NOTE: As you probably guessed by the title, this blog post contains discussion of mass shootings and violence.
I don’t know how much of an international audience I have, but in case it hasn’t been clear before, I live in the United States. Any of my readers outside of the US that keep up with international news might be aware of the US’s problem with mass shootings. To quote our president, we have gotten to a point where mass shootings have become routine. Within just the past few years alone, the United States have been rocked with shootings on college campuses, shootings in churches, a shooting in a Sikh temple, a shooting in a Holocaust museum, multiple shootings in movie theaters, the shooting of nearly a couple dozen first graders, and a shooting live on television. Our most recent high-profile mass shooting was slightly more than a week of this writing at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. There has been almost as many mass shootings this year as there have been days in the year. What has become just as routine in this country as the shootings themselves is the tepid response to them by our politicians and news media. What always follows is an acrimonious and hollow debate about the accessibility of guns with some lip service given towards improving how we treat mental illness. The debate never gets past bickering and propaganda until it dies down as no steps are taken to prevent mass shootings in the future. Until yet another one happens (usually within a week of the last one at this point) and the cycle starts once again. I might find the absurdity of this funny if this was some sort of dark Stanley Kubrick comedy or an episode of The Boondocks instead of real life with real people getting killed.
But what does any of this have to do with Batman?
Batman is one of the most popular and beloved pop culture icons of all time. In the 76 years since his first appearance in Detective Comics, Batman has enthralled and captivated multiple generations over an array of multiple media that includes comic books, television, radio, and cinema. At this point in his legacy, it has become an unspoken rule in Internet subculture that Batman is the greatest hero ever and Batman always wins.
I think you see the point. This doesn’t even include his most popular memes.
But what’s the connection of Batman’s popularity to our epidemic of mass shootings? I promise I’m going somewhere with this. Before I can answer that, I have to answer this question; what is it about Batman that has made him endure for three quarters of a century? Well, who is Batman?
To give some context to the creation behind Batman, he was created in 1939. The US had been in the grips of the Great Depression and just like Superman created a year prior, he served as an escapist power fantasy for a forlorn populace. Unlike Superman who was a God-like being who fell to the earth to save us all, Batman traded the superhuman strength and speed for superhuman ingenuity and disposable income. Conceptually, Batman further exemplifies a power fantasy by going from a young boy who helplessly witnesses his parents get murdered by criminals to a single man who is able to foil the dastardly deeds of Gotham’s most insidious criminal masterminds. Batman is as wealthy and brilliant as he is physically fit, well-trained in various martial arts, and intimidating to his enemies. The power fantasies superheroes like Batman and Superman fulfilled for their audiences would influence the direction much of popular media would take from then on. Not only in the world of comics as superheroes would become a mainstay in the following decade either. Batman begat power fantasies like these as well:
The ubiquity of this power fantasy inspired by Batman has influenced the way our collective psyche views the world. In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, the president of the National Rifle Association Wayne LaPierre cynically proclaimed “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”. Rhetoric like this would be crux of the argument not only against nationally increasing restrictions to firearm access, but increasing the accessibility of guns (along with the appropriation of patriotic symbolism and paranoia about totalitarian government takeovers). Where else could such a statement as this make any sense but in a world where we have been conditioned to accept ideas like John Rambo defeating all of Vietnam by himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in Commando destroying a whole crime syndicate single-handed, or one man with a long ass magnum or one man in tights doing a more efficient job fighting crime than a whole police department? Wayne LaPierre and the NRA know this image is ingrained in our collective psyches and uses it to empower scared people to live out these power fantasies by purchasing guns. What they neglected to mention that it is hard enough for someone who is trained in combat and marksmanship to know who exactly who the assailant is, keep from acting irrationally, and keep from injuring any innocent bystanders, let alone some average schmo with a concealed carry license. Here is what Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson had to say about the Umpqua Community College shooting if he was there at the time it happened:
“Not only would I probably not cooperate with him, I would not just stand there and let him shoot me, I would say, ‘Hey guys, everybody attack him. He may shoot me, but he can’t get us all,'”
It’s all fun and games when a person is beating their chest about what they think they would do in such a situation, but it typically doesn’t play out as cleanly in practice. Earlier this week, a woman in Michigan with a concealed carry permit attempted to stop a shoplifter at a Home Depot by frantically shooting at him in the parking lot. Even if this woman had stopped the shoplifter from fleeing the scene, does she have any idea how dangerous it is to fire a gun off in a public parking lot for everybody else around? And is shooting somebody really a just punishment for stealing a few materials at the store?
