Batman and Philosophy

What is it like to be a Batman?

If you’re a die-hard comic book fan like I am, then at one point or another you've probably contemplated some of the deeper themes, meanings and morays behind the superficial "adolescent power fantasies" that superhero characters and their situations are often said to represent by those who don't understand the medium. Perhaps you've wondered what it would actually be like to be a hero like Batman or to be Batman himself.

In an article published in Issue 44 of The Philosophers' Magazine, Ron Novy, lecturer in philosophy & the humanities at the University of Central Arkansas, posits the question:

What is it like to be a Batman?

Acting like Batman is quite different from actually knowing what it’s like to be Batman. At best, one can “do as Batman does” – brood in the Batcave, admire the long curve of Catwoman’s calf, or tumble down an alley with some of the Joker’s henchmen. Insofar as your actions mirror those of Batman, with a little practice you could do a pretty fair job of behaving as Batman behaves – but this is not the same as knowing what it’s like for Batman to be Batman. To actually know Batman’s experience of such events – that is, to know what it’s like to be Batman – would require knowledge of Batman’s subjective experiences, knowledge to which (it seems) Batman alone has access.

Batman and the Joker were each born in violence, each the product of an ordinary person who was fundamentally transformed on “one bad day”. Their strange intimacy is the madness shared by two angels of death debating conditions necessary for human freedom.

Batman’s story is well known. Young Bruce Wayne witnesses the senseless murder of his parents by a small-time crook. Despite their cooperation, the mugger loses his nerve and shoots the pair. In that instant, Bruce loses not only his parents, but also his illusory understanding of the world. Suddenly, he realizes that not all people are decent and that not everyone cares about his happiness; that some problems can’t be resolved by a generous dip into a bottomless bank account; that visceral hate and explosive violence can be liberating; and that the polished world of Wayne Enterprises is built upon a sunless foundation in which suffering and want are not isolated occurrences.

The Joker’s “one bad day” is less well known: An unremarkable chemical engineer has quit his job and failed at his dream of being a stand-up comedian; he loses his pregnant wife in a fluke accident, is forced into a bungled robbery of his former employer, and plummets into a tank of noxious waste while fleeing the police. It is a baptism from which emerges the Joker: green hair, pallid skin, and insane.

Recognizing Batman’s similar experience of destruction and rebirth, the Joker is stunned by Batman’s commitment to fight chaos. “When I saw what a black, awful joke the world was, I went crazy as a coot!” he told Batman. “I admit it! Why can’t you? … It’s all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for – it’s all a monstrous, demented gag!”

For both Batman and the Joker, violence overthrew a coherent picture of the world without installing a replacement; they share this realization and are bound together in an effort to make sense of it. Like violators of the tabernacle or visitors in Oz, each has glimpsed behind the curtain of appearances.

This experience of becoming disillusioned and of catching a glimpse of secret knowledge binds Batman and the Joker, though neither is quite sure what was revealed about how the world “really is”. While they have different hopes regarding the nature of that world behind the appearances, they have only one another with whom to commiserate regarding the terrifying recognition that this world – our world of cops and robbers, joy-buzzers and cemeteries – for them doesn’t exist.

Even acknowledging that this phenomenal world is one of appearance, Batman and the Joker, at least in regard to one another, behave as if the world matters. Batman has ended more than a few story arcs by returning the killer clown to Arkham Asylum – something one might not expect given the Joker’s body count and the numerous opportunities Batman has had to offer Gotham City “a more permanent solution” to its recurring Joker problem. Yet as he reveals to Mr. Zsasz, the serial killer who commemorates each kill with a tally mark carved into his own body, Batman needs to continue his relationship with those he fights. It is in their struggle that he gains recognition as something apart from the world of appearance: “Do you want to know what power is? Real power? It’s not ending a life, it’s saving it. It’s looking in someone’s eyes and seeing that spark of recognition, that instant they realize something they’ll never forget.”

The Joker, too, recognizes this reciprocal relationship with Batman, a relationship without which each one would cease to be who he now is. As he explains it to Batman, “You can’t kill me without becoming like me. I can’t kill you without losing the only human being who can keep up with me. Isn’t that ironic?!” For the Joker, behind the façade that dissolved in the tank of chemical slop, there is only chaos. While literally nonsensical, chaos is also wholly liberating – in chaos, there is no fear to restrain you and no conditions that might limit your choices. According to his therapist at Arkham Asylum, the Joker “creates himself each day. He sees himself as the Lord of Misrule and the world as a theatre of the absurd.”

For Batman, this world beneath the appearances is one of order, though not a predetermined order one might read about in that copy of Metaphysics for Dummies you picked up from the discount table at your local bookstore. Rather, it is a moral order that must be wrestled into existence by recognizing the effect of one’s choices on our shared future.

Yet, for all of the shared events, nonsense, chaos, tragedies, and victories that Batman and the Joker have experienced, they do not – and cannot – know what it’s like to be in one another’s shoes. Batman’s phenomenal experience and situation in the world is wholly his own; the Joker’s phenomenal experience and situation in the world is wholly his own; and each is unable to experience the world in any other way. Yet, both Batman and the Joker are committed to the absurd yet serious task of seeing the world as it truly is. Each seems to grasp that this requires a sort of testing, and thus the other’s participation, despite that other person’s literal inability to experience the world in the same way.

For more Batman philosophical discussions, read Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul, part of the Blackwell Philosophy and Popular Culture series. Edited by Mark D. White and Robert Arp, the book tackles the Batman mythologies from the standpoint of philosophy discussing such topics as:

Why doesn't Batman just kill the Joker and end everyone's misery?

Can we hold the Joker morally responsible for his actions?

Is Batman better than Superman?

If everyone followed Batman's example, would Gotham be a better place?

What is the Tao of the Bat?
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