One of the reasons I have come to love Batman so much is that, while he is an empowerment fantasy of superhero awesomeness, he also deals with emotional and mental pain constantly and manages to triumph over it. Fans, critics, and academics ascribe his mental and emotional state to the loss of his parents; but, for us long-time readers, we know that was only the first tragedy in Bruce Wayne’s life. From losing Jason Todd to failing to save Barbara Gordon to simply seeing dangerous criminals he put away walk free from a prison that might as well be made of tissue paper, the man’s life has been nothing but loss and struggle.
But, he always breaks through the dark. My favorite Batman moments are the ones where he, on the verge of being broken, finds the will to survive. There are three that come to mind: the scene from the animated series episode “Nothing to Fear” where he overcame Scarecrow’s fear toxin by sheer will alone (“I am vengeance! I am the night! I am Batman!”), fighting his way out of the Court of Owl’s labyrinth in issue #7 of the New 52 Batman comic, and in the movie The Dark Knight Rises where Bruce Wayne climbs out of the prison.
As a kid, I don’t remember too many times when I saw my favorite superheroes completely lose it. They were always strong, determined, rock-steady champions. The most emotional they may have gotten was a show of anger, but despair and a broken spirit never entered the equation. In “Nothing to Fear,” that all changed. I saw Batman being taken to the limit of his sanity. After having his mind attacked relentlessly by Scarecrow (he would become my favorite not-the-Joker Batman villain), he soon gave in to fear. It wasn’t a fear of an outward threat: Batman feared failure. He feared failing in his quest to bring justice to the city he loved and to not living up to his family’s memory. This was heavy stuff for a kid, and it really affected me on a deep level, so deep that I wouldn’t realize just how strong of a reaction it solicited until I would rewatch this episode as an adult. But Batman punched through the darkness. He found within himself a confidence that didn’t rely on the approval of his parents and an acceptance that as long as he was fighting, he was winning. Sure, he may have punched out Scarecrow in the end, but Batman won this fight by tackling the depression and trauma that had followed him ever since childhood.
Scott Snyder managed to reach peak Batman in a way unseen since Grant Morrison, yet in a far more relate-able and gritty way. Issue #7 of Scott Snyder’s Batman run (you really should read the whole thing, but if you only read one arc, make it the Court of Owls arc) saw Batman held captive in a labyrinth by a villainous secret society who was working to tear Gotham City apart from the inside out. Their strategy was to weaken Batman physically and mentally by forcing him to wander their labyrinth and experiencing horrifying visions of his failures and being tortured by their chief assassin, the Talon. They never managed to break Batman, however. Even at his most beaten and weary, he hangs on to the mental control and defiance for which he is known, even pointing out flaws in his enemy’s plans, such as changing the cameras they are using to monitor him.
Batman taunts his foe, not only anchoring himself in sanity but even goading his unseen enemy into attacking him further and with greater intensity. He does this because he thrives on the path of most resistance; Batman so adamantly refuses to give up that he finds strength in making his struggles harder. And when all seems lost, he finds the strength to fight back both in both body and mind, beating the Talon to a pulp while insulting his methods and adequacy.
The third example may be my favorite. Bruce made many attempts to escape the prison Bane threw him in by climbing the wall of the pit that was the prison’s sole entrance while wearing a life-saving harness; it kept him from hitting the concrete and stone below, and thus the only risk was failing the jump to the final ledge from which he could reach the exit. There was no fear to overcome, thus the jump simply became a task–a physical obstacle that could be conquered with repeated attempts. It was only after removing the harness and instilling in him the fear of dying–the knowledge that he only had one chance to make it–that gave Bruce the strength to finally make the jump.
Regardless of your opinion of the movie (I feel about it like I feel about Return of the Jedi–sentimentally, it’s my favorite of the trilogy it’s in, but I’m well aware that it’s the least technically sound), you would be hard-pressed to deny the beauty of this scene. Hans Zimmer really doesn’t get enough credit. The simplicity of his compositions bring a sense of raw emotion to every scene, and none more so than here. The crowd chanting, Christian Bale’s very real look of fear and determination, and the pacing all click together to give us a segment that is pretty much perfect in an otherwise flawed movie.
Cinematic beauty aside, this scene is a perfect illustration of tackling fear head on and thriving on it. He accepted the reality that he may die, used the energy and desperation of the moment to give him courage, and ultimately prevailed not because he ran away from fear, but because he tackled it head-on. It’s a moving and cathartic illustration of what so many people, especially the mentally ill, go through every day: having to face down their own obstacles and not finding a way around them. Batman does this and is victorious, thus he inspires us–and nothing makes one a hero, fictional or otherwise, more than the act of inspiration.
I’ve had a rough few weeks. I’m determined to not let my depression and anxiety get the best of me. I’ve been taking my meds, but as anyone who has had a long-term medical condition can attest: the meds just make it easier to manage the symptoms. They’re not a cure, you’re still sick, and sometimes it’s harder to fight the illness than it is to deal with giving into it.
This scene–and the character of Batman as a whole–does inspire me though. It shows me that it’s okay to be afraid, because fear keeps us aware of the dangers around us and prepares us for them. Another expert on fear–the Doctor–probably said it best when he told a scared young boy (who would grow up to be a soldier, no less) that fear was a superpower. So, maybe we’re all wrong when we say that Batman doesn’t have a superpower–he’s one of the few superheroes (at least in the DC universe) that has a reason to be afraid, what with no bulletproof skin or mythic strength and speed to save him, and thus he has the superhuman ability to harness his fear and convert it into action.
More than anything, though, I’m reminded of Thomas Wayne’s words to a young, scared, and injured Bruce from Batman Begins: “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” It’s okay for me to have bad days or even weeks. It’s okay to not be able to hold off the sadness and confusion from time to time. I’ll make it through, and eventually I may be able to take whatever jump is in front of me, perhaps even without the rope.