This brings me to our next problem in which our discourse about mass shootings is conducted. Much needed nuance about the multiple conditions that might inspire and allow people to commit shootings gets lost in infantile binaries about “good guys” and “bad guys”. Who are the “bad guys”? It’s easy enough to label anyone that would kill innocent people as “bad guys”, sure. But these definitions are a lot more subjective than they seem. The shoplifter at the Home Depot in Michigan didn’t kill anyone, he just stole some materials. Yet in the view of the woman with the gun, he is enough of a “bad guy” to act as judge, jury, and executioner on the spot. Even for the violent criminals, executing them or taking the most punitive measure isn’t enough in my opinion without considering the contexts and conditions that possibly inspired their violent acts. Simply labeling someone as a “bad guy” is just a flippant way of dehumanizing someone. And Batman has been guilty of this for 76 years. As an extremely wealthy, well-connected man dedicated to eradicating street crime, wouldn’t it be more productive for Batman to use his money and connections to try to address the urban decay and likely unemployment issues of Gotham City instead of running the streets at night and beating up poor people? Talk about missing the forest for the trees. Batman would get even worse in this regard under the direction of Frank Miller.
Even more disgusting than this is in Miller’s deservedly-maligned All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, where our Caped Crusader takes a sick glee in violently vanquishing street criminals.
And here is what we’re supposed to think of all of this within the context of the story.
Those like Wayne LaPierre that argue against restricting access to guns in the wake of a mass shooting suggest that the real issue behind them is how we deal with mental health. As I have mentioned in one of my previous blog posts, the only time mental health comes up for discussion in our broader discourse is in the wake of a mass shooting. This suggests that there is a connection between mental health issues and mass violence, which is extremely offensive because the large majority of people with mental health issues are not violent. Leading the pack in perpetuating this offensive stereotypes is this series itself.
All of Batman’s villains are so mentally unstable that it drives them to commit crimes, which often include conspiring to murder everyone in Gotham City. There is a consistent pattern in which a character shown to struggle with mental health issues eventually descends into a life of crime. Also, the suggestion that this series makes time and time again is that the best way of dealing with these mentally unstable people is to beat them to a pulp and lock them up. The only person with mental health issues they don’t portray in this manner is the Dark Knight himself.
His portrayal is hardly positive either. I completely understand that a little boy seeing his parents murdered in front of his eyes is extremely traumatic, but he clearly never properly dealt with it. It’s valiant to dedicate your life to fighting crime, but besides the flawed way in with Batman is going about doing so, his obsessiveness and the duality between his Batman persona and Bruce Wayne persona are symptomatic of a deeply unhealthy man. Isn’t Alfred supposed to be Batman’s surrogate father figure? Did none of his behavior all this time he has taken care of him raise any red flags? Did Batman ever talk to a psychiatrist in his life? Withholding all this anger and obsessiveness is not a healthy way of dealing with the death of his parents. Bruce Wayne is no power fantasy to aspire to; he is still very much a victim of his psychological pain and has never properly addressed it. In reality, a person like this would not be able to maintain a mass fortune, a steady job as a CEO of their own enterprise, a healthy social life, sobriety AND do a better job fighting crime than the city’s police department. A person like this would be a ticking time-bomb to a catastrophic emotional unraveling without a proper intervention before then. Do I have to mention that this is a man that beats people up dressed in tights calling himself Batman?!
Frank Miller’s portrayals of Batman (unintentionally) go the furthest with Batman’s mental instability in The Dark Knight Returns and All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, both of which his behavior gets downright sociopathic. Well, perhaps the latter acknowledges how unstable Batman is:
But it never addresses it. It ends up glorifying it.
So what does it mean that this troubled character is so ubiquitous as something glorified in our culture? Especially as we continue to push down on the gas pedal as we drive off the cliff of everyday mass shootings?