“Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot. So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts.” Welcome inside the head of Bruce Wayne, who watched his parents die, setting him on a course to wage a perpetual one-man war on crime. His phenomenal wealth and his limitless resources were not enough. His formidable intellect and his superior firepower were not enough. But fear . . . fear was enough.
Batman is unique in his origins among the icons of comic book history. Superman wears bright colors, Spider-Man tells jokes, the Fantastic Four don’t bother to conceal their identities. But Batman wears a mask and a dark costume. He keeps to the shadows and fights at night. And he is deadly, deadly serious. Batman has no extraordinary powers; he can’t fly or spin webs or turn invisible. But among the arsenal of weapons he does have, fear is always at hand.
This summer fear will be on chilling display in the latest bat-film, Batman Begins. Here we see Bruce Wayne formulating his strategy and coming into his own as a champion of justice. But along the way to earning that title he has to stare down the Scarecrow, a villain who is perhaps better trained in his secret weapon than he is.
The 2004 story Cast Shadows sums up the impact Batman has had on the community he watches over: How does ONE MAN protect an ENTIRE CITY? By making sure the shadow he casts is long and wide . . . so that its reach can embrace-or engulf-all that walk here. So that every man, woman and child in the city . . . can feel its touch. If you are good, the shadow’s wings are a welcome, protective blanket. If you are bad, you know its touch as a black splinter of fear.
In Batman’s city, however, fear is not solely the tool of the just. There’s a rampant criminal element that keeps the city constantly on edge and Batman constantly on alert. It’s been argued over the years, in fact, whether the type of culture Batman establishes actually breeds the criminals that keep him busy. The city itself might be described as a sort of laboratory of fear; for every villain Batman catches and deposits in Arkham Asylum, another springs up. The 1989 Batman film hints at this running question in a conversation between Batman and his love interest, Vicki Vale, and again in the final encounter between Batman and the Joker: Vicki Vale: Some people think you’re as dangerous as the Joker. Batman: He’s psychotic. Vicki Vale: Some people say the same about you. Batman: What people? Vicki Vale: Well, face it. You’re not exactly normal, are you? Batman: This isn’t exactly a normal world, is it? . . . Batman: I’m going to kill you! The Joker: You IDIOT! You made me. Remember, you dropped me into that vat of chemicals. That wasn’t easy to get over, and don’t think that I didn’t try. Batman: You killed my parents. The Joker: What? What? What are you talking about? Batman: I made you, you made me first. The Joker: Give me a break. I was a kid when I killed your parents. When I say “I made you” you gotta say “you made me.” How childish can you get?
Batman himself occasionally acknowledges the similarities between his calling and the crimes of his enemies, as evidenced in three graphic novels: he seeks reconciliation with the Joker in The Killing Joke; he identifies with the inmates of Arkham in Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth; and in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns he offers solidarity to the hopelessly defeated Two-Face in the aftermath of a failed rehabilitation: Two-Face: What do you see Batman? Batman: A reflection. I see a reflection, Harvey.
The difference between Batman and his enemies lies in the call. They all trace their origins independent of one another; a city in crisis-not Batman-is the common cause of their troubles. The Joker sets out to release the inherent chaos of a city that left his wife dead and him permanently disfigured; Two-Face lashes out at the city as an expression of rage after half his face is burned off by a random criminal; Arkham Asylum breeds a counterculture of insanity that reinforces the madness of the patients and destroys the souls of the staff. Villains in Batman’s universe are reactive, wallowing in the various experiences of urban meaninglessness that set off their villainous careers.
In contrast Bruce Wayne responds to his parents’ death by seeking out the transcendent meaning behind it: his city is broken in such a way that an innocent family can be destroyed in an instant, but he holds on to the hope that his city can be healed of this madness. That hope becomes a calling, a mystical anointing that begins his career as Batman.
Hope, however, is compelling only when held in perpetual tension with fear; the Scarecrow shows us as much. Introduced to mainstream audiences in Batman Begins, Jonathan Crane was terrorized by bullies as a child and ridiculed by professors as he studied biochemistry and psychology in college. He discovered a way to synthetically produce fear, and set out to take revenge on everyone who had mistreated him over the years. He narrates his conversion into the Scarecrow in 2003’s Batman: Terror: As a graduation present to myself I combined the two studies to brew my first batch of fear gas, scare my psych professor to death, and apply for his vacated position. . . . Where the psyche is concerned, fear is everything! It provokes our every motive and governs our every response! The very act of living is nothing but a conditioned response to the fear of death! Crane puts himself outside the experience of the people around him. His crimes are social experiments, and his victims are the subjects of his research. Everyone from Batman to the bum on the street is vulnerable to fear, and as the self-proclaimed master of fear, the Scarecrow is thus master over everyone.
