Sorry there wasn’t a column last week, I was working on this one, but still needed to do a hefty amount of research. If you guys couldn’t tell from my two references in prior columns, I’m a pretty huge comic book geek. My first Midnight showing was of the Sam Raimi Spiderman movie. I have plastic replicas of every Green Lantern lantern corps on the emotional spectrum (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet- even Black and White) and can recite their various oaths.
One of my favorite DC superheroes of all time is, was, and always will be Batman. I’m not exactly sure why, perhaps because he is a normal human being in a world filled with gods and intergalactic cops. He’s a self-made (super)man that didn’t get his powers from the sun, or his genetics, or radiation or anything like that. He worked his ass off and uses his intellect to fight crime. And I guess that speaks to me, I’ve always been a bit of a nerd and used to get bullied a lot until I went all caped crusader on them and beat the shit out of a guy.
But Batman’s more than that, he’s dark, disturbed, and frankly not a person you would really ever call a “hero.” I’m writing this column because at my work the other day, we were talking about good old Bats when my buddy asked me (as a psych major) if I thought Batman had any mental illnesses. Now, I work as a tour guide at a cavern, so I have nothing else better to do with my life during the summer. And so I was inspired to write this article. I’ll be talking a bit about the psychology (and psychopathology) behind Batman and his Rouge’s gallery (which is half of why the Batman mythos is so popular). So let’s get started, shall we?
This first part is going to focus on two of Batman’s villains and arch-enemies that have a lot to do with psychology: The Joker and The Riddler.
Not too long ago, I stumbled upon a really cool fan theory about Heath Ledger’s The Joker, from The Dark Knight. The theory posits that the Joker was a soldier when an IED blew up the truck he was in, causing him to be horrifically scarred, he returned home with severe PTSD, driven mad and angry by the system that spurned him.
It’s interesting theory, and has more than a bit of truth to it. In the Military, you undergo a program known as SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape). This program is basically mock capture, interrogation, and torture in order to train soldiers to deal with the possibility of it. This helps explain how well the Joker faces up to the torture that Batman deals him. It also explains the Joker’s combat effectiveness.
Here’s where the psychology (or rather psycho-pharmacology) comes into play: Tardive Dyskinesia is a condition that results as a side effect of some neuroleptic medication. Neuroleptics are used as anti-psychotics used in the treatment of schizophrenia, extreme bi-polar 1 disorder, and some other anxiety disorders like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder- a very common disorder in war veterans (or those who have underwent extreme trauma). Tardive Dyskinesia involves “ticks,” repetitive, involuntary phyiscal twitches or movements. Ticks are also symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome, but with Tardive Dyskinesia, the most common ticks are things like excessive licking of the lips or flicking of the tounge- which Ledger’s Joker does frequently.
One of the other members of the Dark Knight’s diverse Rouge’s Gallery is the often silly, but nevertheless complex character, The Riddler.
Despite how much I hate Batman Forever and how much more I hate Jim Carey and everything he’s ever said or made or what his wife says or thinks, the movie does show some depth to the Riddler’s character- at least more so than a lot of his prior incarnations. See, originally, the Riddler was fucking lame. He riddled Batman because he likes to do it- and I respect that, the lolz are a valid reason for anything.
But Batman Forever goes a little deeper in some interesting ways (that does not make up for the atrocity that it is). In the interesting and amusing book Batman and Psychology, psychologist Travis Langley claims that the Riddler appears to have a psychological disorder called Borderline Personality Disorder. BPD is characterized by a sort of unstable, incomplete sense of identity that involves chaotic thoughts, moods, actions, and sense of self. One of the common symptoms is something called “splitting,” categorizing people and things into negative and positive extremes. Things are either the greatest thing ever or the worst possible thing ever imaginable.
These extremes can still alternate between worshipping and demonizing the same person from one second to the next. You can see this in Batman Forever when Carrey’s Edward Nygma (GET IT? IT’S A JOKE?) claims that Bruce Wayne is his idol. When Bruce turns down Nygma’s request for funding, Nygma snaps into the opposite extreme and plots to destroy Wayne’s entire life. It’s hero idealizing going too far and into dangerous territory. Later in the film, at a part hosted by Nygma, he wears a fake mole to match the one on Bat-Val Kilmer’s face. The movie even ends with Nygma in an almost vegetative mental state claiming that HE IS Batman.
One of my personal favorite versions of the Riddler was in the video game Arkham Asylum (and it’s sequel, Arkham City). In this version, he leaves clues and trophies for Batman to find/solve because he has a superiority complex. A superiority complex is a Freudian concept (one of the 5% that is sort of right). Classical Superiority Complexes (in the strict Freudian sense) don’t really exist. But the general concept- that a person strives at every instance to prove themselves superior to others- actually tends to be supported. It lies in something called Defensive Self-Esteem.
Two points of clarification: 1. Self-Esteem is how you feel about yourself, not what you think about yourself- that’s Self-thought. 2. Self Esteem has two different continua (fun fact: that’s the plural of Continuum), implicit (unconscious) and explicit (conscious). Explicit Self-Esteem can be self reported through a variety of measures and can be skewed by a variety of things (social desirability, for one) and can be any level of high-low. Implicit Self-Esteem is usually measured using an IAT (read my column on Racism for more on that) looking at the association between Self/Good. So at the end you get a a 2×2 grid with 4 types of Self-Esteem:
Now, before you go out and test yourself and freak out, I just want to say that no one type of self esteem is better than another- unless you have Defensive Self-Esteem. Seriously, that’s been correlated with all kinds of bad shit like racism, social aggression, manipulation, back-stabbing, and pathological and compulsive lying. It’s called Defensive Self-Esteem because people with it are defensive, they feel shitty, but don’t want to so they lie about it to everyone (and themselves). So when reminded about it, they lash out. This can explain the Riddler’s obsession with being better than Batman. He has to be better than him. And he has to prove it to everyone.
The First Person to answer this riddle in the comments section gets a special prize!
Join me next week as I talk about the big man himself, The Dark Knight, The Caped Crusader, The Batman, and if he’s crazy- and just how crazy he might be.
Be sure to check out my other column, where I review dumb-ass action films every Monday: Mindless Action Mondays
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If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone who does.