Article Thumbnail

It’s Not Batman’s Toughness That Matters

It’s competency. But sadly, for a lot of men, feeling like they know what they’re doing is a fantasy as unrealistic as any outlandish superpower

There have been many incarnations of Batman over the years: The hard-boiled crime-fighter of the 1940s; the guilelessly good-hearted Caped Crusader of the 1960s; the tortured, obsessed soul of the 1980s, desperately trying to process the trauma of his parents’ murder by punching criminals in the face. But the Dark Knight has continued to evolve, especially over the last two decades, into something else: The most competent man in the universe, because that’s who modern men desperately want to be.

Superhero comics have traditionally been thought of largely as male power fantasies, with their focus on strength, muscles and fantastic abilities. Batman has always stood out because, despite his combat skills, gadgets and immense wealth, he’s still only human. What has kept him on par with his superpowered contemporaries like Superman, Wonder Woman and the Flash is his mind. He’s always been the smartest guy in the Justice League; it’s why he’s called the World’s Greatest Detective.

In the 21st century, however, Batman has evolved into a new form of power fantasy. His intelligence, although ostensibly only human, has become so extreme as to be unequivocally superhuman: Batman isn’t merely a genius anymore, he’s hyper-competent. Ardent Bat-fans believe that, given enough time to make a plan, Batman can defeat anyone and anything, no matter what or how many superpowers the bad guys have, doomsday devices have been activated or full-on alien invasions of Earth are occurring at the same time. Except the Dark Knight rarely needs planning time, because he’s so smart that he’s anticipated practically every problem ahead of time and prepared for it ages ago.

For instance! In Mark Waid’s JLA: Tower of Babel, it’s revealed that Batman has contingency plans to defeat every one of his fellow members of the Justice League in case they turn evil (which, being superheroes comics, happens more often than you’d think). These tactics are all pretty brutal — for one example, he intends to neutralize Flash by shooting him in the Goddamn spine with a rapidly vibrating bullet, causing him to experience epileptic seizures at light speed — and they are incredibly effective when stolen and used by a supervillain. In Grant Morrison’s Batman R.I.P, it’s revealed that Batman installed an entire (completely insane and astonishingly violent) back-up personality in his own head, in case his Bruce Wayne persona became psychologically compromised. 

Now that’s planning ahead, pun obviously intended. 

The appeal of total competency, of being utterly in control of every situation at all times, is obvious, but it’s also based on more than mere casual wish fulfillment. “If we’re conceptualizing the competence fantasy, especially for a character like Batman, we’re really thinking about how the superhero figure is embodying and actualizing some of the attributes that we’re lacking in ourselves — things like success, empowerment and advocacy, defending the folks who can’t fend for themselves,” says Drea Letamendi, a clinical psychologist at UCLA and a self-professed enormous Batman fan (not only has she given a TEDx Talk titled “Capes, Cowls, and Courage” on the psychology of Batman, she’s a co-host of The Arkham Sessions podcast, which has taken a clinical analysis of the hero and his core cast of characters since 2014 — it’s all well worth checking out). 

Batman’s uncanny ability, then, isn’t just rooted in a power fantasy, but rather in fear — fear of uncertainty, fear of powerlessness. Modern life has given everyone plenty to be worried about, including financial anxiety, environmental anxiety, political anxiety (as well as one of its more specific iterations, Trump anxiety), and, of course, with COVID-19. But Batman’s ability to do and handle anything is especially and purposefully appealing to adult men, who make up the primary audience of superhero comics, half of whom are over 35

Plenty of studies show that men have a need to feel competent, a notion that stems from traditional ideals of masculinity, including strength, self-sufficiency and control, among other things. It’s about having the power to provide for and protect one’s self and one’s family, the ability to solve and dominate problems and threats, and to do so without admitting weakness and asking for help from others. 

