The Psychology of Gotham City (Volume 2)
Personality insights into Batman and his rogues gallery.
Posted Feb 21, 2018
There’s so much to be said about the villains (and heroes) of Gotham City — the fictional municipality that so reliably brings psychopathology to the surface. Could it be something in the water that brings out the narcissism, encouraging ordinary citizens to drape themselves in personality disorder-revealing costumes, and christen themselves in ways that reflect and transform their own internal pain? (Perhaps, if the water wasn’t already contaminated with the Scarecrow’s weaponized chemicals.) Here are three more of Batman’s classic foes, from a psychological perspective—and also, a few thoughts on the Dark Knight himself.
Murderess, botanist, and eco-terrorist—and probably a heck of a landscape architect—Poison Ivy is many things, and all of them focused on plants, not people. It’s said that she was ignored by her wealthy parents while growing up and that her childhood may have been marred by trauma, although much of her background is obscure. We do know she has what might gently be termed a green thumb. She grows deadly flowers, giant man-eating Venus flytraps, and poisonous orchids whose killing capability she herself has absorbed. Ivy can emit these poisons through her skin, and through her lips, such that she can administer a literal kiss of death, or control people’s minds with powerful pheromones. She’ll use any opportunity for human closeness to advance her agenda: to protect Gotham’s flora and to lay bloody vengeance at the feet of anyone who’d dare to harm a rare botanical. Her violent mood swings—from sweetness and charm to vicious fury—betray her dissociated rage. One wonders if the lack of love she received, growing up, now emerges via her separation from fellow human beings: a schizoid compromise in which Ivy feels close to the denizens of her greenhouse, but not to her fellow persons. Seeing herself as a member of the plant kingdom, she cultivates immunity to another heartbreak like her childhood. Ivy’s emotional instability, aggressive and impulsive behavior, and volatile relationship history (such as her on-again, off-again friendship with Harley Quinn and even her efforts to lure Batman into a deadly kiss) offer hints of a borderline personality disorder — while her exploitative tendencies, habit of holding herself apart from society, and propensity for rationalizing her crimes in defense of innocent plant life indicate dissocial personality disorder, a less severe form of sociopathy.
Be afraid; be very afraid! Or so the Scarecrow would have it, what with his goofy burlap sack-mask and his squirt guns full of the above-mentioned fear toxin. The Scarecrow — otherwise known as, ahem, clinical psychologist Jonathan Crane, Ph.D. — desperately wants everyone who meets him to cower in fear. His villainous schemes often center on contaminating Gotham’s water supply, or just giving someone a snootful of fear-gas and cackling over them as they cringe. But why would someone care so much about making others afraid? It’s not far-fetched to see this as a massive overcompensation — a transformation of Crane’s own anxieties, projected onto others. Very likely Crane, who’s often depicted as a weedy, unprepossessing fellow, grew up feeling threatened by other, bigger boys. He may even have suffered abuse at their hands, or at the hands of a threatening father figure. Since then Crane has, as Sandor Ferenczi would have put it, identified with the aggressor: he has absorbed the traits he once found terrifying, and now copes with his fears by embodying those characteristics. And given his ongoing efforts to gas-bomb the Dark Knight, Crane probably still sees Batman as an especially terrifying echo of those early threats. As for a diagnosis, Crane’s trampling of the rights of his victims, his lack of empathy (one wonders how he earned that Ph.D.), and his failure to demonstrate a conscience initially indicate antisocial personality disorder. However, his fear-gas habits also suggest that he frequently feels threatened by others, whom he may assume are out to hurt him or at least dominate him, which points to a paranoid personality disorder instead.
Many of Batman’s villains play on the concept of duality — like Two-Face, to name the most obvious — but The Ventriloquist expresses it in a uniquely chilling way. Arnold Wesker, a chubby, diffident fellow with a talent for throwing his voice, wouldn’t swat a fly; but Scarface, the nasty, chatty wooden dummy he carries around on his arm, might have you killed as soon as he swiveled his painted head in your direction. It’s not accurate to say that Wesker becomes Scarface; rather, Wesker serves as a conduit through which Scarface is transmitted. Apparently suffering from an extreme form of dissociative identity disorder, Wesker manipulates the scar-faced dummy and gives him a voice, but believes he is completely separate from — and indeed, totally subservient to — the crass, murderous personality that emerges. Moreover, Wesker doesn’t always know what Scarface knows, and can’t anticipate Scarface’s criminal inspirations. In fear for his life, Wesker has even tried to retire from crime… but every time he tries to get out, Scarface pulls him back in, which further reflects Wesker’s deep psychic compartmentalization. Scarface even insults Wesker, ironically calling him “Dummy;” in so doing, Scarface projects an awareness of his own weakness and limitations back onto Wesker, while simultaneously allowing Wesker to voice the dissociated contempt he feels for himself. And Wesker also disowns his powerful feelings of aggression, which he would repress entirely if not for the opportunity his puppet affords him. In this way, the two become interdependent: Wesker gives Scarface his voice, literally, while Scarface gives voice to the qualities that Wesker possesses but can’t let out.
And that brings us to the biggest character disorder of all: Batman’s own. Exactly what disorder doesn’t Batman have? He’s got a paranoid personality, of course — he’s excessively suspicious, arrogant and self-important, and he harbors an unbridgeable sense of his own entitlement (calling himself the “world’s greatest detective,” or “the Dark Knight,” or even just “the Batman,” achieving a distinct grandiosity by using only the definite article). Often, Batman misconstrues the actions of others as hostile, and secretly even plots against his allies (doesn’t he have a shard of Kryptonite lying around the Batcave somewhere?). Plus, he’s emotionally cold and detached — schizoid, even —keeping himself stubbornly secluded from intimate relationships, restricting his range of affect to a taciturn scowl, while developing long-lasting antagonistic connections to various super-criminals. And isn’t it a bit extravagant, or even narcissistic, to splash one’s personal symbol on a costume, a car, a boat, and a plane — or to offer the police a giant spotlight that paints your logo on the night sky itself? At his core, though, Batman obsesses about the murder of his parents, about the comings and goings of various super-villains and street thugs throughout Gotham, and even about the vague, enduring threat of crime itself. His frivolous Bruce Wayne identity seems faded to a mere scrim, a stalking horse concealing his perseverations on crime and punishment. Embodying this punishment — sneaking out each night, foregoing sleep, and brushing off his would-be paramours — rises to the form of a compulsion; Batman drives himself to accomplish this mission with excessive devotion and remains preoccupied with having things his own way. The best diagnosis for Batman, then, might be obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, a rigid, perfectionistic character structure in which his obsessions are all about crime, and his compulsions, broadly speaking, are about limiting his life to the battle against it.
In the end, the best comic books and comic-book movies succeed because they allow exactly what I’ve tried to accomplish here: the perception of real humanity, and real psychological problems, in the larger-than-life characters they depict. It may be the only aspect of Gotham City that really exists in our world — the way the pain and the significant, life-defining events of each Gotham citizen eventually becomes integrated into his or her identity. This is true for each of us, as well, in that our individual histories do so much to define us. Perhaps in Gotham it’s just a bit more common to wear this pain on one’s sleeve, or even as a mask on one’s face.