Superheroes & Psychology


Jul 9, 2008
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Superheroes & Psychology, Part 1: Batman … or just batty?

As every fan familiar with Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego Batman knows, the caped crusader has some deep-seated mental problems stemming from witnessing the death of his parents when he was just a child. In the Christopher Nolan film Batman Begins, actor Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne even admits, “…a guy who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues.”

Batman always seems to be at the forefront of discussions regarding the psychological instability of superheroes; and with the upcoming release of the new Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne’s mental health is once again coming under scrutiny.

Dr. Travis Langley is considered a “Superherologist” and an expert on superhero psychology; he is a professor of psychology at Henderson State University in Arkansas and author of the book, Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight, which focuses on many of the mental aspects of the Dark Knight and his alter-ego.

In part one of our two part series on superheroes and psychology, Dr. Langley graciously broke a way from his extremely busy schedule to give Nerdvana readers some insight into the Dark Knight’s psyche and explain what it is that makes super-beings so screwy.

Given the nature of what they do, it seems that most superheroes have some sort of psychological problem. What is it about Batman that makes people associate him with mental instability more than with any other hero?

Dr. Langley: He doesn’t have superpowers. Superman has fantastic powers and feels obligated to use them in fantastic ways. Superman wears a costume because he is a superhero. Batman, conversely, is a superhero because he wears a costume. If Superman flew off wearing a jumpsuit to save a crashing plane, he’d still be a superhero. If Batman wore a jumpsuit to fight mugger, he’d be a vigilante in a jumpsuit. Because he does not have that kind of power, we inherently contemplate the mental status of this guy who dresses like a bat.

With your knowledge of the various comic book universes, who would you consider the hero with the most psychological problems and why? Which villain do you think is most mentally unstable and why?

Dr. Langley: That depends on how obscure you want to go. No matter who I pick, a reader can reasonably argue that someone else is crazier. Marvel Comics’ Moon Knight has dissociative identity disorder (multiple personality), but they’re pretty stable identities. The Sentry is a lot more disturbed than Moon Knight and as powerful as Superman, which makes him more potentially dangerous. Deadpool is crazy in ways that defy real-world analysis, as is DC’s Ambush Bug, and neither one of them is consistently heroic or villainous. It’s hard to have a “most unstable” hero or villain because the ones who are the most out of touch with reality aren’t going to be capable enough to survive long.

Have you ever thought of writing/creating a hero that is a psychologist who tries to deal with super villains on a medical/scientific level?

Dr. Langley: [Laughs] Yes. Something like that would have to cross my mind, wouldn’t it? Writing such a character would seem a bit self-indulgent. Inevitably, though, some other writer would fall on the cliché of making the therapist “go mad.” Jeph Loeb pulled that lame stunt when he made Doc Samson go insane and turn murderous. It’s a shame. That’s such a waste of a character. One of my favorite comic book stories ever involved Samson going through a series of therapeutic interviews with the members of X-Factor.

If Bruce Wayne did not have the financial means to do what he does as Batman, what do you think he would be doing in the ‘real world?’

Dr. Langley: There is no Bruce Wayne without the financial means. He grew up with that wealth. A Bruce Wayne who grew up without that wealth would have a different personality, so I can’t speculate on what he’d be like. Stan Lee once wrote a story about a Batman who grew up without the wealth. The answer in that case is that Bruce will do whatever the writer wants him to do.

Your book talks about Batman’s relationships with ‘bad girls’ that he should be locking up. Besides the obvious physical attraction, what is it that draws them together?

Dr. Langley: Danger is exciting. Batman feels most alive when he’s in danger, so dangerous women make him feel more alive. I spend a whole chapter in my book speculating on this. Batman is the truest part of himself. He can’t always fulfill women who find his Bruce Wayne playboy act attractive. Why, then, do criminals like Talia al Ghul, Catwoman, and Nocturna appeal to him the most? Why doesn’t he develop long-term relationships with superheroines? There are many reasons, but I think the most important one is that superheroines are good people and, in his own opinion, he’s not.

Why do you think costumed heroes who have lost their parents (Batman, Spider-Man, Superman) are so popular in modern culture?

Dr. Langley: I discussed this with Stan Lee once because this question has fascinated me for some time. Stan’s characters were almost all orphans simply because he didn’t bother writing about their parents. Other writers, not Stan, eventually established that those heroes’ parents were all dead. Notable exceptions like Spider-Man and Daredevil were orphans because the loss of father figures played an important part in motivating them to use their powers to help others; plus Stan told me he wanted Peter Parker to have a “tough life.” Parents get in the way. If your Mom is fretting over you keeping your supersuit clean and you getting lunch before fighting Dr. Doom, that’s situation comedy, not a heroic epic.

Many people cite heroes in comic books as being a positive influence on their lives. What are the healthy traits that Batman possesses, if any?