“If we think about the opposite of what male competency fantasy is, it’s a vulnerability, a weakness, some kind of deficit,” says Letamendi. Men fear being incompetent at sex, at fatherhood, at their jobs. They fear making a wrong decision, as well as being caught having made the wrong decision, which is why men are so likely to deny that they’ve chosen poorly rather than admit their mistake. Men are afraid of asking for help because it makes them look and feel weak. Men often avoid trying new things so they don’t run the risk of looking stupid. Men even get insecure about feeling insecure, thinking it makes them incompetent at being manly. It’s all a fear of fucking up, of not being strong, smart, prepared or capable enough to succeed when opportunities come, or to avoid failure when problems arise. The anxiety of incompetence can drive men to acts of aggression, sexual harassment, substance abuse and even suicide. It’s less of a rut that we find ourselves in as a gender than a trench, and we are only now beginning to see how deep it runs.

Batman isn’t perfect and he doesn’t succeed in everything — he would be a very boring character if he were — but when he beats the bad guy and/or saves the world, he does it not by being the strongest hero, but the smartest. He’s the one who can take control of any situation, no matter how dire, because he always figures out how to succeed and save the day eventually… assuming he didn’t already figure it out months in advance. This idea of being absolutely certain you could handle — or were already prepared to handle — whatever problems life throws at you is an immensely comforting fantasy. Think of it this way: How much better would you have slept during the self-fulfilling toilet paper shortage of March and April, if you were completely confident in your ability to procure as much toilet paper as you needed, whenever you needed it?

What’s interesting is that, the more Batman has evolved over the years to become endlessly competent, the more he’s epitomized this sort of masculine perfection, although comic writers rarely, if ever, spell out its gendered nature on the page. Given that his war on crime is primarily focused on beating up criminals instead of, say, funding social services, it’s impossible to characterize him as anything but aggressive. Unlike, say, his more approachable protege Dick Grayson, Batman resolutely refuses to reveal his feelings or show weakness in front of his friends or foes, and he frequently refuses to ask his fellow Justice Leaguers (or former Robins) for a hand, no matter how big the threat he’s facing — it’s like the old cliché of a man driving around lost for hours because he refuses to ask for directions.  

Although Batman was created more than 80 years ago, his modern obsession with being prepared for every eventuality can be tied back to the origin story Bob Kane and Bill Finger set down in Detective Comics #27, back in 1939. In the very off-chance you don’t know it, young Bruce Wayne decided to dedicate his life to fighting crime after seeing his parents gunned down by a random mugger. “His trauma is embedded in chaos — the unexpected, unpredictable, tragic, shocking experience of loss,” Letamendi explains. As a response to that childhood trauma, Batman strives to create and maintain order — to stop bad guys, save the innocent and prevent the sort of tragedy that occurred to him. As such, he obsessively strives for total competence, readiness and control, which is far more important to him than his physical health, his mental health and his interpersonal relationships, both romantic and professional. (Case in point: The Justice League was extremely upset when they learned Batman had figured out how to mess them up and promptly kicked him out.)

Still, Letamendi says there’s a genuine benefit to trying to emulate Batman’s over-preparedness instead of just fantasizing about it — assuming you don’t get as obsessed as Batman. “There’s a lot of interesting research around future planning and positivity, where people visualize every outcome and plan for every action and reaction to [be in a state] of absolute readiness,” she says.

So while Batman’s level of extreme confidence is indeed both a power fantasy and a sad commentary on the depths of male insecurity, there’s still power in the reality that we can emulate the Dark Knight and prepare for potential problems that may lie in our future. It’s no good to be too obsessive about it, of course — if you’re losing sleep trying to figure out a plan for every single possible problem that might come up, your preparation has become counter-productive. Likewise, if you’re keeping detailed dossiers on how to neutralize your friends, co-workers and family in the chance that they turn evil, you’ve definitely taken things a bit too far. 

Although if you do, try to make sure you also have a plan to convince your friends and loved ones to forgive you later, if only for bragging rights: After all, there are very, very few comic book characters — and even fewer real-life people — who can say they’ve learned from one of Batman’s few mistakes.