‘Dark’ Batman tells us much about our attitudes to mental health

The Daily Star may win the award for ‘most predictable headline’ in the wake of the killings at the Dark Knight Rises premiere in Colorado – ‘Batman Psycho Kills 12’. Both the Mirror and the Sun referred to James Holmes as a ‘maniac’, as did the Scottish Daily Record. As with Anders Brevik and other mass shooters, the inability to find an explanation for their actions automatically renders them mentally ill in the eyes of the media. However, this ‘diagnosis’ does not remove responsibility in the traditional media narrative around mass killings. Indeed, one of the most interesting features of the Brevik trial has been that the prosecution, rather than the defence, has been pushing for him to be found insane – the defence are keener to demonstrate that he acted rationally as a result of the perceived threats of Islam and socialism.

The desire both to label and so understand shocking events like that in Colorado, and to see ‘proper’ justice done under the auspices of the law, rather than medicine, provides the basic ingredients for the conclusion of any ‘superhero’ story, and is especially prevalent in the Batman universe. Jonathan Jones asked, in the Guardian’s blog ‘On Art’, whether the Batman franchise inflicted a ‘sick universe’ on its fans, and although he clarified ‘I am absolutely not accusing the Batman comics or films of provoking this crime’, the very act of raising the question, and the term ‘inflict’ suggested that somehow the films were bleeding out into the psyches of fans. His conclusion, that the camp Adam West tv series represents the most ‘innocent’ and, by implication, ‘moral’ version of Batman, also implies that the modern iteration is somehow ‘guilty’. Of what, Jones does not say.

However, part of the reason for this change can be found in the more general development of attitudes towards mental illness. If mental health was though of at all in the earlier iterations of the franchise, it was either as an inappropriately medical approach to a failure of personal responsiblity, or as something which was not well understood, but which certainly shouldn’t be treated with inhumane institutionalisation and personality-sapping medication. Even Enoch ‘Rivers of Blood’ Powell supported the closure of asylums in Britain, and the process of deinstitutionalization in the United States occurred at the same time. Mental illness was not seen to be closely connected to criminality, and so the antagonists in series like Batman were ‘crooks’ or ‘villains’ – possibly psychologically ‘different’ to ‘ordinary Americans’, but not yet explicitly ‘mentally ill’.

This was all to change through the 1970s and 1980s (the period over which the Batman franchise became progressively darker). As the treatment of mental illness moved out of secluded hospitals which kept ‘the mad’ away from ‘normal people’, suddenly it became clear that sometimes people with a history of mental illness committed crimes. This led to the establishment in US law of the ‘guilty but mentally ill’ plea (in 12 states), which enables juries to find both criminal responsibility and the influence of a mental illness in the committing of a crime, ending the problems caused when a defendant found ‘not guilty for reasons of mental illness’ was free to go when discharged from hospital. The development of the ‘guilty but mentally ill’ plea occurred in 1975, only one year after the first appearance of ‘Arkham Asylum’ (then ‘Arkham Hospital’) in the Batman comics – even in the early days, the Batman franchise kept pace with, or anticipated, the issues raised by deinstitutionalization for criminal justice.

Arkham became more central to the Batman universe over the course of the 1970s and 80s, as well as closer to Gotham, featuring in a number of stand-alone comics and graphic novels in the late 80s and early 90s. The asylum is depicted as a stereotypical Victorian pile, full of long, narrow corridors, straitjackets and restraints, and is often the setting for exploring questions of how different Batman (troubled childhood, loner, costumed, above the law) is from the insane super-villains he is pitted against. This theme is especially strong in Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth and Batman: The Last Arkham.


These twin concerns again echo and reflect broader questions about conformity and mental illness, as well as partly suggesting a nostalgia for the days before deinstitutionalization, when ‘ordinary Americans’ could be sure that mentally ill offenders would find themselves in an institution with a recognizably penitential aspect – in Arkham, there is little evidence of treatments like occupational or art therapy. In addition the continuity of the Batman stories makes it clear that, for characters like the Joker, or Bane, rehabilitation is not even a distant possibility. Medical staff do discuss rehabilitation, but this marks them out as naïve, and possibly soon to become a villain, as in the cases of both Jonathan Crane (Scarecrow) and Dr. Harleen Quinzel (Harley Quinn).


That this representation of Arkham has remained to the present, or at least the 2009 video game, suggests that attitudes towards mental illness have changed similarly little. If anything, the interest in Batman’s own psyche, emphasised in Nolan’s recent trilogy, suggests greater suspicion about possible mental illness even in those who seem to be ‘good’, such as the successful business man and philanthropist Bruce Wayne. While it is easy to blame mental illness, or the ‘sick’ influence of media for events like those in Colorado, it is more productive to realise that these influences do not go only one way – society is reflected in media far more strongly than media has the power the change society. We like to think that perpetrators of mass killings fit a nice narrative pattern, like Batman’s Joker, but the truth is that human beings are complex, and the line between ‘crook’ and ‘ordinary American’, between ‘nice guy’ and ‘psycho killer’ are so indistinct as to sometimes be invisible. Media can help us understand how our societies think, and influence some actions in combination with a plethora of other factors, but it can’t turn life into an easy narrative with superheroes and supervillains – a realisation the Batman franchise suggests may be dawning.