The Psychology of Gotham City (Volume 1)

Personality insights into Batman and his rogues gallery.

Posted Jan 25, 2018

In the movies and on TV, superheroes are everywhere—seemingly more popular now than at any time in the history of American culture. What anchors us to these characters, as viewers and fans, are the super-heroic personalities we’ve come to know; consider Captain America’s selflessness, Spider-Man’s guilt, or Wonder Woman’s courage. And none of these superhuman characters lends him—or herself to interpretation as well as the most recognizably human of them all: Batman, with no special powers aside from grit and intelligence (and extreme wealth). In fact, the entirety of Batman’s rogue’s gallery, all the way down to the third-stringers, show familiar and identifiable elements of human psychology. By looking at them as people, not just villains, it is possible to see these characters as suffering from real personality pathology, which can make these disorders and diagnoses all the more recognizable. 

Take the Joker, for example. When he’s not threatening your life, he’s laughing at you—not with you. Yet this sinister cackle also works by commanding attention, drawing it back to his purple velour coat and pale-faced grin. The Joker’s casual sadism serves the same purpose: by announcing himself to the Gotham police, labeling his crimes, and taunting Batman, he builds himself up in his own eyes.  People like the Joker don’t usually announce themselves with Easter-egg haute couture, but they do often feel empty inside, and are motivated to use others in ways that regulate their unstable self-esteem. You might politely say these people suffer from antisocial personality disorder. You might also accuse the Joker — though not to his face—of malignant narcissism. Something went very wrong in his upbringing; perhaps his caregivers praised him far too little, or too much. Perhaps he came to believe that his feelings didn't matter, or weren't validated by the people closest to him, which gave him the feeling of emptiness that he now needs to fill. People who grow up like this can come to view relationships as useful ways of shoring up their self-esteem. 

GabboT / Flickr
Source: GabboT / Flickr

Next, what about Mr. Freeze? Stuck forever inside a wearable refrigerator, unable to come into contact with sunlight, warmth, or the skin of another person, he’s completely insulated from human contact. Yes, it's said that he suffered an industrial accident that left him vulnerable outside the suit, but let’s say for the sake of argument that Victor Fries put on the suit entirely by choice. What would it mean for a man to cut himself off from ever shaking hands or accepting a hug, in this way?  He’d be hiding from the world—isolated from the painful, chaotic stew of emotions other people bring forth.  In other words, he’d be showing signs of a schizoid personality disorder.  Clinical descriptions of schizoid personalities come off like a straight character analysis of Mr. Freeze: lacking close relationships, preferring solitude, appearing indifferent to others, and—bingo!—displaying emotional coldness and detachment. 

Then there’s Harley Quinn, the murderous sprite, toting an oversized mallet and traditionally attired in a jester’s checkered red-and-black. She hurts people for a laugh, when and where she feels like it; casual violence and wanton property damage must be second nature to someone who would keep company with the Joker. Like him, Harley shows a blasé viciousness that’s belied by her bright, sharky grin, and she sees no reason to restrain her worst impulses, mean remarks, or nasty physical outbursts. “It’s just a joke,” she’d probably say, before kicking Batman in the teeth. One wonders what form of oppression she suffered in her civilian identity, that forces her to compensate with such anarchy—or what awful trauma she may even have experienced as a girl. Harley Quinn’s mercurial nature might once have met criteria for borderline personality disorder, but without the self-destructive behavior, identity disturbances, or unstable interpersonal relationships, she’d now be better described by emotionally unstable personality disorder, impulsive type

Even the also-ran Maxie Zeus, who’s obsessed with all things ancient and Greek, looks sadder and more sympathetic at close range. Maxie’s entire world springs fully-formed out of his head, reinterpreted in faux-godly style. Anything Maxie would rather deny or avoid is simply incorporated into his fantasy. He’s the rare psychotic among Gotham’s rogues: Maxie sees and hears things that simply aren’t there, and maintains firm beliefs that just aren’t true. Not even the craziest villain-shtick leaves reality behind like this. It might be nuts to patent a laughing fish, like the Joker has, but his grinning flounder looks real enough to everyone else, as well. It’s only Maxie Zeus who can’t see the Forum for the olive trees—thanks to bipolar disorder. Maxie has delusions of grandeur, spends all his time in goal-directed action, and cannot see the negative results of his actions. It’s a reasonable guess that he doesn’t sleep much, either. Being a bad guy is, for Maxie Zeus, a significant disturbance in affect, behavior and cognition—the ABCs of major mental illness. 

Mostly, though, Gotham’s colorful crooks need an audience for their work. The whole murderous crew, from Bane to the Clock King, fairly lives for attention.  Otherwise, why not commit their crimes in secret, without a unique costume, criminal identity, or modus operandi? Because then no one would know who did it!  Think of the Penguin’s signature formalwear, Catwoman’s predilection for feline artifacts, and Two-Face’s attraction to valuable items that happen to be divisible by two. It’s a definite desperation for attention, and we call it narcissistic personality disorder: the overpowering desire to be affirmed by others—reflected, as if in a mirror.  By and large, each and every one of Gotham’s baddies is a living monument to narcissism. Small wonder it takes a silent man from the shadows—striking from hiding, never smiling, rarely praising, living more to help others than to aggrandize himself—to bring them down.