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The Bat of the Shadow: Batman's Role Models

Social learning and other perspectives on a superhero's role models
Travis Langley, Ph.D.
This post is a response to Who Are Your Heroes? by Travis Langley, Ph.D.


The Shadow (1994 motion picture)

Numerous people, both in the real world and within the fiction, helped Bruce Wayne become a masked man fighting crime with his gadgets and fists while motivated less by the need for revenge than by the inspiration to protect others from becoming victims, values he tries to convey as a role model to others. “Remember when I said our purpose was to protect people from crime?” he asks Jason Todd, while trying to teach this second Robin a more mature definition of victory in Detective Comics #568 (1986). “What makes you think that’s any less vital than pursuing criminals? Ensuring that the victims of crime are taken care of always comes first." The mugger who first introduces young Bruce to violence and the corrupt authorities who show him that grown men might ignore the law all exert their influence, but from there he could have followed many different paths. Conceivably, he have become a cutthroat businessman angry at the city which killed his parents; a cynical district attorney willing to violate criminals’ rights, conceal evidence, and twist the law to keep his perfect conviction rate; or a gun-toting killer like anti-hero Frank Castle, Marvel Comics’ Punisher.

Albert Bandura (Bandura, 1979; Bandura & Walters,1963). held that people learn when and how to aggress, as well as against whom, through social learning, primarily learning social behavior through observation and imitation of others and only secondarily by receiving direct reward or punishment for one’s own actions (Rotter, 1945). “Viewing violence (1) breeds a modest increase in aggressive behavior, especially in people who are provoked, and (2) desensitizes viewers to aggression and alters their perceptions of reality," according to Myers (2008, p. 374). Voluminous evidence from social psychologists’ empirical research shows that observing aggressive behavior heightens aggressiveness in complicated ways. Children are more likely to mimic violence that gets rewarded and goes unpunished, and in nearly every version of Batman’s origin, the mugger gets away scot-free, but sympathizing with the victims, seeing their pain and suffering, makes that violence aversive to those capable of empathy.

Young Bruce Wayne "fences," excited about the Zorro movie he just watched with his parents.
http://www.comicvine.com/martha-wayne/29-3603/all-images/108-209122/581a004/105-1178790/

Bruce’s first, best role models were his altruistic parents. Empirical evidence is clear: Prosocial models promote prosocial behavior. More people will offer help to a driver fix a flat tire after seeing someone else help a different driver a mile earlier (Bryan & Test, 1967) or donate blood after hearing someone else agree to donate Rushton & Campbell (1977). Adults and children mimic many actions they observe, with long-lasting effects visible in children absorbing information and experience at a greater rate than adults. Parents who both preach and practice altruism raise children who become more altruistic adults (Moore & Eisenberg, 1984; Rosenhan, 1970). Adults’ modeling of prosocial behavior can show powerful and enduring repercussions on their children’s altruistic inclinations.


Gotham Knights #7, drawn by Paul Ryan and written by Devin Grayson.

The butler Alfred Pennyworth, patient, supportive, wise in many things, having functioned as a caregiver, not servant, to the boy when his parents were still alive, does not replace them in Wayne heir’s life so fully that Bruce can let them go, but neither does he leave the boy feeling unguided, alone, or unloved, which happens to some orphans. Dr. Leslie Thompkins, the physician who first discovers the boy after the murders and becomes the only stranger to comfort this child as he grieves at the crime scene, becomes a maternal figure to complement paternal Alfred – in relation to Bruce, not one another. A friend and medical colleague to Dr. Thomas Wayne, she devotes her medical practice to helping Gotham’s poor and her very life to protecting others, eventually sacrificing her possessions, practice, and reputation to help a girl named Stephanie Brown fake her death to escape Gotham and start a new life (Robin/Spoiler Special, 2008). For all her positive influence in helping Bruce devote his life to helping others, Leslie feels that as a role model to him she has failed, for she disapproves of Bruce’s vigilante activities and worries about his influence on underage crime fighters like Stephanie and all the Robins.

 

The boy finds role models in figures less down-to-earth than Alfred and Leslie. The Shadow and Zorro, fictional characters that inspired Bob Kane in the real world to create his own masked man within the fiction inspire Bruce as well. An adult Batman gets to tell the Shadow in Batman #253 (1973), “I’ve never told anyone this – but you were my greatest inspiration.”


The Legend of Zorro

Zorro figures into Batman’s origin directly because, in the comic books, the Waynes are returning from a screening of the old movie The Mark of Zorro when they cross paths with the killer Joe Chill. Where others might avoid that film as a reminder of that night’s tragic end, especially anyone gripped by PTSD, Bruce values its inspiration and treasures it as the last good time his mother, father, and he ever shared. After Bruce returns from having been thought dead, he brings Alfred and three of the Robins, all the boys but Jason Todd, together for movie night at Wayne Manor (Batman and Robin #20, 2011).

Dick: “Um, Bruce, you sure you want to watch this?”

Bruce: “It may have been the worst night of my life, Dick, but up until Chill stepped out of the shadows, it was one of the best days of my life. Wasn’t often I got to spend every waking minute with both my mother and father. The whole day felt special. Looking back, this movie not only marked an ending, but a beginning. Of a new road, new path. So it feels like the right time to see it again – with the whole family.”

Batman and Robin #20

Comic Book References

Batman #253 (1973, November). "Who Knows What Evil - ?" Script: Denny O'Neil. Art: Irv Novick & Dick Giordano. DC Comics.

Batman and Robin #20 (2011, April). "Dark Knight vs. White Knight, Part 1 of 3: Tree of Blood." Script: Peter J. Tomasi. Art: Patrick Gleason & Mick Gray. DC Comics.

Detective Comics #568 (1986, November). "Eyrie." Script: Joey Cavalieri. Art: Klaus Janson. DC Comics.

Masks #3 (2013, January). Cover art: Peter Segovia. Dynamite Comics. [source of teaser thumbnail image]

Robin/Spoiler Special (2008). Script: Chuck Dixon. Art: Chris Batista & Cam Smith. DC Comics.

Non-Comic Book References

Bandura, A. (1979). Self-referent mechanisms in social learning theory. American Psychologist, 34, 439-441.

Bandura, A., & Walters, R. H. (1963). Social learning and personality development. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Moore, B. S., & Eisenberg, N. (1984). The development of altruism. In G.Whitehurst (Ed.), Annals of child development (pp. 107–174). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Rosenhan, D. L. (1970). The natural socialization of altruistic autonomy. In J. Macauley & L. Berkowitz (Eds.), Altruism and helping behavior (pp.251-268). Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

Rushton, J. P., & Campbell, A. C. (1977). Modeling, vicarious reinforcement and extraversion on blood donating in adults: Immediate and long-term effects. European Journal of Social Psychology, 7, 297-306.

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