Aristotle said that death was the most frightening thing. Aristotle had not met Batman.
But how does a grown man in flying fox costume come to terrify felons?
Yes, he can fight—sometimes he can even turn his head. He has trained in over a hundred martial arts. He is a world class swordsman, archer, knife fighter, grappler. There is only one martial art he will not do: tai chi. (Too calming.)
Yes, Batman is a also master of disguise—no one can tell that the six-feet-two, square-jawed billionaire with the bodybuilder’s physique is actually the muscly six-feet-two square-jawed superhero. He wears a mask. Half a mask. Most of the time.
Yes, he is a strategic and tactical genius. Which is why he trains vulnerable children to fight alongside him.
But none of this is what makes the Batman so frightening. No, it is his psyche that terrifies.
Imagine a man with billions of dollars, who spends them, not on welfare or public housing, but on a grotto with a very big garage for his branded supercars. Imagine a man so traumatised, he believes the best law and order policy is: smacking criminals. Imagine a man who sees military training and weapons—as therapy.
What, then, is the world for Batman? The couch in Freud’s office. With the lights off. And Freud has left.
Yes, this world is always night. And because it is always night, Batman will order every suit, cowl and motorbike in black. Not because he’s using the budget of a small state to live out his childish power fantasies—but because black is what you need in an eternal night.
Batman does not kill. In his world, guns are evil. A gun took Batman’s parents. So he doesn’t use guns. Except on his cars. And bikes. And planes. And helicopters. And when bad guys are pulling the trigger and he makes them shoot other bad guys. But Batman absolutely never pulls the trigger himself. Except when he does.
Which means that Batman does kill you. With his machine guns. Or your buddy’s rifle. Or his fists. Or by pushing you into acid. Or letting you burn. Or dropping you from a rope tied to a gargoyle.
In Batman’s world, Batman isn’t a murderer. But he is a murderer. And this is another reason why Batman is so horrifying: bad faith. He is guilty about his parents dying. Guilty about Robin dying. Guilty about Robin dying again. Guilty about Robin dying again. And guilty about Robin dying, once again. (Never be Robin.) But he’s not guilty about killing criminals, because he doesn’t kill, right? But he does—he just doesn’t believe it. Batman offers us that unique horror: brutality, with a good conscience.
Batman’s world is ugly. Yes, there is beautiful Gothic and modernist architecture. Yes, Batman is handsome, Batgirl is pretty, Robin is pretty, Nightwing is pretty, Batwoman is pretty, Catwoman is pretty. Everyone’s good looking. Even the Joker knows how to pair a classic velvet jacket with smudge-proof foundation. But for Batman, Gotham City is existentially ugly: a city of pain and privation. His pain and privation. And it is only in an ugly city that Batman can be beautiful. He does exactly what the therapist suggests: he sublimates. He takes all his grief and fury, and puts them into artful violence. He is the smashed crockery that becomes a mosaic. Batman is a ‘mend and make do’ kind of guy—psychologically speaking.
And, finally: Batman’s world is worth saving, but not worth enjoying. Food is merely energy, protein, and minerals. This is a man who eats hamburgers with a knife and fork. All his suits are a disguise. Love is precious, but a distraction from breaking arms. Batman is wholly devoted to his world, but not to living in it.
Does Batman contradict himself? Well then, he contradicts himself. He contains multitudes. He buys the best multitudes from across the globe—in bulk, through shell companies.
Aristotle said that someone who chose solitude was either a beast or a god. Aristotle had not met Batman, who is both.
Damon Young will be talking comics at Hobart’s new Weekend of Reading, Saturday, October 12th, 4pm.