Dr. Langley: He has many: self-control, self-sacrifice, confidence, intelligence, analytical ability, altruism. If not for that great self-control to keep his anger in check, he’d have gotten himself killed long ago, after beating some others to death. Batman spends his life in service to others. He has sacrificed so much to try to keep other people from suffering losses like his own. At the end of the movie The Dark Knight, he sacrifices his own reputation to try to preserve the image of Gotham’s White Knight, Harvey Dent, because he thinks that’s illusion is what the people of Gotham City need. He may have underestimated his own ability to inspire hope, as we should see in The Dark Knight Rises.

Dr. Langley will be speaking at the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con this Thursday, July 12 at the Comics Arts Conference Session #4: The Dark Knight Rises: Is Batman Broken? You can also follow the good doctor on Facebook at

Superheroes & Psychology, Part 2: Flashy costumes, cool gadgets and PTSD

The psychology of costumed crusaders in comic-books has been the subject of discussion by fans, artists, writers and mental health professionals for decades; and the psychological influence that the violence and sometimes twisted sexual predilections of the heroes within those comic-book pages was the focus of the 1950s Senate hearings stemming from Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, a book that changed the face of comics and the public’s attitude towards the art form. Batman has always seemed to be at the forefront of discussions regarding the psychological instability of superheroes; and during the Wertham focus on the evils of comic-books the hero was even cast as a gay man preying on young boys (i.e. Robin, the Boy Wonder) as a sexual predator.

With the upcoming release of the new Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne’s mental health is once again coming into the public light, as is the potentially negative influence that violent comic-books, video games, TV and movies have on society and children in particular. It’s easy to do fantasy-fanboy-armchair-psychoanalysis of superheroes and ask questions like, “If comic-books are a negative influence on children, would Bruce Wayne have become a super-villain from reading comics as a child?” But I wondered what insight actual mental health professionals might have on super-psychological problems.

Dr. Elizabeth Ramirez is a clinical psychologist and behavioral health professional from right here in the East Valley. Dr. Ramirez has a private practice in Mesa where she treats children, adolescents and adults and she has served in the mental health field for the last 12 years. She was kind enough to take a few minutes out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions about what might be going on inside those masked heads and how super-characters can influence society.

With new movies and a fully realized stature in pop-culture, comic book characters like Batman, Spider-Man and the Avengers are more popular than ever. What do you think it is about costumed heroes and villains that people find appealing?

Dr. Ramirez: Those with special powers have always been appealing, from tales of the gods to Superman. We like to hear stories of more than human feats. I think what’s more appealing of current heroes and villains it that when their identity is concealed – it could be anyone. Any one of us could be a superhero and no one would know. There is potential for all of us to be special in some way.

In the film Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne jokingly says, “Well, a guy who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues.” Realistically, what do you think those issues would be and do you think people, especially children, who read these comics and watch the movies will be negatively influenced by the behaviors they see?

Dr. Ramirez:
In that particular scene Bruce was trying to deflect attention from himself to make fun of Batman. There is some truth that choosing the bat as his symbol has some dark implications. Although usually benign, bats are regarded as scary, malevolent animals. Not much is understood of this creature and not knowing is much more frightening.

I don’t think children understand the complexities of Batman operating outside of the law. Children see him as the hero that saves the day. Kids are focused on the flashy costume and cool gadgets (not to mention the cars!) They don’t understand the motives behind his actions. Bruce is avenging his parents’ murder with every excursion, but that is probably too much for children to comprehend. Children are generally not negatively influenced by what they watch. They are much more influenced by the way adults around them behave and how they might react to the media.

Given what you know about the Batman/Bruce Wayne character, what would you say is his psychological diagnosis?

Dr. Ramirez: [Laughs] He is definitely suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), he experiences flashbacks, anger and self-destructive behaviors. He also demonstrates some antisocial personality characteristics. We would have to further rule out the diagnosis. Bruce has a skewed view of what is right and wrong. This view often leads him to break the law. He doesn’t really make connections with people either, which would qualify him for the antisocial personality disorder.

Do you think people who are against sex and violence in comics, video games, TV and movies have valid concerns over their influence on society? Do you think Fredric Wertham’s 1954 stance against comics had any validity?

Dr. Ramirez: Research has demonstrated that violence [in media] doesn’t affect most children. If a child is already demonstrating violent behaviors the material will allow them to act out more. However, for children that show normal levels of aggression this type of stimuli doesn’t affect them. Most children are exposed to some violence and sex, which is normal. I believe it’s important not to overexpose children to violence – and it shouldn’t be the only thing they are exposed to. However, they shouldn’t be protected from it because it’s only mirroring real life. Being a parent means being a gate keeper for all information, whether violent or not.

Overall, do you think that cartoon heroes and villains in pop culture have a positive or negative influence on children? What about on society in general?

Dr. Ramirez: I think some children really connect with the concepts and style of comic books. I would rather my child read this genre of literature than nothing at all. All literature affects people, it depends what perspective you take from it and what you learn from it. Since the beginnings of storytelling there have been heroes and villains; cartoons and comics are the medium artists are using to portray their stories. We must be careful the story is meaningful as much as the characters.

Read part one of our two-part Superheroes and psychology series, “The Dark Knight – Batman…or just Batty?” It’s an incredible interview with Dr. Travis Langley, the author of Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight.
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