Batman: The Agony of Loss and the Madness of Desire, Pt 4a

We’re baaaack! The fourth installment of Jeremiah Lawson’s brilliant exploration of the philosophical and theological […]

Mockingbird / 1.25.12

We’re baaaack! The fourth installment of Jeremiah Lawson’s brilliant exploration of the philosophical and theological underpinnings of Batman mythology has finally arrived, and I think you’ll agree that it was worth the wait. This post works as a perfect jumping-on point, the beginning of a significant new “chapter.” Of course, if you’d prefer to bat-a-rang back to the beginning, go here.


1. The Strength of Knowing Weakness

What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.
Ecclesiastes 1:15

If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.
John 9:41

Among the pantheon of superheroes, Batman represents the pinnacle of human mental and physical potential. Next to his colleagues, he is habitually depicted as a mortal among gods. How can Batman square off against monsters, immortal terrorists, drugged-up superthugs, mad scientists, corporate tycoons, petty thugs, samurai, aliens, and wild animals and defeat them all when in many cases they are stronger, faster, smarter, and more durable than he is?

To answer this question we must go back to the beginning of Batman. We must see that his strength derives not merely from his discipline and training but his experience of what it means to be broken. From the moment he saw his parents gunned down in Crime Alley, Bruce Wayne made it his business to get acquainted with his emotional, physical, and mental breaking points. It is this familiarity with brokenness and limitation that enables him, time and again, to discern the breaking points in others.

When the Dark Knight’s enemies presume they have outmatched him in brain or brawn they are as good as defeated. This is not because they really are dumber or weaker than the Dark Knight; it is because they cannot accept that they can be broken. Batman shows them that they not only can be broken but, in most cases, they already are. The degree to which his enemies accept or reject their broken state, and relinquish their criminal quests, becomes the degree to which Batman shows them compassion or redoubles his efforts to stop them.

In his book recent book Supergods, Grant Morrison eloquently summed up Batman’s villains as depicting different forms of mental illness. In Batman: The Animated Series villains are generally motivated by one (or both) of two core failures: irrevocable loss and impossible desire. The focal point of this loss or desire informs the villain’s gimmick, motive, or both. The identity the villain subsequently forges through his or her strength becomes the monomania revealing his or her ultimate weakness. Paradoxically, each Batman villain embodies a perfected singularity which, time and again, is defeated by Batman who, though broken, is whole.

As reductionist theologies of glory go, you can’t get more obvious than Batman villains. And though the characters are over the top, the things they want are often similar to what you or I would want from life–a relationship, a prestige founded in skill, or simple control over our own bodies. In his commentary on the episode “House and Garden” Paul Dini explained, ” … not all the villains are completely evil. They do want things that are not far from what regular people want, just that how they go about getting them is what makes them villains.” A good Batman villain is a supercharged version of a flaw that you or I could recognize in ourselves, or people we love.

The next few installments will take a look at individual villains, so buckle your (bat-)seatbelt! You’ll have to click here to find out who’s up first, but in the detective spirit, we can give you a little clue: macrocephaly.