Are supervillains insane?
With some exceptions, no, most comic book heroes’ nemeses know what they’re doing, they know whom they hurt, and they know that it’s wrong. For plenty of them, that’s part of the fun.
Psychopathy, having a personality that includes lifelong lack of empathy or conscience, is not a form of insanity. No, insanity is a legal term meaning that due to a severe mental health problem, likely a psychotic disorder or state, a defendant could not recognize the rightness or wrongness of that person’s own actions and therefore is not legally culpable for them. Think about the worst thing you ever did in a dream and now imagine that’s the only part of you controlling your actions for a while, unable to recognize whom you’re hurting or how. Punishing you would not accomplish much, although you might get committed for treatment until the courts deem you sane and safe.
No superhero faces more enemies deemed insane than Batman, enough that that they get their own mental hospital, Arkham Asylum. But would so many of them be found insane in our world? In most cases, experts agree no, they would not. Outlandish, difficult dangerous behaviors, actions so strange any layperson would say, “That’s just crazy,” do not inherently mean the person suffers a sufficient break from reality. Jeffrey Dahmer ate people. Wild ideas filled his head and dark desires drove him, but he knew what he was doing, he knew it was wrong, and he knew to conceal his evil deeds. A jury therefore found him legally sane, criminally responsible for his actions, and he went to prison, not any mental hospital, there to remain until a mentally ill inmate beat him to death. In Gotham City, he might have lived and escaped to kill again.
Let’s walk our way through the degrees of likely insanity among Gotham’s colorful crooks.
0. Catwoman. Selina Kyle does not qualify for any enduring mental illness. Despite her saying, “Yeah, well, I’m a regular kleptomaniac,” in one comic book, she really isn’t. Kleptomaniacs steal impulsively and nonsensically, not to fence goods for instrumental gain. Even though stealing also serves emotional purposes, Selina owns her thievery instead of letting it own her. Becoming Catwoman empowers her.
1. Ra’s al Ghul. This 500-year-old mastermind sees generations come and go while the world spins on. Earth itself becomes his only lasting companion. He doesn’t hallucinate the planet’s voice talking to him, and he shows great self-control and rational thought. The only reason he doesn’t rank zero is because every time his Lazarus Pit regenerates his body, he rises from it in a state of momentarily insane rage. Those moments pass. They’d make a poor legal defense for actions committed during those states. He remains responsible, having voluntarily subjected himself to them even though he knows how they affect him, just as if he’d pumped himself up on PCP.
2. Penguin. Regardless of his bird motifs and trick umbrellas, Oswald Cobblepot isn’t pathologically obsessed with either. Unlike colleagues who cannot function with sending a riddle or tossing a coin, the Penguin can operate without his signature accoutrements. A museum curator putting a jeweled bird on display can count on Cobblepot to come steal it, of course, but passionate collecting does not equal utter obsession. This squat man who needs to be larger than life fits what’s informally known as a "Napoleon complex," overcompensating for inadequacies by inflating himself in other areas of life. Even his hat and umbrella make him feel taller.
3. Mr. Freeze. Driven to cure his cryogenically frozen wife’s terminal illness, Victor Fries hurts not only those who wrong him but police and any innocent person caught in his way. This cold-blooded man with a coldhearted personality will stop at nothing for the sake of the one person who ever warmed up his life. His indifference to most people, extreme even for a psychopath, might suggest schizoid personality or an autistic spectrum disorder, neither of which would excuse his illegal activities. (This is the best known version of Mr. Freeze with an origin devised by writer Paul Dini, as opposed to the more psychotic version recently written by Scott Snyder.)
4. Riddler. Edward Nigma has a form of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). However much this narcissist sometimes wants to pull a caper without sending a riddle, he cannot. His occasional attempts to fight the compulsion show he knows it can be maladaptive. Irresistible impulse, although part of some legal standards for insanity, is by itself generally insufficient as a legal defense. Otherwise, addicts of many kinds would be unconvictable. Furthermore, his criminal behavior is not compulsive; his riddles are.
5. Poison Ivy. Receiving no empathy growing up, Pamela Isley develops little of her own and compensates by loving plants, which will not reject, chide, or abandon her. As odd as this eco-terrorist’s preference for plants over people might seem, it doesn’t mean she’s insane, especially not after mutagenic changes mentally link her to plants. That’s no delusion or hallucination. She really feels what plants feel. Her best and sometimes only friend is Harley Quinn, whose friendship helps ground Ivy not only by connecting her to humanity but because Ivy thinks more sensibly when faced with Harley’s irrationality.
Next: When we move into part 2 ("Are Batman's Enemies Insane? Unsound Minds"), Batman's baddies get battier.