The Scarecrow’s story, like so many of Gotham’s most frightening criminals, bears a great deal of similarity to Batman’s story. Like Bruce Wayne, Jonathan Crane suffered life-altering pain at the hands of others; like Wayne, Crane is tempted toward isolation and self-interest; like Wayne, Crane adopts a fearful alter-ego and employs fear as a central tactic in advancing his agenda.
The critical difference is in these two characters’ agendas: Scarecrow gives in to temptation and seeks revenge and domination; Batman resists temptation and seeks redemption. The Scarecrow can’t seem to conquer Batman and is ultimately defeated again and again by the fear he thought he had mastered.
In Batman Begins we see a war fought over fear, but we will each leave the theater only to face that war again and again in our own lives. In Bowling for ColumbineMichael Moore suggests that fear-not civil liberties, bad parenting or phallic obsession-drives the American fascination with guns. We fear the British or the Russians or the Arabs or the people down the street because they threaten our right to be left alone. Our homes are our castles, and we fortify our castles with all sorts of armaments.
But with the retreat into the home that has characterized American culture over the past thirty years-from cable and satellite television to pay-per-view movies and online shopping and groceries by delivery-calling has been sacrificed for the sake of fear. We abdicate our responsibility to our city because to fulfill it would inconvenience our private agendas. We are socialized to wage a one-person war with the world to protect our interests and achieve our objectives, and to hell with anyone who stands in our way. The book The Myth of the American Superhero highlights this problematic model of heroism: in a culture that gives in to the temptation toward isolation and self-interest, we degenerate into solitary empires that make legitimate any means deemed necessary to secure and advance our individual sovereignty. Nobody wins; we live in constant fear of everyone else, and they live in constant fear of us.
In contrast, Batman wages a one-man war on crime, but he doesn’t do so by himself. In Batman Begins we are introduced to Batman’s community: a mentor who trains him in the art of war and helps him to find himself, a butler who has known him from birth and who helps him maintain his humanity, a police force that holds him accountable but ultimately offers him its trust; and a variety of other characters who round out Bruce Wayne and reveal to him the contours of a world beset with violence but ultimately intended for good.
Compare Batman to the Scarecrow, a pitiful man living in isolation, convinced early on that his calling is to kill or be killed, to seize power before anyone else. Crane is unwilling to trust, and he pre-empts all possibility of meaningful relationship by exploiting people’s fears and stepping all over them. The hero of this story is never in doubt: a world modeled after Batman would be infinitely preferable to a world modeled after the Scarecrow -even though the Scarecrow’s world is all too much closer to our own. As Carl Jung put it in his brief The Undiscovered Self, “The distance [today] between man and man is much greater than is conducive to public welfare or beneficial to our psychic needs.”
Bruce Wayne allows no such distance between himself and his neighbor. The crime that changed his life-the killing of his parents-was one example of the crisis that plagues his city, and though he cannot bring back his parents, he cannot bring himself to withdraw from the city that wounded him.
He certainly could have; he had a limitless fortune and a world opportunity to soften the blow of his parents’ death. He could have funneled those funds into a lifetime of therapy. He could have surrounded himself with material indulgences to distract him from his pain. He could have descended into drugs or alcohol as an escape. He could have said “To hell with this city that kills its own.” Instead he responded in a way that too few of us do: he invested himself in the redemption of his city.
Batman is a hero because he has responded to a heroic call; in the process he has overcome the little and large fears that so often paralyze the rest of us. Likewise each of us has a call to answer, but we cannot fulfill our call from the comfort of our castle. A hero by definition cannot exist in isolation: someone or something needs a hero to intervene. What Batman reminds us this summer is that no matter how alone we fool ourselves into thinking we are, no matter how tragic the stories that have sent us into isolation, we are needed to serve the greater good. Along the way, as we respond to the heroic call placed before us, we will discover that we have needs ourselves, and if we will muster up the courage to enter into a community of need, we will find ourselves ultimately in a community of heroes.