Joker escape Arkham and commit crimes. A social chameleon, she can run with heroes or villains, molding her personality to fit the situation. A distorted viewpoint and willful blindness to the Joker’s cruelty do not in and of themselves mean she’s psychotic. If her view is warped enough to quality as psychotic and with nothing in her history to suggest she’d been psychotic before hooking up with the Joker, she might suffer from shared psychotic disorder in which one person picks up someone else’s psychotic inclinations. The fact that she eventually earns a death sentence for killing the Joker’s prosecutor (a penalty the government lets her work off) indicates that the law finally deems her sane enough to die.

Why does a smart psychiatrist like Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a.k.a. Harley Quinn, fall in love with a psychopath like the Joker?

7.         Two-Face. Although characters sometimes refer to Harvey Dent as having “multiple personalities,” few depictions of him fit any diagnostic criteria for multiple personality disorder, now known as dissociative identity disorder. With DID, good Harvey would take full control for periods of time and his bad side would have its spells, with at least one identity unable to recall what happened when the other took over. That’s not what happens. He’s one man who uses a coin toss to excuse taking his anger out on the world. He doesn’t care which awful things he does as long as he gets to do some. A random coin toss, not a personality switch, determines each choice he makes. Exceptions in the literature appear, like “The Great Leap” in which Dent asks Nightwing to protect a woman from a mob killer who turns out to be Two-Face, but DID is rarely a successful defense. Many juries either believe the defendant is feigning the condition or they hold the overall person accountable for every part of his or her psyche.

Turning all his decisions over to the toss of a coin is unhealthy, but exactly how unhealthy is Two-Face?

8.         Joker. The Joker defies diagnosis. Beyond his obvious psychopathy, his behavior doesn’t neatly match any specific mental illness. Bizarre as he is, he does not suffer prominent psychotic symptoms like hallucinations and delusions. When he kills you, he kills you because he likes it, not because he mistakes you for a hallucinatory demon. Because he doesn’t understand hope and optimism, he resents those feelings and tries to crush them by bringing out the worst in others and by stamping his face on the world around him. After he disfigures local fish with a toxin that gives them hideous clown faces in “The Laughing Fish,” the story most often cited as proof that he really is bonkers, the Joker cannot comprehend why he can’t copyright fish and make millions off them – but is that insanity or failure to understand copyright law?

When the Joker tells mobsters to give him a call, does he not realize this playing card has no contact information?

9.         Ventriloquist. Arkham clinicians diagnose Arnold Wesker with dissociative identity disorder. His problems go beyond those of multiple personality cases reported in the real world. This nervous, timid man manifests his dark side through his ventriloquist dummy, Scarface, which becomes a gangster that bosses hoodlums around. When he must go without Scarface, Wesker feels compelled to create puppets out of anything at hand. Real cases of DID diagnosis do not involve consistently externalizing alter personalities into external objects.

Ventriloquist Arnold Wesker treats his gangster dummy Scarface as living. Does Wesker have DID or something more psychotic?

10.       Maxie Zeus. Feeling weak and helpless after tragically losing his wife, history teacher Maximilian Zeus fills the void in his life by coming to believe he’s the Greek god Zeus. He suffers a delusion, a belief grossly out of touch with reality – specifically a delusion of the grandiose type, a.k.a. delusion of grandeur. Delusions don’t get much more grandiose than believing you rule the gods.

The courts initially sentence Max to Blackgate Penitentiary, not to the asylum. Contradictory as it might sound, a psychotic person can be legally sane. To acquit by reason of insanity, a jury would have to believe him so mentally ill that doesn’t know what he’s doing and that it’s criminal. He can think he’s someone else and still know not to break the law. Eventually, though, his behaviors and beliefs grow wilder enough that the courts ship him to Arkham.

Because he has some lengthy periods of sanity and because he can respond well to antipsychotic medication, Maxie Zeus doesn’t earn the top spot in this count.

Maxie Zeus thinks he's the Greek god Zeus - about as grandiose as a delusion of grandeur can get.

11.       Mad Hatter. Jervis Tetch cranks his craziness up to eleven. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, this deeply deluded genius escapes into vivid Wonderland hallucinations, mistaking living people for Alice and other Lewis Carroll characters. In his head, he hears hats. “I’m sorry, child. It’s the hats. They tease and betray me.” Even though his mind control technology should make him one of either the most successful inventors or most formidable supercriminals, he lacks the necessary vision, charisma, and soundness of mind to make the Fortune 500 or supervillain A-list.

Mad Hatter Jervis Tetch keeps convincing himself he has met the right Alice for his Wonderland fantasies.

 

Keep in mind, though, that this list reflects a fantastic fiction rather than real world mental illness. Some of these characters show qualities never presented by any real world individuals. These rankings have nothing to do with the DSM's Global Assessment of Functioning scale because those functioning most poorly in life would be incapable of repeatedly committing these characters' complex crimes. 

Does the man in the bat suit ever reconsider his chosen path in life?

 

Travis Langley, Ph.D. is the author of Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight.

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